ESTRANGEMENT AND HOMING IN ILOKANO POETICS:
A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION TO “REKUERDO/MEMENTO—ESTRANGEMENT AND HOMING IN ILOKANO POETICS”
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
To be allowed to enter into the world of Ilokano poets by way of their word is always-already a sacrament. The permission granted by the poets to me as editor, translator and critic of this anthology is not only a generous act but also a rare and sacred welcoming gesture that can only come from a rare and welcoming heart. Such is the case of these 25 poets whose works I have had the privilege of becoming intimate with, of having fallen into a conversation with them through their work, and of having been given the extraordinary opportunity to get into the world created by their word, their Logos. Their delightful, almost miraculous capacity to fix the difficult experience of moving to another geography through that act of writing a poem is something that must be celebrated.
I began to be seduced by the very notion of Ilokanos going on exile and becoming part of the diaspora a long time ago, even when I had yet to experience living abroad myself for long stretches at a time, even being away from my immediate family for months, and sometimes years, with but the telephone and other technological means to bridge the more than 7000 mile-expanse of sometimes calm-sometimes turbulent waters of the Pacific dividing my family home and my destination cities, first in Los Angeles and then in Honolulu.
I grew up in the Ilocos aware of the Hawaiianos, those Ilokanos who made Hawaii their home and who would come to the Ilocos for a quick visit to their places and families, with their imported goods to share with kith and kin. Of course, there were those other Hawaiianos who came for another reason: those who would come to make the final plunge to marriage, the “landing”.
The “landing”—a symptom of the unique Ilokano phenomenon that arose out of the Ilokano plantation life experience—suggests a political economy of family life that not only extends the older view of marriage but also enlarges its dimensions in many ways. A check with Gelade’s Ilokano-English Dictionary (1993: 350) tells of what this “landing” is: “a name given to old Filipinos who, after having worked and lived in Hawaii, return to their homeland.” The verb, “mangilanding,” is: “To come to the Philippines in order to get married (said of Hawayano old-timers)”. A colloquial terminology, coming from that unique English spoken in the plantations which is close to what is called Pidgin today, “landing” initially alludes to the landing of a plane on an airport. We see here a collapsing of time in the “landing” terminology, with the Hawaiiano old-timer never having had to chance to take the plane in going to Hawaii—as they came with the ship or boat and spent months on the Pacific Ocean before hitting the Hawaiian shores—but now had the chance to go back to the home by taking the plane, and “landing” on the homeland with it.
We see the Hawaiiano, who, after years of backbreaking work in the sugarcane and pineapple fields, had to finally come home on a plane, take a wife, start a family either in the Philippines or Hawaii. But here the image blurs to account new meanings, new possibilities of reference, and new play of symbols. The man does the “landing”: he is the actor in this social drama; the woman is the patient, the recipient of the action. The man become the plane taking on land—“the plane landing”—hence the active, intentional, purposive form of the Ilokano word, “mangilanding”.
In a series on the “sakada”—a contentious term in Ilokano immigrant studies— experience, Lucy Peros has written for the Fil-Am Observer of the many men who went through this rite and ritual of doing the “landing”. Of the Peros account, we have yet to encounter a “landing”—the term is also used to mean the man—who had not experienced a stable married life, in keeping with the terms of marriage by Ilokanos in Hawaii.
While growing up, I had become aware of these complex realities of Hawaiiano life. Some of those who came home to the Ilocos for good were able to buy farm lots, the main resource and asset any farming Ilokano would depend on for a better life.
We need to understand that these Hawaiianos were people of the earth and had soil in their hand. They had the earth as the fundamental reference to their understanding of what life was all about, what promise life had in store for them, and what prospects were there in their hope for a better, more meaningful existence whether in the homeland or in other places. With their hard-earned dollars, some of those Hawaiianos who decided to go back home would change from a mere tenant to a new landowner, thus, elevating their social status. The fruits of their contract work in the plantations made this possible, of course. We must make it clear that in those times, this was the only option for a people tied to a life of the earth. The Philippines was not in a position to offer an option better than a contract work in the plantations of Hawaii. Given this, we can rightfully say that these Ilokanos—and eventually, in 1906, Bisayans—were some of the earlier overseas contract workers now euphemistically called by the Philippine government as Overseas Filipino Workers or OFW.
In the poems are the difficult experiences of leaving home, of becoming a stranger in a new place, and, in the case of four of the poets—Peter La. Julian, Roy Aragon, Joel Manuel, and Daniel Nesperos—of becoming a stranger in an old place, in the same country, in your own country. Somewhere, a poet once talked of arrivals as departures as well—and by logical extension, departures as arrivals—and in which case, we can look at these experiences, myriad in their joyful and sorrowful note but always hopeful, as echoes of what we can call as geographies of pain for each of those who have had to leave home, whether voluntary or by force. Geography, we must say, prefigures and pre-shapes eventually what gets into the mind, into the personal and the collective consciousness. New geography requires a new way of coming to terms with estrangement, that sense of being lost in a place, that sense of wandering, that sense of not fitting in, that sense of loss of the familiar, the familiar a form of a security blanket. And since estrangement is lord and master in that kind of life away from the homeland, away from the birth land as in the case of the poets who had to leave for other places in the home country, that experience can be a form of trauma. To be “dis-placed”—to be in another place, to be in another ground, is a form of “dis-ease”, a trope of instability, illness, sickness, or malady. The experience of displacement as “dis-ease” marks the poetic sensibilities of those “strangers in a new land”. But it marks the sensibilities as well of those “strangers in their own land” as is the case of the poets of alienation like Aragon, Julian, Manuel, and Nesperos.
Aragon, for instance, ups the ante of the desolation of estrangement and the impossibility of coming back—of homing—in the allegory of the doormat story in “the doormat has forgotten to be excited of me”. He writes of the domestic references to a blissful life through the word of that storyteller whose name we do not know, but whose voice is clear as an “i, the self”: “the doormat has forgotten to be excited of me,/ the mosquitoes and the dragonflies have taken their residence there./ no longer i feel the bed, table, and the earthen stove missing me.” The poem—structured by way of an alternating declaration of still unnamed sorrow for all those things and actions that were familiar before that act of coming back only to find out a new level of estrangement has set in to welcome the returnee—ends in a sad note of an estrangement that is total, leaving thus the returnee not much choice, but to go back where he comes from: that land that is strange to him: “would that i filled the bin, filled the container for the fish sauce/but no one wants to eat, no one wants to cook,/ the doormat has forgotten to long for me,/ no longer I feel the bed, table, and earthen stove missing me/.” In effect, Aragon issues out a message, questioning us all whether we can really go back home—or whether it is at all possible to go back to where we have come from. This reminds us of Selmo, a character in a short story by Benjamin M. Pascual, “Selmo Comes Home,” in the Alcantara and Diaz anthology, Ilocano Harvest (1988). We see the same gnawing feelings here, as we journey with Selmo who returns home after a 30-year absence. The story opens with a landscape both geographic and psychic: “Mentally, Selmo sketched the outline of the mango tree which he had climbed nimbly as a youth. From afar, it had looked like an outspread umbrella but with a crooked fat handle.” As we walk with him in that rite of coming home, we begin to feel the onset of certainties that are more the handiwork of the stable memory than the unstable social landscape, and yet we are also introduced to Selmo’s admission of uncertainties he calls “change”: “He felt certain that the tropical tree still reigned as a landmark in a town which he felt equally sure must have changed. After almost thirty years’ absence, nothing could plausibly remain of the bamboo-and-thatch shacks nor even of the wooden dwellings which he had left behind as an eighteen-year-old steerage passenger in a vessel that had taken him to home—as he had known and jocularly described it—must have given way to another.”
Still, things are not settled in the destination country unless the sense of home is settled. When a doormat, as in the poem of Aragon, assumes a new meaning, becomes a metaphor, and cues us about the complexities of emotions that can only come from the decision to return home, we need to sit up and take notice that not all forms of coming home settle the question of estrangement. When the doormat that is supposed to welcome the tired body, cleanse the feet of the mulct and dirt one has gathered from the journey, and issue out the first silent word of welcome as one enters into the old home does not make the peregrine feel at home, we are reminded here of the old jolting truth about leaving: that once one has left, he can no longer go back. In the end, we see Selmo going through that same tragic fate of not being able to go back home. When he tells his mother that he is going back home to America after spending some four months in San Miguel, his birthplace, she protests: “Home! But you returned home, my son!”
Selmo responds to his mother: “My home is in America, mother.” His mother can only repeat the words of his son who went away for 30 years in order to come back but could not return in the same as he was supposed to: “Your home is in America.”
This anthology plays up on this difficult terrain of the mind and heart of the returnee—or the one trying to go back home. The fact of estrangement is real; the constant yearning to go back home is a fact. The Ilokanos have a term for estrangement: “kinabambaniaga/kinaestranghero iti sabali a lugar”—that difficult feeling of being not from and of a place, the sense of “from” indicative of origin and the sense of “of” one of belonging, of being a part of its story and history.
The sense of homing, on the other hand, is almost like a dream, a vision, a hope, a yearning, as is the case of Selmo who yearned and yearned for years only to end up realizing that his yearning is based on an existential emptiness.
In “Padsan: a Vision,” Julian, confronts his memory of Padsan, the river of his city, the river of his youth, the river that sustained him through all the years of his wandering from Laoag to Oscariz, in Isabela and in other places that had claimed him because of his profession as a writer and because of his personal obligation to his family whose members have gone on to live lives abroad. But it is in Isabela where that sense of stability has found him—or where he found, establishing a home there and where his children have an investment in memory. We cannot say the same kind of investment his children have of his Laoag, the place beyond the mountain ranges, the place that depresses to the sea to flatten into an almost dry earth and then to a vast body of water.
In a direct address, Julian quizzes Veronica but he could as well be quizzing the river itself when one knows the environmental facts surrounding Padsan, with this river easily substituting for Veronica. If we follow this logic, and we put in the medieval theological context of Veronica, we can easily push for this substitution.
For Veronica is not real; there is no Veronica in recorded history except as a figment of the medieval, perhaps earlier, imagination of the Catholic believers, who, in their folk rendition of the story of the Christian Paschal Mystery that re-narrativizes the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, came up with a story of the true face of him impressed on a handkerchief, an impression based on an imagination of him as he suffered on the cross, with thorns on his head and blood oozing on his face. For the term “Veronica”, in this medieval rendition by the Latin and Latinized cultures of the time, stems from “veraiconica” which translates to “true icon” or “true face”.
But where is that true face when the landmarks of memory and being—and the landmark of that sense of becoming for a wandering soul like Julian—have turned into sand, the waters of the river of Padsan almost catching fire every summer when the sun’s heat is punishing and its sandy shores are an interminable inferno? In a plaintive tone, Julian asks of Veronica, but asks of that river as well: “Where were you at that noontime?/ When we do not struggle/ The shadows are shrouds/ And the times get to hide/ In the in-between and in the darkness of memory./”
Shifting to a new perspective, Julian tells us of his relationship with Padsan and how this same river, while disappearing, constantly appears to him in his memory: “Each time I pay Padsan a vigil/ I see all those crossroads/ And the narrative of life:/ Resurrection during the rainy season/ Death in the summer/ But more so in this dying:/ The herons are no longer around/ The hawks and the quails as well./ The flow of the sweet water has lost its current./” It is this decay, celebrated only in sorrow that we get to realize what we have lost and what we continue to lose. Alienation, thus, is not only leaving one’s homeland but is that wanton irresponsibility to the health of the universe, to the stasis of being at home in the world, to that sense of ‘oneing’ with nature. He laments of the present, and this present as not at all a ‘presence’ but the opposite: it is an absence, a negation of what needs be, what should be, what ought to be: “Many times have I waited for the easterly wind/ And the music of rain, moisture, moist/ But the mornings are gone/ They are gone, Veronica, they are gone./ The present we are caught unawares/ All of a sudden another land/ Got to reside in our soul.”
This “another land residing in our soul” is a most terrible experience. In a situation like this, the wellsprings of affects do not offer quenching—and our sense of the land where we grow roots is one of the parched earth where scorching of our leaves and buds is a reality.
In another poem, “Gathering,” Julian insists that we have not left at all, but have, in fact, contributed to the raping of the earth: “We did not leave:/ We go back to the old city/ In the old way of order/ In the memory filled with clouds—/ There is that stone in there, the acacia/ At the entrance, the grass lands/ Where we ran after each other,/ And the small explosions/ Of emotions at the apex/ Of words, the glorious dream—/” The imprint of the havoc and destruction of our creation is there for the seeing, with the songs—our joyful songs—“to be buried, laughter too”. So unless the exile of the earth does not return to the earth, these problems will always be with us, the same way the poor of the Philippines have always been with us, with no end in sight of breaking the cycle of poverty and oppression.
This social malady of poverty and oppression in the homeland—the vicious root causes of the continuing exportation of warm bodies as a matter of official practice and the subsequent coming home of between five and six coffins each day (San Juan 2006)—is clearly the political subtexts of the poems of Daniel Nesperos and Joel Manuel, who, along with Roy Aragon, Prodie Gar. Padios could easily fall into the category of the “panuli”—the corner post of the house, the corner post of the dwelling-place of Ilokano Literature among the younger generations. For almost two decades since they began writing in the 90s, they have consistently produced a body of work parallel to the earlier works of the greater poets two decades before such as those by Juan SP Hidalgo Jr, Alejandrino Hufana, Herminio Beltran Jr., Rey Duque, Herman Tabin, Lorenzo Tabin, Precillano Bermudez, Fernando Sanchez, Honor Blanco Cabie, Paul Zafaralla, Cristino Inay Sr., Pelagio Alcantara, and Peter La. Julian. This quartet of politicized poets pushes their aesthetics to new heights and in the end, we have works that carry a sarcastic and biting commentary of the obnoxious conditions that have become ‘natural’ because ‘naturalized’ in the country.
In “The Young Evening is Waiting,” Nesperos talks to an unnamed person who has left, presumably to a place that has snow, and declaring, sure and certain and in keeping with the Ilokano way of awaiting someone else’s coming home, that “the teasing house lizards’ noise await/ like the sleeplessness of evenings on the railings of stairs.” In the coming home of the traveler, the poet makes a pointed reference to the greed of airport people, those factotums of a government agency that make it certain that they can get something from those returning home in the form of “pasarabo” or gift. He does not see it this way, of course, but calls this greed—as it should be. He talks of a young evening waiting for the homecoming to come about, but in the interstices of the act of waiting are the references to pain both for the one who is coming home and for the members of the home he is going back to, he is coming home to. He tells us of the wounds of leaving that will never be healed, and the footprints “that get erased/ by your absence that has no end”.
Prolific in a number of genres, Joel Manuel has received many major awards recognizing his extraordinary achievements. Like Aragon and Nesperos, he easily shifts from poetry to fiction, and as a public school administrator that came from the ranks of classroom teachers teaching physics and the sciences in a rural high school in the Ilocos, he has been involved in the use of the Ilokano language in science education. This commitment to teach the sciences using the mother tongue is a visionary undertaking that sets him apart from the rest of the public school teachers. In “To our Lost Country,” Manuel unabashedly tells us the raw and ugly truth that we need to hear—or read: “Take me for my word: We are homeless/ In our lost country, its ground shifting, loose.” There is nowhere more poignant in this rendition of the poetic condition of the fact of being lost than when he flatly tells us what kind of a homeland have we got: “It disowns us in ignorance, this land/ And we flee across the Western waves/ To that other side of our dreams/ To the savage wilds of the heart and memory/ Foreign and alien, strange and unfamiliar/ And now we have learned to call our own.”/ Having no choice but to heed the call of the first principle of survival, he tracks down our tracks, those of us who have called it quits with the homeland and have started life anew where the feet have led us, where the spirit of a life of bounty and contentment and goodness have brought us. “We flee, we take flight to a land/ That knows how to nurture/ The body, this one, in gaseous pains/ And then we know we have our country.”/
Having left, we have no recourse but to hang on to what letter writing can offer and do for us. The letter becomes a document that validates our departure in order not to return—not soon. “We weep as write lonely letters/ To our lost country/ The country we have lost.”/
In that poem on the ricebirds, “the ricebirds come to the countryside at harvest time,” we see an active symbolization that transforms the landscape of ricebirds literally ransacking a field of grains like locusts into another form of ransacking done by those in power. Spinning the idea off from the limerick sung by children that talks about their shooing away the ricebirds before they come upon the rice fields, and with their sharp beaks, harvest the stalks before they are even ready for the harvesting. The descriptive power he crates out of words surprises us with the new recognition that indeed, we have all been hoodwinked by the ricebirds all along: “They hovered in the skies above the cities/ Drinking in gulps the collapse of time…”/ While the birds do their tactical attack, we watch them take on the firmament, pass it as their own, possess it and seal that occupancy with the declaration, “This is life.” This could well be: “This is the life.”
Lydia Abajo, in the three series of poems (“Poem 1—Or this Act of Loving in a New Land”; “Poem 2”; and “Poem 3”) that look like episodes of a social drama, articulates the experience of a migrant/immigrant in a new land, marking that experience with a chronological understanding of that experience. The articulation borders on the acknowledgement of a grateful sentiment, lots of it, in fact, but resisting the trap of sentimentalism as she opens herself up to the host country, the destination land, offering her “emptiness”, her being “bereft”, her gift of “risk-taking”.
Almost a biographical note to oneself, the “i” as persona assumes a certain universality while also specific and particular, with the references to the risks the persona took as a child who was “ready to be lost in the woods”. Her getting into the new place is almost like a romance, a love affair in fact, the relationship clearly that of a lover to that of the beloved, and the initial feelings of excitement and exuberance are in there all right: “seeing you in an unexpected time/ unexpected place/ lifts me from ground zero/ here in this place of alien lives/ & strange loves.” The migrant, as in the lover/beloved, comes into the new land, in the new terrains of the heart, and comes in her loneliness: “the way i was/ when i came to you in my loneliness.”/ The love affair prevails as a matter of course, with the persona singing and declaiming: “the reverence, the passion, the pain will thrive/ that will drive me to sing endlessly/ sing songs of hope/ sing songs of liberation/ sing songs of hopeless devotion/ till i reach the unreachable you/ even if singing means eternity/ waiting forever for the memory of you.”/
If pain defined the story of a migrant/exile/immigrant in whatever situation of displacement from the homeland, it is clearly seen in the work of Jeffrey Acido, “Barok, My Son”. In five snappy stanzas, we see the beginnings of a life story that is not unique to the “barok” (a term of endearment in Ilokano which means “my son”) but to all families who have come to Hawaii on family-based petition where one family head “orders” (a unique Ilokano appropriation of the immigration procedure of “ordering” for an immediate family member on the strength of the family unity concept).
Two voices are calculatedly juxtaposed here, with the first four stanzas an unraveling of a mother’s story of leaving, courage, daring, hard work, sacrifice—even the sacrifice of not taking care enough of one’s child in the pursuit of the dollar needed to put food on the table.
We are led to an everyday ethnography of an mother’s immigrant life that starts off with her leaving her young son in the homeland, promising him that she would come back for him after “a year or two” and telling him that “we will be together again” and which they did. She promises him to send the money for his needs, after telling him that the road to an exile’s life now beckons, and saying, “I will send some money for your needs/ Some dollars for your upkeep/ So that in the currency of our dreams/ You will remember that I had to leave.”/ This maternal talk segues into the story of a boy having gotten to Hawaii together with his younger sister. We see them both being herded to school, taken care of by other people, sometimes fending for themselves, with the “barok” taking on a surrogate father role to his younger sibling, his sister. We see the siblings growing up together as if the shadow of each other. The boy, now a young man reflecting on what had happened between him and his mother now that he has been able to get out of school with his degree, tells us all there is to it in this migrant’s life in Hawaii.
All throughout the four stanzas, we do not hear him; we only see him. But in the final fifth stanza, we come to terms with this surprise, almost like a shock, when he tells her that she was there all right but she was not there: “Mother, you look so old now/ Mother, I have begun to miss you/ A long time ago, a long time since.”/
The horseradish tree—also known locally as marunggay or marunggi—is the subject matter of Remedios Baclig’s “Horseradish Tree Here in Hawaii”. For her, the story of the marunggay’s coming to Hawaii and introduced here as food is the same story of the Ilokanos. She says, “Like us, we who have let it be matured/ This horseradish tree the hand nurtured/ The horseradish and our story are the same/ We both have come to this place, we both came.”/ To wrap up her analogy, she says, “Just like the Ilokano, and the Filipino story/ Our story, is the story of this horseradish tree/ And so this is the proof that tells that we/ Have our roots planted in this land firmly.”/
In “Dagger on My Heart”, Melita Basconcillo talks of parallel experiences that to her marks her life of estrangement: her memory of the homeland as deprivation and her coming to the new land as deprivation as well. In a suggestive language, she talks of domestic violence the persona in her poem goes through as she goes through a rite of closure. She writes, in a voice that is scarred and scared: “To put together this story is not easy/ This image of love in tattered beauty/ I would not want to open up my heart/ The memory of pain tears me up.”/ We understand where the hesitancy springs from through that univocal tone in her final act of naming her pain: “Hardship, violence on my body I had/ My love inflicted me all this brutality/ It is the same love of country gone bad/ To another one it gave his love for me.”/ Here we see the collapse of the reality of the lover and the country, with both unable to give back the love the persona has offered but instead, it is harm and violence she had, the country becoming her man, and her man becoming her country in a sweep of images: “On the other is the love not-love/ His words were rough, his kicks the same/ This is the disciple of purpose so drab/ In the corner we restrain the tear of pain.”/
She finds herself, in the end, in a country that is strange, coming to terms with that estrangement of both her personal and exilic experience. She calls that the onset of “calm of the storm” and her act of “saving of the abundant harvest”, seeing in Hawaii, her new home, he newfound sanctuary, refuge, indeed, home.
Of the many poets who have come from writers’ workshops in Ilokano for seniors, it is Naty Cacho that has shown so much promise. We see in her a sensitive soul able to purge the weight of memory and the weight of the conflicted and conflicting emotions in that memory and turn those emotions into a powerhouse of recollecting, details and all, the path to a new journey in a new land especially when one does that when one is no longer that young. About to retire from her job with a school, she tells in “The Setting of the Sun” of her impending going home to the town of her youth, to the village of her soul: “Now that I have come to reach/ The golden year of my retiring/ I shall go back for that camaraderie/ Join Gumil Hawaii, write my piece.”/ But she is not content with that goal but engages her village, Gusing, into the equation, almost announcing to it that unto its bosom she will go to wait for the “setting of (her) sun”: “Gusing, the place I was born/ The village in the past I bade goodbye/ Now I am here, I have come home/ Share my blessing to remember me by.”/
In a poem to her father, Cacho expresses the contradictions of leaving the homeland, and the ways through which she has pushed for the resolving of such contradictions, one of which is active remembering. She says: “We recall all we left behind/ We recall so we have something to return to/ Like your nurturing love for us/ You who have let us go away.”/ She repeats this sense of commitment to the new land in “The Call of the Footprints” and “Life Here in Hawaii”. She says of her roots implanted firmly on the Hawaiian soil, like a plant that has acclimatized: “Now our footprints/ Are no longer easy to uproot/ In this new Paradise we have walked on/ This new work we have come to do/ We no longer look for another/ This is difficult to do/ If only we use our hands/ Life would be longer.”/ She does not find life in Hawaii far easier than the life she had in the home country, but she consoles herself, knowing that this new land offers them something better: “Even if it were that work is hard/ We do not mind that too much/ If there is that industry/ Confidence as well as courage/ If there is that which dries our sweat/ Ready when we go home at dusk.”/
Using the form of a prayer, Cleo Casino’s “A Prayer in a Strange Place” returns to the image of what the new land offers to the stranger: “Here in this faraway place that we came to/ Avoiding challenges of life we cannot do/ That is how life is, its sinew is that/ So in the end we learn to pray hard.”/ It is in this same energy coming from the spiritual that Letty Suniga Manuel, in “Memory That Will Never Be Forgotten,” confronts the need to call it quits with the memory of a spiritual leader who has left—a priest—and essay a verse of thanksgiving for serving the immigrant community of Ilokanos like her. In that poem, she puts forth the idea that one of the wellsprings of resiliency among the immigrants is their faith, active and alive and always insisting that hope is a virtue that can show the Ilokanos and all immigrants the way to success: “You were energetic in teaching us the songs/ The one of faith that for us exiles are a boon/ Because the soul of those who left the homeland/ Is the same as those who make day as night abound”/.
The concept of the “faraway place”—and that abiding faith in God—informs the poem of Lucia Geronimo, “Joyous Celebration at a Birthday in a Faraway Place”. She particularly asks that the work of fixing the memory of the immigrant by way of the celebration of the native language—“This caring for the words of who we are/ That in the heart and in the soul/ Here, they take refuge, become consecrated”/—is an ethical obligation of those who have been tasked to write that memory, to write the story of the people who have gone away and have found themselves in the same community.
Bernard Collo’s “My Beloved Brought Me to Paradise” retells a common story: that of her beloved taking her to Hawaii on the strength of a family petition, one of the provisions of the immigration laws of the United States that came into effect in 1965. He says: “On the side of my heart’s half/ It’s not only caress I got/ I got the key from her heart/ To a place they call Paradise.”/ In coming here, he settles all scores, and repeats the theme that, indeed, Hawaii is a Paradise: “In this Paradise of exiles/ One like me who has gone away/ Only happiness is with/ I have found my life’s meaning.”/
The Paradise theme and discourse in Ilokano poetics of exile is a constant. It surfaces in many of the success stories of immigrants particularly those who had not known a better life back in the old country. While an immigrant might not find Hawaii, for instance, as something close to a Paradise in the beginning, with its promise of the good life, it remains a place that can easily fall as capable of “becoming-Paradise”. Fely Cristobal’s “Here in this Paradise” says of this as an apt description of Hawaii, a place that has become symbolic of the many Philippine exilic communities in North America: “ Here in this paradise/ Here is where I came to learn/ To weave the energetic words/ So the poems of lines/ I could see once more/ The memory I capitalized on/ So I can go back to/ The dream I invested upon/ In my pursuit/ Of the good life.”/
In “Immigrant, I, and This Hawaii I Have Come To”, Rose Daproza rearticulates the same sense of hope and the allure of the new land’s promise that we have seen in the previous poets such as Cacho, Cristobal, Collo, and Baclig. The immigrant has to be always on its toes, Daproza reminds us, and always on the lookout for the possibilities of that promise by working and working hard, by enduring all that can be endured, and by persevering in the search for something better than what we have known and seen before doing the blind leap to move to a strange ground and there find a way to take root. Noting that in this quest one’s industry is not enough, she accounts the presence and the role of spiritual energy and its capacity to move us and make us resilient: “So that with the help of the Creator/ God would go hand-in-hand with goal/ The heavens finally smiled at us/ And all the events of our lives/ And so are the holy blessings in the hour/ Of weakness, there patiently, there they are.”/
It is this same sense of meaning that we see in Carolina Jacobe’s “Story of a Journey”, with her husband petitioning for her and then joining him afterwards and finding a life together with their children in a home filled with happy memories: “And now is the memory of going away/ And now is the reaping/ This satisfaction in the new land/ This course of our waging.”/
In Fele Mann’s “To You, Lord, I Give Thanks” and “To Triumph is So Sweet”, we see a frank confrontation with a life of estrangement, but like Bala and Geronimo, there is that prayerful combination of gumption and faith, even an endless gratitude to a higher power for the good things that have come the way of the person who has gone away. Mann says that she has reaped the fruits of the good life but she knows as well that these fruits are not for her keeping but for sharing with others particularly those less fortunate. She had to take that journey that she knew too well, “Because of the hardships and empty future/ Like an eagle I flew to another land.”/
It is this same hopeful note that we see in Brigido Daproza’s “My Visions”. He paints a canvass of a community of exiles and immigrant peoples, true. But he reveals to us as well that all is not well in the immigrant community’s front, suggesting that “one day and soon/ In our relationships/ Would that there is love: This comes back to us, this glow/ Like a history that in all time/ Turns into the covenant/ Of our meaningful coming together.”/
Two qualities mark the poetic life of Inay: a deep despair for what is happening such as the iniquities he sees all around him and the rage that goes with that despair. If it were true that there are people who have been marked in life—marked for some mission they need to pursue and then accomplish—perhaps of those is Inay who, before migrating to the United States, had stood against the evil deeds of the Marcos dictatorial regime, an action that cannot be easily said to be the mark of many of the Ilokano poets, who by their acquiescence or by their commission, had helped prop up that regime. Writing now from the perspective of an exile in New Jersey, he transforms that rage and sadness into powerful images that capture the brokenness of every exile, every immigrant, everyone who has become part of the Philippine transnational community. In “The Pigeons of Pershing Park”, “A Letter of a Father from New Hersey to His Child in the Philippines” and “The Picture”, we see layers and layers of that desolation that is almost unfathomable, the sadness of the persona almost like an abyss perpetually seducing the transnational Filipino to sit up and take notice of the emptiness of his soul as a result of his uprooting. He asks that perennial question, “Could I ever return to you?” He does not know, but promises that he would return just the same: “I shall return, yes, to your bosom/ I shall return in the eternity/ of the embrace of the cold afternoon.”/
In that letter to his child left in the Philippines, Inay invites us to a new form of meditation but almost always, we are led into that trap of empathy until we can no longer feel anything but the raw bruises of the poets, his wounds unable to get the healing that they should: “darkness gathers again/ and I am afflicted with sorrow, child/ while snow falls outside/ I put on four layers of clothing/ and yet the chill gets into my bones/ I want to go home/ In the bosom of my dear homeland.”/ We know the reasons—he tells us: “over here, I am like a caged bird”. And yet the persistence, the sense of hope not perishing in the cacophony of dark voices one gets to hear in a strange land: “I hope that I can still search for my life’s meaning/ while I carry this heavy cross/ but where I stop is near”/.
Prodie Gar. Padios’ “erased have been our first footprints” celebrates the success of immigrants, with the metaphor of the memory of their setting food in the new land for the first time now erased by time. There was the alienation but in time, “the first step has been erased/ by the strange wind/ taking them in its arms,/ and this burying by the almighty snow/ of their smile/ one by one including their dreams,/ covered by the erosion/ of the while mountains”/. After the struggle, Padios believes, comes the idea that this is new land promised them a long time ago, with the road they trod on “the road destined”.
On the other hand, George Pagulayan, in “December 25, Coming from Dixon, CA,” continues to jolt us with his cerebral description of a mind afflicted with nostalgia for what were, for all those that he does not and cannot have in the destination country. His recollection of Christmas in a strange land, for instance, contrasts with what he remembers in his hometown, with this memory haunting him, who has to shed the obligatory tear, “a troubled tear of the lonely man.” While he despairs how Christmas is celebrated—or not celebrated—in the land of a foreigner like him, he allows the pain of memory to “arrive in those places, in my heart” and “reside in those place” to make him get out of the pain of missing what was. In “The Sound of Heaven,” he becomes sensitive to those around him, including the “sound of heaven” that is “the sound of steel” in the United States where he is. Is he saying here that this steely sound is the same steely feel one gets to have as he begins to live here, eke out a life, and grow roots?
The power of the nostalgic is what grounds the poetic project of Cresencio Quilpa, a sensibility he began to show in his previous works in Kallautang and elsewhere. In the “Breeze’s Invitation”, he talks about the birth-land’s breeze telling him to come home, which he often does, as a matter of fact. There are reasons for the need to go back, and one of them is the non-negotiable need to reconnect with family one has naturally almost lost in the immigrant’s years of wandering, as can be seen in his poem “In Aimless Wandering.” This theme would be repeated in “Memento of Leaving”, “Each Time I Remember You,” and “This Feeling of Heaviness In Our Parting” and vowing to go back, in the same kind of vow that Cacho had: “My birth-land, I will never forget:/ I remember you each time/ In my mind you are here/ And on my grave forever”/. He takes courage in saying the word to the homeland and to all those he left behind, that he has not forgotten, not a whit: “I have not forgotten/ I have not turned by back:/ No, you are always in my thought/ Even during the days that I am not around”/.
If the reason for going away from the home country is to scratch a life in the new land, then Perlita Sadorra’s poem, “Where I Work for a Living” confirms that. Having come to Hawaii at a young age and having had to start earning a living through the meager skills she had, she felt she owe it to her workplace for having found a work that has seen her through: “All these then I owe to you/ My livelihood, my work I owe/ For me and all the rest/ To us all you gave the best.”/ This is supported by the poem of Pacita Saludes, “Hawaii”. She says there are hardships here as can be gleaned from her poem “Father, Listen to Me,” but this place is “the home of happiness/ If only we persevere in paddling each morning/ The dollar comes to us tame/ All you wish for, it gives in full.”/
But from afar is this: Abril Varilla always looks back, and always looking back in the same intensity as Quilpa and Cacho look back and dream of going back to the homeland, the going back more and more often for Quilpa while it will be for good for Cacho. Varilla looks back and the scene of the everyday assaults him—the same “spectacle of oppression” as can be seen in “There I Am”. He has seen them all—and in his seeing these forms of oppression, he was able to go through a metanoia that now he thinks, he is “Bloodied, wounded but full of joy/ Now I am a person finally with a heart.”/ He recasts, in “Axe”, that feeling of hopeless and writes about that that is one reason why there is that exodus of people looking for life somewhere else: “We were forced to go/ To the four corners of the world;/ Each one had to look for his own corner./
These works are a proof of the imperiled life the Ilokano people had and continues to have as they embark on that journey to new places because the old place—the home country—cannot offer them a ray of hope for a better life. While we cannot discount the fact that the idea of the good life provides a psychic ground to that decision to finally move away, it is still a fact that people move to distant shores to start life anew, go away from the stifling forces of the old life, or pursue a dream that has long eluded them. In the attempt of the exiles, migrants, immigrants, overseas contract workers, and members of the diasporic communities to eke out a life somewhere, we are witness to the urgency of making desperate compromises in order to survive. When triumph has set in, they then resort to what memory can offer them to recoup their lost times, lost lives, lost stories. From the perspective of economic and financial freedom that might come as a result of hard work in the new land, this coming to terms with one’s memory might be one of luxury. And it could be. But here, we are confronted with the gnawing, nagging feeling that it is somehow easier to pack up and go and become a stranger in a new land than staying put and come to terms with the narrative of everyday oppression, deprivation, misery. And yet, we are haunted by a new question: “Can someone who has left the homeland ever really come back?”
Or—is going home ever really possible at all?
There are, of course, many forms of estrangement. One thing is certain in these poems: that the poets always went back to the power of their native language to inaugurate the act of coming to terms with estrangement itself. If it were true that the “language of exile is the only language worth knowing” according to Julia Kristeva (cited by Smith 1996: 5), then certainly, the Ilokano poets know where the gate to home is.
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