I was barely a year old when Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe had begun to electrify the silver screen. Back home? Old pictures retain a homegrown charm about them: a tiny me sprawled on the grass, my mom seated beside, a gleaming black Buick parked nearby.
Everything seemed picture-perfect—with the world, despite America’s revulsion of black people and her manic campaign to exterminate North Koreans; and with the country, despite its ecstatic absorption of all things “stateside.”
The decade was also the time my parents were hacking their way through Compostela’s jungles in a bid to stake whatever modest claim they could. Back in Paco, Manila, my maternal grandfather, Godofredo Rivera, was putting together his “Little Things,” a potpourri of vignettes about life, living, and loving halfway through the Twentieth Century.
Love is sipping wine drop by drop
Each libation a delicate ritual
Of deep affection
Elevated by the subtle touch
Of eternal desire
He probably didn’t intend his prose to be treated like poetry, but many of the entries in his book were quite lyrical they tugged at the heart. And they weren’t just about some pax de deux in Old Manila:
We win freedom by courage but lose it by default
We go to Church but insult God
We recite the Constitution but spit on the Flag
We fight foreign domination but surrender to native degradation
We feed the dead but starve the living
We build monuments to the hero but let the weeds grow under his feet
As we are in 1950, we perhaps misrepresent the philosophy of 1900.
Or we did not get it right
Prescient, he only could have been. For not only did we not get it right in the 1950s; we were still groping in the dark 30-odd years later.
For the 1980s was tumultuous. Cheers and ticker tape may have greeted the onset of personal computers, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and white-lace-and-promises weddings such as that of Charles and Diana.
But throbbing silently in our hearts was an insecurity, a fear of the proverbial Unknown.
John Lennon was killed. The AIDS virus exploded into a global epidemic. Reagan illegally funded the Contras to quell dissent in Nicaragua. And Corporate America’s mammoth mergers and acquisitions betrayed only too well its preoccupation with commercial and political dominion.
And nowhere was this quest for hegemony more played out than in the Philippines.
Marcos, his family, his cronies, Subic and Clark, the hundreds of transnational companies and the thousands of human rights victims—all came together in a surrealism of exuberance, avarice, and perpetual dependence.
The “dark night of our souls” could only produce the deepest, most paradoxically beautiful poetry.
Mila Aguilar, one time underground activist in Mindanao, had been a prolific writer and multi-awarded poet during the 1980s.
Incarcerated, she wrote of the day she gave her son
“a pair of pigeons/born and bred in my harsh prison./They had taped wings/and the instructions were specifically to keep them on for weeks/until they’d gotten used to their new cages./He never liked the thought of me in prison, his own mother/and would never stay for long/and rarely even came to visit./So perhaps I thought of souvenirs./But the tape from his pigeons he removed one day, and set them free/You’d think that would have angered me, or made me sad at least/But I guess we’re of one mind./Why cage pigeons who prefer free flight/in the vaster, bluer skies?”
Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, who’d also spent time in Mindanao as a feisty newspaper editor, wrote “Hour Poems for Alice.” His were words that not only stroked the hearts of his readers, but also refreshed their minds of the lingering insecurities amidst them. The second part of his poem reads:
It is ten and dark
The quiet stabbed,
every now and then
by the bladed horns
of cars that flash by
I think of bullets
and I think of you
and I think
of a night
Stabbed by bullets
from a war
I had gone to see you
but you were cold
like the muzzle
Of a gun.
Among the most powerful verses I’ve ever come across were composed by songwriter Joey Ayala. Virtually poems in themselves, his songs come across as daggers that pierce the tender soul of his generation. Of humanity’s wisdom in an age of environmental neglect, Ayala had written, “Talino/Naging ararong nagpaamo sa parang/Naging kumpit na sumagupa sa karagatan/naging apoy na nagpalaya sa karimlan.”
His immortal “Walang Ibang Sadya” might as well be the ultimate celebration of the wonders of living. In part, it reads: “Aanhin ang labi/kundi madampian ng ulan/O di kaya’y mahagkan ng ilog… Pagmasdan, pakinggan/Lasapin ang mundo/Walang ibang sadya/Ang ayos nito.”
But perhaps the most prophetic of all poems was written in the early 1980s by a playwright named Al Santos.
“Sa Bundok ng Apo” was Mindanao’s first-ever rock opera. Its first run in 1981 was written and directed by Santos, with Joey Ayala composing the music. “Sa Bundok…” told of the Bagobo legend of harmony and unity, and of popular resistance against an oppressor. The tribe succeeds in the end, to the haunting rendition of Santos’s “Pahimakas sa Huling Tagpo.”
May panatang natupad sa naganap
May pangakong nabuksan sa digmaan
Ito ang larawan ng bawa’t panahon
Katotohanan pa rin ng ngayon
Buti at sama ay nagtunggali
Nang ligaya’y lukuban ng pighati
Palibhasay’s may bukas na minimithi
Buong lakas ay ibuhos nitong lipi
Nasaksihan nyo’y tagpo ng kahapon
Siyang bolang kristal ng ngayon
Di natutulong ang sa kasamaa’y kampon
May halimaw ang bawa’t panahon
(Nikki Gomez authored “Coffee and Dreams on a Late Afternoon,” a collection of his essays on Mindanao development, published in 2005 by the University of the Philippines Press. He lives and works in Davao City.)