WHEN the martial law struck down the Philippine press with balled lightning, closing down “subversive” papers and strapping still others with a leash, journalists with a heart for literature sought refuge in the arts to regain their voice.

One of those journalists-turned-underground writers was former Philippines Free Press reporter Jose F. Lacaba, now managing editor of Yes! magazine. His keen observation on the eve of the First Quarter Storm spawned intelligent and powerful reportage in the Free Press and, later, in the Asia Philippines Leader. These can be savored collectively in his award-winning classic Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, a compilation of his reportage on the First Quarter Storm and related events.

The cool, hard, logic of Lacaba’s reportage, however, thaws in the madness and sentiment of his poetry.

In his poem, “Setyembre 1972: Kalatas sa Anak sa Pagdedeklara ng Batas Militar,” Lacaba tenderly, but sternly addressed the youth to shun the limits of comfort and to keep idealisms high: “Sa ina mong kapiling/ang mahigpit kong bilin/ay huwag kang palakhin/ sa kutson, luho’t lambing,/ bagkus pa nga’y sanayin/ sa dahas ng sakit,/ sa hilahil.”

Lacaba’s poetry was written in the plainest Filipino and in the simplest of forms. It was also spotted with slang and vulgar utterances, a trait that immediately distinguished Lacaba from other poets in the Filipino language.

In the 10th USTINGAN hosted by the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies (CCWS) in 2002, Lacaba explained his style by quoting Greek philosopher Terence, saying “I am human and nothing that is human is alien to me.”

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But despite the harshness of language and the brutality of technique, Lacaba’s poetry is always sincere and unafraid of showing emotion.

According to Dr. Joyce Arriola, Media Studies Chairperson of the UST Faculty of Arts and Letters, the martial law era allowed artists to seek metaphors to avoid censorship and charges of sedition. Philippine literature during the days of unrest was characterized by subtlety, imagery and metaphor. Bluntness of language and depth of implication were also observed.

“We had a unique flowering of ideas in the time of repression because there was a seething rebellion,” Ariola said.

Aimed at the masses, plainspeak was made vivid, timely and socially relevant. Literature during the Martial Law era, she said, was also multi-layered, implying various meanings which can be perceived according to the level of maturity and point of view of the readers.

Lacaba’s “Lahat ng Hindi ko Kailanagang Malaman Natutunan ko sa Pelikulang For Adults only” can be read as a social commentary on honest living or as a satire on politicians squandering public funds for personal gains. It tells the many “virtues” of a prostitute who earns an honest living despite the dangers of her profession and the countless prejudices that come with it.

But CCWS senior associate Cirilo Bautista was no romantic despite the adrenaline rush in the days of disquiet. “It was no different,” he told The Varsitarian . “Kung ano naman ang naisulat noon, pwede pa rin naman isulat ngayon.”

He said he was more bothered then with difficulty in publishing. Publishing opportunities, he said, were limited and writers had to get the approval of the Ministry of Publication.

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“You are a writer not because of martial law alone,” Bautista said.

His poems, like Lacaba’s, were bold, socially relevant, and moving. But whereas Lacaba’s works, in their sharpness, were tinged with romance even by martial law standards, Bautista’s works were delivered straight and matter-of-factly.

In “Diplomats,” from his fourth anthology Charts (Nalco Press, 1973), Bautista criticizes the manner in which “diplomats,” press and political, sugar-coat the national crisis of the time by dispatching calm but false information.

Like all artists of the time, Baustista also disdained the censors and expressed this in “Ang Pagpatay sa Salita,” from the anthology Sugat ng Salita (Da La Salle University Press 1986). He said, “Ang pagpatay sa salita ay isang krimen/ gaya ng pagpatay sa isang panaginip/ … Kataga’y walang buto,/ nagpapakintab lamang at walang tinig/ hindi nagbabago, nagbabarnis lang/ sa kanilang nakakatakot na talim.”

All protest literature was also satirical at some point and the dangers of self-expression were real.

Lacaba reaped the ire of Marcos when he published his controversial poem, “Prometheus Unbound” in Focus Magazine under the pseudonym Ruben Cuevas. Later, after the 1986 revolution, he published the poem again in Kamao, an anthology of protest literature released by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, under his real name.

Lacaba, who had close ties with the Varsitarian when he was studying in the Ateneo de Manila University, could have published the poem in the publication had it not been for the risky nature of the piece. With the use of acrostics, the first letters of each line read: MARCOS HITLER DICTADOR TUTA.

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After many other “assaults” against the dictatorship, Lacaba later became a political prisoner and was only freed at the pleading of the late National Artist Nick Joaquin.

Lacaba’s younger brother, Emmanuel, who was also a poet, in his poem, “Open Letters to Filipino Artists” said art must not only serve to decorate, but to lead the way to national consciousness. He formed the communist underground and was later killed by the military in Mindanao.

Some protest writers immediately attacked the government. Some also addressed institutions like the Church and the family.

Karl Gaspar’s poem, “To Give Flesh to Ones’ Faith,” called on the Church to widen its action outside convent walls and see the suffering of the people amid the tumult. “It is no longer a joke/ to give flesh to one’s faith,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Mila Agilar Gaspar’s “Pigeons for My Son” told the poignant tale of a mother separated from her son because of political imprisonment. The mother sent her son a pair of pigeons bred in her prison cell. She thought the boy would keep the birds caged as a reminder of her but was not in the least surprised when the boy freed the pigeons, signifying his love for freedom.

The protest writers during the time of depression sought refuge in the most ordinary things. They saw the beauty of violence, fashioned it into works of art, and gave it for all the world to see. Czeriza Shennille S. Valencia with reports from Bernadette G. Irinco

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