DIWATA by Barbara Jane Reyes
(BOA Editions Ltd, Rochester, N.Y., 2010)
I'm a carpool Mom now! Which is to say, I've run out of time! But I love this book so much I want to shout out about it even if, at this time, I'm unable to do justice to its complexities. So first I'll cheat by cutnpasting the publisher's description of DIWATA by Barbara Jane Reyes as it's a reasonable introduction to the book's themes:
Tagalog is a language spoken by about 22 million people in the Philippines. Diwata is a Tagalog term meaning, “muse.” Diwata is also a term for a mythical figure or being who resides in nature, and whom human communities must acknowledge, respect, and appease, in order to live safely, harmoniously, and prosperously in this world.
In her book Diwata, Reyes uses such Filipino oral tradition devices as meter, repetition and refrain, call and response, incantatory verses which verge on song, and the pantoum (which has Southeast Asian origins). She frames her poems between the Book of Genesis creation story, and the Tagalog creation myth, placing her work somewhere culturally in between both traditions. Also setting the tone for her stories is the death and large shadow cast by her grandfather, a World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor, who has passed onto her the responsibility of remembering. Reyes’ voice is grounded in her community’s traditions and histories, despite war and geographical dislocation.
There are MANY reasons to love this book. For example, one of many highlights for me is "Upland Dance", which at first read came across as a text-dance -- the poem begins
hold arm taut kastoy
flat palm down kastoy
flick wrist so kastoy
"Kastoy" means "like this" and is pronounced (the way it's spelled as) kas-toy. If you read that brief excerpt aloud (and I first pronounced "taut" as "ta-oot" as if I didn't recognize it as English), I think you can glean the rhythm. Anyway, upon finishing my read of the poem, I immediately wanted to suggest to the poet that if she ever read the poem in public, she should be doing so, say, in front of the mike and dancing versus standing behind a podium or lectern. The poem moves far beyond the page and voice and embodies itself! Later, I would discover in the Notes to Poems that the poem was written "after" a 2007 performance by the Ifugao Music and Dance Ensemble performance in San Francisco, which is to say that it's quite an achievement for the poem to exactly match the underlying inspiration, in this case of dance.
Also, this poetry collection has one of the most effective *narrative arc*s I can recall reading from the past hundreds of poetry books I've read recently. The order of the poems is pitch purr-fect, leading to one of the most stellar achievements of the: how it ends. The choice of the last poem, "Aswang," elevated the all of the book into strength, danger and power(!) -- a point worth noting because much of the words are just so lushly beautiful. Lush beauty as in this excerpt from the title poem "Diwata":
A woman's hands make fine threads dance. With needles of carabao horn, of bamboo, she embroiders nameds into silk--serpent ulap scale luna fire lihim gem azul eye liwanag river mariposa light tala--when she weaves these words into the fabric of sky, a charm against foregetting. With ink and thread she draws her own hands pero siempre estas manos desapareces; she weaves enkanto contra palabras vaporosas, poemas contra vacia alma. And when her face begins to resemble the porcelain virgin's face. for this firelight causes much to appear, still she sings: o diwata, your words are our breath! O diwata, our words are our offering to you!
But to be beautiful is often to be stared at -- with the last poem "Aswang," the reader suddenly realizes the reader is also being witnessed: "I am the encroaching wilderness, the bowels of these mountains. / I am the opposite of your blessed womb; I am your inverted mirror. / Guard your unborn children, ...". The reader is being watched .... as in, I am watching you to make sure the wrongs of history will know: Never Again.
So what are we talking about as regards "never again"? For example, from "Pananaghoy"
Bodies disassembled in church courtyards, mango blossom boughs knotted, hewn from roots with dull blades. The moon was blood, and sometimes she'd close her yes. Sometimes so much poetry, prayers on the parched lips of dying men, forced her to hide. Even the barest trees were always good for hiding, and solitary herons' wings swift slicing through cloud. How they'd lacerate sky, and how sky bled, bending in arcs and wisps after the bombs fell. teh stillness terrified us all. And those very veiled women who prayed with rose-scented rosaries opened their legs for so little rice and fish. yes, this, I saw. And with my own eyes, this I see still.
There's a reason why the NOTES include such details as
[The poem] "Duyong 1" uses "salvaged" in the term's Philippine context. Poet and journalist Jose F. Lacaba writes, "As used in the Philippines, the erg 'salvage' and the noun 'salvaging' are the slang equivalents of the terms 'to execute extrajudicially, to assinate' and 'extrajudicial execution, ' terms used by human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International."
It may be a cheesy thing to bring up but I am suddenly reminded of how the Philippines is a consistent source of finalists and winners of many of the world's international beauty pageants. But Barbara's achievement is in politicizing -- or perhaps more accurately, indigenizing -- and thus expanding normative definitions of Beauty. After all, just check out the book's cover:
Doesn't this image -- featuring the collage/painting of Christian Cabuay -- just exude power? Confident and brave enough to turn one's back. Not a face shown, and yet the presence of a charisma, a Beauty. Last but not least, the initially unknown text tattooed on the body--a text known only to the one who would care to make the commitment to get to know the subject and bespeaking how the power of Reyes' poems surface because they first were known-felt well within the Body--a body from a difficult History (as a woman, as a silenced majority, as a Filipino) and yet which perseveres to make her presence known.
Y'all get the point, right? This is fresh poetry. She stands there. She's not going to be the one to come to you and introduce herself. But it'll be worth your journey to approach her, to get to know her. She, after all, also comes from poems whose seductions your intellect would welcome, a poem like (here I open the book at random for a random sample) this excerpt from "Eve's Aubade":
Let rainbows arc and sprout from the base of my tongue and into your cupped palms, before the saltwater fishponds teem quicksilver, deep blue, and sunrise hues, before the aqueducts and irrigation ditches are sculpted into damp earth, before these mango groves are hewn, before these gravel paths ripen with fallen fruit. Before we part, breathe your song into me.
Remain by my side as wind deity, as word, as eyes bright with both dusk and amber. Remain with me so that we may keep vigil, both of us before morning's honeyed light filters through fire escapes. In our vigil, let there be only witness, and I will offer you stillness rising into unfettered dawn. Here I will weave a dreaming of lovemaking bodies' fire and salt. Here, I will teach your hands to weave crescent moon into ocean current, serpent hiss into river's rush. Here I shall weave a selvedge of we.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010) is reviewed by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE, William Allegrezza over at p-ramblings HERE and by Leny M. Strobel at Moria Poetry HERE. Mr. Harp also reviews her NOTA BENE EISWEIN over HERE. If the former book gets you curious, please note that its publisher Marsh Hawk Press is supporting a fundraiser for Haiti relief by giving a free copy if you order at least $15 worth of booklets through the Hay(na)ku for Haiti fundraiser; as THE THORN ROSARY is priced retail at $19.95, this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.