Is poetry a potent enough protest to move the political needle? In other cultures—the Middle East comes to mind—poetry is fundamental. In a recent article in the BBC, somewhat controversially entitled “Why I became a jihadist poetry critic”, Elisabeth Kendall is quoted as “Anybody who’s spent time in the Middle East knows how important poetry is. Any tin-pot taxi driver in Cairo can recite poetry.” But in English, or in East Asia? One has to think that “Games of Thrones” metaphors carry more weight.
But Alfred A Yuson and Gémino H Abad have put this to the test with a new anthology of protest poetry specifically for—and about—the Philippines. “Our country today is in crisis,” writes Abad in his Foreword. Yuson writes in his relatively lengthy Introduction discussing the genesis of the anthology that protest poetry arose almost organically using the Internet which “was quick to become an open venue for Filipino poets”; several of the poems in the collection were first “published” on Facebook. The result, Yuson writes, “is the poets’ response to what is happening in our country—from the subtle to the outraged.” He recognizes that this poetic protest against “the cavalier disregard of human rights and lives” faces an uphill climb in face of “a majority that shares in the hubris of blind power.”
As in all collections, some poems in Bloodlust will be more to some readers’ liking than others. This is to some extent an “instant book”, timing being critical to its mission. Much of the poetry is immediate; the resulting rawness can be powerful, but not all entries are likely to be poems for the ages. And of course, the poems’ primary audience is Filipinos, for whom the issues are palpable: it might be hard for international readers to feel other than voyeuristic.
But there are a good number of poems that stand-out regardless of why and how a reader comes to the collection. One of these is Cirilio F Bautista’s “When Times Go Bad”, which starts evocatively
As far as shoes can go
down corridors without salt and pepper,
I think of trains quiet and solid like eternity,
I have a ticket to nowhere …
In my knapsack an ossuary,
on my lips a constant prayer —
that’s all I have between the darkness
and the croaking voice of this republic.
There are, as might be expected, many mentions of EJKs—an acronym I hadn’t known, but which stands for “extra-judicial killings”. Some, like Luisa A Igloria’s “Extrajudicial Ghazal”, discuss these head on and rather brutally:
Daily, the toll rises. Cradled by the ones who love them,
the bodies sprawl in blood, on the streets, as the sky darkens.
Others, such as George Deoso’s “Her New Church”, approach the matter more obliquely:
My mother built a new Church,
setting aside the old one like vegetable
skins, building another out of the dead
bodies peppering the streets.
The anthology includes some poems in Tagalog; these will unfortunately be inaccessible to most English readers, although some come with translations, through which the feel of the original came be discerned. For example, Marra Pl Lanot’s “Ang Bala”:
Kung makakapagsalita lang ang bala,
Malamang ang sigaw niya ay:
“Bakit ko? …”
If only the bullet could talk
Most probably it would shout:
“Why me? …”
The title is something of a misnomer, since there are only a few of what Yuson in his Introduction calls “vintage poems” from earlier periods (and these unfortunately not so identified in the body of the anthology) . One of these, however, is the memorable “Brave Woman” by Grace R Monte de Ramos:
I am a mother of sons.
Two joined the army when they were young;
There was not enough money for school,
They had no skills for jobs in foundries
And factories, and it was easy to sign up
And learn how to handle a gun.
For all of the anthology’s well-justified anger, there remains the positive sign that it could be published and discussed in the press. As to whether poetry can be a force in politics, Abad and Yuson have given us a controlled experiment. It will be interesting to see the results.