Small talk at a coffee shop in Montparnasse

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(1968, 1972, 1990, 2009)

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Io non mori, e non rimasi vivo.—Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia
Black coffee, Alejo, has its way of distinguishing
anguish from angostura now that prattle
of Sartre, Camus, and Berdyaev has stopped
on a pin’s head: the blackness is proof of the battle
come as the gadfly disturbing the teacups
where they, unthinking, rattle; we, unfeeling, bleed.

“Me? I take mine with cream.” It is this need
makes one prefer a dash of milk to a dash of pity.

Fancy the hole on the doughnut where the hole
lasts only where the dough surrounds it. Fancy,
what makes you think you’re not a doughnut?
“Ontological dimensions of fear, I say.”
Fear of the bole whose business it is to stand tall?
Or of some blank wall?

With the hole there and the coffee black,
where begins the trembling for the clock?

Time in. Time out. Man becomes, then runs out.

What makes you think you’re not a man? Doubt?

“I suffer; therefore, I am alive.” But when life ran out, one did not die, yet nothing of life remained!

One takes coffee with cream, an empirical scheme
of distinctions between man, doughnut, and dream.

A cup ennobles indignities; the fact is it empties
what makes itself itself into a hole not unlike the
doughnut’s, waiting to be filled, but filled with pain.

To be metaphysical, like the sky empties itself of rain!
Like it was afternoons and the coffee guests absent,

No prattle here of Heidegger nor even of Kierkegaard.
The tables have not remained silent
since then, Alejo. The cups have even trembled.

***

My poem today is an old poem that has gone through lots of rewriting. One day, I will sit down and re-write it once more for my friend, Alex “Jun” Villanueva, a public intellectual in my homeland.

Thus, all the dates under my byline. The poem has reincarnated in quite a number of forms, I have had to re-write it until I was happy with it. In my “A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems” (UST Publishing, 2009), I said I finally liked its last rewrite. I will not be embarrassed by it.

It was a languid afternoon, after classes at the Benedictine college where we taught—Alejo Villanueva Jr., chairman of the Philosophy Department, and I dropped by a coffee shop at Ermita in the art district of Manila. Would I want to sit in as a revalida panelist for his philosophy majors who were taking their oral examinations? Why not? I accepted his invitation, flattered that a literature major/philosophy minor baccalaureate would qualify me to pass or flunk Philo majors. That tied down, he engaged me in his usual “small talk”—Camus and existentialism, Heidegger, Kierkegaard. Alejo spouted insight after insight, and I felt like these venerable philosophers and writers were with us sipping coffee.

What does it mean to be human? Why do we exist? What do we exist for? What makes one think one is alive? Gripped by despair that there were more moronic philosophy students in his classes than in our time when we would shoot the breeze with parnassian thoughts, he would bite into his endless doughnuts and I would remark that it took him only one bite to get to the hole of the doughnut and three others to finish it off. Relax. It’s only philosophy.

But you have poetry to wax eloquently about in your lit classes, he would remonstrate. Dialectics in mine are as lethal as cyanide to my bums! They would rather march in the streets. But Betrand Russell did that, too, I would placate him.

It was past suppertime when I got home, the children in bed. Seeing the missus already in her slumbrous Parnassus, I sat down to compose the first version of “Small Talk.” I submitted this first form to fulfill a graduate school writing assignment in Prof. Ophelia Dimalanta’s Creative Writing class. One of the Philippines’ finest poets writing in English, Prof. Dimalanta’s good rating of your submission would be a treasure—she thought my poem, “A Philosopher’ Attempt at Small Talk at an Ermita Coffee Shop,” was good, “except
for words like ontological—not as “magical as seagull.”

I ran off with the poem, got it published by The Sunday Times editor Gloria Garchitorena Goloy, and the poem’s life would never be the same again.

“Small Talk” was one of the poems I collected in Narra Poems and Others, a book that got me through the graduate class despite my almost zero attendance (I would be there only when I would read a submission to poet Dimalanta’s class). She subseqently wrote the introduction of the book together with my fellow Ilocano, University of the Philippines Poet-in-residence, the late Alejandrino Hufana.

At the 1972 Dumaguete Writer’s Workshop in Silliman University, I was asked by Dr. Edith Tiempo, workshop director now Philippine National Artist, to present the poem for discussion. What did it mean, all this prattle?

It was poet Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez who ventured: “It’s small talk. You know, namedropping of filosopos and talk about holes and doughnuts, life and dying, coffee and rain. Nice afternoon merienda.”

Giggles.

He smirked as he got himself involved in poetic hermeneutics. Cavalier, I thought, but that was it! Life as a doughnut. To make up for what was considered smart-ass interpretation, Pascua Sanchez offered to lend me money when I ran out of beer allowance during the workshop. I don’t remember if I paid him back.

I revisited “Small Talk” in Canada when I got In a Sparrow’s Time (1990) published. The lines were all flushed left and all started with capital letters. Like most poems at that time.

At that workshop, a priest attendee, Rev. Frank Fernandez, spoke about lines determined by “breath span” (what you could say aloud without losing wind)—I thought I would use that measure and rhythm (including internal rhymes) in its latest incarnation in 2009. After all, wasn’t “Small Talk” a dialogue between two breathlessly prattling philosopher-manques and poet wannabes?

Alejo became one of the most virulent critics of the martial law president after that coffee shop rendezvous. His bylines were all over the magazines criticizing leadership from the barrel of a carbine, at worst, a government propped up by monkeys  in uniforms!

He wrote a book on Proletarian Philippine hero Andres Bonifacio, taught in more schools ran by religious orders, Jesuits, Benedictines, nuns. Gave up on them later, became a successful marketing executive and entrepreneur, and, the last time we saw each other, he was still fulminating about Philippine politics that he even got mad somewhat with the late Senator Raul Roco, his own compadre and our San Beda College colleague and friend.

Roco ran for the Presidency later, but my philosopher-poet friend and compadre (he was godfather to one of my younger daughters), Alejo Villanueva Jr. must have wept inconsolably when Roco died during his campaign and a movie actor Joseph Estrada would win but ultimately jettisoned by revolting Filipinos (in the second People’s Revolution) for corruption. Angry, Alejo would always manage to rationalize disasters: Voters deserve the leaders they elect.

He ran for City Council in Manila some time or the other, but did not make it. Always the poet-philosopher, he came out with a small book of poems and meditations (a la Mao Tse tung?), but I left for Canada and probably did not deseve an autographed copy “for leaving our country, our beloved native land.” I wonder if Alejo found another coffee-buddy to engage in big “small” talk with. He never wrote back when I asked for us to “correspond in the twilight of our years, even if it were only through these damned new-fangled e-mails.”
“The tables have not remained silent since then, Alejo. The cups have even trembled.”

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