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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

entry arrow10:32 PM | Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas Talks About the Catalogue of Mementos in Edith Lopez Tiempo's 'Bonsai'

First we begin with "Bonsai," perhaps the best known and most-loved poem by the National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo:

All that I love
I fold over once
And once again
And keep in a box
Or a slit in a hollow post
Or in my shoe.

All that I love?
Why, yes, but for the moment—
And for all time, both.
Something that folds and keeps easy,
Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,
A roto picture of a beauty queen,
A blue Indian shawl, even
A money bill.

It’s utter sublimation,
A feat, this heart’s control
Moment to moment
To scale all love down
To a cupped hand’s size,

Till seashells are broken pieces
From God’s own bright teeth,
And life and love are real
Things you can run and
Breathless hand over
To the merest child.

Rowena writes me today:

I just spent the afternoon with a scholar from DLSU [Bam Pe] who's doing a biography of Mom, and needed to interview her and me, as a part of her research. So I guess I'm still in that family-history groove even as I write this.

I glanced with interest at your exegesis of Mom's "Bonsai" -- which has turned out to be her best-known poem because of its emotional accessibility. As you, and other readers, have perhaps noted about Mom's work, much of her poetry -- especially the earlier stuff -- tended to be dense and cerebral. Among her poems in the first volume, "Tracks of Babylon," my personal favorite -- and that of the committee that chose her to be the first Elisabeth Luce Moore Distinguished Asian Professor -- was a poem whose lyricism was quite distinct from the other weightily intellected poems in that volume. I'm referring to "Mid-Morning for Sheba," which, if you and your students are not familiar with it, is well worth looking up and learning.

Following are some personal references embedded in the imagery of "Bonsai." It's absolutely not necessary to know "what Mom meant" when she chose those objects as signifiers of "all [I] love." Objects, really, that had meaning for her as mementoes of family joy and pain. (I note that in the analysis you quote from Myrna, there is some speculation about the personal importance of those objects.) Well, here is the background, straight from one who was right there when the poem was written:

... "son's note" refers to a letter full of anger and resentment that my brother had written to my parents, when he was being chastised from some misdeed he had committed, and Don set fire to my father's books, and wrote a letter to "the man in the red car" ... meaning Dad, who was identified with the red Ford Falcon that was our family sedan for years. As far as I know, that's the only letter my brother ever wrote our parents, growing up or after he'd left home.

... "Dad's one gaudy tie" is a necktie in loud colors that some of Dad's students had given him as a birthday present (and which Mom apparently had mixed feelings about; Dad never wore it).

... the "Indian shawl" was a gift brought to Mom from India, in blue-and-gold embroidery, by their old teacher from Iowa, Paul Engle, when he was on a Rockefeller tour of Asia and he stopped by Dumaguete to visit the Writers' Workshop across the world, which his students Ed and Edith had grown from the Iowa "seed corn" that they're brought to Silliman from the University of Iowa. It was a gift much treasured for its symbolic import, as well as for its inherent value.

... the "roto picture of a young queen" is ... yours truly, a reference to my salad days as Hara sa Lalawigan.

So there you have it, the inside story behind the objects in "Bonsai." And if anyone ever comes upon these facts and finds them useful in the literal understanding of this much-loved poem ... well, the story came from me.

One of my own life's greatest treasures is the time when Mom and I were asked to lecture at Ateneo. (I think it was there where I gave the very first version of "My Parents' Child.") When we were done, they asked her to recite or read a poem, and asked her to do "Bonsai." There was absolute silence in that large lecture hall as she opened the book and read it.

I looked around the fully-packed hall, where some of the students were overflowing into the hallway, sitting on the floor or looking in from the windows. (And this was before she was conferred as National Artist!)

As Mom was reading the poem aloud, all the lips of the audience were moving silently along with the words she was reading. All of them in the audience knew that poem by heart.

Thanks, Ma'am Wena, for sharing!

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