The Saints of Streets
Have you ever wondered why books of poetry, unless they span the whole of a writer’s life and work, are so slim? Perhaps it is because works in this genre often resemble an extremely rich meal, laden with truffles, fois gras, and cream and must therefore be served in thimble-sized portions, savored in tiny bites.
That is certainly true of the poems in Luisa A. Igloria’s new collection The Saints of Streets published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila. So densely patterned are these poems that it can be difficult to look beyond the individual work to the book as a whole.
That may be because of the manner of the poems’ composition. For over 1000 days now, this writer, like a modern Scheherazade, has posted at least one poem per day on poet and publisher Dave Bonta’s blog, “Via Negativa,” inspired by remarks he has made that day. Each one glows like a gem, complex and carefully crafted. Following them in this way, one becomes used to viewing them singly, rather than strung together into a glowing arc.
Faced with the treasure trove of poems in this book we look for connections among them. We might at first assume that because Ms. Igloria has chosen to publish this book in the Philippines of her birth, it must be composed of poems chiefly concerned with the author’s personal past in that country.
But the first poem “Perfectibility” seems to ward us away from such an approach, for it suggests, the “real” world we all inhabit is to this writer “the peripheral universe” in comparison to the world of art, literature, and myth.
Consider “Another Letter to Persephone,” where Ms. Igloria examines her own history through the lens of the myth of Persephone. Though this writer “cracked salted/watermelon seeds and blistered/the papery shells of passion fruit” in her youth, and “did not know the mythical/pomegranate,”this myth still provides a handy metaphor for the common experience of so many women, sold young into the underworld of a difficult marriage.
However, a number of poems here do focus on the nation of the poet’s birth. “Ghazal: Some Ways to Live” offers gorgeous details of this tropical world, such as the star apple, with its “taste, hard to re-live./A cross between indigo and purple,” its “five-fingered flower.”
“What We Ate After Passing the Cape of 11,000 Virgins” gives us some background on the this nation’s colonial history and hybrid culture. Here the writer speaks from the perspective of Antonio Pigafeta, who traveled with Magellan when he became the first to circumnavigate the world. In the Philippines, Magellan was killed. Pigafeta was one of only 18 men out of the 240 originally aboard who returned alive.
Perhaps more obviously than most countries, this country bears the marks of its colonial past. We will find their traces in this writer’s multilingual references, endearments, slang, and scientific nomenclature in Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, and Greek, even German.
As we Google unfamiliar words or references we will come to realize that this multifariousness is less the particular reflection of the Philippines than of the fact that the author belongs to a larger globally shared culture.
“There’s That Old Chestnut Again” focuses on just this point. Castañas, roasted chestnuts, are a favorite dish in the Philippines, just as they are in the colder climes of North America. We share this hunger with the Turks, in turn, who eagerly consume kestancis, a word clearly arising from a root common to the word for the dish used in the Philippines.
Similarly, the poem tells us, love in all nations is the same, whether recorded in Jane Austen’s 19th century British novels or in those originating in other cultures altogether. What is human draws us together.
Thus, in this book, a contemporary American film evokes a 16th century British poem and a contemporary Japan that itself contains echoes of the classical “Floating World” of Hiroshige and Hokusai (“Watching Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, I think of Ukiyo-E”).
Ukiyo-E is the classical school of Japanese woodblock printing practiced from the 16th through 18th centuries. Again, the “old chestnut” of erotica, eternally present in art of all nations and eras, connects these works, widely ranging in time and space.
One of Ms. Igloria’s favorite poetic forms here presents a metaphor for such connection. The ghazal is a Persian poetic form composed of a minimum of five two-line stanzas of about the same length. Though each of these couplets is autonomous, they are linked together via a rhyming word or refrain, or, as in this writer’s work, a repeated word at the end of the second line.
As in any poetic refrain, the tension between sameness and difference sustains these poems, tying together the various stanzas. This variation generally comes in the form of syntax—from statement, to question, to exclamation but can take other forms.
In one instance, in the poem “Mortal Ghazal,” the poet slips in at the critical point a different, though related word in place of the one she was supposed to repeat. Childhood, when “everything seemed possible” and “time seemed almost too slow” gives way to a world where the writer is “brought up short in the shoals as the sun reddens in a sky unrelenting.”
“Everlasting,” with its positive and religious connotations, becomes “unrelenting,” wringing notes of regret and desperation from these lines. Despite any aspirations to eternity, we are all definitively “mortal, not everlasting.”
The poems in this collection range far and wide, like the catalogue in “2000 or More Objects Extracted From the Human Throat.” Perhaps this listing, in which the poet asks “What does the body want/to swallow of this world?” explains and examines the mind’s hunger. For just as the museum specimens Ms. Igloria describes here do, these poems disgorge details from the author’s personal past, shared legend, and culture.
In her poem “Oir” Ms. Igloria eavesdrops on a conversation, appropriately overhearing someone say that “The poet is someone who/is more a voice overheard, not speaking directly.”
Let us press our ear to the wall of this book and learn what it has to tell us.