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Poems for the young

Poems for the young
LODESTAR By Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star)
Updated April 04, 2010 12:00 AM

In Dust Devils, National Artist for Literature Rio Alma (a.k.a. Virgilio Almario) gathers together his bilingual poems on youth. Some of them have seen print in earlier books published in the last 30 years. But the poems still speak to us, as fresh as when they were newly minted. The book is edited and translated into English by Marne Kilates, one of the country’s best wordsmiths.

A sense of country is what the book imparts, and it does so without a heavy hand, or a sledgehammer pounding into your head. As Kilates notes in his introduction, this book is “especially for young people who perhaps have never felt how it is to be apart or uprooted from one’s native soil, or especially for those who have. Rio Alma seems to say in his poems: that this is how it is to love and remember our country, this place of our youth, which we cannot forgo or forget, because there is no other.

“For the poet, first of all, is made of native earth (and sea and sky), and the poet is someone who never outgrows, prefers not to outgrow, his childhood. Otherwise, he loses his ability to marvel at other countries and other territories, if in the first place he has never known and marveled at his own home.” In short, you cannot go international if you do not have a sense of the national; hard to be global, when you do not know the local.

Moreover, a young person’s sense of wonder lies at the heart of the book. The persona in this poem is sharp and observant. “Do you remember the dust devils/ That danced funnel-shaped/ In June and July’s humid days?/ And the thousand deadly centipedes/ That crawled out of holes in a tantrum . . .”

From the dust devils (or ipo-ipo) of one’s childhood memory, the poem takes a leap into the “Legend of the Rain.” Here, Rio Alma shows us his mastery of sound and sense in poetry as he reworks this famous legend. Listen: “Metaphysical kiss the lizard plants/ Upon the earth; frogs blow their trumpets:/ Spider ceases its survey of silk. Crawls/ Into its ancient crack, snuggles under its sheets; / Upon the floor the cold’s first messages creep,/ Crickets quicken their telegraph of cricks;/ Electric wires and poles stand on end,/ Tree limbs and the haughty bamboo sway restless….”

In this book, Rio Alma resurrects for us landscapes already vanished, or slowly vanishing because they are being turned into highways and subdivisions and shopping malls. As the American novelist Henry James put it, “A writer is somebody who loves things that vanish.” The brilliant sunlight of Fernando Amorsolo’s paintings are found in these poems, but without the nostalgia, for Rio Alma is lyrical, yes, but he is also a clear-eyed observer of things Philippine and political.

Kilates, our translator, gives a direct address to our young readers in his introduction: “There is a lot to explore, young reader, in the poetry of Rio Alma, and in present Filipino writing for that matter, and most of all, in language. You need not be a poet yourself. (To say that young people cannot be interested in poetry is an insult to both young people and poets.) You need only to be a child, at least once in the past, in the first act of looking at the world and using and creating words to utter it. Or because you have been and are a child in every moment of wonderment, you are, in one form or another, a poet. In the journey home to the country of memory inside yourself, be one among these pages.”

We end with a poem that will resonate with the Pinoy abroad, or the deracinated Pinoy, or just those of us whose childhood was partly spent in the loam of the provinces. The poem is a homage to the country, and it is called “Mariquita.”

“Because of her/ You will never forget the mole of island/ On the green face of a placid sea,/ Mariquita,/ Most giving, most guileless allure/ Of brown skin, scent of latik and anise./ What sorcery was there in her kiss— Awakening the unwanted seeds of memory/ Whenever you are lost in a foreign breast./ You say you were an innocent/ When first blinded by her coarse love/ And, too, it was she/ Who drove you to your endless wandering./ What wild weed have you eaten/ From her forest dark and grim?/ Friend, what a child you are when lonely/ And you call her, Native Land.”

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