Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Saturday, May 2, 2015



Salu-Salo: In Conversation with Filipinos: An Anthology of Philippine-Australian Writings, Edited by Jose Wendell P. Capili and John Cheeseman
(Casula Powerhouse & Blacktown Arts Centre, Australia, 2008)

“Salu-Salo is a celebration of writing that provides food for thought for anyone interested in the Filipino-Australian community—[. . .] welcome [. . .] to the feast.” John Cheeseman

Published in 2008, Salu-Salo: In Conversation with Filipinos: An Anthology of Philippine-Australian Writings edited by Jose Wendell P. Capili and John Cheeseman “is the first anthology of Filipino-Australian writing revealing the positive contributions of Philippine communities in Australia.”(1)  A Tagalog word, “salu-salo” is a get-together and a feasting, a party, and, as is often the case with Filipino parties, food is always abundant.  The anthology thus invites readers to feast on these offerings by the diasporic Filipino community in Australia. 

The short anthology, a collection of creative works in prose and poetry, all written in English, by Filipinos in Australia, contributes to the study of Filipino writings in the diaspora.  Capili’s introduction provide historical context of the socio-politico experience of Filipinos in Australia, and the creative works are themselves a reflection of the writers’ navigation of the social and political landscapes of Australia even as they reflect upon the homeland.  While the geographic and historical space of Australia vis-à-vis the Philippines and Filipinos are contextualized, equally important is the way in which Capili situates these writers’ experience and their works vis-à-vis the West and the Cold War global restructuring.  The writers’ transnational sensibilities, in other words, are informed by events in the Philippines from as far back as the country’s colonial, postcolonial, and neocolonial histories, World War II and the Japanese occupation, to the more contemporary history of the Marcos dictatorship, the enforcement of Martial Law, and the homeland’s overall political and economic instability; policies and events in their adoptive homeland, such as John Howard’s  “One Australia” policy, Pauline Hanson’s “One Nation” party, and the “White Australia Policy,” none of which included native Aborigines or other peoples of color, immigration and exclusion policies, antimiscegenation laws, the child removal policy (a phenomenon known as the “Stolen Generation” or the “Stolen Children”), race riots, and so forth; and the Vietnam War that further destabilized the region. 

It isn’t any wonder, then, that home—whether it be the Philippines or Australia—and notions of identity, for these writers, are always already vexed and fraught.  Their writings reflect the ways in which they navigate and mediate the definitions, borders, liminality, and fluidity of home and identity.

Cesar Leyco Aguila’s historical novel, Between Two Worlds, for instance, tells of a home cleaved by guerilla warfare.  The excerpted chapter only gives us hints of this homeland: the word “rebel” is used once or twice; there is a terse description of the death of “Commandante Che” that vaguely alludes to communism; but most telling is the writer’s depiction of setting, “the army and the government-controlled media for once get their stories right when they use the words ‘impenetrable jungle’” (47).  It is clear, the “impenetrable jungle” is in the Philippines, and the “army and the government-controlled media” alludes to the Marcos regime.  If that does not convince the reader, then surely the three references to “butterflies,” in the beginning, middle, and at the end of the chapter is most compelling.  An omniscient narrator tells us, “Before him, he watched a pair of deep and red butterflies weaving invisible curlicues as they chased one another in the quiet countryside, their purpose unknown and unknowable, hidden as all such purposes are of butterflies” (41); and “As they begin their getaway, Cristina sees two windblown butterflies in jagged flight.  They are so like the deep purple and red she had seen cavorting earlier, just as Roberto did” (45); and finally, “It is later, at another time and place, when she is stunned by a flock of butterflies bursting like flowers from a clump of bushes she has disturbed” (47).  The first time the reader is acquainted with these butterflies, the description is a bit ominous, their “purpose “unknown and unknowable, hidden.”  More importantly, every scene in which the butterflies appear is flanked by the death of one or a few of the rebels.  These butterflies connect us specifically to Imelda Marcos, who is also known by her nickname “Iron Butterfly” or “Steel Butterfly” purportedly because she had survived life challenges, but I suggest here that the connection has more to do with Imelda as a social butterfly.  She sings to the nation, her putative beauty and elegance distract the masses from the hunger they are experiencing and from the knowledge that the government is stealing from them.  And while in Tagalog, the term “alibangbang” means butterfly, its root word, “libang” means to distract, entertain, or amuse.  Finally, as is her habit, Imelda usually appears in public in formal attire, a terno, the formal and traditional Philippine national dress since the Spanish colonial period, has stiff sleeves called “butterfly sleeves.” 

Paschal Berry’s “The Folding Wife,” a “text for performance,” written from the perspective of one woman who, through anecdotes, reveals what the two generations of women before her experience.  Berry’s chapters are not laid out in linear fashion, signaling the fragmented subject position of the speaker, Grace.  This fragmentation is due in part to the history of unrest in the homeland coupled with the alienation and experience of otherness in her adoptive home.  Through his enthralling language, Berry depicts a home that is gendered in the extreme.  It is a home where the women “sit and wait” for “wars to finish,” for “men to come home” (60).  Lola Clara, tells us through Grace that she has “sat here through decades and felt this unrest [. . .].  Our women must go through this.  Every decade or so reveals discontent.  You either get up or you stay seated.  If you have the will. . . . if . . . but will is also about staying.  Is it not?” (60 ellipses in original).  Not only does Lola Clara invoke home’s history of unrest, but the question of leaving or staying also brings up notions of diaspora, overseas workers, and mail-order brides. 

Lola Clara and Dolores, Grace’s mother, also teach her that it is by “bending and folding into recognisable shapes” that one “become[s] resilient” (69).  In this home, women are practiced shape-shifters to weather the storms of multiple colonizations and a patriarchal, masculinist, even misogynistic nationalism.  If there is subversion or resistance, it is through subterfuge.  Grace, for instance, tells us that “Lola was held together by lace.  Neatly pinned and tucked by a brooch.  In her diary my mother Dolores described her as unfaltering.  But I remember her as fluttering—the quick opening and closing of a fan” (61).  Lace, of course, denotes daintiness.  But while unfaltering equates to strength and resilience, fluttering equates to agency in making the body a bit more comfortable from the tropical heat.  The adjectives also invoke the butterfly, which leads us back to Imelda Marcos as noted earlier.  Later in the play, Grace will remember a time when as a schoolgirl, she, like many other school children, waited for Imelda Marcos to come, “Waiting for our alibangbang—butterfly” (65).  Performance is thus a form of subterfuge.  Lola Clara, Grace tells us, “loved to tell stories and hold court” (61), she will teach Grace to keep her “eyes to the ground but always seeing the entirety of a room” (62).  When the Australian, Arthur, comes to take Dolores and Grace away, Dolores “links her arms around his and lays her head on his shoulder.  The smile is not for me,” Grace tells us, “but for a bittersweet artifice” (69).  As a young girl, Grace is also practiced in this “artifice”: “Isn’t my mother beautiful?  She laughs.  He laughs.  They all laugh.  We are at play.  The script is going well” (69).  The young Grace learns that women put on a performance to attract the Western, or rather, white, male saviors.(2)  This white male savior will then take them away to a distant land.  With her admonishment to “Marry a foreigner.  With any luck an American and get out of this country and take me with you,” Lola Clara voices the profound implications of the American neo/colonial empire in the Philippines.  Imelda Marcos herself had been known to have “met with Marlon Brando,” “the Pope,” “the Reagans,” “danced with Martin Sheen,” and “partied with the Nixons” while “we [the masses] wait,” a nation waits for its salvation in the hands of men from the West.

As a schoolgirl, Grace, too, remembers having to wait for hours in the noon-day sun for Imelda to arrive.  “We are panting,” she tells us, “little hearts are small drums,” fluttering, perhaps, “voices of angels singing well rehearsed songs” (65):

            I will give you these hands to build our country.
            Imelda is coming!
            I will give you my legs to support your ambitions.
            She hardly comes to Cebu!
            I will give you my eyes so you can see your future.
            She has come to grace us with her beauty!
            I will fight for you!  I will die for you!
            We wait.                                                                                

(65, emphasis in original)

It isn’t any wonder the speaker feels fragmented.  The song is a litany in praise of Imelda and an offering of parts of their bodies to her desire, not the nation’s.  It is a song the schoolchildren sing, taught by the school, an agent of the dictatorial nation-state.  Children are languishing in the sun, waiting, biding, and abiding.  To wait is also to serve, to watch in expectation.  And while Imelda herself never shows, her beauty is extolled, and she becomes a distraction to the flagging masses.  Addressing the audience, Grace tells us, “You want me to say that we hid in the mountains and took up arms.  But no my friends . . . we waved flags and wore Imelda’s favourite perfume, Chanel No. 5” (66, ellipses in original).  Instead of taking up arms and fighting against the dictatorial regime, the masses are taken in by their “alibangbang.”  That they wore her favorite perfume hints at a consumerist culture and neocolonialism.

In the midst of the massacres, bombings, and civil wars, Grace recounts, “We still have fiestas.  We still have siestas.  We still have kite flying.  We still have universities.  We still have rumba, the cha cha and the kuratsa.  We still have powdered milk and corned beef in cans.  We still have ice cream.  We still have concerts in Fuente Osmena” (64).  That life goes on despite civil unrest shows the resilience of the people; organized concerts in a park named after a former Philippine President hints at statecraft in distracting the masses to keep from seditious acts and to keep them blinded by a government riddled by graft and corruption; and while the “fiestas,” “siestas,” and the dances keep them rooted in colonial Spain, “powdered milk and corned beef in cans” invoke U.S. presence in the islands.

But it is perhaps Berry’s use of the trope of blood and bleeding, as in the bleeding from the wounds of war, bleeding from menses, and/or bleeding from parturition, that wars and civil unrest in the homeland become a gendered affair.  Grace was born the year Martial Law was declared, 1972.  Of her birth, she tells us, “They split her stomach open [. . .].  She is hacked open while the streets are vibrating from religious devotion.  Her world is on fire—massacres, bombings and civil wars are hot under her feet.  And I grow inside her” (64).  Learning her own history from Lola Clara and her mother, the prepubescent Grace discovers, too, that parturient and menstrual bleeding may have a connection to the phenomena of the querida, a Spanish word for “mistress,” and is a practice common among rich Filipino men in a country where divorce is not recognized.  Grace herself is a result of Dolores’ dalliance with a married Filipino man.  Lola Clara disparages Dolores, saying, “Why would you pressure a man with so much responsibility?  A very dashing and promising politico who would have taken care of her?” (63).  Lola Clara here demonstrates the complexity of the querida question: If she isn’t being abused, she is showered with material wealth, a golden handcuff.  In a way, having a child ensures the man that the querida will stay.  Grace, of course, sees through Lola Clara’s opacity: “’Hello? With a wife and five children!!!” (63).  It is no wonder, then, that Grace refuses to bleed: “I will not bleed, I will not bleed, I will not bleed” is what she thinks when her mother tells her she is “no longer a child” and that she will “bleed soon” (67, 66, original emphasis).

If her homeland is riven by civil unrest, then her adoptive home is alienating and uncanny.  It is in Australia that Grace learns about racism and an insidious “multiculturalism.”  Arriving there, she sees that the “median strip is lined with black people in rags.  A language I do not understand is shot like gunfire” (72).  Perhaps sensing her apprehension, Arthur tells her, “Cop an eyeful of our natives darlin’.  Lazy stinkin’ bastards, stay clear out of their way and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.  There’s no helpin’ this lot” (72).  On “Australia Day,” Grace tells us, “We are gathered in the name of Multiple Cultures.  We are our parent’s hopes for assimilation.  We are lined up as the United Nations.  All made up to highlight ethnicity” (73).  She blushes at her mother’s “appropriation” as Dolores “waltz[es] with a Pavlova cake” (73).  They laughed that someone brought noodles, “Noodles Grace, just in case we were homesick!  Have you ever tasted such tasteless garbage!” (73).  Guests at their home check for dust and tell Dolores, “Oh you’re such a good cleaner, you run a tidy ship” (74).  They insult Dolores by asking whether she went to school, and they ask whether the Philippines is in Asia.  “If anyone ever insults you,” Dolores instructs Grace, “tell them you can trace your family as far back as the 1600’s—to great men of Spain. That should shut those convicts up” (74).  Dolores’ rejoinder comes out of frustration and is made only to her daughter; it is in response to her feeling of otherness and inferiority.  Grace, though, can apprehend their condition far more than Dolores can.  “Great men of Spain,” Grace tells the audience.  “Wow Dolores.  Our great men.  Our men are present only in anecdotes unable to defend themselves.  Always absent” (74).  It isn’t any wonder, then, that when Grace does meet a boy, a boy whose “face [is] haloed by a golden crown,” she tells us, “In the shadows I feast on him.  [. . .]  His eyes search for me, but I am opaque.  Unbending, unfolding, unwilling.  He cries when we finish.  Love is his fragile cargo.  How delightful that he is so careless.  His heart beating in my hands.  And I finally understand.  I will never fold.  I will never fold, I will never fold, I will never fold into myself” (75).  Grace has learned that the women in her family wait all of their lives for a white male savior only to take them away from a home torn by civil unrest to a home where state policies foster a culture of inferiority and alienation among their non-white denizens.  Grace will wait for no white male saviors; she will be her own saving grace.

Following Berry’s drama is Merlinda Bobis, short story, “The Making-Better Herb.”  This time, the Australian is not the “savior” but rather a journalist who falls in love with a rebel “Kumander.”  The journalist sends his reports to his writing patron, who, unbeknownst to the journalist, is an informant for the military.  Both the journalist and the Kumander “disappear,” a term used by the rebels and their allies to suggest that the military had executed them covertly.  The herb, in Bobis’ story, is lemongrass, an herb that is difficult to differentiate from kogon grass.  But though the latter is a common weed that overruns the landscape, the former “aspires to flavor the earth,” does alchemic wonders to dishes from the lowly soup of chicken feet and papayas to the fatty aftertaste of pork.  The story suggests that the herb would “sweeten [the] graves, or the mouth [of those who have “disappeared”].  To rid it of grief, like that pernicious coat of fat, so we can make better the truth that we speak” (83).

Erwin Cabucos’ short story, “The Bleached Hills of Cotabato,” like Berry’s drama, deals with the mail-order bride and is a commentary on Filipinos’ attitude of exalting western standards of “whiteness” and beauty while denigrating their own, darker, skin tones.  Cabucos’ turns to religious iconography to demonstrate how the masses, in their adoration and religious fervor, were gripped to worship the white-skinned Jesus and Mary.

“Manila Bay,” and “Taft Avenue,” Noonee Doronila’s poetry offerings, deal with the literal landscapes of Manila.  “Manila Bay” begins aesthetically enough, we see people strolling along the bay, some are rowing in the water, fishing, lovers “gazing at each others [sic] eyes” (101).  It is a place where people congregate to enjoy the sights and breezes, to fall in love.  But the bay’s “Gentle waves nearly still / With seaweed, paper, plastic, tin / floating so closely, so still / waiting” paints a different picture (102). The speaker tells us that people are “Staying for dusk’s delight / For the quiet / Before the evening’s night life / The lights that line / This bay of delight………” (102, ellipses in original).  The ellipses here tell of delights to come, delights that perhaps prudence prevents the speaker from naming.  The jetsam and flotsam that litter the bay, like the people who loiter at the bay, speak of more unsavory goings on that the darkness conceals.  That the “coast guard [is] waiting for the inevitable incident” hints at something more insidious that the nation-state promotes.  Though we may be looking at something pleasing in the beginning, innocence is lost in the end.

In “Taft Avenue,” the speaker depicts the hustle and bustle of a crowded street where vehicles and vendors litter the street.  “Chowking, MacDo, Tapa King, KFC [. . .] You name it, the gastronomic delights of western society / Splashed at the eskinita” (103).  The speaker “splashes” the poem with Tagalog words, “Bilisan mo / Baka ka masagasaan,” (hurry up / you might get run over) fusing West with East, because, though we are “In a globalized world,” the speaker confesses, “But oops we still like our rice” (103).  Though western capitalism is firmly entrenched, the “MacDos” and the KFCs still have to cater to the desires of the local consumers.

Doronila’s final poem, “The Calm,” much like “Manila Bay,” lures the reader with a pleasing beginning, “The storm calms / Amidst the silence / That lingers” with a wind that

            slightly blows
            Through the windows
            Raising the curtains
            So pretty and so feminine


The poem’s rhythm can not only be sensed in an oral and auditory way, but also through the visual.  There is a copiousness of space that seem to relay a slowness and gentleness, much like wind blowing through the lacy, white curtains.  “Lacy,” while denoting fragility and therefore must be treated gently—it is “so pretty and so feminine”—is a homonym of lazy, a slothfulness and lethargy that affects the body.  But this slowness of rhythm belies a raging storm, a typhoon perhaps, as

                        A lash of wind
                        The curtains fly
                        Like Kites
                        Away from their poles
                        And away
                        Struggling to hang on
                        And away it goes


The “lacy”/lazy curtains are now “struggling to hang on,” the wind that blows “gently” is now a “lash of wind.”  Perhaps this is a phenomena everyone who has been through one of the typhoons in the Philippines experience.  Nevertheless, be warned.  Don’t let the calm fool you, as if the speaker is saying, for the typhoon may blow you away.

Crystal Gail Shankgkuan Koo’s short story, “Benito Salazar’s Last Creation,” tells of a futuristic Manila where novels are not only written and read but are technologically crafted and seen through a holograph.  The story treats narrative fragmentation not as a writerly skill but as a “glitch” in technology, and where a younger, “wunderkind” has put the Philippines in the literary map because of his putative “invention,” though it is more like an “accident” he stumbled upon (110).  Salazar’s writer’s block, a result of his feeling of insecurity and inadequacy in the face of a looming deadline and in light of the “wunderkind”—who is praised by critics and even has a theory named after him—will likely ring familiar to many writers, yours truly included.  The story pits a carefully crafted and honed skill of the past, to the mass produced, technological advancement of modernity.

For writer Xerxes Matza, the dynamics of being a Filipino raised in Australia comes to a collision during family get-togethers in his short story, “Kick Some Butt.”  Here, the family is troubled by their aging mother—grandmother to our narrator—and who is suffering from the advanced stages of dementia.  When he suggests a nursing home, his aunt complains that he doesn’t “understand Filipino culture anymore.  What would you know?  You’re an Australian, she said pointedly.  No love for the elderly” (127).  While for his family, the speaker is “not Filipino enough” as he was raised in Australia and therefore has acquired Australian values and culture, he nevertheless is subject to derogatory, racist remarks: “Council should get these Asians out of my street; they dump rubbish everywhere” (128).  And living in “John Howard’s Australia,” where his policies of “One Australia” do not include people of color, the speaker “can’t help wondering whether will [sic] there be polices in place to safeguard [his] interests when [he] grow[s] old?”  (129). His choices are either returning to the Philippines, a land he no longer knows, or euthanasia. 

“Monsoons Volcanoes The Interisland Ship,” a poem by Robert Nery, is irreverent in its word-play, interspersing untranslated Tagalog into a fragmented prose narrative.  “Black Nazarene,” a ninety-minute video essay written, shot, and edited by Nery himself, focuses on Holy Week crucifixions in Manila, and is reminiscent of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”  Finally, in “The Servant,” the speaker is a “balikbayan,” or one who returns to the homeland to visit, and is shocked at the changes that has transpired.   

In “Becoming Australian: A Filipino Woman’s Journey,” Deborah Ruiz Wall reflects on her work as a proponent of Aboriginal issues by interweaving personal narrative with poetry.  In doing so, she provides historical information on the plight of the Aborigines and contextualizes the dynamics of peoples of color in Australia in relation to settlers of European origin and the policies and practices that come out of over eleven years of John Howard’s government.

And finally, the poems of Noel Giuvani Ramiscal, “If You Read This,” “Nanda Devi,” and “The Kiss,” all aesthetically sketched, provide refuge from the identity politics and whisk us away into a global and timeless milieu.  “If you Read This,” the speaker tells us, you may be in the “Eupalinion tunnel” built in Greece; or a dentist’s office in Marikina, Philippines; an attic in Wollongong, Australia; star-struck in “Hollywood Vine”; trysting with a stranger in Efes, a Turkish name for the ancient Greek city of Ephesus; or perhaps in a hotel in Frankfurt listening to a the “radio / tuned into some Dresden murder” (163-4).  But then again you may be summoned by the mountain itself, “Nanda Devi”; or you anticipate that long-awaited kiss in the final poem.

A good read all-in-all, and one in which students of Filipino writing in the diaspora cannot miss.

(1)  April 19, 2015.  3:46 pm.

(2) Here, I use the term “Western” to designate not just Europe and the United States but also Australia, areas of the globe where the hegemony is designated as “White.”


Sheila Bare is an independent scholar and a life-long student. Lately, she has been studying Buddhism. When her nose is not in a book or in a cooking pan, you may find her on a yoga mat or out for a run. And there are those days when she tries to write. Best to stay away from her during those times. Unless, of, course you bring with you a good bottle of wine and talk about books. She was raised by two parents and now lives somewhere on planet earth. 

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