Babeth Lolarga’s collection of “old and new” poems titled Big Mama Sez is a series of “shock(s) of recognition”—a phrase popularized by literary critic Edmund Wilson in his literary history of America.
Lolarga’s poems have the capacity to make us see ourselves in her rendering of the reality of personal relationships–poems that do not mince words and may unsettle the gentle reader with her deeply personal and intimate and at times raw language.
Her opening poem “From the Calendar of Anger – A Poem in Progress” uses as epigraph lines from another poet, “I rise/ every morning like a waning/ moon in a new world I/ do not care for but mean/ to survive whole to change” (Mary Piercy).
What follows is a litany of moments/markers of what appears to be a failed marriage, the distancing of one with the other though under one roof, “the unsatisfactory because obligatory sex” even as he wants her to come by his sheer physical exertions up to “seventy earnest thrusts” until “his fluids finally home in my sea,” but no afterglow “nor a soulful sharing of intimacies.”
While the rest of the poems are expected to be of the same vein, there are a good number that manifest grace and hope. Clearly the persona strives to survive “the rot in the castle” of a conjugal life and “ the sorrows of the kitchen sink” in the little epiphanies found in what lowlanders would consider an idyllic retreat in a house atop a hill in cool Baguio. She catalogues the joys in her surroundings—“tomatoes whose bottoms are as round/ as half moons of my toes/ dice red apples as crisp/ as Baguio weather in December/ sliced bell peppers as green / as the sheen of leaves after a rainfall.”
She finds solace listening in a bistro to a singer “devoid of diva airs,/dedicating a whole set of songs . . . to poets sober and plastered,/ toasting their lines borne/ of merriment or pain.”
She values the loyalty of artist friends like Roz Galang who, after years of “resistance journalism” during martial law, succumbed to cancer—“she stooped one morning,/ conquered & entered triumphant/ the vast fastness of eternity.”
She grieves over the death of sculptor Jerry Araos who taught her to be both strong and vulnerable for home to her is her “friends’ hearts” or wherever she is welcome and “given space/ to fashion what to others are unfashionable thoughts.”
A number of poets understandably seem to have an obsession with mortality, and the dance of death hovers about their work as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the poems of Donne, Browning, Dickinson, Rossetti and Dylan Thomas. In Babeth’s “brave new world” (“Cats in My Fruit Salad”) things may turn surreal—“apples tumble in space,/ strawberries expand to the size of benches”—or apocalyptic when the world “may end covered by ice or melted by fire/ while roaches take dominion” or “I can come undone, play Russian roulette & break my head into/ cubist fragments.”
The utter desolation is banished as she writes about her children as in “Tulips Two Lips” and grandchild as in “Buttons, No Bows” and even “the friendly stranger(s) sharing a room/ a gulf bridged by a reading lamp/& a desk supporting more books.” And more.
Reading Babeth Lolarga’s book of poems is entering “a brave new world” indeed—rich in discovery, epiphanies, defamiliarization, endurance, not just survival, leaving the reader a sense of hope in one’s own apparent wasteland of an existence.