Thursday, March 29, 2007


PHILIPPINE NEWS, March 28, 2007: 

Paean to colons and commas
By Allen Gaborro

Little attention is paid to the application of punctuation marks in a text. Yet, with the simple shift of a semicolon or a comma, how a sentence or paragraph is interpreted can change. In the first volume of her “The Secret Lives Of Punctuations” poetry collection, Eileen Tabios invests her idiosyncratic verses with an emphasis not only on imaginative thinking and on a “weakness” for departing from the norms of the English language, but also on the taken-for-granted practice of punctuation.

Tabios shares this passion for creative punctuation with Barbara Jane Reyes, Paolo Javier, Eric Gamalinda and other published FilAm poets. This unconventional, even esoteric, form has been passed down to them by a revered Filipino prophet of the art of innovative punctuation, José Garcia Villa. His nonconformist spirit is alive and well in Tabios’s poetry.

Such deconstructionist poetry as Tabios’s has the ability to either inspire wonderfully limitless layers of meaning among the open-minded or downright contempt among old school poetry enthusiasts. Traditionalists are sure to bemoan the glaring absence of clear-cut continuity and linearity in her work, which must be a far cry from anything they have grown accustomed to reading. But the highly subjective ground on which Tabios’s poetry stands in “The Secret Lives Of Punctuations” is the bread and butter of her poeticism. It is where the anomalous magnetism of her works lie, tradition be damned.

Tabios’s devotion to an individualistic-centered strategy of poetic interpretation can be encapsulated in what she calls a “long-held poetic interest of mine.” That interest involves, as she puts it, “writing poems that can be read forward, backward, left to right or right to left.” Tabios’s poetry can be transmuted into the notion that beginnings are ends and that ends are really beginnings, to borrow loosely from T.S. Eliot. In the hands of an unabashed rule-breaker like Tabios, Eliot’s universal idea of ends and beginnings tears apart coherent narrative patterns. Indeed, to understand Tabios’s poetry means having to do away with easily-discernable signifier-to-signified interactions between words, phrases, and sentences, and thus between poems and their essences if it can be said there is such a thing. Perhaps this is a reach, but if one had to find comparisons in her unregimented verses to the productions of a particular visual artist, Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock and his disorderly, nonrepresentational “drip” paintings would seem to fit the bill.

Tabios meant for “The Secret Lives Of Punctuations” to be a sort of homage to the family of English punctuation marks: the comma, the question mark, colons and semi-colons, the ellipsis, and strikethroughs are all given special mention by the author. She utilizes each mark to subvert the standard forms of the King’s English, or in the postmodern context of Tabios’s poetry, the Americanized version of His Majesty’s English. What is alluded to here is Tabios’s attempt, however circuitously, to delineate a trajectory between her poetry and the historical narrative of America’s colonial relationship with the Philippines.

As if acting as Tabios’s postcolonial spokeswoman, Sonoma State University Professor Leny Mendoza Strobel asserts that Tabios’s poems are a response to how the grammatical rules that administer the English language have been usurped in the service of American colonial domination. This contention appears in Strobel’s essay, also titled “The Secret Lives of Punctuations,” which is incorporated into Tabios’s book. Referring to herself as a “postcolonial subject,” Strobel writes that “the rules of English usage didn’t come in a vacuum. They came nicely packaged as a ‘gift’ from the empire to its colonial outposts.” For Strobel, Tabios’s verses “de-familiarize” English punctuation in order to “avoid recycling the narratives of an imperial past that has become useless to the present.”

If we were to coalesce the totality of Tabios’s poems into a single commentary, we would probably be compelled to step beyond the thematic content of her works and recognize that they hang on the perspective of the noble individual who lives experientially in the world and who meditates spiritually above it. With all the subtlety of a kamikaze pilot, Tabios explains that “I, robustly believing in subjectivity, fling myself naked, hair matted and blood rushing into the poetry-writing.”

Tabios gives readers every opportunity to gaze out on the far side of their existence and see that “reality,” poetic or otherwise, is contingent upon the dynamic energies that run throughout their unique human imaginations. That said, hard work and great patience will be required on the part of readers if they are to understand and appreciate Tabios’s poetry. But that will only make the interpretive chase that much more sweeter.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


[First published in The Philippine Star, March 5, 2007]


A poem of mine that's been much-anthologized, titled "Andy Warhol Speaks to His Two Filipino Maids," starts with these lines:

"Art, my dears, is not cleaning up/ after the act. Neither is it washing off/ grime with the soap of tact. In fact/ and in truth, my dears, art is dead// center, between meals, amid spices/ and spoilage..."

This came to mind at the penultimate day of the five-week-old exhibit titled "Chromatext Reloaded" at the CCP Main Gallery. The poets, writers and artists who had participated were ready to help strike down the display the next day and take the works home. In a way we had enjoyed our Warholian 15 minutes of public scrutiny if not exactly fame.

But at the scheduled closing event last Tuesday — a performed poetry gig billed as "Word of Mouth" that drew an audience of over 150 people who gave of their engrossed time "between meals" — CCP Visual Arts head Sid Gomez Hildawa announced that "owing to overwhelming public demand," the show would be extended by another week. This means that those who still have to catch it can do so until 6 p.m. tomorrow.

It could have been the appreciation drawn from the public, especially from groups of students from Los Baños, Dasmariñas in Cavite, Tarlac and Baguio City that visited the gallery and filled up the attendance ledger with glowing remarks like "Unique!" and "Fantastic!" Or it might have been the voiced request of not a few writer-artists themselves, such as culture honcho Nick Tiongson, hear tell, who hoped to yet find a chance to view the exhibit.

Well, a co-participant has claimed that it's been one of the most exciting displays mounted at the CCP over the past year. I wouldn't know about that. But at the risk of being accused of unabated self-promotion, I can't help but share the glad tidings that "Chromatext Reloaded" did bring together quite a bunch of spirited "Sunday artists" — whose tokens of creative expression were allowed the privilege of hanging alongside others of a legitimate claim to gallery walls, floors, ledges and glassed-in boxes.

These latter works included textually highlighted wood sculpture by National Artist Billy Abueva, writers' portraits by National Artist Bencab, distinctive canvases and graphic art by multimedia artists David Medalla, Manny Baldemor, Pandy Aviado, Danny Dalena, Rock Drilon, Fil de la Cruz, Tita Lacambra Ayala, Gilda Cordero Fernando, Erlinda Panlilio, Mav Rufino, Margot Marfori, Barbara Gonzalez, Beaulah Taguiwalo, Heber Bartolome, Pete Lacaba, Jun Cruz Reyes, Frank Rivera, Jean Marie Syjuco and Cesare A.X. Syjuco, among others.

Toss in holographs (in their own write, that is) of poems by National Artists Edith L. Tiempo and Virgilio S. Almario, stunning sculpture by Agnes Arellano and riveting installation art by Vim Carmelo Nadera, Lorina Javier, and Raul Funilas, plus movie actor Piolo Pascual's handwritten appropriation of poet-novelist R. Zamora Linmark's couplets — inscribed across the heartthrob's own glossy photos in a magazine — and you get an idea of the kind of mélange, motley and multi-dimensional, offered on view.

A few days before the performance reading, I had a chance to revisit the scene of these startling crimes of verbal-visual fusion. In the quiet and relative solitude (only a couple was around, intently taking notes before each work), I managed to appreciate the whole shebang even more.

Certain sections of the grand exhibit involving over 80 literary and visual artists will stay in the mind, or mind's eye. That end corner occupied by Jean Marie's tantalizing sculptural installation. Boy Yuchengco's altar. RayVi Sunico's wine bottles with poem labels. Handcrafted books by Babeth Lolarga and Del Tolentino. Xerography by Raul Ingles and the late Larry Francia of the writers' group named The Ravens.

Then there's a section that is probably the most hypermodern of the lot. From the left wall and panning right were Maxine Syjuco's arresting photo assemblage, followed by Fran Ng's self-portrait in oil upon which is layered quasi-graffiti on a plastic sheet, thence three illustrated poems by Danton Remoto, one of these half-concealed in a wooden frame, and then a small audio-video gizmo hooked up to the wall with earphones, allowing anyone to listen privately to Lourd de Veyra's recitation while viewing flowing images concocted by Nona Garcia.

Off the wall, at the center of this recessed area, are a couple of monitor screens playing text-layered video by both Sarge Lacuesta and Mookie Katigbak, while fronting them, on the floor, is a weighing scale where one can stand and view the poundage tape reel through, and stop at the word "Kulang."

Towards the right is Judy Freya Sibayan's wall installation that incorporates alphabet blocks, followed by Angelo Suarez's corner installation of a chair mounted with his cheeky deconstruction of mentor Ophie Dimalanta's poem. Taking up the right wall are Igan D'Bayan's oil painting of sheep-men's faces pregnant with the silence of a howl, and lastly, a Red Cross paper installation that is visual poetry decanted by Eileen Tabios from Marcos' literary era.

The assemblage turns even more dynamic when one sees viewers padding up to each work in reverential gaze and/or perusal/participation, such as at last Tuesday's event. Lasting nearly three hours, "Word of Mouth" was something else again, combining the energies of senior "page poet" readers with those of electric (in more ways than one!) musicians, performance crews, spoken word adepts, hip-hop rappers in both Tagalog and English... Such dynamism, mesmerizing as a litany!

Particularly memorable was the opening number by Lirio Salvador of the experimental band Elemento, conducted on a gleaming metal contraption that took the electronic organ into the 22nd century. Same with the harmonium and electric violin duo of Punnu Wasu and Oz Arcilla, who were eventually joined by verbalist Yanna Acosta (she who has just written two original songs with master guitarist Sammy Asuncion, for Candid!).

In the epic midst of all that sound confabulation, a student from PSID, Nityalila Saulo, lofted the evening into ether with her lovely, powerful voice — rendering with solo acoustic guitar a finely melodic song she herself composed, as an adaptation of Marjorie Evasco's classic poem "Origami."

Took everyone's breath away, before we could fold and tuck our corners of delight into a night's gigabyte of awe.

Now, art, my dears, can be all that and more. More often than not, in this country that fairly brims with transcendental creative genius, particularly in the visual and performing fields, we wish for more time — "amid spices and spoilage" — to soak ourselves in the cornucopia.

I for one would like nothing more than to declare retirement in my over-preening dotage, so I may spend my whiles and wherefores in the comfort of art galleries and theaters, taking in what's best in the Pinoy. So many artists, so much art stuff to revel in. But breadwinning chores prevent us from attending every exhibit opening we're invited to, so that we can only defer to old friendships in the appreciation of across-the-board, across-the-archipelago talent.

There was our young buddy Igan D'Bayan's second solo exhibit at The Crucible, another sold-out affair, even if not consisting of garden-variety sala decor, but rather of provocatively "dark" paintings that seemed to marry Goth and Meta, their connubial bliss spiced up with rock-and-roll!

Why, that's what I should have said to Jaime Zobel when we ran into one another before the opening at Megamall's Art Walk, and he had asked me to explain the appeal of Igan's art. He had made sure to visit the exhibit before the crowd came, something to do with a wisdom tooth pre-empting sosyal chitchat.

So we stood there by another gallery, wondering about the vagaries of art, including the beautiful accidents occasioned by such group shows as his recent one with my cousin Reggie Yuson (I claim kinship!) and company. It is possibly the same with "Chromatext Reloaded," which I urged him to view, if only to see a title card for an oil painting that read: "After Jaime Zobel's Red Flower Photograph."

We feed on one another, on the healthy diet of competition and mutual, collegial, communal support. Rockers Chikoy Pura and Mon Espia perform live at Igan's opening, and somehow we see (and hear, resoundingly) how Igan's art relates to the retro music in the air.

Before crossing paths with Don Jaime, himself an accomplished artist, I had been taking in the proliferation of architectural art ("Gimme Shelter!") among the display in three galleries at Art Walk: Prisms, Passionata, and Purple, which all owe their materials to Chuckie Arellano's fabulous personal collection.

I've begun to think that art is like that, too: democratic even if conducted mostly by aristocrats of creative expression. Finally it becomes meritocracy at work, and play.

At "Word of Mouth," I finally get to meet the widow and artist-daughter of old friend Ibarra de la Rosa (bless his comic soul), who once stayed with me in Dumaguete during a Negros painting foray with Jon Altomonte, way back in 1970. I tell Camille de la Rosa that I've been following her early success as a painter, in the papers. Genetically predisposed she is, of course. But what she does next, or progressively, would owe as much to what she sees being done around her, and how she reacts to it, as to her father's legacy.

Also last week, while planning a commemorative affair for the third anniversary by late April of Nick Joaquin's demise, his literary executor Billy Lacaba recounted a funny story.

It seems Billy had tried to make "arbor" an oil portrait of what he thought was a religious lady, veiled and all, that hang in Nick's room. The master's voice boomed: "Hindi taga Cofradia 'yan, kundi lady of the night. At kay Abe Aguilar Cruz 'yan! Hindi ko bibigay sayo!" Inspecting the painting, however, Billy found its authorship on the back of the framed canvas. It wasn't Abe's at all. Showing this to Nick, Billy got this response: "A, di pala sa kaibigan kong si Abe. Kung ganun, sayo na lang."

Names can be important, my dears. As is, of course, friendship. Take the current display of "Macau Magic" at the second floor lounge of The Podium. With friends Bencab, Soler, Phyllis Zaballero and Claude Tayag as the featured artists, and Nilo Ilarde as curator, how could I decline the invite from organizer Finale Art File and Bob Zozobrado?

No way. And I was glad, too, that I attended the unveiling, for not only was a lion and dragon dance presented; I also ran into my old buddy FVR who was a guest of honor. (To think that only a week earlier I had photographed beloved Tita Cory Aquino presenting her paintings to Benedictine fathers at the Red & White Ball. And I had interjected, "Fathers, she's the finest Sunday lady painter I know." To which the ever-gracious lady riposted: "Ikaw naman, oo.")

Now here was her successor in the flesh, too, at an art opening. Why, shaking hands with the best president we've had in recent memory is to learn that he makes a living now out of the golf course.

"Not from sandbagging, Sir, I hope?"

"Not on your life. From honestly playing the game, against all dishonest comers."

Bravo. That could be a quip applied to art, too. And so, my dears, from Andy Warhol to El Tabako, wisdom is gained that will see us through for more than 15 minutes — rather a lifetime of tact, of truth, and of being right on center.


[First published in Philippine Star, Manila, Feb. 26, 2007]

Mouthing the word

The milestone of an integrated literary and visual arts exhibit, Chromatext Reloaded, which has been on display at the CCP's Main Gallery since its ebullient opening on January 25, comes to a rip-roaring close tomorrow night with a session of performed poetry billed as "Word of Mouth."

Sponsored by the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC) and organized by exhibit co-curator Jean Marie Syjuco, the closing event starts at 6:30 p.m. It will consist of readings and performances by PLAC &Friends, the same spontaneously combusting association that put together the well-received Chromatext edition.

"Word of Mouth" features a sterling assembly of seasoned literary performance artists, poets and musicians led by PLAC members Jimmy Abad, Cesare A.X. Syjuco, RayVi Sunico, Marne Kilates, and yours truly. Joining us are fellow poets and writer-painters Gilda Cordero Fernando, Marivic Rufino, Joel Toledo, Carlomar Arcangel Daoana and Angelo Suarez, along with a dynamic mix of multi-media artists, young musicians and Spoken Word ensembles.

The performers include the prizewinning playwright and theater artist Frank Rivera, painters Rock Drilon, Alan Rivera and Danny Sillada, singer-composer Nityalila Sauro, conceptual and installation arrtist Raul Funilas, and Spoken Word / Slam Jam performers G.P. Abrajano, Siege Malvar, Trix Syjuco, Jevijoe Vitug, Yanna Verbo Acosta, Lorina Javier and Ria Munoz.

Performing coteries count the fast-rising underground hip-hop collective AMPON (which released a bestselling CD album late last year, Dekoding Rhythm); Vim Nadera &Friends; Maxine Syjuco &Utakan; When Wor(l)ds Collide (with Twinkle, Gino, Otto, and Happy Ferraren); Controlled Chaos (with Ronaldo Ruiz &The Tupada Core); Lirio Salvador &Elemento; Ida, Kookie &Viva; and Mitch Garcia &Ian Madrigal.

Guests are enjoined to come early to appreciate the exhibit a first or second/last time. Chromatext Reloaded includes works by over 80 poets, writers and visual artists, including National Artists Napoleon Abueva, Edith L. Tiempo, Virgilio S. Almario, and Benedicto Cabrera or Bencab.

We've been congratulating triumphant poets almost every week now. Prizes galore have been a boon for numerous Filipino poets in English, just as much as they've been for Fil-Am poets.

Our latest poetry contest winner is Jean Vengua, per an announcement posted late last week by Meritage Press of San Francisco. She's received the Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize for her manuscript titled "Prau." A $1,000 prize accompanies the award, and the winning work is due for publication by Meritage Press ( by autumn this year.

Instituted by Meritage Press and poet-editor Eileen R. Tabios in honor of her late father, the prize is being awarded for the first time. Submissions were reportedly screened by Ms. Tabios herself, and the finalists were passed on to her mother, Beatriz Tabios. All entries were reviewed on an anonymous basis to ensure that the shortlist selection and final judging would be based solely on the merits of the poems.

Eileen writes: "We are pleased to present some samples from Jean Vengua's winning manuscript 'Prau,' and hope you will remember her entire book — as it turns out, her debut poetry book — when it is released later in 2007. (If formats get lost by e-mail, you can see her poems at babaylan/)

"We would like to thank the poets who participated in this contest. We read many wonderful poems by other participants. In particular, we would like to acknowledge the finalist and Second Place winner Edgar B. Maranan (Quezon City) for the lovely lyricism and imagery displayed in his manuscript, "Star Maps &Other Poems." (N.B. Our friend Ed Maranan is currently back in London, packing up his stuff for the final time before he returns to MetroManila and his Baguio hometown.)

Jean Vengua lives in Santa Cruz, California. She~teaches at Gavilan College and also works as a content editor for McGraw-Hill Publishing. Her poetry has gained inclusion in numerous print and online journals and anthologies, including Going Home to a Landscape, Babaylan, Proliferation, Returning a Borrowed Tongue, Moria and Otoliths. Her essays, articles and reviews on literature and music~have been published in Jouvert, Geopolitics of the Visual (from Ateneo de Manila University Press), Pinoy Poetics, the e-zine Our Own Voice, and

Checking out the sampler of five brief poems sent along by Eileen, I see how Vengua's poetry made a distinct impression. Three of them are prose poems, one of which I must share for your delectation.

Note how even the matter of applying italics can heighten a poem, especially one that is hard-edged and which takes abrupt, surprising turns of thought and imagery. I like it so much that I intend to read it at the "Word of Mouth" affair at CCP tomorrow. It's somewhat appropriate for the start of another zany election campaign season, since it's titled "Turncoat."

"position the bird in a side pocket or put it to sleep in poetry. step
right up to the shining path. a broken column is pinned to the collar
bone, pillar to support her head. she paints a portrait, enlarges upon
puddles hidden behind creative writing, drips tears onto a palette, rips
open her camisa de dormir. there are two fine breasts cleaved up the
middle, and crowning the brow a hairy sliver of moon. the bees are joined
in marriage behind literature, european. i kiss your hand, madelaine. i
eat your cookies. she unstraps her camisa de fuerza. el corazon beats
between science and the mystery of moths and myths. there is cooking for
my mother's rosary, juvenile for our apocalypse. choose your color,
advance one square, retreat six. cambiarse la camisa is to change
categories. in fiction, one must cross two rivers, being careful to avoid
the black holes, center stage. fall forever into universe, tell a story,
make place."

Bravo, Jean Vengua.