Sunday, February 27, 2011


Born of the rocks, of the sea spume

I recently read Diwata, the most recent book of poems by Barbara Jane Reyes (published 2010 by BOA Editions. I found it a many-layered, profoundly moving work. Like Reyes's earlier book Poeta en San Francisco (which I've written about previously in this blog, here), Diwata weaves together multiple undercurrents of experience and perception, mingling creation stories from the biblical Genesis and from Philippine/Filipino tradition, together with moments from the history and politics of imperial colonization in the twentieth century.

The poems in Diwata (sometimes written in prose paragraphs on the page, sometimes in conventional lines and stanzas) move through conjurations of magic, spirit beings and power, animal beings mythical and real and some of each, historical and cultural detail, and tender invocations of love. According to the publisher's webpage for the book, "diwata is a Tagalog term meaning, 'muse.' Diwata is also a term for a mythical figure or being who resides in nature, and whom human communities must acknowledge, respect, and appease, in order to live safely, harmoniously, and prosperously in the world."

From a poem titled "Diwata" near the beginning of the book:

A woman's hands make find thread dance. With needles of carabao horn, of bamboo, she embroiders names into silk--serpent ulap scale luna fire lihim gem azul eye liwanag river mariposa light talà--when she weaves these words into the fabric of the sky, a charm against forgetting. With ink and thread she draws her own hands pero siempre esta manos desaparecen; she weaves enkanto contra palabras vaporosas, poemas contra vacía alma. And when her face begins to resemble the porcelain virgin's face, for this firelight causes much to appear, still she sings: o diwata, your words are our breath! O diwata, our words are our offering to you!

Running through the varying times and places in the poems, and the subtly shifting voices and perspectives, I feel a consistent essential thread of storytelling, bringing knowledge to light, knowledge often obscured by the fogs of long colonization (both beyond and within the borders of empire) but not entirely lost. This, for example, from the poem "Again, She Tells the First Story":

She who was born of the rocks fell in love with the one who was born of sea spume. There upon the rocks, they spread seeds and soil, and from these the bamboo sprouted. It rooted itself in those rocks, and some say lightning, some say a bird split this bamboo open.

Others say a great serpent ruled the sea, and set upon his crown, a gleaming stone upon which the skyfolk spilled dark earth. I do not know why they tried to bury the serpent, but because of this, he hissed and lashed at them. The sea was once sweet and cool as rainwater. In the north, a medicine woman told of her people's prayers for salt. Hot winds brought to them fragrances of the dead. After the waters receded, the shores became the color of clear crystals and blood.

Not all stories are mythology. Not all mythological stories are pure fiction. Literal truth runs through much story, in the same way that dreams and waking life make a kind of background for each other. In the world in which we live we often find ourselves forced to awaken to realities that it would be fatal to turn away from.

At midnight, the old men gather with oil lanterns aboard their fishing boats. This is when I feed. With rosaries in hand they stab the water with machetes. Their sons say, "Do not be foolish. There are no more mermaids here. It it the crocodiles who are stealing our brothers."

Crocodiles! Ridiculous!

Crocodiles are not slick. My dolphin skin withstands the men's machetes. But make no mistake; the old men give me many scars. [...]

[...] As for their sons, their bodies come slipping deep into my home. Hands and feet, bound. Salvaged bodies full of soldiers' bullets, blooming blood flowers in my water. I sing them to sleep in my garden. If the old men only knew what care I take, bedding the sleeping sons of fishermen, warming their bodies in blankets of mud.

(From the poem "Duyong I." I'm guessing, or maybe assuming, that "duyong" is a Tagalog word for the animal called, in English, "dugong," a sea mammal similar to a manatee.) In an endnote, Reyes explains that in the context of political conditions in the Philippines the word "salvage," as used in the poem, refers to assassination or "extrajudicial execution" (a phrase used by Amnesty International and similar organizations).

At times the poems rise to the level of almost pure incantation, with lines and phrases repeating and rounding back through each other in the manner of a pantoum and similar forms. Reyes shows a keen ear for such music; the repeating lines, when they occur, are not a mere mechanical device, but rather work toward an accumulating power through the poems.

she knows the stars, an ascension of pearls
she is mother, the deepest ocean
she weeps silver tears when the moon is full
leaf storm, rice terrace, color of midnight

she is mother, the deepest ocean
sunrise, black pearl, blood, and serpent
leaf storm, rice terrace, color of midnight
leaping, spinning, fingertips skyward

sunrise, black pearl, blood and serpent
with tobacco and fruit to appease the silence
leaping, spinning, fingertips skyward
she is a silver-winged bird in flight

with tobacco and fruit to appease the silence
the medicine woman prays for salt
she is a silver-winged bird in flight
she has marked her own flesh with thunder

In several of the poems the poet voice speaks as Eve, the first woman named in the book of Genesis. Invocation to being is an act that pulses through all of Diwata, a calling out to union with another that is both general and universal and also specific and intimate. I can hear Reyes's trust in her own voice at such moments in the poems. From the poem "Eve Speaks 2":

Come ashore, my winsome pilgrim, kiss the earth if you must. See how this collection of stolen bones becomes a wolf. Place your open hand there, and the delicate skin of your wrist supine, so that she may know your scent. Within salt circles, unlock this cage of skin with a hairpin. See the flesh burn away, until all that remains is the seashell. Place your ear gently against her heart, a memory of ocean. Take a lock of her hair; bind it with silk. Do not speak your intention. Bury it beneath your fragrant tree in this garden, and remember to taste the wind. Dear pilgrim, now there is cause for prayer, even for one who has forgotten the words.

In the face of the daily hammering madness of the world, the thousand cynical schemings in high places by those who persist in trying to suck the earth dry, under the weight of the alienation and numbing isolation that each of us encounters periodically in such a world, the poems in Diwata offer a quiet insistent countercurrent. The shadows of fear have not darkened the earth. It is still possible for us to be human beings with each other. There is a way through this.

Ever shall there be a we, a ceaseless, insistent we, the fiercest we, bound only to the knowledge of scars upon my flesh, and the segment of my spine which aches to sprout wings. Deep within lightless dovecotes, this we shall remember the lamentation of songbirds as it remembers the lingering warmth of your retreating form. Ever shall this we know how tender, your flesh at the throat, how you fecund black loam scent sates me.

Do not let the sun steal you from my side and set you wandering, for now we know red hibiscus blooms here in your city of constant sirens. Bring me your bones and your fire, and I will keep them safe.

(From the poem "Eve's Aubade.")

Hi Lyle, My deepest thanks for this lovely reading of Diwata. This is much appreciated.
My pleasure, Barbara.
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