In Memory of Those Erased from Memory

Review of Sala sa Saysay, an anthology of poems by Richard R. Gappi, published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)

Award-winning poet Richard Gappi’s first book of poems, Sala sa Saysay (Fault in the Narrative), is a slim volume – all of 41 pages – that speaks volumes about a forgotten part of the country’s past. What the Constantino couple did historiographically, Gappi does poetically in this slim anthology.

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Bulatlat.com

Award-winning poet Richard Gappi’s first book of poems, Sala sa Saysay (Fault in the Narrative), is a slim volume – all of 41 pages – that speaks volumes about a forgotten part of the country’s past.

In his books The Philippines: A Past Revisited and The Philippines: The Continuing Past, the late historian Renato Constantino – with his wife Letizia as co-author in the second book – wrote a history of the Philippines highlighting the fights and feats of those who are rarely mentioned in the official histories – and are more often than not demonized if they are ever mentioned. They are the heroes of the Philippine-American War (1899-1907), a war that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Filipinos.

Sometime in late 1897, the U.S. – then at war with Spain – had contacted Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, then in self-exile in Hong Kong after agreeing to a continuation of Spanish sovereignty in the Philippines by signing the Pact of Biak Na Bato, and offered him help in fighting the Spanish occupation forces and securing independence for the Philippines. Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines and called on all Filipino resistance forces to continue with the struggle, even as it was only the small clique he led that stopped fighting the Spanish forces.

The U.S. forces played only a small part in the fight against Spain, and by the time independence was declared (June 12, 1898), they controlled only Manila and Cavite – meaning that the Filipino resistance fighters had wrested control of all other Philippine areas by themselves. The independence Aguinaldo declared was one that had the Philippines under the “protection” of the U.S. – a fatal mistake as the protector would soon become a conqueror.

This part of our history is told poetically in Sala sa Saysay. What the Constantino couple did historiographically, Gappi does poetically in this slim anthology.

Gappi ensures that no one misses the point in his “Prologo” (Prologue), a sonnet which ends with the couplet: “Hayaang tula ko’y titis ng pulbura/Sa ngala’t gunitang di dapat mabura” (Let my poems be sparks of gunpowder/For every name we ought to remember).

In many of the other poems in this collection, Gappi brings back to life selected personalities distinguished for their exploits or plight as fighters in the Philippine-American War.

In “Dung-aw sa Aking Pagbitay” (Dirge for My Execution), Gappi is Sancho Valenzuela, the first man to be executed by the Spaniards for participation in the 1896 Revolution. In “Parapamatbat” (The One Who Leads the Prayer), he is Casiana Nacionales who with rosary beads held up called on the people of Balangiga, Samar to attack the American occupation forces. In “Dila ng Umaga” (Tongue of the Morning) he is Vicente Candillosas, the boy who by ringing the bells of the Balangiga Church gave the signal for the attack.

In “Walang Katapusan ang Hibik ng Filipinas” (There is No End to the Struggle of the Philippines), the poet becomes Macario Sakay, who is described as “the most maligned resistance leader in the history of Philippine libertarian movements.”

Sakay, who led in continuing the resistance against U.S. imperialism after the capture and eventual cooptation of Aguinaldo, is seldom mentioned in official histories and when he is mentioned, he is usually described as a “bandit” – in furtherance of the American colonial line. He was arrested in 1907 after being invited to talk peace with the American colonial regime, and sentenced that same year to death by hanging.

In a few poems Gappi presents how the U.S. colonial regime gave justification to the occupation of the Philippines: there are pieces referring to U.S. President William McKinley’s doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” soldiers “simply following orders.”

In “Hagulgol ng Gubat” (Sobs of the Forest), Gappi gives a chilling description of what became of Balangiga after Gen. Jacob Smith gave orders to “kill and burn” in retaliation for the attack on the U.S. forces:

Ngayon ay labinsiyam at isa.

At dito sa aking tahanan, langit man

ay naliligalig, ayaw tumahan.

Nasasaid ang aking lakas

upang bigyan pa ito ng ibang pangalan.

Maliban sa impiyerno, impiyernong katahimikan

ang nakaratay sa lupa.

Sa maraming taon,

nakaukit sa kanyang mga puno at bundok

ang kanyang pangalan.

Ito ang Samar!

Sa maraming taon,

ibinulong ng hangin at dalampasigan

ang kanyang pangalan.

Ito ang Samar!

Ito ang Samar!

Ngayon ay labinsiyam at isa.

At dito sa aking tahanan,

ang nakahimlay na kapayapaan

ay nakaukit sa lapida ng mga namatay.

(It is nineteen-one.

And here in my home, even the heavens

would not be calmed, would not cease weeping.

My strength is spent

when I try to give this a different name.

Aside from hell, there is an infernal peace

sprawled on the soil.

For so many years,

its name has been etched

on the trees and the hills.

This is Samar!

For so many years,

the shore and the heavens

whispered its name.

This is Samar!

This is Samar!

It is nineteen-one.

And here in my home,

at rest is a peace

that is etched on the gravestones of those who perished.)

Gappi ends the collection with “Panata ng Makabayan” (Patriot’s Pledge), which he describes as a parody of the “Panatang Makabayan” (Patriotic Pledge) which students are told to recite in the flag ceremonies. In the poem he speaks of conquerors coddling the few wealthy ones in society – in the present tense, to tell us that the reasons for the Philippine-American War are still with us. The poem’s persona – who can easily be made out as a youth – pledges to stand by the workers and peasants in their fight until the country is led by true Filipinos.

Gappi, born and based in Angono, Rizal, is a Philippine Studies graduate of the University of the Philippines (UP) and former editor of the Philippine Collegian. He was the editor-in-chief of the defunct Manila East Watch, and is presently president of the Neo-Angono artists’ collective. Bulatlat.com

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