Review of Subverso by Elmer Ordonez

by rolandotolentino

This is from Dr. Ordonez Manila Times column, February 1, 2007
By Elmer A. Ordoñez
Protest literature
IN these times, not a day seems to pass without a report of an extrajudicial killing or a desaparecido attributed invariably to death squads or vigilantes “inspired” (to use a retired general’s term) no doubt by the state’s program of liquidating the insurgent movement by 2010.

Hence, another addition to the body of protest literature (with a tradition that harks back to colonial times) is a book titled Subverso: Mga Tula at Kuwento Laban sa Pulitikal na Pandarahas which was launched late last year along with another book Stop the Political Killings which documents what has been the subject of the Melo Commission.

Back in the eighties in the wake of the assassination of Sen. “Ninoy” Aquino by military personnel, writers and editors were emboldened to put out journals of dissent. One was a booklet of poems on the murder of Ninoy—written by seven “apolitical” poets who were conscience-stricken enough to express their outrage in verse.

Ateneo de Manila saw fit to put out a special issue of its scholarly Philippine Studies, devoted to “new writing”—a collection of protest poems and essays. Earlier in UP Diliman Review editors changed its original academic (6×9) format to a magazine containing protest pieces and articles critical of the regime. The irrepressible Philippine Collegian had all along taken the risk of publicly taking on the dictatorship. The We Forum, Malaya, Mr. and Ms, Signs of the Times, Midweek and others were by then coming out to breach censorship and encourage dissent.

Prior to the present Subverso was a special issue (with the same title in two words) of Caracoa, a little magazine put out by the Philippine Literary Arts Council—containing protest poems of members and nonmembers. At an international poetry festival sponsored by the Ravens and UNESCO in late 1985, the poets read their protest work. Outstanding was Raul Ingles’ reading of his epic poem “Bayang Isinumpa” (Accursed Country of my Birth) at Rajah Sulayman Theater in Fort Santiago.

Right after EDSA, the new Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) undertook the publication of Kamao in three genre volumes (poetry, fiction and plays) to memorialize the writers’ struggle during the years of martial law. The return of press freedom did not stop the writing of protest literature for repression on the part of the ruling oligarchy, with the repressive state apparatus still intact, has continued.

The spate of extrajudicial killings and disappearances since 2001 is expressly the motivation for the pieces in Subverso with a good number touching on the malaise that afflicts a country bereft of social justice and national sovereignty. The collection includes works from established (or older) and new writers.

Two poems are from National Artists for Literature: Bienvenido Lumbera’s “Babala sa Tuko” (read during the State of the Nation Address rally, July 24, 2006) and Virgilio Almario’s “Sa Karahasan,” written in 1977). Jose F. Lacaba has a poem “In Memoriam,” about state repression. Two are from PUP-based writers: Rogelio Ordoñez’s “Ang Mundo sa Paningin ng Isang—,” about a worker’s awakening, and Bayani Aba­dilla’s “Oda Kay Ka Bel” (for party-list Rep. Crispin Beltran Jr.), still detained under old charges—a victim of 1017.

Other writers who developed before and during the First Quarter Storm are Mila Aguilar (who wrote poems in the underground under a pseudonym); the late Romulo Sandoval, who joined PAKSA, the nationalist writers group proscribed during martial law; Monico Atienza, the well-loved activist now struggling for his life at the PGH; Edel Garcellano, who writes in all genres in both English and Tagalog; Herminio Beltran Jr., who edits Ani, the CCP literary journal; Lilia Quindoza Santiago, feminist writer who later headed PANULAT founded in 1986 to continue the work of PAKSA; Nonilon Queano, one of the founders of Galian sa Arte at Tula; and Rene Villanueva, playwright and author of children’s literature.

Those whom I remember developed just before and after EDSA are two of the editors, Joi Barrios and Rolando Tolentino, and Romulo Ba­quiran who are members of CONTEND, copublisher (with Alliance of Concerned Teachers) of Sub­verso. The other editor is Mykel Andrada among the younger writers who are in academe, products of writers workshops held in UP, Silliman, and other campuses, and involved in mass work through NGOs (like Axel Pinpin who has been cited as a “writer of conscience” in prison by Philippine PEN).
A protest poem can be direct and lyrical like Queano’s opening lines: Walang pinipiling oras ang pakawalang ulupong at/ Anong bang-aw ng estado/ Walang umaga o gabi/ Kahit sa mataong lugar na matinding araw/ Itutumba’t lili­kidahin/ Yaong sa atin’y may pinakabusilak na puso,/ May awit na pinakamatimyas, / Pinakama­tigas na loob,/ Pinakamatibay na panata sa paglaya.

While he may express grief and sorrow for victims, the protest poet is certain about the outcome as in Pinpin’s “Sayaw ng Kasaysayan”: Magmeme­tamorposis/ Ang paulit-ulit/ At papalit-palit/ Tungo sa bagong anyo/ Na nagtagumpay na hibik.