January 26, 2004
MARC ESCALONA GABA
The world perceived as light and human noises: as image—if you can imagine this way of perceiving (do)—imagine the beginning of childhood when the knowledge of the distance of objects seen does not so automatically, as consistently as thereafter, interfere with what is seen yet: the world in two dimensions, flat, the whole picture a single unit free, even, of the logic of light and shadow (let their mutual opposition equal; let where they meet stand still), delete the information of time: there is no time to what you see—divest yourself of what you’ve learned, step back, then: step back. Ask what lies behind all of it, then ask again what all of it is.
When Eliot asked the second question, I shall hazard to suppose he answered by considering the following sentences for the epigraph of The Wasteland: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—‘The horror! The horror!’” (Conrad, The Heart of Darkness). With maya, or if not that, then our reliance on phenomenon, taken to be the vast limitation of all we can know, to imagine where a “moment of complete knowledge” might be is to answer, metaphorically, the question of what lies behind all of it. Speculation, fantasy, delusion, the teleologies of religion, truth if there is a truth (as there must be?), occupy that space. Where? “We were exiled to a dark place”—begins the title poem of Allan Popa’s third collection of poems Samsara (2002)—
not unlike this world in its misery
but without the distinctions of objects
and the urgency of time.1
Though they were present
in our consciousness, meant to be erased.2
Then a vision: a shimmering horizon.
A voice announcing, “This is the hem
of the robe of God.”3
A chorus of grief rose from this depth.
Which means that for a moment,
a dimension was added to the landscape.4
But when I closed my eyes, a face
was made clear. A human gesture,
as though I was still capable of shutting
myself from the light.5
Then the memory of good hands.6
Reader, the banished are most aware
of having had bodies.
Inside them we felt far
greater terror than this lesson of loss.7
I will live it exactly the same way.8
From the first, Popa has been interested in the unseen: “Nakahubog ang mga hindi nakikita” ends his ars poetica“Tula sa Dilim” in Hunos. Like Rilke, he has an interest in the invisible, but the terms of this interest are not Rilkean; here is not a self wanting, via poetry, to match his self with the grand scale of the unseen. Rather, what Popa’s lyric “I” wants is self-situation and perspective, thought that does not belie evidence. In Samsara, the situation is the fact of having bodies, and since desire, intrinsic to the body, brings with it the pathetic (pathetic in the original Greek sense) predicament of its dreams, the perspective, summoned or imagined or apparent, is the fact of its disappearance: “So we believe: only from the point / of vanishing comes perspective” (“Into Wakefulness”). Note that the perspective comes not at the point of vanishing but from it; a crucial difference, lest we mistake the ideals of this book.
In the poem “Samsara,” as well as throughout the first half of the book, Popa explores the self’s experience of the body from the anti-world that it imagines and evokes (through devices touched on in the endnotes), a world “without the distinction of objects / and the urgency of time.” This is a difficult project to pull off in a genre customarily—around here, habitually—dependent on baroque language, the flourishes of description and the theatrics of urgency. Word after word, the poem’s body takes form in an atmosphere of thoughtful suspension and profound absences from which, as Wordsworth would say, “we see into the life of things”: “a face / was made clear… Then the memory of good hands.” Although the poems (in English) are austere in terms of detail, they are not minimalist with an inherent distrust of excess, but are the linguistic renderings—the poet’s primary task, I think—of scenes like membranes perforated by haunting, insidious absences to begin with. Popa has always had an eye for them, and the carefully written poems of Samsara’s first half have an excess of blank spaces: between and within stanzas, words suggest what they signify and what they do not, through an intensely ironic language that is ultimately also a paradox.
When one moves to the poems in Filipino in Samsara’s second half, the abyss, peered into and raised by the first section, becomes the context of the passions that the various personae relive (Heloise, Maryoneta, Kambal-Tuko, Virago, Ginsberg), the poignancies of the lyric “I”—a context so consistently forgotten that the Judeo-Christian God must call them back to it, speaking through the Old Testament covenants—
Naalala ba ninyo ang dilim
bago kayo binigyan ng pangalan?
(“Eba at Adan”)
Itinakwil kita. Hindi ko kawalan
ang isang tulad mo. Sa paraang ito,
itinakda ko ang batas ng pagpapala.
…[N]angako akong hindi na
muling lilipunin pa ang lahat
ng buhay. Ipinagkaloob ko rin
ang lahat ng inyong kailangan
bilang pahayag ng aking kabutihan.
Sa kasunduang ito nagpatuloy
ang ating ugnayan.
Here is “Abram” in full:
Bakit kayo naghihimutok?
Hindi ba’t sinabi kong babalutin kayo
ng kadiliman, ng matagal na pagdurusa?
Katuparan lamang ito ng aking itinakda.
Pawiin ang inyong takot.
Batid ninyong pagkatapos ng mahabang
gabi, may araw na sisikat. Makinang
ang gantimpalang aking ipinangako.
Binigyan ko kayo ng sulo
bilang habilin sa pagtalukbong
ng dilim. Nasa inyong mga kamay
ang ilaw na hatid ng liyab.
Ang kabatiran sa pagkakapaso.
Ngunit nagpadarang kayo sa init
ng pagnanasa, kahit alam ninyong
hindi laruan ang apoy: mga gamugamong
nalalagas sa halik ng ningas.
Bakit ipagkakamaling liwanag lamang
ang sindi? Ito ang aking katarungan:
Kapag iniibig mo ang alab, matutupok ka.
Pagpapalain ang nagtitiis sa dilim.
By the close of the book, both halves of Samsara contextualize each other, shot through from beneath by the vision of absolute nothing—the unbodily mode of consciousness and experience that ahistorical religion and uninformed transcendentalists prize—the sight the setting for the body of the book.
For each of Samsara’s two symmetrical parts I have been using the word “half,” resisting the word “panel.” They are panels—Samsara is a diptych. That it begins with a wedding about to begin, that later, in “Artaud” the line “The body is an altar” occurs, should, I think, convince anyone that here is a magisterially designed book, that a cunning, desperate, self-humoring, sharp intelligence composes it. The mystery is that despite its cynical, pathologically pathetic vision that sees only in the dark, Samsara was written at all. It seems to me that its enduring pathos will come from the ultimate and fundamental idea that outside its universe which is anyone’s, it is unlikely that love can be recognized as such. Enduring, because so long as copies of it exist, these poems make the tensions they generate infinitely available, and because we will always be perplexed by the gift of having bodies, of being alive, in the eternity we can measure.
- [FORMAL EXEGESIS] The blankness of generality is notable in the first line, a blankness apparent not only because the collective pronoun “we” is used but also because the phrase “dark place” does not give the reader much to perceive. Nonetheless, the verb “exiled” draws interest: at once, we learn that the poem is an act of recollection by virtue of its tense (which it will later drop quietly), and we are taken straight to the stanzaic motif of negation as “exiled” brings to mind the sense of absence as much as it does transport. The following line qualifies the “dark place” by likening it to “this world in its misery,” and herein is an irony: although the idea that two worlds are being considered is clear, it is the likeness between them that is initially emphasized. The difference, as the poem continues, is that the “dark place” was “without the distinctions of objects / and the urgency of time.” The poem’s definitional style is negation, and the thematic relations that connect “exiled,” “dark,” “not,” “unlike,” and “without” sufficiently confront us with the idea of negation. And yet there is presence in this poem as well. The choice of the word “distinctions” is notable as that word carries the sense of the possession of differentiating features as well as the sense of “special consideration” or “eminence” (at any rate, a positive idea). The balance between presence and absence creates a suspension–a timelessness–as the persona is placed between those poles, remarkable because it is the ironic diction that accomplished it, and significant as this poem has a dialectic reckoning to do.
- The line-cut that occurs after “present” is ironic: although they (“distinctions of objects / and the urgency of time”) “were present,” they were present only “in our consciousness” and therefore do not have the solidity one associates with presence. The cancellation of “they” by the later half of line 2 enacts what it says: “meant to be erased.” The cancellation is not very subtle–one might object to it–but perhaps the poet was not taking chances with the reader’s recognition of the sense of absence.
- From the past tense, the poem’s verbs shift to participial-gerundial tense (“shimmering” and “announcing”), and the effect of suspension is once again produced, this time by the sense of continuance inherent to the form of the verbs, and on other features: the sudden appearance of the clause “Then a vision” and its just as sudden disappearance (interrupted by the caesura), the brevity of it ended by a colon which both extends that fragment and shuts it down, the colon’s suspension of the undetailed phrase “shimmering horizon,” and announcement’s suspension between quotation marks. Continuing from the “hem” (which is indeed, the hem of the line), the plot moves—“This is the hem / of the robe of God”—placing the persona and the reader on the brink of seeing “God” who remains invisible because “vision” here is configured not exclusively as sight but as supernatural apparition as well.
- The “chorus of grief” seems to suggest a Greek chorus, and we have reason to suppose that such an allusion is intended since samsara—“the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound,” OED—is generally understood to be a “tragedy.” The tone of this stanza is ironically anti-climatic: the verbs return to the past tense, there is no enjambment (all three lines close quickly–period, comma, period), and the language is terse, the second sentence (and sentence) beginning with “which.” The significance of “a dimension added to the landscape” is undermined because its implication is that the landscape is in fact dimensionless.
- The irony of this stanza is that “a face / was made clear” when the persona closed his eyes. The human gesture refers to the closing of the eyes—an act that the persona retains even though he is bodiless (formally, a conceit the poet is conscious of—and paradoxically, what occurs is an opening, but again communicated inversely (“as though I was still capable of shutting”). The last line “myself from the light” suggests the mystic idea of the self as sourced from the light, and its phrasing emphasizes their separation from each other.
- In this one-line stanza (one of two in the poem), the poem climaxes. Here, the memory of the human becomes the ultimate basis of the persona’s stand as the poem turns significantly from this point. In this poem, there is no need to detail or narrate that memory because the simplicity of “good hands” is sufficient information once contrasted with “robe” or “face” and read as signifying the persona’s construing of the human as the tactile.
- Here the poem shifts, via a sudden direct address to the reader, to a frankly discursive tone. In the poem’s universe, the “banished” ironically refers to those who attain nirvana and must therefore leave samsara, the world as known. In the philosophy of the transmigration of souls, to be banished is to be reincarnated on earth, and the poem inverts that idea as the persona speaks from earth: banishment to him is to leave it. Hence, the heightened awareness of the body because of the loss of it. The “inside [bodies] we felt far” suggests the distance of the human from the purely spiritual. The “failure” of the human to attain nirvana is acknowledged to be a “lesson of loss” but in this poem, that loss carries less gravity than loss of earthly life.
- The “heightened speech” of the final line differentiates it clearly from the tone of reportage in “This is the hem…” As a single line composes this stanza, it becomes comparable with “The memory of good hands,” and a kind of stanzaic rhyme happens between them, textually pairing the tactility, the perceivable, the felt experience (“good hands”) with the emphasizing effect of italicization. It is a highly resonant ending because it unexpectedly implies an afterwards. More specifically, it implies why this poem exists at all.