Category Archives: Poetry

You Are Here

“For Mich in this brightly lit room—here’s to our being in place sometimes,” the poet signed, January 21, 2011. That day, armed with a copy of this book, I ambushed her in Ateneo after she gave a Heights talk on the poetic line (along with Conchitina Cruz and Ayer Arguelles). Shy, embarrassed, almost giddy with excitement: this is how I remember myself. Smiling, gracious, maybe a little flattered: how I remember Mabi David. Four months since, and I have just finished her book.

You Are Here records a series of scenes, stories, and moments that commemorate being at a certain place at a certain time. It chronicles the everyday metamorphosis of a city “made and remade” by its inhabitants, those of us who make a habit of “hollow[ing] the city out again / and again.” The city defines man, this we know; but here the poet tells us that man also comes to define the city. Regardless, “There was no need to make what we could / of [the world’s] unmending, welcome / becoming: / the day is full and it is / here, the day is full and it is / now.”

Solitude characterizes the personas in this collection. Describing them, the poet speaks of an individual “vigilance.” Curiosity ends in observation; each person is set apart. For, quite rightly, “Who wants to be saddled with another’s loneliness?” Yet we cannot avoid entangling ourselves with the other (a dilemma explored in The Collapse of What Separates Us). We recognize that the world is a space where solitudes collide, where what matters is not language, nor place, nor time, nor anything else, “but that someone holds / you, you are held in place.” The world may be “unmindful”—but it no longer matters.

Although I liked the project, I found it difficult to relate to or even enjoy some poems because of their specificity. I know that it’s part of the project, capturing personal moments, but perhaps therein also lies the difficulty, the distance this creates between poem and reader. I also struggled with many unfamiliar phrasings. I found constant rereading a necessity for comprehension. Because of this I think the enjoyment this collection offers is of an intellectual variety, not an emotional one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the easy-to-read “Soliloquy” series constitute my favorite poems. The first one, especially; it gave me goose bumps. I would love to read more.

Duino Elegies

A note on the picture: this isn’t the copy I read, but I can’t find the cover of Elaine E. Boney’s translation online, so this will have to do. In this series of ten elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke ponders on man’s place in the universe, offering not so much explanation but reflection. He begins with laments on the tragedy of human impermanence and the inevitability of departures. Humans mourn death because we cannot see past it; we see it as the ultimate end. In this Rilke distinguishes humans from animals, who are more at one with the universe, who acknowledge that “Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life” (Norwegian Wood).

This disjunction between our transitory world and that of the angels—those “near fatal birds of the soul”—comprises an overarching theme in the elegies. “Here everything is separation, while there / it was like breathing,” Rilke says, referring to a time when we too belonged to a “womb,” like the animals with nature. Still there are those of us who come closer to this “first home”: children, innocent as they are, and lovers, who find infinity in the other. Yet as Boney remarks in her commentary, “The distance from one human being to another—even the beloved—is insurmountable.” In Rilke’s words: “Lovers, you who are each fulfilled by the other, / you I ask about us. You clasp each other. Do you have any proof?”

The most fragile of all beings, mankind exists to bring this earth into eternity, to transform it into the inexpressible: “Earth, is this not what you want: to arise within us / invisibly?” Here lies the value of our tenuous existence: “One time and no more. And we, too, / once. Never again, But to have existed / this once, even if only one time: / to have existed here on earth, appears irrevocable.”

My first reading of the elegies yielded hardly any enjoyment: because I read them alongside the commentaries, I found them dry, arid, without resonance. This is not to say that I didn’t appreciate Boney’s insights; without them I probably wouldn’t have understood the work. But honestly I didn’t want to understand everything. When I reread Duino Elegies last night I let myself be immersed in its mystery, and only then did I grasp the fullness of its achievement. Only then did I discover beauty.

The Collapse of What Separates Us

Separation always comes with fear. In a world held in place by human connection, we agonize over the slightest disjunction, worry about the possibility of it foreboding a more permanent estrangement. But in The Collapse of What Separates Us, it is not severance that terrifies, proposes a greater upheaval, but collusion. After all it is much easier to avoid, and infinitely more difficult to enter into entanglement with the other.

The poet walks through the city, a flâneur, transcribes its attempts at coherence and the fragmentations that arise from them. He unweaves a tapestry of relationships and transforms them into words: wound, fog, market, shadow, café, mirror, static. Human experience translates into paper (“The face is the page on which the city writes”) through etymology, space, form and structure: line cuts mirror the obliqueness of lives, at times intersecting in angles, and at other times never adhering (again, or in the first place). And throughout all this, the city comes to define the person: “You have / lived in several cities, I have lived in only / one”, and persona and landscape merge into one.

Collapse does not merely consist of poems; it is poetry in itself. A cold beauty permeates these pages: wide spaces, clean cuts dividing almost prosaic lines, scenes, entire paragraphs (“A paragraph is a city”); fragmentations abound. Words, lines, shadows “corrode into closeness” only to abandon themselves again: “the sea / departs from / itself with each / wave” and “What were once cities of paragraphs are now islands of words.”

I found the last poem “Café” the most revealing and most intimate in the collection. It is also my favorite. The last page talks about “the space separating door and room, touch and escape”: the yearning for cohesion and the immediacy of flight; an acknowledgment of the former’s perils. But despite this, “To free the self from itself” remains a desirable task, and while the complications of entanglement do pose difficulties, it nevertheless—as Conchitina Cruz writes in her foreword—“does little to diminish the yearning.”