The 474-page Ubod 2020, published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), is a monster volume of contemporary Philippine literature containing poetry, short stories and essays in the different languages of the regions (translated into Filipino), as well as in English and Filipino.
Represented are the different regions of the country. Each region’s literary contribution is edited by and introduced by distinguished writers, scholars and critics. The overall impression one gets is of a literary panorama of an archipelago with diverse ethnic, secular and religious sensibilities. Most of the contributing writers are young, products of literary workshops and prize winners.
The National Capital Region leads the pack with three clusters.
The first, introduced by Luna Sicat Cleto, includes Andyleen C. Feje who studied at the Central Luzon State University (CLSU) and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. The CLSU background shows in his poems in Filipino, which proclaim the disparity between the farmers and the landowners (“mga panginoon”). A similar sentiment prevails in the poems of Honorio Bartolome de Dios, where the fields and the forest are prime settings.
In the well-written short story, “Cutter” by Pablo Tiausas, with its atmosphere of danger, the narrator looks back to the time of his childhood and is haunted by the mother who went to Bicol and never returned.
“Maravillas” by Cristian Tablazon is a prose poem, a mood piece with a rush of images, which is, as the poet says, a tribute to his loved one. In the poem “Pompeii,” Tablazon compares the destruction wrought by the volcano during ancient times to what must have been the fearful earthquake that struck the North during the early 1990s (“Nanatiling nakabaon/ang kanilang mga tili”).
John Toledo’s “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” which is in Filipino, is an ironic title. Here, the father abandons his wife and children because he has a second family. The melancholy tone is enhanced by family photos, that show the parents when they were young and in love.
Cluster 2 of NCR has three stories: “The Shadow Walks Among Us” by Kisha Aleena H. Abuda; “Fangirl” by Christine Andas: and “One Writer” by Carmel Illustrisimo. In her introduction, Joyce L. Arriola notes that the stories “trace the coming of age, the rite of passage of three female writers. One finds her voice in writing, another finds a metaphor in the animal world, and yet another seeks the truth via the feminist cause.”
Cluster 3 is introduced by Merdeka D. Morales. The first story, “Sa Unit 03 Bldg. D” by Renante Clar, should have been included in Lapat: Antholohiya ng mga Kontemporaneong Kuwento (Adapted: Anthology of Contemporary Stories) because of its supernatural atmosphere. It is all about a creature with many fingers (“sampung daliri” or 10 fingers), a mysterious cat with kittens, a Facebook message, and the return of the creature (who likes Kowloon siopao but not salted eggs) who tells the narrator that he will help him with the message of his dead father.
MJ Rafal contributes three poems: “Kutob,” Mga Patay sa Looban” and “Lahat Tayo.” He continues the tradition of protest poetry during the 1970s and 1980s but in a heightened language all his own, very contemporary. He may well be talking about the deaths of suspected drug users and pushers, activists, lawyers, church people, journalists and human rights defenders in the Duterte regime.
For a change of pace, there is “The Future is Dead, Do Not Consume its Corpse,” a philosophical essay by Jesus Emmanuel Villafuerte. It begins with the declaration that “we are trapped in the static present” and the author cites many references, including a science fiction film came out in 1980 but was set in 1941, the year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to illustrate his point: “Just like 1941 — in 1980, it’s 39 years ago — but do we feel the difference?”
Kankana-ey, Ifugao and other Cordilleran cultures and languages take center stage in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) section with an introduction by Neyo E. Valdez.
Gawani D. Gaongen makes a pitch for tengba (fermented rice paste) as well as for the safeng of the Bontocs, and the need to preserve these traditional foods.
In the poem, “Picture on a Wall (which she herself translated into English), Gaongen pays tribute to the strength and stamina of Kankana-ey women.
In “Moma” (translated from the original Ifugao as “Betel Nut” by the poet himself, Richard Kinnud), it is the betel quid of areca nut and betel leaf — and how to chew it correctly — that should be preserved, as it showcases their “culture of learning.”
In “Ngudun nan Papayo” (Rants of the Terraces), the poet puts himself in the place of the famous Ifugao rice terraces, an agricultural marvel, and how these have diminished in value and “I (the terraces) am now in the 20-peso bill.”
The Northern Luzon sector also has two representatives, poet Pearl Lovedyn A. Dacuag and the short story writer Leah D. Manzano. The introduction is also by Valdez.
The poems of Dacuag, which she translated from Ilocano to Filipino, are almost unique, with striking images. In “Icarus,” she flies along her dreams but as in the mythical Icarus story, a problem surfaces: “bali pala ang mga pakpak ko.”
In “Innem a Daniw’ (“Anim na Tula”), actually a haiku in six parts, the poet imagines herself to be a traditional cloth, as a plant, a firefly and a candle. In “Kawar” (“Tanikala”), the wounded heart will recover from its chains, the soul will cleanse itself, and again we have the imagery of fireflies: “nagtitipon ang mga alitaptap/sa parang/sa hapon.”
In “Si Inay” by Manzano, the narrator is looking at the peaceful face of the mother as she lies in a coffin, and she remembers the mother and her dedication to her and her two other siblings. The children conclude that they are the real “medals” in the life of their inay and that they were responsible for her strength and long life.
The Central Luzon section, introduced by Julieta C. Mallari, is filled with poems and one short story, as the poets and writer draw on the rich literary traditions of the region and come up with works distinctly their own.
Kragi B. Garcia translated his poems in Pampangan to English (both versions are included, as in the works of the other regional writers). Garcia writes of relationships (“Feelings that have been razed/and numbed by waiting/searching for your form” and “You still play with me/like a balloon that’s as lofty as an eagle”); indirect communication between lovers (“and so I hide what I must shows/there In the safest place I know/between the lines”); and melancholy setting (“No one forgets a rainbow best/as it fast becomes a has been”).
Marco B. Lacap, also Pampangan, is another romantic but in the modern mold (“You are the search, the dream/You are the grin of my grief”). In the prose poem “The Tomorrows to Come,” the poet or his character wakes up to a busy day with his children, siblings and parents and faces the day with hope: “The morning is so wonderful as I could taste the rays of the sun.”
There is no romance in the poetry of Agatha Buensalida of Bulacan. Instead, we have a bleak, bitter view of love gone astray and an enervating family life. The images are startling. In “Isang Gabi,” there is loveless lovemaking witnessed by the cockroaches, lizards, flies and rats.
“Nang Dalawin Mo Ako” is not a happy visit of the loved one. Conjured up are images of a prison, a visit to a detainee (“hanggang posas, hanggang rehas”). Her hand is a prison and doubt, anxiety (“alinlangan”) is their guard (“gwardiya”). She does not know how to take hold physically of her lover.
Buensalida brooks no compromise in her poetry. She is an honest poet, and her works are filled with deeply felt emotions and perhaps experiences.
“Tandang Supeng” by Arthur Allan P. Baldevarona is the affecting story of the pathetic widow Supeng, elderly and in the throes of dementia, and her obsession with retrieving clothes before the rain falls because this scene hides the secret of her tragic love story.
The Southern Tagalog and Bicol regions have been collapsed under one section, introduced by Niles Jordan Breis. If in the poems of Buensalida the narrator feels something akin to hatred to her lover and partner, in Vanessa Haro’s, the protagonist experiences longing, anxiety and distance between her and her husband.
This is present whether they are by the beach or at home. The lack of communication is there even if they have to transfer to a new location. In the cool mountain town of Lukban, the “traffic” between bodies reminds her of “headlines” in Recto Avenue, Manila. The poems are poignant, nervous with unrequited love.
Just when I was thinking that regional writers are too serious and lack a sense of humor, here comes Emmanuel Jayson V. Bolata with an essay full of funny anecdotes about his native Marinduque. He manages to maintain an air of levity even when he drops the name of Franz Kafka. Boleta encounters a beetle, an allusion no doubt to Kafka’s Metamorphosis! Ta-da!
Fernando C. Chavez is another poet who translates his verses in Bicolano to Filipino. And he also maintains a (relatively) light tone when he writes about a folk belief that urine can ease body pain, food poisoning and the dream of a fisherman’s wife threatened by a giant squid. But there is an undercurrent of seriousness when writing about an abusive father and a vengeful black cat.
Pegay A. Padrigon contributes three Bicolano short stories for children which would be suitable for classroom education and entertainment. These should also be ideal for the regular storytelling sessions for the young at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, where a celebrity reads the story or stories and leads the animated discussions. A reporter and photographer cover the event.
(To be continued)
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