The Shearsman Review

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Allan Popa - Drone

(Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City, Philippines, 2013. Paperback, 84 pages)
ISBN 978-971-550-676-2

Review by Sophie Mayer

Allan Popa is probably the Philippines’ most significant living poet, having published seven collections and teaching a new generation of writers at Ateneo de Manila University. In a review of his third Filipino-language collection Kami sa Lahat ng Masama (2003) for Philippine Studies, Paolo Manalo identifies Popa as the first of a new millennial generation ‘who write in Filipino but whose world is not Tagalog’, citing Popa’s introduction of a high degree of complex wordplay that contrasts with traditional poetry in Tagalog. In ‘Morpo’, a Filipino poem translated by Jose Perez Beduya for Asymptote, Popa writes:
Movement is sure-footed in the narrowness of what’s allowed.
Towards the chasm’s edge, in the pause
before facing the vanishing point.
Looking at the innovative sentence structures and use of punctuation in Beduya’s translations creates a sense that this ‘pause’ is where Popa’s Filipino poetry takes place, part of a Filipino post-structuralism that ‘ravish[es] still the voices in language’, as identified in the late 90s by Gémino H. Abad, editor of the major anthology series of Filipino poetry.
Popa also writes and publishes in English, which Elmer Ordonez notes is ‘one of the legacies of the country’s colonial experience; in fact, English was used by the American occupiers to achieve cultural hegemony over a nation that had fought Spanish colonialism for close to four centuries.’ Ordonez, prefacing the Filipino anthology The Guerrilla Is Like a Poet, notes further that, ‘English may well be the language of the colonizer but historically the Filipino writer has used this very language to liberate at least the consciousness of the people [since the novels of] Jose Rizal.’ Abad calls this writing ‘from English’ in contrast to writing ‘in English.’ Popa earned his MFA at Washington University, St. Louis and developed a longterm relationship with the New York State Writers Institute at Skidmore College.
Popa’s English-language collection Drone demonstrates what could be called a transverse movement: where the post-structuralism of Anglophone American poetry is worked out in his Filipino poetry; his English-language poetry resonates with the post-’68 imbrication of political and folk poetry in Filipino poetics, forged by Communist Party leader and poet Jose Maria Sison, as described by Robert Mazjels in his introduction to The Guerrilla… The address in Drone is direct, speaking from a shifting first person, and the poems are often fragments of narrative, highly sensory and immediate. 
Manalo notes the ‘bookness of [Popa’s] poetry’ in contrast to many contemporary Filipino poets, his conception of book-length sequences made up of shorter cycles structured into a whole, towards ‘a unity of vision and utterance’. Drone is, in the best way, a novel or film in verse, a story/song cycle in which images of hallucinatory power are placed in a framework that is at once intimate and political. As the title suggests, the collection brings together the music of mourning with an often-incendiary inscription of colonial and state violence and resistance thereto. 
‘Hearsay’, the longest and most striking sequence in the book, opens with epigraphs from Salud Algabre, peasant revolt leader, and poet-guerrilla Emmanuel Lacaba, who is considered a martyr hero of the order of Rizal. Written in first person plural, ‘Hearsay’ is a sonnet sequence that expands the form, both by speaking from the (Communist) collective ‘we’ rather than the lyric ‘I’, and by splitting lines. The poems speak directly of the guerrilla experience, but in a vocabulary that entwines the language of flowers, of Christianity, and of war. ‘Landmines taught / to flower, shrapnel to take root inside / the body. The wood still rings.’ Mazjels notes that in post-’68 poetry, ‘art, politics, and concrete existence are one,’ and that rings true of Popa’s invocation of his predecessor’s generation. The poems in ‘Hearsay’ make concrete the daily tasks of revolutionary resistance, at once physical and symbolic. 
We changed the course of a stream.
Stone by stone we coaxed it to follow us,
carving its own crooked way
to mark the gash
of its penance on the mountainside.
Sorrow is the weather of garbled devotions.
‘The simplest miracles begin with water,’ ends this poem, a statement of Popa’s own poetics in their translucent English whose straightforward grammar somehow makes possible its constant movement into the visionary. It’s tempting to use the phrase ‘magic realist’ for this explicitly post-colonial writing, but it is rather a realism in which the both spiritual wonder and impossible trauma are equally present, and have to be encompassed in a daily vernacular.
‘Feather,’ a poem from the opening section, is branded on my mind, an unforgettable series of small stanzas that courageously uses the first person singular to write from within the torturer’s point of view. Far from exploitative body horror, the poem is precise and delicate, and in its delicacy is Popa’s condemnation of torture. Popa’s insistence on the torturer’s apprehension of his deeds as ‘an art / not a sadist’s game’ essays a poethics, in Joan Retallack’s useful word, a challenge to think about ‘art’ as a field, about the writer-reader relation, as it asks ‘You ask me how / I know the truth? / There is a certain threshold you / and I cross from opposite directions’. 
The challenge posed in ‘Lake’—‘How to mend the scream on the face of the earth. How to make that sound.’—echoes profoundly with the work of other writers from post-colonial conflicts, from Pine Ridge to Palestine and beyond. But, as the epigraphs to ‘Hearsay’ show, there is a specific configuration of Filipino history evoked and inscribed here, one that calls for and on Anglophone readers to heighten their awareness of one of the less-known struggles. There is also an address to the history of Filipino poetries, with the final cycle of the book, from ‘Juan Dela Cruz’ to ‘Counting My Days’ manifesting a transgressive erotic fusing Catholic and ecological imagery in homage to Jose Garcia Villa’s landmark collection Man Poems (1929), for which he received a suspension and an obscenity fine. 
For Popa—as Villa found—the erotic is political. Poetry’s responsiveness and responsibility, its centrality to Filipino culture and resistance, is heard in the penultimate poem: an ‘Aubade,’ its initial sexual encounter is not between person and person, but book and ground: ‘The earth // marking a page, waiting to turn.’ Drone feels like that turn. In ‘Taxidermy,’ a poem from this cycle which heals the torture and violence of the earlier part of the book by re-meaning its language in relation to the loved and living body, Popa offers an erotics and poetics that speaks at once of the risks of desire and of writing in English:
In the skin of what I fear
I warm my blood. I live
within the hollow of sockets eyeing
the animal that did not flinch
to see me at my most alive.
Popa’s is a poetry ‘live / within the hollow of sockets eyeing’ the most difficult and impossible aspects of the human condition, whether the mysteries of faith or the cruelties of war, or the demands of speaking of resistance in the coloniser’s language. 
6 August 2014