Monday, February 12, 2007



Believe & Betray: New and Collected Poems by Cirilo F. Bautista
(De La Salle University Press, 2006)

[First published in The Philippine Star, Manila, Aug. 21, 2006, Arts & Culture Section Editor, Millet Mananquil]

Going beyond words

Late last month, the Department of Literature of De La Salle University, Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center, and the DLSU Press jointly launched Dr. Cirilo F. Bautista’s latest book, Believe & Betray: New and Collected Poems, with an Introduction, ”A Lyric Sense of History,” by Marjorie M. Evasco. Conceived by Brother Andrew Gonzalez, FSC, before he left us, the book is said to be a festschrift, or a collection of works published in honor of a scholar.

A scholar this distinguished author certainly is, although I think more of him as an excellent poet, first and foremost, as well as a terrific fiction and essay writer, critic, editor, magazine columnist, painter, semiologist, professor of literature, and mentor to a continuum of younger writers.

That is why, as a man of many hats, many parts himself, Bautista had the temerity to assume the voice of Dr. Jose P. Rizal in his magnum opus, The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus, written over two decades and completed in 1998.

On the strength of that trilogy alone, I have always thought that Cirilo F. Bautista deserves all possible accolades from what should be a very grateful nation, including perhaps a statue of himself somewhere in between Arsenio Lacson’s, on a bench reading a newspaper, and the pair featuring Ninoy Aquino and Evelio Javier on the opposite side of Roxas Blvd.

Why, that would place Cirilo right on the center island. Very good. It would be similar to Don Chino Roces holding a crucifix aloft, right athwart Mendiola Bridge. A bronze Cirilo would not suffocate from all the fumes of Manila’s Baywalk traffic on weekends. He could be holding up a sheet of paper, on which may be inscribed some short verse, in ironic contrast to his epic narrative genius stature.

Of course passersby might think he stands there as a symbol of the Filipino waving a visa application form in the direction of the U.S. Embassy. No matter. If they jaywalk and come close, they will be able to read the text on the sheet, make out its title: “Post-Prandial Soliloquy: or, Dessert Song.” Why, if they clamber up the base of Bautista’s statue, they may even get to read the two-stanza poem that challenges the famous Manila Bay sunset:

“I was almost at Home in Heaven/ Until one Day I did not see/ A Sunrise or a Poem/ Performing just for Me.// So back I Flew to Earth,/ And took my Chance at Dying — / For here I have the Hues to Wear/ And Words to Hide my Lying.”

Uncharacteristic of Bautista’s poems, one might say. But then this erudite, constantly evolving master of language and experimenter in words cannot be stereotyped, I should counter.

His new mega-collection proves this beyond doubt, beyond words. Here displayed together are actually four collections: the new Believe & Betray that sees fresh publication, and three earlier ones that have long been out of print: The Cave; Charts; and Boneyard Breaking.

From the earliest, The Cave, to the newest, this festschrift is indeed a festival buffet of Bautista’s lyric poetry, the formidable foundation to his epic trilogy, and an invaluable instructional manual for all Filipino poets and lovers of poetry, from National Artists to our aspiring wunderkind.

I can only share tips of Bautista’s iceberg -- as samples of the cool confidence and poise with which he plays, nay, toys, with English.

“I have learned the subtle virtue of regret,/ how it can ride a mad horse and not fall off.” This starts off “What Rizal Told Me” — a wisdom poem couched in a conversation the national hero has with his possible doppelganger. The poem ends thus: “Each day I refute the facts with images/ of seawater assaulting the rocks./ History is the other side of regret.”

That poem, the quoted excerpt of which might also be a candidate for the sheet in bronze on the boulevard by the bay, attracting broken sunlight, is in the new collection, together with many other luminous entries on matters otherwise as mundane as “Just Another Ordinary Day” (“Every morning I wake up/ astonished that I’m still alive./ A poet, after all, has no right to live/ except as a metaphor/ in a tyrant’s dream….”).

Or a flight itinerary, “San Francisco-Vancouver-Los Angeles” (”… For it is all a form of government/ this conscious flight to nothing as though/ nothing requires all the subtle and covert/ confabulations of mankind…”)

Or national consciousness turned into art, and not just literary history, by an artist supreme, not just a literary historian, as with “Bonifacio in a Prospect of Bones” (“… I had neither treasury nor art/ to subvert the stealers of my heart:/ even my violence was not enough/ to redeem my terrorized bones — / it left no bloodstains on broken stones.”), and “The New Philippine National Anthem” (“… If we sing of your glory in spite of our wounds,/ if we light candles that fail in the wind,/ it is because you force us to hide behind our frailties.// But I will always love you, Philippines,/ because in the dead of night, when the enemies/ creep closer to the gate to break the bones of our hate,/ when the pale men with foreign tongues pillage// your mountains and meadows for minerals of money,/ money, money, when we are broke and hungry and cold,/ you keep us together with the warmth of your voice/ whispering such word as ‘Peace,’ such word as ‘Freedom.’”)

Ah, Cirilo. Not yet, Rizal, not yet.

But hey, you, everyone: buy this book. Or beg, steal and borrow. Let us betray ourselves, before we believe.

* * *

Alfred A. Yuson, nicknamed Krip, has authored 22 books: novels, poetry collections, short fiction, essays, children’s stories and biographies, apart from having edited many other titles, including literary anthologies and travel and corporate coffee-table publications. His distinctions include the SEAWrite (SouthEast Asian Writers) Award from Thai royalty for lifetime achievement. He has been elevated to the Hall of Fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippines’ most prestigious literary distinction. Yuson contributes a weekly literature and culture column to a national broadsheet, The Philippine Star, and a fortnightly column to the weekly Philippine Graphic magazine. He teaches fiction and poetry at Ateneo de Manila University, where he held the Henry Lee Irwin Professorial Chair.


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