By Danton Remoto
Heartsong and Other Poems is only the first book of poems by Felino S. Garcia Jr. But collected between its covers are some of the most amazing love poems I’ve read. There is no rawness, no rush, and no half-cooked efforts in this collection. We have to thank publisher John Iremil Teodoro of Imprenta Igbaong for coming out with this collection of poems.
The book is divided into four sections. “Coming to fruit” deals with love’s beginnings, when the days pass in a blaze of happiness. And the nights more so, as captured in a poem called “Flood.” The poem has an epigraph from the now-iconic song of Basil Valdez: “Tuwing umuulan at kapiling ka (When it rains and I’m with you).” The poem points out the overpowering presence of love, like water that drowns everything in its wake, including the lovers.
Listen: “How we drown/ in our own flooding, plunging ourselves,/ shapeless, yet with gravity, swirling/ deep/ down/ down/ in the bottomless murky-/ sweetness of our watery love/ We drown/ without any hint of an end,/ no aftermath to this wild overflowing/ this flood, this love, this flood,/ this love, this love, this . . .”
Water then and wind: the natural elements of motion and force are compared to the brute power of love. In his novel A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway seemed to say that between birth and death there is only loneliness. But Garcia points to another direction: that beneath birth and death there is loneliness, yes, but also the bright and shining possibilities of love.
Moreover, the poet implies that love is not just moored in the elements of nature, but also in the elements of the body. The face and the voice, which are staple fare in the usual love poems. The body and its sensory zones, which are staple fare, too, in the usual erotic poems. But in our poet’s book, love is de-familiarized and the “heartsong” is the snore of the beloved. From snore to song is one bold leap, but our poet has steady legs and a pole-vault surer and stronger than any other’s. Watch him trace that arc.
“How you snore, my dearest one./ I stay up all night . . . . / I can bear listening to your heart-/ Song breaking loose,/ Breaking through the throat’s/ Darkness, soft singing its way/ Through this listening silence,/ Filling the brims of my watchful eyes/ And rising like a hairline/ Of breath, or smoke gathering light/ Unto itself, air sprouting flowers. . . .”
“My skin’s terrain” is the second part of the book. Here, the poet talks about the art of cartography. But what are mapped are the slopes and seas, the coves and caves of the beloved. Such appropriation – for the poet is also a keen student of contemporary criticism and has grafted its select theories into his poetics – is also found in two other poems in this section.
The body’s desires and dreams are etched in the poem “Inscription.” Here, the body’s various vowels and consonants, the syllables that form a text, find a haven and home. This triumphant work should make the three horsewomen of French feminist criticism giddy with joy. “. . . . Must I then seek/ A quick, sudden release/ From all these beginning less and endless/ Sensations and ululations/ When you are already inscribed on my body,/ On my body’s margins and boundaries,/ On my body’s text as ecriture/ Defying, denying all forms of otherness,/ Othering and erasure/ Like love drawing us all in/ Mercilessly in its full embrace--/ Ever grasping,/ Running out of breath.”
There is also the appropriation of the poetics of Islamic mysticism in the poem “Pillow,” with an epigraph from Khaled Mattawa: “Come love like a crushing seed.” Islamic mysticism is focused on the Tariqa, or the Sufi Path. Its poetics is rife with motifs of birds and blood, of spore, semen and light, of journeys whose destination is the Beloved. Garcia weds beautifully the sensual gesture and the mystical moment in the poem “Pillow.”
“Imagine him as you close your eyes./ Imagine him in your sleep./ Imagine him as though this were your last slumber,/ As though you would no longer hear/ His voice echo the bird’s sweet singing,/ As though upon hearing him, your body, your ribcage/ Could no longer be shaken into sobs,/ Convulsed into tears as though you were cursed/ And could never be awakened./ Imagine his voice as though its sweetness/ Could no longer like an arrow/ Pierce your heart . . . ”
“Beyond this lifetime” is the title of the third part. In a homage to the finest love poems, the sensual the spiritual have become one in this poem, wedded in utter and singular bliss. The readings of the poet are varied; in this poem, he alludes to Buddhist motifs. Without the endpoints and pauses of punctuation marks and in lines fluent and fluid, the poet leads us to the heart of nirvana.
“and like the Eightfold Path fulfilled/ you came stepping in this room quietly/ as if it were a lake you dipped soaked/ your feet/ as if you were a bodhisattva/ deferring enlightenment How we learned/ to breathe in time murmuring each other’s/ name over and over like a mantra/ while we slept in this bed shaped like a lotus/ on a night made lucid by the full moon . . . .”
“The wind relents” is the last part of the book. And as if to mimic the natural order of things, it deals with endings. In “The Second Aftermath,” the persona is full even when empty, for the beloved’s presence is made even more manifest by his absence. The poem has images of wayward fish bones stuck in one’s throat, of boulders sinking deeper than gravity could hold them, of eyelids closing for the night.
I would like to end this review by quoting in full the poem “Undertow.” It is a poised, painful meditation on the pendulum of love and loss. Like a haiku, it tells us that beauty is fragile and transitory, and its very transience hurts.
“No one speaks/ Of all that was here/ All that you and him were/ All that will no longer be/ Between you and him/ In a single blink/ Final and irreversible/ And yet world of his touch/ His whispers his voice/ The sea in his mouth/ Its undertow hissing/ The sound of it all/ Still hanging in your heart.”
The tradition of the love lyric is long and diverse. Heloise wrote letters to Abelard, Robert Browning to his Elizabeth Barrett, Walt Whitman to his anonymous young men, and Emily Dickinson “to a world that never wrote to me.” It seems that the poems of Felino Garcia Jr. belong to the world explored by Whitman and Dickinson. Garcia’s poems are letters to a world that still turns a blind eye to the wonder, the majesty, and the pain of men loving other men.
Warm, witty and wise, grainy with the many landscapes of love and longing, the best poems in this collection have already earned their secure places in the many rooms that comprise Philippine writing in English.
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