“The sad fact is that most of the poems getting published these days—bearing marks of schooling (or nearly so) and threats of competence and talent aborning—are insufferably mediocre and lazy,” says Ricardo de Ungria in his introduction to the 1999 Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction. After a rundown of the various manifestations sloppy writing takes he declares that “they all [the poems] look and sound alike, aspiring for a generic so-so poem that anyway gets published just the same” and laments that “democratizing access to writing (evident in the proliferation of writing courses and degrees and workshops has come down to— vapidity: all steam and no heat; or all heat and no fire.” Later in the essay, he applauds the precious few “old-guard work continu[ing] to dominate the field,” his reprimand to the young to learn from the masters well made, if not well taken. His assessment may have held water back then, but it certainly cannot now, not with the publication of these four first books [Chiaroscuro by Joel Toledo, The Proxy Eros by Mookie Katigbak, The El Bimbo Variations by Adam David, and Pepsi Tastes Funny When it’s Christmas Eve & You’re Alone Eating Canned Tuna by Mads Bajarias], all sophisticated and compelling in their own right, all written by young people in their twenties and thirties. When set side by side, two aesthetic tracks are distinctly formed by these books, where the mainstream press books Chiaroscuro and The Proxy Eros make a comfortable pair, as do the self-published The El Bimbo Variations and Pepsi Tastes Funny. The pairings are fortified, it seems—if not founded upon, to begin with—by the circumstances of their publishing.
De Ungria himself touches upon these tracks somewhat in a 2007 Space interview with Gaba, when he says, “I’ve always wanted to put out an anthology of new writing in a sense of writing that will never win in the Palanca. I’ve been a judge in the Palanca for years, and I know that there are writings that will never make it, because there’s a format already, there is a form for winning the Palanca.” He qualifies experimentation in writing—“coming out with things that people find unimaginable or not possible to do”—for which he is known, as something “you get away with,” courtesy, in his case, of a reputation built by, among other things—what else?—Palancas won in the 1970s and ’80s. The reputation translates to opportunities to be published by the likes of Anvil, which de Ungria had. “I think that without one or two people, especially publishers, who think that you’re doing something very interesting, then it’s a no go for many people,” he explains. “I understand the situation for young writers—you know, a simple rejection will just turn them off—and in my mind, you should persist in whatever you do.”
To dismiss Toledo and Katigbak as writing deliberately in “a form for winning the Palanca,” as some are wont to do (i.e., dismiss the winners or write to win), is of course needlessly disparaging and just plain wrong; their books, both comprised of Palanca award-winning collections, are weighty in ways that outlive the initial glitter and glamour of the prizes that adorn them. The books, nonetheless, parts of which having won Toledo and Katigbak two Palancas each in the last couple of years, are fitting representatives of the institution’s aesthetic, equivalent to the dominant aesthetic of the literary scene, one with which the two authors are at ease, as evident in their choice ballasts upon publishing their debut collections: blurbs in full force (three in Toledo’s, four in Katigbak’s) by established writers (and in this small world, they are but a few) filling the backs of their books, and introductions penned, in both books, by Marjorie Evasco.
“To limn the light!” Evasco exclaims, describing the impulse of Toledo’s imagination, while of Katigbak’s book, she notes “this magic theatre where she limns the proxy eros.” Limn fits right in the vocabulary favored by both authors, a vocabulary, one can already glean from their very titles, imbued with poetic currency—elemental (moon, river, cave, brook, stars, flame), artistic (chiaroscuro, sfumato, crescendo), affective (memory, sorrow, loss, nostalgia, love), mythic (hyacinth, narcissus, mariners, unicorn, ambrosia, bergamot)—finding visual counterparts in the artful, dreamy play of light and dark in their books’ cover photographs. The terms are but symptoms of the concerns of the books, the atmosphere in which they thrive, the tone that emits such atmosphere, and the intelligence from which the tone issues. On all counts, Chiaroscuro and The Proxy Eros are overtly literary, and by this I mean to read them is to encounter art in the uppercase. There is much reverence at work in the poems—for the word, for language as used in poetry, for the luminous soul, for fragile humanity. This attitude coincides with a shared preoccupation with myth, although the poets diverge in engagement with it.
Interested in getting at the bottom of things, Toledo assumes the stance of mythmaker, bearer of truths about the way the world works, the arrogance of his declarative statements tempered by the tenderness of his outlook. From “Open Sesame,” the poem that opens the collection: “And let me tell you now//why wings and doors and flowers really open, why/this wall, once non-negotiable, had let you in.//It is because all things want to open, that often/all you need to do is ask.” Many poems in Toledo’s book, particularly the first section, “Antiquity and Other Poems,” produce the “open sesame” effect—like the magic words, they promise revelation from the perspective of a wise old man standing at the edge of time, battered and bruised by the world yet ever faithful to it. The language insists on wonder, even in the most trying times, where extreme alienation, even death are made bearable by lyrical phrasing (From “Everything’s in Place”: “There must be something more//to these objects straining for movement,/solid and heavy, caught in the light./The night keeps such cruel arrangements.”) The poems inspire meditation and slow reading, certain lines demanding that they be turned over and over in one’s mind to access the fullness of their weight. From “Brook”: “Return is the tragedy of time,/rotting the spoiled places, inconsolable by presence./We handle grief by moving. Distance makes it intense.”
Katigbak, on the other hand, in casting her gaze on eros and the inescapable triangulation of desire involving, in Anne Carson’s words, “three structural components—lover, beloved, and that which comes between them,” turns to myth to scrutinize the psyche of the woman loved and in love, romancing the archetype of the virgin throughout the collection even as it opens with “Making Love,” a devirginization poem, the violence of which, while confronted, is transformed into the genteel (“He enters you slow, then lunges/To break the prone wound open./The seam gives, an involuntary/Quiver”), a consistent trait of Katigbak’s vocabulary that the word “Asshole,” when it appears in “All Things Want To Fly,” prompts a double take. Similar to Toledo, her 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 (From “As Far as Cho-Fu-Sa”: “Somewhere/You are actual. Happen to me there.” From “The Proxy Eros”: “...you are the tenor and the vehicle/Of all I cannot name in the things I do.”), at times an outside presence admiring the beloved as she turns absent, eluding the pursuer’s gaze (as in the poems “Quiver,” “Brace Me Somewhere,” and “Hair,” where the runaway nymph Daphne takes center stage), 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.”
What chiaroscuro-as-technique achieves, Evasco explains, is “a satisfying and restful effect on the eye,” also an apt description of the poems in Chiaroscuro and The Proxy Eros, which, however rife with “all the aching stretches of the universe” (Toledo’s phrase) are eventually, “wrenched with finishedness,/The way a made thing is” (Katigbak’s). As each poem unfolds—and many are poems of feeling, earnest, personal (a stance popular among poets, “many of whom are admittedly quite dreamy,” as Neil Garcia, editor of At Home in Unhomeliness, a 2007 PEN Anthology of Philippine Poetry in English featuring poets 45 years old and younger, points out, however cheekily)—there is a relentless reaching for composure, the poem as well-wrought, tight, and made, a customary trajectory in many poems in, for example, A Habit of Shores. In “As Far as Cho-Fu-Sa,” a rewrite of Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” the speaker is the epitome of calm: “What I am, ever, is this: composure of stone.” The poems of Toledo and Katigbak, meditative and sensitive, may break into lament, may own up to sorrow, may be fraught with dilemma, but these are handled with grace—in craft, as manifested in a syntax composed with care and consequently, a deliberate musicality (of which Katigbak, to my ear, is particularly mindful), and in conclusion, as embodied in an arc that arrives at formal closure—be it a resonating image, a summing up, or a grand statement that urges the reader to extend meditation beyond the reading of the poem. Final lines from Toledo: “But all these must end,/like memory,/and the rain falls harder,/the ground shuddering under the weight/of beauty.” (“Fever”); “Someone/has left the backdoor ajar and it sways/in the wind, wanting to open, wanting to close.” (“Monotone”); “I will be more watchful of beauty.” (“Sleep”); “I am talking about something really heartbreaking.” (“Moths”). From Katigbak: “When I show you how you and I/Have more hunger than we know/What to do with, I am telling you/Goodbye before you know it.” (“The Telling”); “...if I could say//only the ocean heals itself without scarring,/and the shore must needs have spoken to the sea,/then no man is, but you’ve made an island out of me.” (“If an Island”); “And wherever you go, I am to follow.” (“Quiver”).