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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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Friday, April 22, 2016

entry arrow7:30 PM | Myrna Peña-Reyes on Edith Lopez Tiempo's Iconic Poem + Music and a Reading

Here's Edith Tiempo's "Bonsai":

      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 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.

Here's a reading of the poem by Arlene Delloso...

And here's a bit of music inspired by her work. This is "Bonsai," an art song composed by the College of Performing and Visual Arts' Elman Caguindangan and performed on the piano by Ricardo Cabezas Abapo Jr., based on Mom Edith's most famous poem. [Instrumental only. Lyrics are the lines from the poem itself.] This was commissioned for and first performed in the Pagpupugay: A Tribute to National Artist Edith L. Tiempo held at the Luce Auditorium in Silliman University, a program co-presented by the University of the Philippines' Likhaan Institute of Creative Writing, many years ago.

And here's poet Myrna Peña-Reyes on the poem:

For poets and writers, all words spring from and lead back to our basic universal concerns: love, life, death. All other matters that engage the heart and mind are variations on these. What impresses us as readers is the individual poet’s skill in presenting his or her personal take on these broad concepts—the particularization, the personalization, the concretizing of the universal, which gives wisdom and pleasure.

In “Bonsai” the poet shows us how those huge concepts of love and life can be “scaled down/ To a cupped hand’s size,” making these concepts more comprehensible and, therefore, capable of nurturing us and being nurtured by us. That the quoted lines occur near the middle of the poem is rightly so for they constitute the focus, the center, the heart of the poem.

The poet accomplishes her task by employing the compact and rich language of poetry where one word, a single image, can suggest a wealth of associations. The tangible physical objects or images then assume a higher significance, their symbolic or metaphorical interpretation that bring out the poem’s ultimate meaning.

In naming common objects from everyday existence that reflect what she “loves,” the poet makes concrete for us those broad abstract concepts, those big sounding general and amorphous words: love and life. The named objects represent various facets of love and life: the private and personal, the public and playful, the artistic and new, the commercial and practical, the past and present. Consider these ordinary objects and the associations they summon up:

A son’s note—private and personal, a reaching out to a fellow being, child to mother; unlike a letter, a note is raw, unrehearsed, extemporaneous; a moment’s impulse, emotionally honest. By not specifying what the note says, the poet makes the image richer in possibilities: a useful piece of information, a promise, an expression of thanks, tenderness; perhaps disappointment, hurt, anger—the other faces of love and life.

A husband’s one gaudy tie—just one, no more; public, playful, perhaps bad taste or an independent mind challenging tradition; stubbornness, fun-loving silliness, perhaps color blindness—a person’s strengths and weaknesses, his human-ness.

A roto picture of a young queen—photos, a record of what was, stir up memories that recreate, bring back to life what used to be; the past contemplated in the present: former triumphs and pleasures; health, beauty, youth in its prime before bodily decrepitude; the stages and the passage of love and life.

An Indian shawl—a man-made work of art, the artistic and perhaps new; travel, the fascinating, the beautiful; the foreign and familiar: something to keep one warm as love, indeed, warms.

Money bill— Who doesn’t love it?—the commercial and practical without which the world wouldn’t turn; a “necessary evil” that can also be a kindness and a life-saver.

These ordinary everyday objects representing love and life, we are told the poet folds over more than once to hide away in secret, safe places. The act of “folding over once and once again” while suggesting the special attention and care paid to them also infers that the poet doesn’t just put them away for good, but takes them out now and then to refresh, perhaps re-evaluate her appreciation of them as representations of “love.” That she hides them in safe places suggests not only their great value but a sense of privacy associated with them, as things we hold and feel deeply about are oftentimes regarded.

A box—something purposely constructed, the most common place in different cultures for storing things, universal. The expression “to box” means to encompass, to bring to a required form, to categorize, as the poet classifies and stores in her heart and mind the treasured objects representing specific values to her.

A hollow post—is our native Filipino safe box, a sturdy part of our homes; secret, secure but also vulnerable to termites and fire, as love and life are strong and fragile; a hollow section of bamboo brings to mind our Philippine creation myth: the first man and woman, the beginnings of life and love.

A shoe—the hidden object is worn intimately next to one’s body, the feet, our body’s support, foundation that enable us to go places: protection, self-sufficiency, independence.

These secret hiding places are metaphorically the poet’s heart and mind which are engaged in translating the abstract Universal into its concrete particulars. This act is “a feat,” involving control, skill and endurance. “It’s utter sublimation,” that is, a process that constantly improves or refines till the physical realities become metaphorical significances.

The poet’s scaled-down versions of love and life are analogous to bonsai, a deliberately miniaturized, but mature, plant; a dwarf tree that blossoms and fruits; complete in itself although representative of a larger entity, as “…seashells are broken pieces/ From God’s own bright teeth.” Shells record our planet’s life that started in the oceans. Teeth, a most intimate part of one’s body, are an essential aid in sustaining life. To put teeth into means to make something effective, inferring firmness, steadfastness, resoluteness.

For in the end, all—broad conceptual concerns or their smaller physical representations, animate or inanimate things—partake of the nature, the divinity of their Creator, the original source of Life who is both Idea and Form.

“Bonsai” is Edith L. Tiempo’s Ars Poetica. (Appropriately, Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” was the poem Mom Edith used to introduce the Modern Poetry class she taught in 1958, the first class I had under her.) “Bonsai” is an excellent demonstration of the craft of poetry, how with great economy of language and precise choice of imagery such a short piece can suggest a wealth of meanings, suggestion being at the heart of modern poetry.

By dipping into the well of our mutual everyday concerns and experience, large and small, for her material, and through her perceptive insights revealed through a consummate poetic skill, Edith L. Tiempo makes “life and love real things” for us, “hands them”—our shared humanity—“breathless” over to us for “the moment and for all time.”

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