Curated Prompt: Luisa A. Igloria – “Poetry as Speculum”

Luisa A. Igloria
Luisa A. Igloria

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Luisa A. Igloria.

Writing poetry is always a little archaeological—we dig and sift not only through our fund of experiences and memories, but also through a variety of textual fragments. As a writer in the diaspora, I am always reminded that the past, history, is a hallucinatory presence right here with us; that our life in the contemporary moment is marked by the displacements that time is eternally enacting.

In the news, we encounter stories about all sorts of anniversaries and commemorations: recently, so many articles on Bin Laden’s capture and killing last year; but also, I read the reminder that my high school friend and classmate, James Balao (whose 51st birthday was April 19), has been missing for nearly four years now since his political abduction by state forces on September 17, 2008. And then, I learn that a former student and friend, and one of my daughter’s grade school teachers who has made a life in Japan these last ten years, walked out of her home and marriage a month ago, with three very small children in tow—and has not been seen or heard of since. How is it possible? I am disturbed. I am disturbed by these unexplained rifts in time, by the unforgivable absences of explanations. And because facts alone, even when they are available, cannot assuage the terrible depths of these displacements, I turn to poetry for some kind of response, if not relief.

Because we are all involved in the drift of time, displacement is a function of contemporary experience—it is not something reserved only for us in the diaspora or for those of us who live with the legacies of colonization. History is a field at once very large and very intimate. But I like to think of the past as not completely done, of history’s archives as not static; we can enter the archive, we can reconstruct and re-imagine events, we can insert ourselves as figures or characters into its landscapes.

In my last book, Juan Luna’s Revolver, I used a perspective that let me travel into and out of specific Filipino histories (the world of Filipino intellectuals and artists abroad in 19th century Europe, the world of the 1904 World’s Fair and Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri); this perspective allowed me to establish a kind of specular relationship with history’s contexts and contents—I use the meaning of specular here as it relates to the medical instrument which allows entry into a body cavity, allowing for the possibility of more direct vision.

I used a similar method of composition in writing the poem below, which has been archived as part of my poem-a-day project (I’ve written at least a poem a day since November 20, 2010) at Via Negativa. I also loosely borrow the numbered structure of recorded “dreams” that Roberto Bolaño uses in his prose poem “A Stroll Through Literature” (from the book Tres).

In the poem, I am able to engage a variety of “facts” from Philippine colonial history and figures from colonial texts, including, but not limited to: the babaylanes (poet-priestesses and keepers of oral epic traditions) who were driven out of town when institutionalized religion was introduced; characters from Balagtas’ allegorical long poem “Florante at Laura” and from Jose Rizal’s incendiary novel, Noli Me Tangere; the earliest recorded indigenous Filipina poet, Leona Florentino.

Much like, I suppose, someone working with (but not limited to) collage, dream, hallucination, or a choose-your-own-adventure book, I can juxtapose fragments of different narratives, rearrange their timelines, push them toward different sets of questions, ask What if?, and arrive at any of a number of complex possibilities. None of them may be completely true, or completely false; but who is to say?

Luisa A. Igloria
Posted at Via Negativa on March 25, 2012
(after Roberto Bolaño’s “A Stroll Through Literature”)

1. I dream of blood that wells from a cut, uncoils its wavelengths of sequestered light, turns more solid than the furniture in my house.

2. In my dream it is Lent, just like it is right now. Guardia civil are herding babaylanes into yellow Humvees. Their bandannas, knotted under the chin, catch the glow of sunset. The vehicles rev up and head toward the hills. When the dust settles, the townsfolk find they cannot erase the ancient writing that has formed beneath tire tracks. It becomes their new epic poem. They will read it every year. Movie producers will come to film it.

3. In my dream it is still Lent. Which can mean any of a number of things: penitents stripped to the waist, their heads wrapped in sack-cloth, their brows circled with crude vines or barbed wire. Their backs: red labyrinths, ladders gorged with flame.

4. In another dream all the lilies have open vestments. The children come to gather pollen in their cups. Every eyelid will be streaked with gold, every finger outlined with knowing.

5. I dream that in the ruined chapel, above carpets of moss, a cherub ziplines toward me from the belfry. When was the last time you washed your face? I ask my soul. It likes to play in the mud, where it is cool. It hangs its head to one side; it doesn’t like to brush its hair.

6. Donde? Aqui, aqui.

7. In this dream, I knock on the door of room after room until I come to the one where Prinsipe Florante is lashed to a tree, bemoaning his fate. If I turn the right combination of locks hidden in the leaves, we will understand each other perfectly, in monorhyming quatrains filled with lyric and metaphor. And the lion will slink back into the darkness from which it came.

8. In this dream I gently cover the woman’s mouth with my hand, lead her into a room which has temporarily been stripped of all reminders of her sons; I bathe her fevered brow with water. If you lived her story, you too would be crazed. Later in the night, the oil lamp that should have ignited the revolution the first time, will burn down the governor’s house.

9. In this dream it is many years since you have touched me. By this I mean the premises have fallen silent. Sometimes it is not a dream.

10. The poet leaves: she is outcast from her hometown. Does she drink? Chew betel nut leaf? Swear like a cargador at the pier? Gamble away her children’s inheritance? Smoke cigars with the lit end in her mouth? Take lovers, including her maid? Wear only pants? Burn her bra? You have no imagination if you think this is all it takes to be a poet.

* * *

Prompt: Reflect on a subject of historical relevance to you and write a poem in which you take several pieces of available or archival knowledge—in any textual form (documents, art work, photographs, songs, overheard language)—and re-imagine/re-cast their language, their outcome, their time and setting, their narrative trajectory. Involve yourself in the poem in some way: have a conversation, or an argument; become a participant in these reconstructed landscapes.

Luisa A. Igloria is a Professor of Creative Writing and English, and Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. She is the author of Juan Luna’s Revolver (winner of the 2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), Trill & Mordent (WordTech Editions, 2005) and 8 other books. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, The Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Rattle, and TriQuarterly, and her various literary awards include the 2007 49th Parallel Poetry Prize (selected by Carolyne Wright for the Bellingham Review), the 2007 James Hearst Poetry Prize (selected by former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser for the North American Review); the 2006 National Writers Union Poetry Prize (selected by Adrienne Rich); and the 2006 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize (Crab Orchard Review). Luisa is also an eleven-time recipient of the Philippines’ highest literary prize—the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature—in three genres, and its Hall of Fame distinction.

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