Jose Maria Sison’s poems are suffused with various kinds of imagery, but in these one thread is common – the voice of a poet not only resolved to write good poetry, but also revolting against oppression in all its forms. He thus shares, in Philippine literary history, a place with the likes of Andres Bonifacio, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Carlos Bulosan, Amado V. Hernandez, Eman Lacaba, Lorena Barros, and Romulo Sandoval.
By Alexander Martin Remollino
Recently made available to aficionados of protest poetry is Sa Loob at Labas ng Piitan, Gelacio Guillermo’s Filipino translation of Jose Maria Sison’s anthology Prison and Beyond – which won for him the Southeast Asia WRITE Award in 1986. Published by the Amado V. Hernandez Resource Center (AVHRC), the book was launched last May 25, at a tribute to Sison held at the University of the Philippines (UP) – where the revolutionary leader obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Literature with honors.
Sa Loob at Labas ng Piitan contains both English and Filipino versions of the poems in Prison and Beyond. That way, the reader not only gets the feel of the poems in both languages – he or she also sees how it is possible to translate, as Guillermo was able to do so, from one language to another almost literally without losing a single piece of the work’s essence. For another, international readers can have some help in studying the Filipino language with this book.
The book also has as appendix the poem “Chemistry of Tears,” which is not known to have been previously published.
But more than that, the reader gets from these poems an idea of how Sison – as a writer – has lived his avowed literary conviction. “I think that great literature in different ages in the world and the major works so far written in Philippine literary history assume significance, social and historical, insofar as they are committed to the cause of freedom and they reflect with profound insights the social conditions and the struggle for greater freedom,” Sison said in a message sent to the UP Writers Club when he was still in detention in Fort Bonifacio during martial law.
As founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), Sison was a very hot item on the military list even before martial law was declared in 1972. He would be captured by the military in 1977, imprisoned and subjected to a long ordeal of physical and psychological torture.
With the exception of a few selections from a 1962 volume, Brothers and Other Poems, the pieces in Prison and Beyond were written when the author was behind bars. Sison, denied pens in his first year in jail, at first composed poems in his head as a way of fighting, preoccupying himself, and keeping his sanity. When after a year ball pens were made available to him, he wrote down the poems he had committed to memory and had the bright idea of hiding them in a lining in his cot or in his pocket, for eventual distribution through lawyers and other visitors.
Prison was surely an unforgettable experience for Sison, and this is reflected in the title of the book itself as well as many of the poems in it.
In the 30-stanza “Fragments of a Nightmare,” which is written from a first-person perspective, the persona talks of being made by “demons” into a punching bag, of being threatened with death or more inhuman treatment, even of being cajoled into running “for an assembly/Of demons.” The persona does not identify himself and the poem has been the subject of dispute in certain literary circles, but one thing is clear: the “I” speaking in “Fragments of a Nightmare” is none other than Sison himself, as may be gleaned from the book The Philippine Revolution: The Leader’s View as well as Grace B. Salita’s interview with him last year for her masteral thesis at De La Salle University. The “demons” are his tormentors and others he considers the enemies of the Filipino people.
The author’s wife, Julieta de Lima, was captured with him in 1977, but for years they were kept in separate cells. In “You are My Wife and Comrade,” Sison speaks of the anguish from this experience thus:
You are my wife and comrade.
It is harsh that we are kept apart
By a bloodthirsty enemy with many snares.
We care for each other’s welfare.
The wishes of the tyrant are so evil.
He seeks the betrayal of our souls
By torture and the threat of murder
And the wasting away of our youthful vigor.
His cruel minions are gleeful
That we suffer in stifling cubicles.
They are driven by usurped power
And like dogs carry out orders.
But despair Sison does not here. There is determined defiance in the following stanzas:
But even in our forced separation
We remain one in our fierce devotion
To the noble cause of the revolution.
Firmly the struggle we must carry on.
Our chief tormentor on the throne
Will someday be overthrown
For the seed has been sown
And the future is well-known.
(The poem was written in 1978. Eight years later, the Marcos dictatorship would be ousted through a popular uprising.)
The theme of prison serving to strengthen character instead of breaking it is a favorite of Sison. This is the theme behind his poems “A Furnace” and “In the Dark Depths.”
‘Tis a seething furnace
For tempering steel
And purifying gold,
‘Tis a comforting metaphor.
This is what Sison says of his cell in “A Furnace.”
“In the Dark Depths” he describes his fellow political prisoners’ life thus:
The enemy wants to bury us
In the dark depths of prison
But shining gold is mined
From the dark depths of the earth
And the radiant pearl is dived
From the dark depths of the ocean.
We suffer but we endure
And draw up gold and pearl
From depths of character
Formed so long in struggle.
In “Chemistry of Tears,” Sison goes beyond the prison imagery. He tackles the theme of injustice breeding revolutionary armed struggle, with touches of science:
Tears have too long been
the food of the meek.
But hunger has become
anger so fierce,
Turning the tears of the meek
To explode the vile system
of terror and greed.
Such is the chemistry of tears
catalyzed by iniquity.
If “Chemistry of Tears” contains allusions to chemistry and physics, the images in “From the Philippines to Vietnam: Birds of Prey”- written in 1967 at the height of the U.S. war against Vietnam – are biological:
Curse the birds of prey
That drop their iron eggs
That crush the fields
Ripping the breast
Of our dear brotherland.
Every bomb on your breasts
Is a blow on our hearts.
The crags of terror
Are in Mactan, Clark Field
Sangley Point and manywheres;
The nests of evil here
Comfort the black birds
That torture you.
Isabelo de los Reyes
But science is not the only field from which Sison draws allusions. He apparently shares the interest of fellow Ilocano and scholar-activist Isabelo de los Reyes in folklore, as shown in the poem “Angalo, O Angalo!” about a giant hero of Ilocano legend whom he describes as a “Timeless foe of the oppressor.”
Leafing through Sa Loob at Labas ng Piitan, one may notice that the poems written from 1962 onward – are more direct in their language than those created in 1958-1962 – the ones lifted from Brothers and Other Poems (“By Cokkis Lilly Woundis,” “Carnival,” “The Imperial Game,” “The Massacre,” “These Scavengers,” “Brothers,” “The Dark Spears of the Hours Point High,” and “Hawk of Gold”) – although by no means are they less poetic.
From 1958 to 1962, Sison’s poetry tended to be somewhat elusive like much of the period’s poetry, although even then it already contained deep insights into social realities of the times – in stark contrast to what was in vogue then, the poetry patterned after that of Jose Garcia Villa, preacher extraordinaire of non-political literary writing.
The poems Sison wrote after the publication of Brothers and Other Poems show a decisive break with the poetic tradition that influenced him in his earlier writing years. They still use imagery and other poetic tools, to be sure – but in these Sison has taken extra care to do so in a manner that more readers would be able to grasp.
Sison’s poems are suffused with various kinds of imagery, but in these one thread is common – the voice of a poet resolved not only to write good poetry, but also to revolt against oppression in all its forms. He thus shares, in Philippine literary history, a place with the likes of Andres Bonifacio, Carlos Bulosan, Amado V. Hernandez, Eman Lacaba, Lorena Barros, and Romulo Sandoval.