Saturday, August 1, 2009


The following reprints reviews by Vince Gotera of two Meritage Press titles, Kali's Blade by Michelle Bautista and Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia. These reviews were first published in North American Review, May-August 2009:

Kali's Blade by Michelle Bautista
Meritage Press, 2006, 70p, paper $16.95

Michelle Bautista is a gura (teacher) of the Philippine martial art Kali, and this collection of poetry, prose, drama and collaborations is rooted in the Kali tradition. Bautista's introduction, "Kali Poetics," begins, "They say the pen is mightier than the sword, yet in my life there is no difference." The goddess Kali, avatar of destruction, "has an alter ego, Devi, the goddess of creation," and Bautista's work lives at the crossroad of such opposing forces, sublimely combined and made complementary. In one poem, a mother tells her daughter, "I receive your fury with all the love I can muster.// I let you hate me because I love you." In "How to Battle a Wind Goddess," the speaker "swallowed her. Inhaled her, / held her deep, deep, [until] she became my flesh / I became a wind goddess." Blog entries live here alongside e-mail excerpts and real-life personals by men seeking out Filipina mail-order brides. The poems of other women are here: Eileen Tabios, Barbara Jane Reyes, Rosalie Zerrudo. Kali's Blade is a generous and beautiful book. Note: also look for Bautista's chapbook, my life ... as a duende (2003).

Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia
Meritage Press / University of the Philippines, 2004, 74 p, paper $15.00

In his bio at the end of Museum of Absences, Luis H. Francia calls his life (and himself) a "tale of two cities--Manila and New York, and that is the essence of this book, an exploration of rootlessness, geographical as well as metaphysically. In one of the poems, a manong--older brother in Filipino, a term applied to the generation of immigrants from early to mid-twentieth century--a manong speaks: "Where in a white world can / This grain of unhusked rice spin?" Cinderella, at age fifty, "would like to / think it was all a bad dream, but for / the slipper ... glass encased in glass." The most powerful poems is "New York Mythologies" (on 9/11): "Our bones are marrow'd with hope / Our childhood gods and duendes in tow / Cradles and graves on our backs." Francia's signature hero is Jimi Hendrix: "Think of him as Odysseuns on / guitar ... he navigates wild riffs / with a sense of sin, but not regret." Hope, art, and love abide.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


by Jun de la Rosa

A ball floats on the sea. Water

is not a place of falling. Nothing

is too heavy there
, an older boy tells

his brother who is afraid to step in.

A glass finds its way to the bottom

without breaking. Not even a crack.

To die in the sea is painful

but less tragic.

Across the waters, the weather bureau

spots a new storm, names it Pepeng.

The storm pounds hard on doors,

demanding an answer. How can you tell

a different storm? How dare you

give me a new name.

A waiter opens the tap. The pressure

is too strong, he senses. It seems like

water wants to break free from the sea.

Or the sea is blowing itself out

through the pipes.

A glass is filled. In a clear container,

water is tamed sea. Not blue with anger.

Across another sea, a woman looks up—

hands outstretched to feel the drops of rain.

This is a new one. Gentler. This is how

tears fall from where she came from.

A drop on the woman’s forehead

is an apology she accepts.

Everyone is cheering and the bride

holds up her glass to a toast.

It breaks against the groom’s glass.

An impact so intense like this

is called passion
, he says. She laughs.

Wine drips from the cracks,

staining her powder blue gown,

turning purple. The guests’ mouths

are still gaping in surprise.

A woman seated alone at the back

asked for a glass of water that never came.

Her eye, the surface of the sea.


Letras y Figuras
By Rodrigo V. Dela Peña Jr.

Their names are a kind of narrative

though imagined, the way history

                        before the page.
Before the canvas the letters
                                    shape the scenes—

                                    fin de siècle
settings and measured gesturings.


                                    JOSE FERCED
                        Who is to say

                                    the dead
tell no stories? In the afterlife

                                                they long to be
and be remembered.

Who can tell if the dead make

            up lies?


                                    T is a man
with a sugarcane upon his shoulders,

C a languid mother
                                    carrying a baby.

                        To be burdened
by one thing

            or another, a lifetime's

the loop of P a weathered face, wrinkled
                        as dry earth.


Out of this silence:

gossipy chatter, gossamer music
                        stirring the air.

If you listen closely, you will hear



                        by ornate letter,

the wor(l)d is represented.


                        How to describe without
description, how to paint a portrait

the subject's image. There is

something to be gleaned from this: the real

                        to be


between figures, between letters

                        are vines and shrubs,

tropical flora. And in all
                        this labored realism,

                        the obsessive attention
                                    to detail,
the letters themselves

            appear almost incidental.


Almost. Their names are still out-

                                    of the upper class:

                        GARCIA ORTIZ.

                        They know how
the equatorial heat and monsoon rains
                                    afflict us with



And now this fate more than

                        a century hence:
                                    to be housed

in a museum or private

                                    to be recognized
extant, time's only surviving
                        form. Let this

                        fiction of a past
                                    be memory.

(Note: "Letras y Figuras," which literally means letters and figures, was a popular art form in the Philippines from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. Rendered using watercolor on brown paper, it depicts tableaus of ordinary Filipino scenes, with letters of the patron's name cleverly formed to mimic human figures engaged in various activities.)