Depending on one’s nature, composure, when confronted by the terrifying or the mysterious, may be considered one’s salvation or cross to bear. And depending on yet another’s predilection (for example: mine) in the face of composure, one may find oneself stymied in her response. Nothing like composure to make one hesitate over whether a counterpart good behavior is the effort’s due or its defect.
The Proxy Eros (Pasig: Anvil & Fuji Xerox, 2008), Mookie Katigbak’s first full-length collection of poems, much like the universe in it and its magical re-making, encourages the former. In her review of the book releases of 2008, Conchitina Cruz has called Katigbak a poet of composure, citing the speaker in “As Far as Cho-Fu-Sa” as the epitome of calm. “What I am, ever, is this: composure of stone.”
“...[Katigbak’s] poems exact quiet attention from the reader; Katigbak writes with admirable clarity, her lines noticeably mellifluous, their smoothness turning the constant evasions and missteps governing erotic entanglements into a kind of dance. At times the earnest lover pining for an absence..., at times an outside presence admiring the beloved as she turns absent, eluding the pursuer’s gaze..., the unwaveringly eloquent dominant speaker in the poems is consistently astute in observation and virginal in sensibility, simultaneously innocent despite knowledge, clear-eyed yet steeped in the magical, stating with certainty, in “Sleights,” “It was the real that was marvelous.”” (Cruz, 2008)
It is clear in the collection that Katigbak is technically adept at smoothing out “all [her] difficult and contradictory feelings” (ix) and, the book is a capable testament to the polish that its governing intelligence can wield on this haphazard, awkward, “makeshift world.” (“Intermediate Geography”).
Throughout the collection, Katigbak’s tool of choice—the potently metamorphic mind, transformation in order to tame this unwieldy world—is palpable to the reader. The root of the persona’s composure stems from the decision to speak not only after the storm, but after the storm has been deliberately studied and reformulated, casting upon the tempest her generous, unwavering, and interpretive vision. Of things beyond her control, which the persona is fully cognizant of, there is a consistent effort to stay their affliction, a hunger to have “all suspense / suspended”, a hunger for the “bedrock certainty of what’s next” (“The Inevitable Place”). To the persona there must be virtue in it, so that the poems in Proxy Eros often take us directly to the remade state—smoothened out, deliberately arranged, and tidy. They spare readers the tempest of the journey. I realize, however, that much as there is pleasure in the equanimity that arises from the well made and the well arranged, what I find intriguing is this feeling I get of a counterfeit composure.
The poem “The Inevitable Place” is as much an ars poetica as “Sfumato” (xii), but where the latter “discourses on the process of artistic creation” (Evasco, xii-xiii), the former reveals the disquieting impetus. According to Katigbak, “all my difficult and contradictory feelings could kiss and make-up and be bedtime fellows at close of day; all my laundry was fresh—there was nothing dirty to show....What recourse did I have but to write verses that rhymed and reasoned?” (ix)
The Japanese knew well to see life from one
remove, to intend spring by writing of snow,
or plums in the orchard after a frost.
Like so, I’ve learned to tell rain by dragonflies
in the field, to memorize August
by the garden’s wild hibiscus, all suspense
suspended by the bedrock certainty of what’s next.
At the end of the season, my heart grinds
the difficult into what can be made plain
—first the mind, then the pain—
I crank up the levers, the pulleys, the weights,
And then with what speed do I strip away
snow, unlearn seasons, flowers’ names—
the sum of all my losses
vanishing as I run toward the inevitable place:
body prior to pain and the weight of the mind,
where I am younger than the world. I become the wild.
One cannot help but feel both protective of and intrigued by such persona, never mind if she has already programmed her life-saving response to painful and hostile occasions, and if the final sentence of the poem claims a crucial mutability that attests to her self-sufficiency and survival. The poem begins with the model temperament, but where the Japanese “knew well to see” and “to intend”, indicating in the first stanza the life-saving and generative imagination, the persona avails of rote memory—“I’ve learned to tell rain by dragonflies / in the field, to memorize August / by the garden’s wild hibiscus”[underscores mine]—of what she can expect of the previous seasons, and she proceeds with her coping mechanisms as she does with the poem: “I crank up the levers, the pulleys, the weights,”. It is a curious machine-like procedure that seeks to facilitate alchemical change.
A strong identification to the nymph Daphne recalls that composure, an exercise of will, is contingent on the transformative act but not so much on when she turns into a laurel tree as when she finally gives her assent to Apollo. Daphne’s conviction practically throughout the myth is not her own; it is, in a sense, rootless. Her rejection of those in pursuit is not really about her will, given that she had been laboring under Cupid’s spiteful spell. Rescue, therefore, cannot come from inside her but from outside, in this case, her father, Peneus. How appropriate and necessary then that with her transformation, her being re-composed into a new form, comes a demonstration of will. When she gives her assent to Apollo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“With a wave of her / new-formed branches/ the laurel agreed, and seemed to be nodding her head in the / treetop.”) she enters a new state of being where she is in control of her fate. The myth teaches that in genuine composure one cannot discount nor extricate the change in the self that comes with a change in form.
But the second stanza only ushers in something skin-deep. It introduces the persona’s key strategy for survival: mimicry as form of adaptation, which hinges on the simile, a figure of speech that seems an appropriate technique given the persona. She sets change in motion by means perfunctory—cranking up the lever, adjusting the weights—and the tone of the speaker makes one think it is routine, so that it confirms a sneaking suspicion. Versus the river merchant’s wife in “Cho-Fu-Sa” as epitome of calm is another presence in the collection: the mechanism of calm—rote, tried and tested.
Counterfeit composure can be a heartbreaking strategy when executed as courage and doggedness despite awareness of the humility and possible feebleness of the attempt against the impending “difficult” that must be turned “plain”. But if even the counterfeiter, who knows the lie, herself chooses the lie and the belief that the effort is sufficient, that it is more than what it is (which is skin-deep), the poem actually forfeits its power, which it draws from the cost of the act of composure. The potency of one’s efforts must be an act of faith and not a demonstration of the self’s adequacy and aplomb. “And then with what speed do I strip away / snow, unlearn seasons, flowers’ names— / the sum of all my losses”. Indeed, with what speed, and it erodes at the aspect of will in the face of danger, crucial to genuine composure, and foregrounds instead the automatic or the habitual.
A line in the poem above: “my heart grinds / the difficult into what can be made plain”, and it is a precious virgin approach to the world that one wishes will remain inviolate in all good people but otherwise in a poem. One would have wanted an enactment of the stripping journey in the poem, so that the arrival to the inevitable place is truly inevitable. Here even loss is given the soporific fullness of the word “sum”. Where the Japanese “intend spring by writing of snow”—the self engendering a foreseeable future, not necessarily manageable, by its creative act—the persona in the poem survives only by staying one step ahead of the signs (the dragonflies, the hibiscus). Still I really like that this aspect of the poem alludes to Daphne being only ahead of Apollo, a startling and subtle revelation as one studies the poem. But where there was danger in the myth of the chase, here one undergoes the safe thrill of the survival tale. Outside the self, the details are mere clues into what comes next, which the persona believes she has neutralized by anticipation and she becomes “the wild.” Here is one who is aware that she is at the mercy of the world that surrounds her, which triggers her adaptive instinct rather than propels a demonstration of will, in stark contrast to Daphne’s metamorphosis.
The genuine composure that Katigbak successfully depicts in the more accomplished poems in the collection when set against a counterfeit composure—one that may be quickly resorted to but seen through—accommodates a persona suffering the dilemma of true inadequacy versus this untidy world, which is palpable throughout but muffled. It can keep in check the fixed attitude, one that romanticizes a disquieting encounter in a world ready to spin out of control and buys too readily into the consolation or judgment it manufactures. Where previously there is self-sufficiency that borders on passive volition may be found true transformative will.
There is a compelling hunger for certainty in Katigbak’s book that interests me but in some poems it is sometimes too readily appeased by the fictive or the provisional, even if the persona is clear-eyed in the face of the magic (or the trick) or is insistent on “harder proof” (“Sleights”). How can one who sees clearly choose the trick? And why? What motivates this corrective impulse to let “all [the] difficult and contradictory feelings...kiss and make-up and be bedtime fellows at close of day”? Herein lies the energy that charges Katigbak’s first collection. The well-wrought poems exhibit an intriguing tenacity in the face of the untidy so that rather than being soothed I feel disquieted. One looks forward to what comes next from Katigbak. That I am offered no bedrock certainty as to what it is is the exciting part.