The Woodcarver is not an Executioner

Photo from Wikimedia

The Woodcarver is not an Executioner
(or F. Sionil Jose May not Grasp This)

“Death to all caught with drugs.”
– F. Sionil Jose

A tree never offers itself to be butchered
in the name of art, or, for that matter,
to be turned into shelter or the handle
of an axe. A woodcarver must remember
this. Like a blind man, his fingertips
must become eyes. He must seek
a new shape and form from one
that used to stand in silence
as it collected rain, invited birds
and wind to sing on its limbs.

To carve something that is no better
than feeding a fire would be a far
greater tragedy.


This is in response to a post by F. Sionil Jose on Facebook which I quote below:

F Sionil Jose

President Duterte: What to do Now

At long last, the President has brought to the United Nations the International Court of Justice decision nullifying China’s claim on the South China Sea and validating our sovereignty. This happy development should encourage us to pursue further diplomatic negotiations with China as well as support from the international community. It is only with pressure that China may stop bullying us. China is a very close neighbor; we have to deal with China far into the future, with more care than with any other country. Does the government have a calibrated policy to do this? In the meantime, President Duterte is wearied about rampant corruption in his government. China offers a good model. Corrupt officials in China are imprisoned or shot. More extra judicial killings? Ditto with the drug menace he has not stopped. Just do what Singapore does to keep that country drug free. Death to all caught with drugs.


May Talas Din

Sibuyas ang iyong mga mata.
Sa dibdib na palaging may dagta,

puso ng saging ang nakaluklok.
Luoy na petsay ang iyong buhok,

butil-butil na balat ng atis,
mga luha mong itinatangis.

Ina ng mga nais ilibing
sa pagkabulok nitong rehimeng

dahas at dilim ang wikang dura,
huwag kang maghintay ng himala.

Sa ‘yong kusina, kinang ng talim.
Sarili mong kuko, may talas din.


Newest paper child is off to meet the world

It’s finally out! CROCODILES IN BELFAST AND OTHER POEMS got stuck with the printers during lockdown in Manila. These photos are courtesy of my publisher, San Anselmo Publications. Order the limited hardbound edition via their Facebook page. I will have to wait for South Africa to open its borders before I can hold my new paper child in my hands. Amazon Kindle also available!

The Oddest Angels gets a write up

GMA News Online picked up a poem I wrote. Leave a comment on the website to let them know there are readers who appreciate poetry. Maybe share with your friends.

Isa pang tugon sa pag-iingay ng DDS

Paghahati sa Iniluwal na Kaban ng Bayan

“Araw-araw, binibilang ang mga nabubuwal…
Sa gutom ay natatakot yaong nag-aagawan,
Kinakalas na ang batas, pumapalag kung masúkol. ”
– “Luwalhati” ni Rebecca T. Añonuevo

Maiging maunawaan na hindi mahika
ang agham. Lohika ang wika nito,
batay sa masusing pagmamasid, paghahanap
ng mga kaugnayang madalas hindi inaasahan.

May sukat na limitado ng panukat,
may panghuhula, ngunit may materyal na
kinahahabian, tila sapot na kay dali ring mapigtal
kung mapapatunayang may ibang posibleng paliwanag.

Kaya dating makatang bula na ngayon
ang lohika, bakit mo tinutuya na tila kakilala
ang Kamatayan? Sa ibang panahon, mapapalampas
sana ito, parang ingay sa perya na naghahatid
ng panandaliang paglimot sa pang-araw-araw na pagod.

Maaari mo pang mala-Hamlet na hawakan
ang bungo ng kung-sinong estranghero,
magyayakyak ka’t magtitili hanggang umusbong
ang lahat ng litid mula leeg hanggang kilikili.

Ngunit sa ilalim ng kasalukuyang rehimen
na iyong sinasamba, katawa-tawa.
Hindi tawang may tuwa,
kundi matinding kapaitan.

Gamitan mo kaya ng agham ang pagbibilang
sa iniluwal na kaban ng bayan?
Hanapan mo kaya ng mga materyal na patunay
ang landas na tinahak ng bawat piso
sa bilyon-bilyong ipinagkatiwala sa tuliro-
kung-magsalita mong poon?

“Tahimik ngayon ang paligid, ngunit di lubhang tahimik,”
ang wika mo. Ang tugon dapat ng Kamatayan,
mula rin sa iyong salita: “Traydor ka
mula’t mula, hindi patas kung lumaban.”


Diyan Mismo sa Flag

Diyan Mismo sa Flag

“Magkikita na lang tayo diyan sa Rizal Park.
Diyan mismo sa flag ni Rizal magbigti na lang ako.”
– Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 6 Abril 2020

May bunganga ang basurahan. May bunganga
ang imburnal, ang inidoro, ang halimaw na gabi lamang
kung mag-iingay. Samantala, nais magpahinga
ang mga may kaluluwa at pagod ang katawan.

Ngunit kaya nga halimaw ang tawag sa halimaw.
Nanghahalina, nais mangibabaw sa paraang kanyang-kanya.
Maging ang bandila ng bayani na malaon nang yumao,
gagawing pambigti. Akala mo may kakawalang kaluluwa

sa kanyang kalamnang pumipintig lamang
habang nagpapakahayok at nagpapasasa
sa karimlang kinasalampakan.
Kung maaari lang, kumilos sana

ang estatwa ni Pepe,
sipain ka sa bayag.
Ngunit wala ka, eh.
Ay heyt drags.


Apologies for those who cannot read Filipino. I’ll try to work on a translation when I get a chance.

Dust and silence

How does one celebrate a birth many years ago when today thousands are dying? You can say it has always been like that. A birth, a thousand or more deaths, all in one moment.

So it is my birthday today and the world seems to be on a wobbly spin – most friends and family I know are staying indoors if they can. Distances made more real.

Then again, it is maybe just us humans. All other creatures go on as they always have, surviving however they can without claiming more than the ground or sky where their bodies are at each moment.

Perspective. A way of looking at things.

So I am thankful for another year around the sun that cares not if I take another breath or my last. Thankful for the words and the silences. For all that I’ve lived through, seen, felt, and been entangled with, that somehow have not brought me to surrender whatever beats inside.

One day all of us may seem like nothing more than dust and silence. A comfort and a challenge.

Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems out on Amazon Kindle

My incredible publisher, San Anselmo Press, has released my new book of poetry on Amazon Kindle. The print edition is due to follow.

I’m uneasy about telling readers what I try to achieve in a particular work. I can only hope that readers will find something that will resonate with them, something that may unsettle them.

Please consider buying the book or giving it to someone who appreciates poetry.

The price of this Kindle edition varies slightly depending on your location, it seems.

New poem appears on Teesta Review

A new poem about destiny appears on Teesta Review.

I have always found it an interesting challenge to try and write in response to a prompt – a photo, a work of art, or even just a word. It is one way of looking at something outside of your usual line of vision, a turning away so that you may see things differently.

Thank you to guest editor and great poet Raphael d’Abdon.

Who needs shoes?

Recognition or Oblivion

Recognition or Oblivion

I wish to congratulate my good friend, Joel H. Vega, whose book, Drift, was awarded the Philippine National Book Award for Poetry in English for 2019. My own book, How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems, was the co-finalist.

In previous years two other books of mine were recognized as finalists by the National Book Development Board: Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (poetry in Filipino) and Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento (short stories in Filipino).

There are many books published every year in the Philippines. I’m grateful that the NBDB has seen my work worthy of being noticed multiple times.

I think it is an interesting exercise, these awards. They aim to spread literacy and book appreciation. They could be seen as stepping stones to bigger things. More book deals for the author, maybe an increase in sales.

But in a way, these awards could be misleading. They could also act as a type of gatekeeping. Will those books that never got noticed by the gatekeepers be “forgotten” or will the readers who admire such books make certain they are not left out, that they are actually read and appreciated.

Who chooses – who are these gatekeepers – and what is the process of their selection? More so, if funds spent on these awards are public funds, surely the public – perhaps as represented by librarians in schools and universities – should have some say?

I am posing these questions after having read how the National Book Awards in the US is conducted.

At the same time, I am not totally ignorant of the absence of libraries in public places in the Philippines. The biggest libraries are in exclusive universities – for the children of the elite – and in some properly functioning public universities. There is no actual nationwide library system. Public education has made sure of a highly literate, though impoverished, population. This literacy has been useful in getting employment locally through call centers in the cities and through many positions of service outside the country.

I grew up speaking Filipino. English is not my mother tongue. My mother and father grew up speaking Ilocano and Tagalog/Filipino, and perhaps one other local language. English came to me through public school and Sesame Street. Books came much later, years after I consumed local comic books from a stand in a wet market on the walk back home of a good few kilometers.

In my youth, I had no experience of what it’s like reading books that weren’t required at school. The so-called library at the public school I went to had stuffed animals instead of real books.

I would like to be surprised by being told that the situation is much different now compared to decades ago, that there is now a public library at every barangay.

The first library I entered and was able to use was in a Jesuit-run high school. I was lucky enough to receive a financial scholarship through the singular efforts and kindness of an Irish American, the late Fr. James O’Brien. He also shared his love of learning to hundreds of young, less privileged students like me. He taught us English through stories and poetry, while making clear that it was to be used so we could stand up for ourselves among those who considered the local languages inferior. He spoke excellent Filipino and Bicolano.

That library – and later the university library and the British Council library in Manila – became a kind of refuge for me. They felt more holy than all the churches and chapels that dotted the country.

So where to start with spreading a wider appreciation of books in the Philippines? I’m not saying ditch these awards. They are one way, though perhaps quite flawed, of leading possible readers to discover an author or a book.

In order to truly expand the appreciation of books, there would have to be a healthy reading public. You cannot force people to read, but you should provide them with libraries where they can experience for themselves the joys of reading.

The National Book Development Board, with the help of the Department of Education, should work towards building a national public library network. These libraries could be initially stocked with the literary output of Filipino authors published by established publishers as well as by smaller independent publishers, even brave authors who self-publish work that might not seem “easily marketable” by a publishing house. They should fill these libraries with books in as many Philippine languages as possible. Translations of international work to the local languages should be encouraged and funded. After that, instead of spending public funds, they should welcome donations of international titles.

What then of the existing structures for these awards? I’m an outsider, to be honest. Always have been. Perhaps I’m a little sore that my work has only been partly recognized again by the gatekeepers.

A few years back I released a poetry book – Alien to Any Skin (UST Publishing House, 2011) – alongside the shortlisted Baha-bahagdang Karupukan. I was deeply disappointed that Alien to Any Skin was not even shortlisted, though thankful that the other book was. It was a very special paper child, Alien, if I may say so. There, I’ve said it now.

How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems is an altogether different book, but no less special. It is a book that demands a readership and recognition now, not just because of the poetry, but also because of the pertinent issues it challenges the reader to face: bullying, violence, and, more particularly, the deadly consequences of the fake war on drugs by the Duterte regime. It also contains poems that have little to do with such issues, and more about a search for a common humanity.

These days the Philippines is ground zero for social media misinformation. The basic literacy that Filipinos received through the public school system is what has made them vulnerable to the lies that the current regime uses to block legitimate criticism.

I hope that my book won’t be left in the halls of oblivion. I want it to one day be read, sooner rather than later, by more critical thinking readers.

How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems is widely available in both independent and chain book stores in the Philippines or through the Facebook page or website of San Anselmo Publications. A Kindle edition is also available on Amazon.