AS “GUESTS” in that faraway home called the English language, Filipino poets have the great burden of having to write in a language where they may feel unwelcome. But At Home in Unhomeliness: An Anthology of Philippine Postcolonial Poetry in English (UST Publishing House, 2007) shows that Filipino writers have not only mastered English, but also built their own home there.
Featuring 82 poems from some of the countries most promising young poets in English, At Home in Unhomeliness has been released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists). Founded by Thomasian man of letters and National Artist F. Sionil Jose, Philippine PEN is the local branch of the International PEN, a worldwide association of writers that upholds freedom of expression and the coming together of various cultures through literature.
At Home is edited by J. Neil C. Garcia, a magna cum laude graduate of UST AB Journalism in 1990. He is a prolific poet and critic.
In his introduction, Garcia notes the desire of postcolonial writers to recover their lost precolonial identities. “Needless to say, language is a crucial issue in postcolonial literature and in the identity politics that underwrites it,” he writes. “It simply can’t be sidestepped, I suppose: colonized peoples who speak (and write) in the language of colonization necessarily confront the problem of consciousness, and therefore, of identity.”
Different themes make up the anthology—personal takes on reality, spirituality and even a pinch of politics. Wanderlust poems such as Jose Wendell Capili’s “The Great Australian Landscape” and “Gorilla Bay” show the Filipino sensibility imbibing foreign geography.
The latter poem describes the beauty of the bay: “Gastropods on a drift/ conceive enclosures of/ bubbles shimmering forth,/ polished and white among/ rocks, splashing as spring/ time turns supremely aqua/ marine, even less torrential.” Dinah Roma-Sianturi’s “Borobudur” infuses vision to Indonesia’s famed Buddhist monument: “Up there, you said, is a vision/ not of stupas but of bodies/ circling the void to wake the divine.”
Paolo Manalo’s “At the Chocolate Kiss” tells of the experiences of young people out on their first date: “You can tell them by the stars in their eyes/ And that uneven spread of baby powder/ On their faces./(…)/She tries to look prettier/ Than she already is. He tries to look. . ./ No, not at her breasts.” Jennifer Patricia Cariño’s “Residence” tackles mature love: “This residence/ We may lose, but you are where I truly live./ There is a space for you in this body yet.”
For poet and UST Professor Ralph Semino Galán, misery is a wellspring for poetry. “Magician” shows the painful art of letting go: “Star-clad, I offer my wounds/ to the universe, faith transforming/ pain into poetry, suffering into song.”
The collection reminds readers that language remains a problem in Filipino poetry in English. Whether or not our postcolonial poets have established identity in their works is still a blank page to be filled. According to Garcia, because the upshot of colonization is still unfolding, the search for postcolonial identity has yet to be concluded.