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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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Sunday, May 02, 2010

entry arrow3:16 PM | J. Neil C. Garcia and Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas on Edith Lopez Tiempo's "Bonsai"

[Read this post first]

J. Neil C. Garcia writes:

Poems are strange in that they are intimately intersubjective, especially when they are read across a significant “sweep” of time. Contrary to the evidence, they really do have their own agency as works of art, and this becomes all the clearer when one engages them at different points in one’s life: because poems are built as much on absence as on presence, they are never completely exhausted in any one reading. And so, they open up and offer distinct entry-points to one’s earnest inquiry, each of them revealing the deep personal space—we might also say, the spiritual distance—that one has traveled since the last visit. We often speak of writers as companion spirits, but I also think it’s possible to speak of companion poems, those that accompany us as we plug along our respective paths; those that (as the local proverb counsels) bid us turn around and look back, every now and then, lest we lose not only our way, but also, alas, our very self (because without hindsight there is no memory, and where there is no memory, there is no sameness from one moment to the next; which is to say, there is no identity).

This is one of the few Filipino poems that I can say have accompanied and “stayed” with me through the various and often tortuous periods in my continuing apprenticeship to the written word. The lived moment in the poem, which this annotation now so wonderfully affirms, was what struck me about it, from the very start. Already, then, I wondered what the poem’s "antecedent scenario" (Vendler's terminology) might be: what is the experience that prompts this speech (which is the same thing as the poem) into being? In particular, where (at least emotionally speaking) might the speaker be, at the exact moment that she (a mother, a wife, a believer) begins to speak? These questions serve to accentuate the fact that art, while merely an imitation of life, is nonetheless also rooted inexorably in it... up to now, these are the questions i still ask my students to answer for themselves, before they can credibly recite—actually, before they can endeavor to do anything at all to—this poem. Just now, I'm remembering that my interest in the representational power of this text coincided with my fascination with its concise and paradoxical use of imagery, most astonishingly exemplified, to my mind, in the simultaneously mundane and divine metaphor of sea shells as “God’s own bright teeth"... needless to say, from the get-go “bonsai” struck me as referring wonderfully to sundry objects and realities in the world (ah, the inventory of loved mementos!) which, like the singular poem that it is, it not only captures in the “best words" arranged in the "best order,” but also thereby generously transfigures…

And still, after all these years, the poem keeps giving and giving, conversing with this restless reader and bringing to light not only its own interleaving, latent, and undiscovered meanings, but also, more surprisingly, his own implicit understanding... Given, I suppose, my recent interest in the self-reflexive gestures that constitute all art, when I read this poem nowadays I no longer just see the life that the words encourage me to interiorly, as it were," visualize." I still see the representational content of the poem, true; but I also now see the words that are the poem, I see the poem as a poem, constituted not of any pregiven but of a willed kind of painstakingly fashioned language (just now I’m thinking not only of the careful arrangement of lines and stanzas, but also of the poet’s unusual and possibly culturally resonant use of the transitive form of the verb “run,” in the poem’s last strophe, that itself seemingly runs the poem along to its memorable conclusion), referring to elements within itself, referring to the idea of its own making, referring to "bonsai" not only as an external and aegis-forming reference but also as the very structure that the poem itself mimics (for look at how figuratively vast and yet how small and unassuming the poem is!)—to the bonsai that the poem itself is!

So, yes, nowadays, when I read/teach this poem, the poem is at once the frame as well as the picture that it continues to beautifully show—pointing all at once to life and to the idea of a life. In particular (thanks to my recently acquired knowledge of oriental art) pointing to the aesthetic precept or theory, identifiably japanese, of wabi-sabi: the “beauty” of the imperfect, the partial, and the fugitive, which is what art/poetry, finally is; which is what we all, finally, are.

Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas responds:

Thank you, Neil, for your most thoughtful assessment of the self-reflexive element implicit in the act of writing. I, too, am a believer in the notion of "absence as presence" as a powerful force in writing.

What is poetry, after all, but an expression of the human wish to enact, and give shape to, "all I love"? Like you, I have been more interested of late in the interplay between word and thought, especially in the transaction going on between the individual brain and written language. Here's a poem I wrote, oh maybe a decade ago. I don't write long poems any more, so it's not representative of what I do these days, but here it is. Not counting the compound words, in a hundred words or less ... a bonsai of one of my own life's enduring mysteries:

The Lost Letter

I write to find it.
I'd seen it in my newborn
Daughter's eyes,
Like looking into
Deep space, deciphering
The dazzle of the infinite-before-life.

I learn a word, ylem, primordial
Substance all elements derive from.
(Salt, amino acids, water:
Tears.) We shed protein when we weep.

The Ur-song drifts
Around sleep's edges,
Encoded in DNA: that hidden letter,
The body's cryptograph unlocking
Words, which ride through optic currents,
Liquid, electrical, being
Read. Symbol to word,

Loops-and-whorls on fingertips
Are secret maps, ideographs, a lost
Alphabet transcribing
Humanness, as on bark
From the tree
Yggdrasil, where
Our names were
First inscribed.

J. Neil C. Garcia responds:

Thanks, Rowena, for this unexpected boon! Life itself is the mystery, and as long as we are inside it we cannot be expected to fully know what it is. And yet, and yet... There are these "intimations" (Wordsworth's entirely fortunate and enduring term) that glimmer in all the dappled and fugitive shapes that surround us... We have another baby in the family, my sister's newborn, and it's endlessly fascinating to think of "where" she is, just now that she still exists outside language, just now that she still doesn't have the self-consciousness that language bequeaths to (sometimes, I'm inclined to say, inflicts upon) the subject, that precisely "selves" the self in a sentence in which the speaker and the spoken cannot ever fully coincide... As I tell my students, channeling Lacan, the "I" who speaks in our discourse cannot exhaust what we are; cannot make us fully present, despite our well-meant faith that it does (in the first place, unlike the person who inscribes, once written down the inscription cannot quite change, cannot quite die). This makes for a truly humbling "lesson" for any poet (whose claim to the examined life is, after all, nothing if not the "physical" medium that language is)... But then, as this present poem shows, perhaps poets already understand this basic inadequacy—this irremediable gap between sign and reference, between sign and concept, between sign and sign, between sign and sign-maker, which is probably why they choose to write poetry to begin with. Poetry, a "making" in which presence is nothing if not absence (and vice-versa); a willed human act which gestures, again and again, to the silence from which everything first stirred into existence, to the immemorial which underlies the historical, the knowable, the known...

On the other hand, despite registering this possible "disenchantment," there is an act of faith in this poem, that I feel links it most vitally to "Bonsai." Mom Edith's famous poem insists upon the power of intelligence to capture, shape and discipline the makeshift moment, and yet it concludes on the memorable note that human affection is, quite possibly, the only way this "beautiful fugacity" can be undone (or, at the very least, invalidated)... I am referring, here, to the image of a mother—whose consciousness unfolds in interesting and complex and even mythic movements throughout the poem—regarding, simply and lovingly, the eyes of her child.

This vacillation between the acceptance of the "limit" imposed upon us by culture, history, and/or language (a position espoused most vigorously, in the poetic scene at least, by the American language guys) and the considered (and recalcitrant) rejection of it is what has come to characterize, to my mind, the present preoccupation of many poets. This may have something to do with—among other things—the increasingly indispensable role that academic critical theory has come to play in the education and training of many poets who, nowadays, are required to "do theory" alongside their creative work. Time and again, I have had occasion to express my own take on this all-too-real contradiction, most visibly summarized in that strange hybrid entity of the "poet-critic"... Back in 2009, after spelling out the irreconcilable differences between these two positions (at a panel discussion in the Ateneo de Manila), I attempted to articulate my own argued understanding of the issue... I suppose, just now, I can say that I still provisionally believe in the way I originally phrased this uneasy "detente," back then: "I don’t think poetry transcends culture; I don’t think poetry transcends language; I don’t think poetry transcends history. Poetry beautifully encodes the desire for transcendence. This, for me, is good enough."

I ended my "spiel" in that panel discussion with these words. When I said this then I think I was simply trying to articulate my position regarding the urgent question of freedom in art.... Reading all about theory in our classes—in other words, being also, in a manner of speaking, "critics"—makes us supremely aware of just how "determined" all our actions, thoughts, and even "imaginations" are by all these inexorable social forces that surround and yes, constitute and construct us. And yet, despite this "fatal" knowledge, we who are now effectively "poet-critics" still create works of art, still write our stories and poems... Obviously, knowing what we know, and coming from we come from, we can no longer endorse the old liberal humanist—specifically, romantic—argument that art transcends materiality. However, while it's true that the last one hundred years of merciless social critique has effectively unmasked freedom as an illusion, it has not by the same token made the necessity of this illusion well, less "necessary" in our world. What's left, after a century of being disabused of the idea that we are essentially free? The answer is simple: what remains, despite everything, is the desire for freedom. Poets/artists precisely remain valuable and irreplaceable in our world because they are the only ones who can "embody" this necessary longing most beautifully...

Again, Rowena and Ian: thanks for these poems, these notes, these altogether lovely bonsai moments.

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