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‘Dear Universe’: Letters to the Age of Innocence

Dear Universe (Spark Books; 144 pages; 2018) is Pierra Calasanz-Labrador’s collection of 50 poems “on love, longing, and finding your place in the cosmos.” It bears Anvil Publishing’s Spark Books imprint, which, it says, showcases titles that “celebrate contemporary love and romances that will certainly give readers a colorful range of ‘feels.’” So there is no escaping the fact that many of the poems will be about love.

The persona the author uses for the poems is that of a young woman who is doing her best to navigate the complex galaxy of feelings that come with the desire to find The One. At the same time, she is trying to figure out her place in a middle-class universe (Uber and KonMari, anyone?) where women like her have the luxury of second-guessing their feelings about the men in their lives, most of whom are just as uncertain as they are.

The poems in Dear Universe are divided into seven chapters—Hide & Seek, Introverting, Black Holes, To Whom It May Concern, The Games We Play, Choose Your Own Adventure, and We Are Exactly Where We Are Supposed to Be. There is also an epilogue, titled Shine. Each segment gives a clue about the general mood of the poems in its mini-roster. These chapter titles are interesting enough, but I was expecting all of them to follow a cosmic theme. Only Black Holes does so. Then again, a book must not be judged by its chapter titles.

Speaking of which, it may be perfectly fine to judge Dear Universe by its cover, designed by R. Jordan P. Santos and featuring the adorable illustration of a little bird perched on a constellation done by Frances Alvarez. In fact, seeing Alvarez’s art throughout the book is quite a delightful bonus. It also reinforces the feeling that this book is for younger hearts, those who are still bursting with optimism.

That said, Dear Universe is the perfect book of poems for you if you want to go back to that time in your life when your relationship problems weren’t really that serious. All the non-fatal heart-related issues are addressed in the collection.

There is the pain of unrequited love dramatized in “Recovery Food,” where the persona realizes that “I’ve learned you only reach for me when you can plead temporary insanity.”

Best friends falling for the same guy? That is in “Blindsided,” where the persona sips coffee and pretends everything is fine, even after her BFF tells her she’s been seeing some: “I remember the café / My friend’s breathless, radiant confession / And me, supernova / Silently imploding / Spilling coffee on my shirt / Trying so damned hard / To keep it together / And put on a / Smile.”

Care for a guy who can’t tell you he loves you or, at the very least, ask for your number? That is the situation in “Torpe,” where the persona explores the reasons for her failure to connect with the object of her affections: “He was funny, and silly, and warm / And bright, and shy / I think I loved him / I think he loved me / I think it passed us by.” The scenario is reminiscent of the times when girls call their friends to ask, “Do you think he liked me? Why do you think he didn’t say hello? Do you think he was intimidated by me?” If I were to encounter this persona in real life, I’d be tempted to say, “No, dear, he was just not that into you.” However, her earnestness is so intense that it would be a crime to tell her the truth.

Meanwhile, “Intensity 10” is all about running into an ex. The persona dissects the pain she feels, saying: “You punctured the silence with her name; she broke the spell / We spoke more comfortably then, under the platonic pretense, as if you never rocked my world.” I could almost hear Adele’s “Someone Like You” playing as I read this poem.

How about a lover who has grown emotionally distant? That is who the heroine of “Undercurrents” is dealing with. She reports: “Through the years you’ve slowly become a stranger / A vessel taking shape / I wish I could ride / Those treacherous waves / But your silence keeps me at bay.” Then, of course, there is always the relationship that has grown hostile and will soon be beyond repair. The persona reveals: “But even if you could be right / I can no longer hear you / As pride cuts in / And we both / Bleed out.”

Yes, Dear Universe offers a meteor shower of relationship scenarios. It also ventures into the nearby asteroid belts of life.

For starters, it acknowledges the effect of technology in relationships in poems like “Smokescreens.” Its first five lines hint at the sadness behind perfect pictures and the online “I will stay positive even if the excrement has hit the ventilation” declarations: “We really have no idea / What goes on / Beyond those walls / What personal battles rage / Behind social media smokescreens.”

Meanwhile, in “Earphones”—an ode to the modern-day introvert’s favorite accessory—the persona declares: “I slip the earphones on / And it feels like / My very own armor, astronaut suit, isolation cell / Deaf to the world / Everyone can go to hell.”

Dear Universe also excels in describing the agony of introverts. There is, after all, a whole chapter devoted to it. The one that I feel captures that agony best is “Nocturnal Habitat,” where the persona likens being forced to mingle at a party to an out-of-body experience: “I cringe as I watch my shell go through the motions in my life / I’m a hamster running in place / Mired in polite society / Tired of the vicious circle of never-ending plastic bubbles.”

In any case, there are at least two poems in which Calasanz-Labrador dares to venture into a darker part of the universe. The first, “Prison Break,” has its heroine tell the story of her friend who is trapped in an abusive relationship. She relates: “I watched / As she just stood there / To receive the beating / She thought she deserved.” She then goes on to say: “I implored her / To fucking leave him.”

The second, “This Little Piggy,” talks about girls getting drunk at parties. Its heroine says: “We thought we had it all worked out / With a buddy system / Until that buddy / Got drunk / And blacked out, too / Leaving you alone with a stranger / In a strange room / Where no one can hear you say no.”

While most of her poems are characterized by a kind of restrained effervescence, Calasanz-Labrador gives us a hint of where else she can go with these two poems. She may even be more potent if she throws away the cosmic map and lets it all rip on Earth.

Dear Universe also has an audiobook edition, narrated by Joyce Pring and released under the Anvil Audio imprint.

Dear Universe costs P395 and is available in National Book Store branches.

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