Graphics by Carla T. GamalindaOPHELIA Alcantara-Dimalanta’s much celebrated reputation as a poet is summed up in the Ophelia A. Dimalanta Reader: Selected Poetry (UST Publishing House, 2004). But the critical consensus on her work as a poet is contained in the second volume of the reader, Selected Prose, published in 2006, which contains prose works by her and by her critics and supporters.

In the second volume, noted poet Cirilo Bautista describes her as “without exception, the best woman poet in the country.” The acclaim is well-earned, but comes despite the fact that her poems, according to Bautista, is “difficult to like at first reading.”

In the book, Father Rector Rolando de la Rosa, O.P. considers Dimalanta the “Sappho” of Philippine literature, referring to a well-known poet in ancient Greece.

Philippine Star columnist Isagani Cruz suggests that the best way to understand Dimalanta’s poetry is by the use of the five external senses in harmony with another five internal senses so as to “recreate poetry, that make reading part and parcel of the poetic act.”

Critics regard Dimalanta as a feminist, since her lyric works are focused mainly on womanhood and the female experience. But Dimalanta during her lifetime had considered the claim with ambivalence.

Excellence in wordplay

In Ophelia A. Dimalanta Reader: Selected Poetry, her selections of poetry are divided into five major themes: the art of poetry, romance, life and death, the different images of a woman, and travel.

The collection contains her best-known work, “Montage”, the title poem of her first collection in 1975, which won the Palanca grand prize. The title poem alone won Best Poem of the Year (1974) in the Iowa State University in the United States.

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“Montage” depicts a woman on a Monday morning with a weekend hangover. The first lines are easily among the most familiar to poetry lovers: “Monday jolts and she bogs down, a ragbag/Splayed off at tangents.” Dimalanta describes the woman’s many faces in fluid consistency, collating it into one integrated image of a woman—a montage.

Another famous poem is “A Kind of Burning,” about unconsummated love: “one way or the other/we keep this distance / closeness will tug us apart/in many directions.” The poet seems to say that no matter the distance love finds a way to close the gap. As the reader delves deeper into the musings of lovers separated by distance, one finds that the rush of love also deeply resembles Dimalanta’s whirlwind play of words.

Dimalanta can also weave excellent stories, as exhibited in her prose collection, which includes the short story, “Polyester Woman” (also called Lady Polyester), published in the late ‘70s by the Philippine Focus magazine.

Using fabrics as recurring themes, Dimalanta paints in stark contrast two women of different personalities, Amelia and Bayla: the former is polyester for her “strength lacking elegance” while Bayla personifies the opposite. Together, polyester and silk represent two distinct womanly traits—those who seek beauty and those who are strong-willed.

Creative non-fiction writer Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo associated Dimalanta’s literary prowess with some of history’s greatest writers such as Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Wallace Stevens, who are also known for their wizardry in words. Coincidentally, Woolf and Mansfield are fictionists while Stevens, a man, is the poet. Which should show that Dimalanta has—to generalize—both masculine and feminine sensibilities.

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Straying from the typical, Dimalanta’s works are definitely not for the “weak-hearted”, as Bautista writes. Few may understand her fanciful take on words, but, when one pursues the poetic artist within, one may find himself interlaced in the flurry of her words, her magic, and ultimately, the pure essence of her soul. Jonas Eleazar B. Trinidad

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