AN AUSTRALIAN writer once wrote that in order to have words in one’s funeral, one needs life in life. For the interment of renowned poetess and mentor Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta, words came easy as people who loved her dearly remembered the vivacious character that she was.

On her last “homecoming” in the University, fellow writers and teachers gathered at the UST Santisimo Rosario Parish Church to share their memories of the Love Woman, as goes the title of one of her poetry collections.

Among the writers

Speaking on the night of November 8, National Artist for Literature and former Varsitarian editor in chief F. Sionil Jose described Dimalanta as “a woman who wrote with her ovaries,” and said that it was “very likely of her to be the very reason” why writers were gathered that night.

Jose’s fellow National Artist, Bienvenido Lumbera, recalled Dimalanta as his editor during their days in the Varsitarian, joking that the late poet did not like to admit that she was a year ahead of him and that they were contemporaries.

“Kaya tayo nagsusulat ng tula ay para tapatan ang tula ni Ophie,” he said.

Multi-awarded poet Rebecca Añonuevo, who also teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts and Letters, thanked her mentor for respecting the language that she opted to write in. She also echoed Lumbera’s sentiment after sharing fond memories of her teacher during the heydays of the abolished Center for Creative Writing and Studies.

“Mananatili kang buhay sa iyong mga salita,” said Añonuevo, overlooking the writer-in-residence clad in her regal grace. “Ipapagpapatuloy namin ang iyong mga tula, ‘di man kami karapat dapat.”

Acclaimed fictionist Jun Cruz Reyes, who prides himself for having seen the glamorous poet without make-up, said that he has known different version of Ophie—the writer, the teacher, the mother, and the supposed relative—but the version he loves best and will miss the most is Ophie the friend.

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The well-loved teacher

Reynaldo “Bong” Lopez, who also teaches at the Artlets, recalled how Dimalanta held on to her faith in people.

“May ugali si Ma’am Ophie na kapag bumilib siya sa’yo, habambuhay na siyang bilib sa’yo,” he said, adding that his former professor did not only give him a flat 1.0, but also the opportunity to work for his home faculty.

The lawyer also expressed regret over not being able to keep his promise to take her to a five-star restaurant, but called on the literati in the audience to advocate a National Artist bid for the late writer.

Nerisa Guevara, a professor at Artlets and one of Dimalanta’s “other children”, recalled the motherly encouragement that her mentor poured on them.

“She would look into a student’s eyes and say, ‘I believe in you, even if you break my heart and leave,’” she said.

Publicist and former Ateneo professor Chuk Gomez, who was introduced as one of Dimalanta’s favorite students, shared his former professor’s “gay” side—how she insisted that he join an Artlet beauty pageant as Ms. Literature and how she would often say “ang ganda mo, bakla.”

He added that it was Dimalanta—along with the late literary pedagogue Milagros Tanlayco—who inspired him to give teaching a try, knowing that it made them and his parents happy and proud.

“It was the hardest four years of my life, but it was also the best four years of my life,” he said, getting emotional over the fact that his favorite professor has passed away.

Last respects

Words and emotions flowed on to the next day at the necrological services that followed the concelebrated Requiem mass officiated by Rector Fr. Rolando de la Rosa, O.P.

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Assistant to the Rector for Administration Pilar Romero recalled how the former Artlets dean—true to being a poet—came up with appropriate words when everyone else had none.

“[Dimalanta] makes me wonder how [she] could transform the language of illness into poetry,” she said.

ABS-CBN Corporate Communications chief and Artlets professor Ramon “Bong” Osorio remembered Dimalanta as the influential mentor and mother figure who cared enough to give her two cents’ worth about the things he did.

“She was one of my staunchest critics,” he said. “But she let me be most of the time.”

In his eulogy, Isagani Cruz, Dimalanta’s colleague in the Manila Critic’s Circle, recalled how he first encountered the name Ophelia Dimalanta—she wrote a review on his play, “Halimaw,” saying that it was awful; he, in turn, questioned her credentials in print, not knowing that the former was already an icon.

“I would feel deeply contrite and ashamed of myself every time I remember how brash I was, but not having grown out of being immature, spoiled, and self-important, I never apologized to her for that juvenile silliness,” he said. “I should have. I do now.”

He also recalled how gracious Dimalanta was when they first met despite what he did to her in the past. What began as hurting of writers’ egos eventually became decades of fruitful friendship and learning that Cruz is grateful for.

“I did grow up and she stayed around long enough for me to love her,” he said. “Thank you, dearest Ophie, for showing me what it really means to be a teacher—to be patient, to trust, to applaud, and, above all, to teach all the time and to teach everyone.”

Life after Camp Sampaguita

Creative non-fiction writer and new UST Publishing House Director Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo also recalled Ophie the teacher, who eventually became her friend and defender.

“[As a teacher], she was quiet, low-key, [and, at times], elusive,” Hidalgo said. “[But I would find out] that she was surprisingly warm—girlish, giggly even.”

Hidalgo also noted the “fierceness of Dimalanta’s loyalty,” talking in public for the first time about the help that Dimalanta extended when she found herself “hounded by some persons who held positions of power” in the University.

“I say this with deep affection and undying gratitude—maraming salamat. It was a privilege to have been both your student and your friend,” she said. “You were what most of us aspired to be, but not many of us have achieved—a gifted writer, a dedicated teacher, a loyal friend, and a gentlewoman in the finest sense of the word.”

Varsitarian Publications Adviser Joselito Zulueta, Dimalanta’s former student and close friend, compared her to Maria de Carrion, the character of the Blessed Mother in the collaborative musical they were writing about the life of UST founder Miguel de Benavides, despite the fact that “she should have been the oldest living erotic poet in the world.”

“Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta was her own transcendent earth, herself the perfect embodiment of dirt uplifted, of flesh exalted,” Zulueta said.

He also thanked his mentor for the opportunity of learning and warm companionship.

“You have sought that journey through poetry that moves and flows,” he said as he ended his eulogy. “Now you yourself have moved on, have flowed on. You, Ophie, have become your own best poetry.” Charizze L. Abulencia, Justinne Chynna V. Garcia, Azer N. Parrocha, and Rommel Marvin C. Rio


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