THE GODS WE WORSHIP LIVE NEXT DOOR by BINO A. REALUYOREBECCA MABANGLO-MAYOR Reviews
The Gods We Worship Live Next Door by Bino Realuyo
(The University of Utah Press, 2006)
The Gods We Worship Live Next Door by Bino Realuyo won the 2005 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, selected by Grace Shulman, distinguished professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY. Before reading Realuyo’s collection, I was unaware of either the contest or the poet honored by the prize. In researching for this review, however, I came to a more nuanced understanding of Realuyo’s poetic and political depth as revealed in this collection.
Schulman, in her comment quoted on the back cover, praises Realuyo as possessing “that rare gift of transforming modern horror into art.” At first I was taken aback by this description since I align modern horror more with genre fiction than literary poetry. Horror in The Gods We Worship Live Next Door, however, takes the form of revealing the effects of social, political, and economic disparities and makes these complex and often cerebral concepts concrete in the lives and bodies of Realuyo’s characters. According to Amardeep Singh, Assistant Professor at Lehigh University, Ali did something similar with his work, as he “blended the rhythms and forms of the Indo-Islamic tradition with a distinctly American approach to storytelling.” In addition, Singh notes that Ali’s poems were not “abstract considerations of love and longing, but rather concrete accounts of events of personal importance (and sometimes political importance). He was also intensely interested in geography, and often blended the landscapes of America (especially the southwest) with those of his native Kashmir.”
Realuyo’s collection is similar in nature as revealed by the division of the first half of the collection into four historically defined parts: I) Diaspora: Five Million; II) Spain (1565-1898); III) USA (1898-1946); IV) Japan (World War II: 1942-1946). Each poem is grounded historically and provides the reader with the context necessary to gain a deeper meaning from each poem. Even as it can be easy to dismiss the suffering in our world due to the sheer volume of information battering us on a daily basis, protest poetry can be overlooked as polemic and sentimental. Realuyo does not let the reader off the hook, however, by giving us the specific names, dates, and places integral to the poem’s message. The footnotes and epigraphs give the reader unfamiliar with the history of the Philippines and its interaction with world powers the chance to step into each piece with better understanding.
Realuyo begins the process of bringing the reader into his particular artistic view through the title of the collection: The Gods We Worship Live Next Door. Taken from a poem by the same name by Filipino poet and fictionist Bienvenido Santos, the title evokes ideas of sacredness and community in an ironic fashion. Gods come to dwell with humans, residing in homes clustered suburban-style. I imagine backyard barbecues and block parties between dieties. I imagine Desperate Housewives-style intrigues and martini lunches. But the next door neighbors are the Joneses "we" try to keep up with, and Realuyo and Santos deftly point to mental and physical effects of colonization, where the colonized never feels part of the neighborhood, and instead serve as wannabes among powers capable of changing destiny at a whim.
The first four sections of Realuyo’s collection point to the varied methods and effects of colonization. The first section, set in the present, illustrates how power, desire, and poverty have led to the globalization of suffering, humans have been commodified, and choice becoming an illusion. The next three sections reveal that this colonization/globalization process has been ongoing for centuries and alludes to the fact that even now the process is being repeated in other countries to other people, demonstrating that we have learned very little from the aftermath of First World foreign policies.
Section IV ends with the most personally poignant poem titled "From a Filipino Death March Survivor Whose World War II Benefits Were Rescinded by the US Congress" in 1946, dedicated to the poet’s father who died in 2003. A twenty line list poem, it reminded me of my grandfather who joined the Philippine Scouts at the age of 19, fought the Japanese during the first months of the invasion, survived the Bataan Death March, managed to rejoin the Scouts at the end of the War, and went on to receive full retirement benefits as a member of the U.S. Army. I am left questioning why Augusto Roa Realuyo’s story was so radically different from Arcadio Mabanglo’s story, how it could be that Truman rescinded benefits to so many men, some still alive today, even after all their sacrifices and suffering. Shocking the reader out of complacency and turning the reader to questioning is one of the strengths of Realuyo’s work.
The second half of the collection is divided into two sections: V) Witness and VI) The Gods We Worship Live Next Door: a poem in eleven parts. Witness is just as it is subtitled, a series of poems which witness the everyday, but the very title calls the reader to Witness, to stand and declare that the events presented in the poems happened, to not sit benignly by and click tongues about the ills of the world. Even the humorous The Pepper-Eater gives the reader a glimpse into a character with a unique viewpoint on the world, an observer and participant in all that is spicy and hot and difficult to comprehend inside and outside social orders. Section VI is magical realism at its best, lush fabulism where Realuyo pulls out all the stops and takes the reader as deeply into his artistic vision as possible. Every poem preceding Section VI has prepared the reader for the final poem and Realuyo deftly pulls the strings of all his arguments and images into a set of tight, evocative images and unforgettable characters in the piece.
By the end of reading The Gods We Worship Live Next Door, I was left parched and thirsty. I went back through the collection thinking that this was because Realuyo had used thirst as a running thematic image. I found Buckets of thirst…Aged by years of thirst…(always drinking water)…pulp fed to thirst, after a long day…whose thirst is like yours… he has always been thirsty… But then well dried up, and with it, the easy way to read Realuyo’s work. I’m left thirsty, then, because the longing embedded into this collection is palatable, visceral, and touches on the instinct to survive.
Ali once described the poetic form ghazal in which a poet establishes a scheme, then can become a slave of that scheme, resulting in a poetic tension of a slave trying to master the master. Realuyo’s collection, with its ability to hold up a mirror to history and memory, to hold the reader’s gaze unflinchingly, and to bring the neighbor out of his panoptic temple and into the full disclosure, is a fitting legacy of Ali’s life work and a tribute to the survival of so many unheard voices.
Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor received her MA degree in English with honors from Western Washington University in 2003 for her thesis “Notes from the Margins,” a mixed work of memoir and fiction. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in the Katipunan Literary Magazine and the online magazine Haruah. In addition, she has served as a freelance writer and editor for several trade journals. Currently she is working on her first novel, tentatively titled Maganda’s Comb, and she performs regularly as a storyteller in her local area. Her blog is Binding Wor(l)ds Together.