PALPABLE as a pear was the silence that received the closing lines of Carolyn Forché’s prose poem, “The Colonel.”
“… The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves… He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.”
One Friday afternoon, I sat behind a group of writers participating in the “Mugna sa Pagsulat,” a writer’s symposium organized by the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College (UPVCC).
Poet and Ateneo teacher Larry Ypil was asked to read Forché by UPV Tacloban professor Merlie Alunan to illustrate the importance of point of view in storytelling.
I joined the group only after lunch and was unable to hear their morning interactions with Larry, speaking on poetry, and University of San Carlos professor emeritus, Dr. Resil Mojares, discoursing on creative non-fiction. I had no gauge to assess the writers: how well they read, if they ate words for breakfast, or slept with them.
But the sight of so many school uniforms in the group made me perceive the hall as filled with young writers. Inevitably, this idea summoned two other phrases: “green sapling rising” and “the promise of new fruit.”
Whether the metaphors applied to the group as promise or cliché I could not make up my mind on until I heard them after Larry read the last of Forché’s lines.
In truth, the group said nothing at all. Even though Merlie negotiated the world of the colonel with them, picked out the images the poet flung about like trophy ears, no one seemed able to say anything that came close to explaining what Forché must have lived through when she worked with Amnesty International in El Salvador in the 1970s.
But for the silence.
The silence of the hall after Larry read the end of the poem was eerie. As a teacher of more than two decades, I am familiar with the effects of certain works. Essays are the classic headscratchers and ignite a pandemonium of ear-pulling. Many youths are raised to paroxysms by photographs and lyrics; utterly depressed by news writing.
But a poem that opens a fissure of silence has not spent itself, just given life to echoes ricocheting inside its listeners.
I found the silence eerie not only because a poem is usually just an unfortunate casualty, subjected to class postmortems and dissections that bleed sawdust and theories.
I found the silence of that hall filled with school uniforms eerie because many of the writers are young enough to know Martial Law only as a footnote in history books, and Ferdinand Marcos as the man who may or may not have killed the father of Kris. Those school uniforms are probably part of campus papers that will never volunteer for fact-finding missions that try to trace what is left of a hinterland community that’s just oozing and ripening beneath shallow mass graves.
And yet for the silence.
It is true that one must have lived to create a song, a painting, a poem. But the sap is greenest and the hunger is keenest when one is just beginning.
Perhaps our tragedy is that we pour resources into staging political showdowns between old dogs with old tricks. Shouldn’t we be holding more workshops to make us read more, create more, live more?
Or partake more of the pleasure in witnessing green sap rising.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 21, 2008 issue