New poems of an established poet


Review of ‘Bukas Luwalhating Kay Ganda’ by E. San Juan Jr. (Philippine Cultural Studies Center, 2013)
By Eric P. Ablajon

E San Juan Jr. is an established name. It is a name not only known in the country but also around the world. The collection Bukas, Lualhating Kay Ganda is only his fourth books of poems in his long career. He has new poems, but you should know up front, he is not doing anything revisionist or fashionably new.

He is more known as a literary critic and cultural theorist, and his body work in the said fields impressive not to mention more massive. One immediately has an idea what subjects interests San Juan: justice (or lack of thereof), people’s struggle, cultural politics and liberation.

So why does a critic risk to be misinterpreted in writing poems when he has spent most of life trying to extract meanings from texts and events? The reason is that his art is not separated from his scholarship. San Juan has been writing long enough to acknowledge the limitations of academic texts and to recognize one medium that transcends this barrier is poetry.

Here we encounter another problem: his poems are intricate, almost incomprehensible to many. National Artist Virgilio Almario, another poet and critic says of San Juan way back 1969: “Habang ang marami ay nilalago pa ng lipas nang bango ng tugma’t sukat ng mga apo nina Balagtas at Batute, si San Juan ay nagbibigay-modelo na ng suryalismo, imahismo, impresyunismo, kubismo at anupamang maaaring magdala sa panulaang pambansa sa daloy ng makabagong panulaang pandaigdig” (p. 173).

Let me demonstrate:
nakatingala ako, gulilat, naipit sa pagitan ng kalye
Tandang Sora’t Laong-Laan,

di kinukusa’y nasambit ko—sa harap ng
rumaragasang trapik sa Blumentritt—

ang pangalan ni Josephine Bracken MacBride,
dulce extranjera,

at ang pakikipagsapalaran sa mahiwagang kaharian
ng Albanya

(“Engkuwentro Sa Pinagtapunan Ng Bayani”)

Throughout the collection, San Juan still masterly practices his habit of inserting several allusions to people, actual, literary, or historical, to places, in the country and outside, events, and even to theories by philosophers he may or may not agree with.
An ordinary reader would greatly doubt if he’s writing poetry at all, a common person may say poetry is dead. But the “death” of poetry is not a result of marginalization cause by mass media but rather by apparatuses dictating what poetry should be. The apparatuses San Juan have been resisting all his life. Poetry expressing nothing but love, hope, longing, beauty, and other similar indulgent emotions grant dull justification to one’s existence.
San Juan as a poet knows internal serenity of the soul. But importantly he also knows the external realities that torment the human body, a fact majority of artists continue to deny. And it is here where San Juan’s poetic strength lies, his ability to read and comprehend things and events differently, to deconstruct the subtle details of both oppression and liberation in our present reality overfed with shallow information. In the poem “Liwaliw sa Ilog ng Loboc, Bohol” he meditates on a scene everyone is familiar with and aspires for: tourism, particularly the so-called “green tourism,”

Habang sa gitna ng lakbay, hayun ang daungan—
Ay, hindi,
Entablado o plataporma pala, tanghalan ng sayaw at
katutubong kariktan—
Hanap-buhay iyon ng mga nakatira sa baranggay
katabi ng ilog—

Aliw handog sa mga estrangherong naakit sa
unggoy Tarsier,
Tsokolateng bundok, indayog ng mga lipi nina
Dagohoy at rebelde sa Jagna.
Kawili-wiling tanawin, ilog na humahagos sa
mapating na dagat….

San Juan doesn’t intend to place you in a euphoric realm art can do. In fact he pulls you savagely down to ground and links you to the person beside you. You two are related, so are the people you see and fail to see. You are a result of long history of struggle, and you are continuing what people before you have began. You have a shared destiny. It may sound cliché, but if placed in the context of present culture of global egoistic consumerism and dream production, San Juan’s vision comes sacred.
Filipinos are not strangers to this phenomenon of finding yourself, often in a foreign land with false promises; there is a recent survey that Filipinos continue to leave the country. Yet a materially better life doesn’t necessarily mean it would more meaningful. There will always be a void; this is something San Juan is most familiar with, himself in the “Diaspora.”

Gayunpaman, nais kong umuwi. Wala ritong
kapiling na makakausap sa wikang Filipino. Sina
Pacquiao Pempengco’t Salonga’y nagtitinda ng
sarili nilang “brand Pinay/Pinoy” walang
kuwenta ‘yon, delikadong mapagkamalang

Ang gabi’y lumalalim, tigib ng mapanuksong ingay.

(“Dalumat ni Felix Razon sa Boston”)

The name E. San Juan Jr. is an established name. His new poems don’t change the reputation he has built for himself. He barely changed his approach since he began writing, and why should he? “…ang tumpak na landas ay isang/ lubid na bahagyang nakaangat sa lupa upang tisurin/ ka imbes na gabayan at ugitan.” (Hinuha’t Mungkahing Balintunay). The moment when San Juan changes and ‘goes with the flow’ in these uncertain and ambivalent times would be the time we should all despair. The poet may be of age but not the vigorous spirit of his art, especially one that is dedicated to liberation.

Almario, Virgilio (Mayo 21 1969) Mga Balangkas at Motibo sa Tula ni Epifanio San Juan Jr. in Ang Makata Sa Panahon ng Makina, Quezon City: UP Press, 1972


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