POETRY, like traveling, involves one’s escape from the ordinary exigencies of life into the enchanting and the marvelous. A poet can achieve this through his skillful and creative use of words which make the commonplace seem unfamiliar, the ordinary become bizarre.
One can see this attempt to go into the enchanting and the marvelous through Cesar Ruiz Aquino’s verbal gymnastics in his second collection of poems, titled In Samarkand (UST Publishing House, 2008). The poems in the book range from the comprehensible to the arcane, from the discernible to the almost unimaginable, yet spiced up with wit.
Ruiz Aquino is a Dumaguete City-based poet who has previously won literary awards, such as the Palanca, the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, Manila Critics’ Circle and SEAwrite Awards. In addition, he has already published some of his poems in the Philippines Free Press, the Philippine Graphic, and the Sunday Inquirer Magazine.
The collection is divided into four parts, namely “New Poems,” “Poem-in-Progress,” “Verseliterations,” and “The Old Poems.”
One can already see shades of the fantastic in the poem “Eyoter,” which talks about the theme of isolation. A reader, upon his first reading of the poem, may find it just a mere jumble of words, with the meaning virtually lost somewhere in the lines. However, he may gradually comprehend the poem’s over-all meaning and message when he is able to finds some cue lines in the poem, such as “I am Eyoter, no other man can do I deem/ A stranger.”
Meanwhile, the dominant role that imagination plays in the human mind is tackled in the poem “Samarkand,” wherein the persona talks about how his fascination with a loved one has allowed him to imagine that both of them are in the city of Samarkand. The opening lines say it all: “In Samarkand/ On a tamarind/Tree is etched a name/I cannot find/ Anywhere/ Else outside my mind.” The setting itself conjures images of the romantic and mystic, being the name of an ancient Central Asian city.
Another interesting poem in the first portion is the “Ballad of the Ampersand,” wherein Ruiz Aquino used wordplay and the ampersand sign (&) in order to show the temporality of events, both ordinary and historical. “Before the oblivion/was the last stand/&the grand/Standing…Before the star/Crossed the Great War/ Before the Ottoman/Was the Atman.” However, a reader may gradually get confused in the last two stanzas which proclaims that the “Gospel/Even according / To second hand/ Sources will stand/ The test of rock band.”
Meanwhile, the second portion just consists of one poem, also titled “Jehrameel.” The themes of escape and imagination comes into full play in the poem, when Ruiz Aquino created a scenario of the moon disappearing and how the people reacted to it by conjuring up their own worlds through dreams. However, the main character in the poem, who is a sleepwalker, goes further by imagining that he goes to a make-believe kingdom in the moon where he eventually meets a girl. All seems real to him until he realizes that he was too engrossed in his dream: “…(N)o one was watching him/ of course, except he, and he had an elf’s/ awareness of this, that he was watching himself/ while down below, the mid-earth rejoiced.”
A poet’s creativity does not necessarily mean that he should always invent some very new techniques in order to make his poems unique. Instead, he may use old literary forms and then utilize them in a manner the poet sees fit. Ruiz Aquino shows this potential in the “Verseliteration” part, wherein he takes certain lines from the prose works of his subject-authors and then arranges these lines in such a way as to create a poem.
Two poems in this section are notable in that they portray the difference between the physical remains and memory in the context of an execution. “Execution Site” and “The Restoration” were culled by the author from Norman Mailer’s creative non-fiction novel, Executioner’s Song, which dealt with the hanging of the convicted American murder suspect Gary Gilmore. “Execution Site” narrates how the memory of the execution haunted Schiller, one of the prison guards who accompanied Gilmore before the latter was executed by firing squad. Despite the passage of time, the warden still remembers the last conversation that he had with Gilmore: “I don’t know what I’m here for” he asks. To which Gilmore replies: “You’re going to help me escape.’” One can see here the staying power of memory in haunting the “actors” of a certain “historical” play.” In contrast, the poem ‘The Restoration” may be seen as an allegory on the temporality of the physical in its satirical narration of how morticians embalmed the corpse of the convict. This ended up morbidly ridiculous when the remains “looked like Gary Gilmore/Again,” even if his body had been badly disfigured during the execution.
The book ends with the chapter, aptly titled “Old Poems,” which showcase some of Ruiz Aquino’s earlier poems. Despite these being relatively conventional in form, the poems have already the essence of being intellectual which the author has become known for; some of these would be “Stronger Than Love,” and “Riddle.”
Ruiz Aquino’s poems in the collection may remind the reader of the Surrealist and Romantic poems with the author’s juxtaposition of ordinary words with those of the verbally arcane, supernatural, and the fantastic. However, he still used traditional poetic forms in certain of his works, as pointed out by Edith Tiempo, the National Artist for Literature, in her preface to the book. Although most of the poems in the collection are comprehensible, albeit at different levels and after several readings, there are still poems whose message may evade even the most patient of the reader. An example would be “Man of Letters” and “Sensor.” Also, many of the poems incorporated terms and words which could only be described as obscure.
But thise use of hard-to-grasp words could also be considered as a positive aspect if the reader’s primary consideration is the literary quality of the poems rather than its message. If that is the case, then Ruiz Aquino would have succeeded in In Samarkand. After all, the dictum “going to a place is more important than the place itself’ applies also to poetry. Even in the realm of the fantastic and incredible.