Text and photos by Kristine Joy L. Dabbay
IN LITERATURE, there are no double standards.
As part of its series paying tribute to women of letters, the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings (Aliww) honored literary icon Ophelia Dimalanta in the 13th Paz Marquez-Benitez Memorial Lecture and Exhibit last Dec. 4 at the Science Education Complex of the Ateneo de Manila University. Kicked off in 1995, the event, named after literary matriarch Paz Marquez-Benitez, is an annual tribute to Filipino women-writers who have greatly influenced and shaped Philippine literature.
“Even if the poet’s language is in a way gendered, and even if the woman poet speaks most of the time of women, she speaks to all, regardless of gender,” Dimalanta said in her remarks thanking Ateneo for the tribute.
Like Benitez, Dimalanta is considered a female icon of Filipino writers in English. Fondly called Ma’am Ophie, she has influenced writers both through her writing and mentorship.
Filipino poet and 2007 Southeast Asian Write awardee Michael Coroza, a Varsitarian Filipino editor during his student days in UST, attested to Dimalanta’s inspiring ways.
“Although she was not my teacher in UST, she has been my teacher in many aspects of my life. She is the mother of almost all writers in my generation,” Coroza said.
During the tribute, former students of Dimalanta paid tribute to her achievements by reading and performing her works.
Coroza recited his Filipino translation of Dimalanta’s “Don’t These People Ever Sleep?” The poem tackles the noise and racket of Dimalanta’s Navotas neighborhood, linking the noisy restlessness of the inner-city population with their poverty and squalor.
“Marahil na dito sa bayang ito hindi kailanman kaisa ang mga nagdarahop at katahimikan,” Coroza read.
UST professor and Palanca winner Eros Atalia recited “Dalamhati,” the Filipino translation by National Artist Virgilio Almario version of Dimalanta’s poem, “Coming to Grief”.
Josephine Gomez, a voice coach and classical singer, recited “All of Gold,” while poet Manolito Sulit, a junior associate of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies (CCWS) recited its Filipino translation. The poem’s lyric persona is Josephine Bracken, whom Jose Rizal married two hours before his execution in Bagumbayan.
Sulit read: “Bakit kaya ang pagpili sa pag-ibig ay pagpili rin sa kamatayan?”
Young poet Carlomar Daoana, another junior associate of the CCWS, recited one of Dimalanta’s more famous poems, “Flowers Are Not for Picking, Are They?”
The poem speaks about beauty as fleeting and transitory: “For flowers are not for picking, / Or are they; for picked, they easily/ wilt in mortal hands, their gloried peaks.”
The finale was a reading of Dimalanta’s verse drama on Aquinas, “St Thomas in a Minor Key.” The dramatic reading was made by UST professors and actors John Jack Wigley and Augusto Aguila, and young poet Frederick Ray.
In her remarks, Dimalanta talked about the diversity of her poetry’s subjects, from the romantic to the socio-political and the spiritual. But she complained she has been pigeonholed as an erotic poet.
“I’ve never been able to go beyond that eroticism. I keep defending myself that it is difficult to be erotic because there is a very thin line between eroticism and obscenity, and you should be able to handle eroticism well,” she said.
She explianed she wouldn’t mind if people would just call her a love poet. One of her best-loved volumes is titled “Love Woman.” She said her admirers particularly like her love poems, such as “A Kind of Burning,” with its sublime last lines: “We have been all the hapless/ lovers in this wayward world/ in almost all kinds of ways/ except we never really meet/ but for this kind of burning.”
Dimalanta’s achievement is attested by the numerous awards she has received, including the Palanca, the SEA Write Award in 1999, the Catholic Authors Award in 1995, and The Outstanding Thomasian Alumni Awards (Total) in 2002.
In a famous survey of Filipino poets in the 1980’s, she was the lone woman to be included in the Top 10. She shared the rankings with Jose Garcia Villa, Jose Rizal, Amado Hernandez and Cirilo Bautista.
“The writer belongs to no one and to everyone,” she said in Ateneo. “I’ve always advocated the need for creativity in the academe—nurturing and encouraging. It must be at the heart of the way in which we lose and exploit the new technologies that are made available to us,” Dimalanta jokingly said, taking a dig at the Dominicans since she was in Jesuit territory.
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