Essay Issue 12

   Issue # 12: July-December 2009

Mabi David


      (A talk delivered at the “Poem Project” of the Thomasian Writers Guild, University of Santo Tomas, on December 11, 2009)

      Thank you for your invitation to speak at the Poem Project. Today, I think it will be more helpful to talk specifically about the work that went into the writing of my first full-length collection You Are Here, rather than my creative process in general, which really consists of a lot of waiting and despairing and changing my profile pic on Facebook.

      But first, a warning. Speaking in hindsight, especially in terms of one’s creative process, means giving the impression that one wrote with an exceptional degree of awareness, deliberation, and method. Certainly, a lot of thinking went into it, but in the course of the writing, everything was just potential and plagued by the possibility of errors and failures.

      To the few who have read the book, you might be familiar with how it tries to engage with historical subject formation in poetry, specifically secondary witnessing of horror and memorial work. The impetus of the book had been my unexpected encounter with the war narratives and images found in the archives of the Memorare Manila, a committee consisting of the survivors of the Battle for Manila in 1945. The committee, formed in 1995, sought to commemorate this particular event, sanctify the horrors that took place, and ensure against forgetting as the survivors approached their twilight years. There had been myriad articulations commemorating the event through news, events, publications, creation of archives, exhibitions, and of course artworks.

      Ten years after the 50th anniversary of the Battle for Manila, which devastated our city and killed 200,000 Filipinos, I undertook the appraisal of the general registry of its survivors. While horrific, this incident was safely tucked away as “history.” Studying the records was a turning point for me. For 50 years the survivors refused to talk about the events. According to one, “After this month, I shall not talk about it anymore and the story will be buried with me.” Conversely, a lot of the survivors chose to finally speak about the horror they experienced so that the story would not be buried with them.

      My encounter with the archives unsettled me for several reasons. Everything seemed spoken from an abyss and would soon recede back into it. And the burden of speaking has come upon us: a generation that did not directly experience the horror, whose knowledge of history is, at best, partial and mediated, and whose parents only vaguely remember living inaudibly throughout the period. If the succeeding generations were to take on the task of remembrance seriously, and we should, the next questions to me were: from where do we speak of a past shrouded in silence but which suddenly mattered and became personal to someone who was not there, and how? Throughout my writing of the book I was bedeviled by a nagging voice that would remind me: You were not there. That is not your story. And consequently, I wondered, does it also mean that it is not my history?

      The title of the book You Are Here alludes to the markers found in historical tours, which is often how we encounter stories of the past. My interest in this mediated nature of history stems from my work in the publication of history and art history books and the preservation of historical records. I also headed the research section of a library that was housed in the oldest airport in the Philippines. There, an alert on the first Japanese attack of the Philippines was received on 8 December 1941, a day after the Pearl Harbor bombing. It became a Japanese headquarters during the Japanese Occupation. I used to give tours of this airport. The statement, You are here, acknowledges that we curate the past, turning it into affordable views and historicizing it so that everything comes to us in digestible, knowable forms, chronological and captioned.

      How can the historical become personal? For the arc of the collection, I decided to follow the arc of a journey and a historical tour. I thought this might create the necessary space where one can examine how history turns from a mere marketplace or catalog of events and images or from a large stockpile of information, into a personal experience. I believe that only by making it personal can we, a generation removed from the horror, effectively undertake the task of witnessing, i.e., one that does not resort to once-a-year wreath-laying events at mostly neglected, badly maintained monuments.

      I also felt the title of the collection to be an imperative: You are here. It insists on the contemporary individual’s implication in this historical inheritance, fixes him in the here and now if there is to be an active and meaningful engagement of it. This is especially necessary in this time of detachment, banality, and unrelenting terror. You are here. But here, is meant to be more than spatial, mere location. I wanted to explore in the book how one might be able to arrive at the condition that transposes the contemporary self from the mediated past into an immediate, living present and presence. Jorie Graham’s discussion of here especially resonated. I wanted the here that is both the “aftermath of,” the “report of.” And I wanted the self as secondary witness to experience “the trade that we make for understanding, knowledge, science.” She says, “The here of thought, if you will, is a report; the here of sacrament is presence.”

      If all this is beginning to sound like I knew what I was doing, then let me disabuse you of that notion. The impetus of the collection took place in 2005. For two years I thought I knew what I was going to do in terms of form; I was hell-bent on writing a sonnet sequence from start to end. But the argumentative mode, the rationalizing impulse of the traditional Shakespearean sonnet seemed to me too explicit, surefooted, and aggressive in the face of what little the governing intelligence of the book knows. I kept writing and kept finding myself dissatisfied.

      An impromptu trip to Berlin late 2007 exposed me to contemporary concepts in memorial work, particularly in architecture and urban planning. The city, after all, had been the nerve center of Hitler’s Third Reich. Like Manila it was the site of a bloody urban warfare and massive extermination of a people during World War II. Unlike Manila, however, it was the city of the perpetrators. Manila was the battleground of the Japanese and American forces, and the Filipinos who died were mostly civilians caught in the middle. Differences notwithstanding, my encounter with models of contemporary memorial work in that beautiful city became a profoundly intense and significant experience. But it took me almost an entire year to truly begin to write the collection. I started in August 2008 and finished in May 2009. In short, it took four long years to write this book.

      Through these memorial works, I sensed that the terror and atrocities of the past refuse to be historicized, refuse the claim of oblivion. What especially resonated with me are works that acknowledge the discontinuities between the historical past and our vantage point in the present, where we stand and create our art. The works seem to say: certainly we have a crucial responsibility to remember the past, but we must refuse to co-opt the voices and the stories of those who experienced it firsthand. It doesn’t follow that one’s experience of the event and another’s response to it belong to a similar order.

      Therefore, it became important to the collection that the contemporary self recognizes her position as secondary witness: whether as bystander, tourist, researcher, archivist, or as artist. Ultimately, the self is an outsider to the experience. And the historical threatens what little capacity for understanding and action the secondary witness can muster in the face of all this brutal knowledge. Large public events erode at the intimacies of human connection. I suppose this is also why loneliness and alienation are prominent in the book.

      It also occurred to me then that, given this position of secondary witness, I must recognize and welcome the fact of the secondhand, i.e., the firsthand has surrendered to the dark, eluding the historicizing gaze of our times. The poems must acknowledge that much of the past remain unknown and unintelligible and will remain this way forever. The poems must welcome the gaps in our knowledge, the abyss between us and them, and they must be attuned to the unintelligibility of history.

      To welcome the unintelligible, I wanted the arc of the collection to follow the transformation of one impulse or state to another, i.e., resistance to becoming forbearance of; from the rationalizing mind to one that welcomes the wonder; from the argumentative to the bewildered state; from the sorrows of loneliness to its transcendence; and from alienation to coming to terms with solitude. From the “Nothing that is not there” to “the nothing that is.”

      The book still consists of sonnets, but most of them may be found in its first part. Then it consists of two fairly long poems, a form that is prone to heroism. To subvert this, I used indented tercets that forced the lines to move forward and then to stagger at enjambments, refusing the sensation of order and dexterity in the face of facts, whether historical or personal. I wanted the rhythm of the breath displaced. This was important to me because I wanted the lines to feel overwhelmed and to bristle at the rush of public/historic and personal through the self at different speeds and scales. Vis-à-vis the heroic tendencies of the long poem are the intimacies and isolate moments of the confessional mode. To me, this was a way for the poems to begin to represent one experience of a secondary witness, and not to identify with those who were there undergoing it firsthand. Set against the knowledge of atrocities, the self, again is an outsider, a bystander, a tourist, and must atone for this. Incrimination, rather than consolation.

      Throughout the book I employed the narrative to facilitate the journey undergirding the transformation. A kind of plot pushes the poems forward. However, I did not want the single-minded continuity that traditionally characterized the narrative mode. James Longenbach wrote, “We act like we experience the word because.” Indeed, it is as if we know. I deliberately used a lot of coordinating conjunctions rather than subordinating ones in the narrative movement, similes, qualifiers and repetitions, and then slight modifications on repetitions to create the sense of both being lost/displaced and feeling like one has been here before. Qualifiers strain the connections between subject and object; I wanted the self to feel its tenuous ties to sense and order that is built in syntax. As secondary witness, I did not want poems smug in their arrival at knowledge, taking doubtful comforts in their facts. Rather, I wanted the poems to admit mystery and multiplicity and contingency and wonder. But I did not want wonder to turn into fetish.

      Implicated in this journey of the self as secondary witness is speech. The question remains, How does one speak? Throughout my period of research and the travels that forced me out of my comfort zones, I realized that to speak is to see how the mind works. If speech is thought, then how I spoke determined patterns of thought that may no longer suffice, may no longer be up to the task of response and contemporary memorial work. What if one’s speech habits, which fixes us in place, closed off another, more meaningful way of articulating, of being present to experience, of being here where historical and personal intersect and collide?

      And then: why speak? Speech did not necessarily mean an alertness or attentiveness to what is going on in the world. Nor did it mean identification with the other, nor accuracy or fixity; meaning is arbitrary, and human connection out of speech too often accidental. And in the face of great fear and pain, human speech always fails. “It exists somewhere in silence,” Dickinson wrote. In the book, it became necessary to erode at habitual speech and its worn patterns of thought, and to first approach stutter and silence in order to usher in a new way of speaking, of thinking. Loneliness, like speechlessness, might be able to open up the self to a hunger that might deliver the self to a new articulation. Of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Thomas Gardner wrote and again it is something I wanted to engage with in the collection: “Loneliness…has left her without a visible or stable set of premises in which to dwell…but it has also opened up a world otherwise lost…“

      You’re all probably wondering what all this loneliness and stutter have to do with history. I honestly am not sure. I am surprised at how I got here. The only thing I know is that historical subject formation in poetry is a consuming preoccupation, and if nothing else, You Are Here is a first step to figuring out how to proceed. And on that note of faith against what I do not know, I end all this talk.