The first thing that will surprise you about Ambil, Mga pagsubok, pahiwatig & interbensyon (2014) by E. San Juan Jr. is its form, one that we rarely see our more established writers using for their work. A chapbook of 36 pages stapled together, with parts unapologetically xeroxed and others obviously print-outs from a standard printer, the form of Ambil is reminiscent of the old Peso Books of Alberto Florentino, but more in tune with the zines and chapbooks of contemporary independent publishing.
But San Juan is not being faddish here. Reading through his poetry and prose in Ambil one realizes how the works lend themselves to the form of the chapbook, where there is an experimentation with how a poem might look, and what else might be done with words.
And not just in terms of stringing words together, but more importantly in terms of how these look on the page, against an image, relative to graphics and shapes. There is a playfulness here that is unexpected.
Interventions against the word
The value of the word is premised on its function within the struggle of the classes, where words used by the louder voices, the ones we hear from the seats of power, become the dominant words of the status quo. While words are also what we use to exercise our freedom to speak, certain words and voices are more important. Besides many other words are used to keep us silent and contained. There is also this: what are words when these are ignored and dismissed to be coming from a few?
San Juan intervenes in this state of affairs in Ambil, where the title itself pertains to the interpretation of a word different from original intention (7), something that he employs in the poems that reconfigure the works of other writers, putting into question the task itself of writing, and in effect, literary history. From “Asignatura sa mga Anarkista (Hinangong ambil mula kay Yoko Ono)” (5):
C. Tipunin lahat ng librong nagkukunwaring siyang pinakamabuting balarila o gramatika ng wika, pati lahat ng mga arte poetika mula sa Vocabulario nina Noceda at Sanlucar hanggang sa mga turo nina Lope K Santos at Julian Cruz Balmaseda, pati na lahat ng tulang may tugma’t sukat ayon sa regla ng mga awtoridad at premyadong pantas.
C1. Ilagay sa isang trak, dalhin sa Payatas, buhusan ng ilang balde ng gasolina, at sunugin.
The play with rhymes familiar also reminds of how we are hewed from the same cloth of nation, where the dominant seemingly meaningless tunes can remain spaces of intervention still, as with “Sitsiritsit” (21), but more importantly in “Sa Hagupit Ni Yolanda, Nagkabuhol-buhol” (28-29):
Ang laki sa layaw, magsalawal ma’y aliswag.
Ang di lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makatatawid ng karagatan.
Ang bibig ng ilog iyong masasarhan hanggang wala ka sa langit.
Mayaman ka man sa sabi, kung singili’y napopoot.
Ang taong nagigipit ay wala ring laban kapag nag-iisa.
Di man makita ang ningas, kung patay na ang kabayo.
Meditations on nation
But what dominates Ambilis a play with repetition and redundancy, which San Juan employs especially for the poetry that dares discuss issues of nation: hunger and poverty, injustice and impunity. In “Mantrang Inanod Sa Maitim Na Butas Ng Cyberspace” (22), the repetition is also about a conversation riddled with disbelief:
Datapwat lalong lumala ang sakit at gutom kahit 7.2% lumago ang GNP
Datapwat wala pang $2 kada araw ang pantawid-buhay ng nakararaming pamilya
Datapwat wala pa rin hustisya ang mga biktima ng Mendiola’t Ampatuan masaker
Datapwat pinatay pa si Ricardo Ramos at mga kasapi ng unyon sa Hacienda Luisita
Datapwat nagdarahop ang mga pesante sa mga hacienda sa Pampanga’t Negros Ay ewan
Meanwhile in “Pagninilay” (15) the redundancy completes the telling of the narrative of oppression, in the end asserting that to read it is not the point at all:
Sapagkat bulag at bingi ang awtoridad sa harap ng mulat at mabalasik na trabahador Sapagkat may wakas din ang pagtitiis at laging nag-uumipsa ang himagsik
Sapagkat marupok ang poder ng politiko’t matibay ang lakas ng sambayanan
Sapagkat may takda ang salita at walang hangganan ang kilos at gawa ng masa
Sapagkat tuyo na ang luha ninyo kaya’t panahon nang paagusin ang galit at poot
It is due to San Juan’s deft creative hand that there is a balance between the playfulness in these poems and the severity of the situations these talk about. There is no sense that the content is being sacrificed for the form, as there is fact of repetition as meditation layering the discussion with an almost calm and quiet, the kind that demands introspection, but also necessarily is about movement beyond the page.
And this is really the gift of Ambil: issues are not being shoved down one’s throat. The play with words, the experimentation, ends up asserting oppression and violence to be matters of fact and nothing else. In the process one is left with a bad taste in the mouth, but one that was a by-product of reading as act: an act that in the case of Ambil is enjoyable and exciting in its playfulness, provocative and enraging in its meditations on nation.
<…>Dahil mali ang akalang laging pipi’t bulag ang mga patay-gutom
Dahil walang balato sa pulitikong bantay-salakay sa pork-barrel
<…> Dahil tayo’y sawa na sa pakulong Oplan Bayanihan at gayuma ng America
Dahil wala raw dahilang hindi iginuhit ng tadhana natin (9)