As I write this the barangay captains of Tarlac are tickled by the prospect of their participation in swearing in the new president of the Republic of the Philippines—the possibility a rebuttal by the incoming spawned by a slew of midnight appointments by the incumbent, chief of which involving no less than chief justice of the Supreme Court—while lawyers hash out the symbolic repercussions of the supposedly legal gesture, if not the legal repercussions of such symbolic moves. Senators 1 to 9 have just been proclaimed by the Comelec, and number 11, ever the deadbeat, refuses to budge and give way to number 13, the Left’s last woman standing. It is the day after the death anniversary of Emily Dickinson, poet of deep privacy at times read as poet of extreme indifference to the American Civil War, and a week after the fiftieth anniversary of that most blessed of inventions, The Pill. It is for me a foreseeably forgettable week of deadlines and delays, complete with the perfunctory afternoon of guiltless banality at the mall. As I write this the Ampatuan patriarch—one of those charged in the slaughter of fifty-seven in what is arguably the worst case of election-related violence in this country—has just lost the race for vice-governor of Maguindanao, the defeat excessively compensated for by successful electoral bids of around ten clan members, including one son also accused of the grisly murders who is now the newly elected vice-mayor of Shariff Aguak. It is the year of the grand slam which makes official the Marcos Restoration, cemented in twenty-four short years, and it is six long months since the Maguindanao Massacre.
Vigilance finds its match, and often enough, its assassin in fatigue, a reality I am made all too aware of each time I pass the College of Mass Communication on my way to work, where a makeshift sign announces the number of days since the Maguindanao Massacre. The days of injustice are numbered, it reads, and as the number inches its way up, the sign grows increasingly weather-beaten and exasperated, at times even losing count, only to recover its composure and remind us definitively, dust and grime notwithstanding, that it is this number of days since the unthinkable occurred. With no end to the countdown in sight, the reminder teeters on the brink of futility, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing in a country where simple recall is literally all that matters to win an election, where memory hardly goes beyond the sonic familiarity of a name, obscuring the forest of correspondences—the conviction for plunder or the documented abuse of power or the chronic incompetence—to which the name is tethered, where history is so negotiable we no longer commemorate anniversaries of key events, only the Mondays they come closest to, and where our commitments are as disposable as our latest Facebook status message, one grievance expressed or cause advocated replaced, soon enough, by another, or scrapped altogether in favor of what we had for breakfast or a funny thing that happened on our way home, sure to trigger the upping of so many thumbs and the necessary daily dose of banter.
And why not? Humor, whether opiate or palliative, is at the very least, bound to serve a purpose, which is more than we can say of ourselves, i.e., those who make art, who, despite our fiercest convictions and bleeding hearts, can only do so much, can hardly claim the ability to do enough when confronted with terror, injustice, impunity, and all the synonyms making up the dense nest that enfolds the Maguindanao Massacre, let alone the reality of the massacre itself. “There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning,” writes George Oppen, and I hope the fiddle-and-fire imagery is less an appraisal of art as an activity of the cruel and demented and more an articulation of the seemingly contradictory impulses of taking immediate political action and fermenting an artistic response—an opposition felt so strongly by some writers that idea of contributing to High Chair 12, a special issue devoted to the Maguindanao Massacre, seems, well, pointless. And perhaps this goes to show how art, within the admittedly severely limited circles in which I move, is practiced today, i.e., divorced from reality (Oppen again: “There comes a time in any such discussion as this when the effort to avoid the word reality becomes too great a tax on the writer’s agility”), or perhaps this goes to show how politics is practiced today, i.e., separate from art. Perhaps this is why a special issue like this published by High Chair is ”out of character“ when looked upon kindly, and “presumptuous” when viewed with harsher eyes. Perhaps this is why the anthologies that instantly surface in the search for models of protest poetry or committed writing or the poetry of witness are for the most part trapped in the period flanked by the tumultuous years leading up to martial law and the EDSA Revolution. “And so it was a time for poetry,” write editors Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and Esther M. Pacheco in Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983-1986. ”No other literary form could have hoped to capture the ties better or to distill the season’s emotions more effectively. It was a time to be brief and it was a time to be direct. But it was also a time for nobility of spirit; thus poetry was needed to bring that sense across, a sense that could not be delivered by slogans, by manifestos or by hoary oratory.” Already I am flinching at what I perceive to be the valorization of an art produced by a few and read by even fewer in the context of social unrest, or is this perhaps precisely the response of one whose coming of age transpired post-EDSA, under the rule of a handful of presidents whose governance, apparently, did not merit the same flourishing of protest literature as the Marcos era?
In an earlier installment of High Chair 12, Mabi David asks: "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?" And, later on: "You were not there. That is not your story. And consequently, I wondered, does it also mean that it is not my history?" The Battle for Manila is the specific context of her statements, yet they are true of the Maguindanao Massacre, a story that is of our time and yet is not our story, a story that transpires where we are and yet also where we are not, especially if we are poets not in Mindanao and not Muslim, especially if we are poets cloistered in the academe or in advertising or in the arts and culture sections of the dailies or glossy magazines, especially if we are poets who live comfortable lives or, at the very least, live a notch above getting by, which is more than can be said of the majority. “We are tribeless and all tribes are ours/We are homeless and all homes are ours” are, to us, lines that embody a humanist paradox and not a veritable call to arms. Of course, I am oversimplifying, but there is certainly some kind of alienation from the cherished cause that transpires, and if it is not sprung from what we know to be a relentlessly mediated reality—the favored mental playing field doubling as escape hatch for our detachment from distant atrocity pressing hard against the gruesome fact of the fifty-seven dead in Maguindanao—then it ensues in the contentious and vital task of secondary witnessing, whose vantage point is undoubtedly wanting and inescapable. This prompts poets otherwise at ease with self-importance, the requisite fuel for the nerve to write, to turn uncharacteristically humble, proclaiming the irrelevance of their speech in the bloodbath of far-flung Ampatuan town and thus absolving themselves of the task to respond. But to do so is to ignore the capacity of art to illuminate and intervene in matters of history, for which books have been banned and burned, smuggled and salvaged and sought—or at the very least, read—and to which poets should aspire. Rather than succumb to irrelevance, poets should strive to be accountable to their milieu and confront the liability of their position as secondary witnesses with their own artillery of circumvention.
The most available response, it seems, is sympathy, which, whether couched in rage or lament, would be kind and necessary. Grief and outrage, when not particularized, are shared spaces—we’re human, we’ve all been there. The alienation is not complete; there are points of contact that might be fashioned into conduits from I to other. But sympathy as a driving force in art, as in life, would also be easiest and (whether deliberate or not) manipulative, particularly if cliché, the linguistic counterpart of a wreath of flowers sent to adorn the coffin, without much bearing on the giver and even less on the recipient, save for the ornamental confirmation of solidarity. It also sanctions the unstudied confidence of poets in assuming the role of spokesperson for the sufferers, recklessly hijacking the voices of those in the direct line of fire; the blanket of shared humanity, when superimposed without calibration upon the Maguindanao Massacre, eclipses the complex specifics of the situation, conveniently diverting the attention from troublesome variables in favor of conventionally ethical and humanitarian constants. As we hopscotch our way out of estrangement via the path of solidarity (if we commiserate, then we are on the side of the victims, and if we are on their side, then we are there, with them), the task of the poet appears disappointingly naïve—as finite and formulaic and transient as the cursory offering of flowers to the dead—but also obscenely narcissistic, where engagement with remote atrocity capitalizes on what the self already knows—a reductive co-opting of the political into the personal, superficially textured by a newfound sonic familiarity with Muslim names—rather than ventures into what it doesn’t, the terra incognita that is the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and its attendant politics, of which the Maguindanao Massacre is but a horrifying fragment. Sincerest sympathies do not translate into interchangeability of experiences, and while this may seem obvious when said outright, the voicing of affinities at times fosters a false sense of accomplishment, which in turn cultivates a sense of righteousness that exempts the self from being subject to interrogation, if not deeming the act of interrogation itself as superfluous. Susan Sontag writes: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our own innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate response.”
The reprimand is especially pertinent to poets who, while perhaps capable of providing goodwill whenever the opportunity arises, shouldn’t mistake it for the sole and supreme task of the art. In other words, when working within the arena of poetry, it is not the poet’s task to play the good neighbor (though this may very well inform her art) but to hammer out through syntax an architecture of thinking. We bring to the situation the tools we have (or ought to have) in our possession, and a poet schooled in the capacity of language for interpretation and interrogation, apprehension and analysis, would sell the art short if, in response to atrocity, she opts to bask in or is consumed by sympathy, failing to resist the shorthand of shared humanity as a one-size-fits-all antidote to suffering. One is never all there with those who suffer, and the poet who glosses over this denies them their particularity, dismissing as mere technicalities the who, what, when, where, why, and how in every act of violence. To prefer to err on the side of homogenizing platitudes and motherhood statements rather than attempt to find diverse and polyphonic poetic forms, however flawed and provisional, that directly engage the intricate network of troubles that intersect in the Maguindanao Massacre—from the extermination, in one fell swoop, of a significant number of media workers practicing in the area, to the government-coddled notoriously wealthy, corrupt, and armed political dynasties, to the extreme poverty that besets the ARMM, where majority of the poorest in the country reside, to the perpetual discrimination against the Muslim minority of our population, the displacement and death brought about by insurgency, the age-old problem of peace in Mindanao, and so on—is to relinquish, all too easily, what one can offer in the communal effort to understand and revise the oppressive conditions that plague us, which in the poet’s case is the employment of words in the twin necessities of relentless scrutiny and long-term memory. The fruits to be reaped in wielding a pen, unlike scalpel or sword, are far from immediate and rarely come with blunt visuals, which might explain why we think little of it but also why it is a labor we can’t do without.
There is a moment in one of Oppen’s daybooks where he writes: “There is the one gap ^in the mind^, the space of the mind, in which everything may be held at arm’s length, everything may be seen from outside, and in which the will moves.” Sontag rephrases with “the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention” while Dickinson words it in the imperative: “If your Nerve, deny you—/Go above your Nerve—”. In different ways, they speak of vigilance, without which we are doomed to repetition, stark evidence of will unharnessed, the inexcusable crime of those who are not the direct targets of atrocity. Unafflicted by any kind of force that suppresses will, we have no business succumbing to lesser enemies—lethargy, distractedness, complacency, false humility—especially in the face of suffering, from which we have the luck or luxury of being exempt. The distance from which we apprehend atrocity turns obscene when left to drift toward indifference or amnesia; we earn our keep by remaining tethered, attentive, and responsive. That these labors take residence in poetry and art is, I hope, beyond negotiation. The art itself has consistently proven its relevance, and it is our burden as its practitioners to catch up.