In this open letter, noted poet and literary scholar Gelacio Guillermo responds to a poem addressed to him by a U.S-based writer and professor named Eugene Gloria. Their “exchange,” among other things, tackles issues related to Philippine society and culture. Below his open letter is Gloria’s poem.
BY GELACIO GUILLERMO
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 13, May 4-10, 2008
I came to read your poem “To Gellacio Guillermo in Iowa City.” (Literary Review, 22 March 2000) only this month when a poet-friend e-mailed me a copy. Despite the mis-spelling proceeding from mispronunciation of foreign names so typical among North Americans, I thought I was being referred to in the poem and would like to take issue with you on the question of the poet’s responsibility when he takes on the life history of a dead or living person as subject for creative work.
The trajectory of the poem runs along this line: ‘Gellacio’ goes to the “mountains” >> ‘Gellacio’ “renounce[s] the revolution” >> ‘Gellacio’ sweats it out under the “Iowa sun” (as a field hand?) >> ‘Gellacio’ as manservant to a devout wealthy matron.
For a poem this short, the time span is indeed long, extending down to the present (note the change in tenses). Only two facts about Gelacio need concern us here: first, he was a UP (University of the Philippines) working student from 1957 to 1964, for an AB degree in English; and second, he was handed a fellowship (he did not apply) at the International Writing Program in Iowa University from October 1970 to April 1971 and returned to the Philippines to resume teaching at the U.P. He kept to his post up to Sept. 21, 1972, when he decided to quit upon the declaration of martial law by Marcos.
Given these lackluster facts, the speaking persona insinuates that as a student I went to the “mountains,” meaning that I had joined the CPP-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army) forces in the guerrilla fronts. Now, in the early sixties, this idea did not yet exist, and when it did during the late sixties onward, there was enough movement work to keep me in Manila, at the same time trying to help my family survive the most difficult years of martial rule. In short, I was not our dear Eman Lacaba.
As to renouncing the revolution, nothing could be more preposterous, although for some former revolutionaries who did/do renounce it, this betrayal can be rewarding (they are given government posts, for one) or dangerous especially to those who engage in counter-insurgency activities. Gelacio during his activist years may not have been an efficient movement worker or may have caused problems to his collectives, but he had never, nor will he ever, renounce something which he holds to be the best that is happening in our country today. Without this revolution the Filipino people have nothing to live, work and fight for to transform society. This is the dream (as Lenin uses the word) for a new people’s history.
No, Gelacio did not dream “of corn and the language of Iowa.” My country has enough corn (have you tried Cornix from Vigan?) and enough of the English language (or a species of the world’s scores of Englishes) for bureaucrats to pen anti-people executive orders and for OFWs, the regime’s main export of warm bodies and source of revenue to keep the economy afloat, to follow orders from their bosses. If I had dreamt of a foreign country or city, it was Paris for too much reading (in English!) of the Symbolist poets of the 19th century in the poetry class of Virgie Moreno who turned us all into poseurs this side of the Pasig River. Yes, I’d been to the Louvre. Did you know that Arthur Rimbaud was a propagandist of the Paris Commune?
The reference to the indigenous groups herded like cattle at the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition betrays the continuing fascination of Americans for the exotic, and worse, their nonchalance regarding the fate of peoples subjected to imperialist policies of their government. Gelacio is clear enough about his anti-imperialist stand in his poetry to have evoked such a romanticized image of an early injustice against our fellow country women and men and children. By the way, there were no Manobos, much less a breechclout-wearing Manobo prince, in that menagerie concocted by American hubris. The “brindled skin” has a far earlier provenance: the black slaves during those centuries of slave trading were assessed, like livestock in the market, according to their animal strength and the gloss of their hide. “Brindled” originates from the late ME “brended,” a variety of “branded.” Vestiges of racist arrogance of the West die hard.
The speaking persona says she reads ‘Gellacio’ “in English.” If she were indeed ‘Gellacio’s’ classmate and that was a long time ago, she can now try reading Gelacio in Filipino because that is the true language of a Filipino poet.
‘Gellacio’/Gelacio can never be her or anybody’s manservant.
And, yes, there is no truth to what this illegitimate President Gloria here said last month in Hong Kong, that the Filipino people are “the most pro-American people, more pro-American than the Americans themselves.” That’s what she is, a Bush bitch.
You’re American. Speak for us in a true way.
The point in all this belaboring is, what drove you to write a poem like this, a direct address/statemental verse that’s neither fish nor fowl? That speaking persona (I am named; why isn’t she?) turns an actually existing person (see Poezie Centrum) into a creature of her sacerdotal, manorial, white supremacist fancies. You and I hardly know each other although it’s now so easy to Google/Yahoo! through the Internet to find out how we are faring in our respective literary endeavors. I did ask my son to access entries under your name from his computer since I don’t have one myself, nor do I maintain an e-mail address. I occasionally use any of the computers in the house like a typewriter mainly for encoding purposes. If you care to reply, you may use firstname.lastname@example.org.
My best wishes to you and Karen.
To Gellacio Guillermo in Iowa City.
Source: The Literary Review
Publication Date: 22-MAR-00
My window is serenaded by crickets.
I try to sleep through the sawing
of their cellos’ sad music.
Forgive me, I want none of it.
You were in the mountains when my father’s soldiers
strolled into our classroom to escort me out
of the campus. The army had infiltrated
our cause to pluck from our ranks their own.
You left before my father retired as a full colonel,
before the nuns knelt in front of the dictator’s tanks
before the Maneros and the Alsa Masa
scooped out and ate the brains of the dissident priest.
And when you renounced the revolution
and dreamed of corn and the language of Iowa,
I came back to the Church, and then left again.
Found true rebellion in marrying
a man who spoke Hebrew and wanted to take me
to Tel Aviv. Gellacio,
I am reading you in English.
Your brindled skin is sweating Iowa sun,
your hair in a tight chignon,
you, barefoot and G-stringed like a Manobo
prince in St. Louis one hundred years ago.
I want the Church to beg me back,
long for the faint tinkle of the hand bell
before the Elevation,
the monstrance gold as unhusked grain
drying on the asphalt road.
I want to believe that sentences
can hold bread in baskets, and multiply.
Let the salvaged, naked as drowned cattle,
find their way to my house.
Ring the bell and call them in, Gelacio.
Anything but this music,
all silence and this nothing music.
— Eugene Gloria