Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Avant-Garde Poetry in the Time of Crisis
and Resistance:
by E. San Juan Jr.

By Karlo Mikhail I. Mongaya

If E. San Juan, Jr. has continued to write poetry on subjects that many would deem radical or
even subversive, it is because the essential
conditions of exploitation and oppression that he has
written about in his younger years have remained basically unchanged up to the present. The
world capitalist system continues to wreak havoc on the workers, peasants, and oppressed people
around the wor
ld who suffer from rising levels of inequality, unemployment, and hunger.
Global capitalism condemns ever widening sections of humanity to poverty and misery even as
the ruling classes who own the means of producing the material wealth of society become ri
than ever. The unabated crisis of this system has meant the intensifying exploitation and plunder
of Philippine cheap labor and natural resources by the monopoly capitalists and financial
oligarchs living the life in the United States, European Union,
and Japan, among others.
The dominant culture legitimizes and prettifies this unjust and ugly dispensation. Most art and
literature, including poetry, consequently draw the people’s attention away from the fundamental
problems confronting them through the
proliferation of banal and sensational consumer
spectacles. Anything else is deemed unmarketable.
But this has not kept E. San Juan, Jr. from continuing to challenge the dominant order and
offering an alternative vision of the world through his writings.
It is precisely this stamp that
cemented San Juan’s standing as a writer of world
renown in the fields of literary criticism,
cultural studies, and poetry. And it is precisely in this way that San Juan inscribes the new into
the shell of the old rotting or
Ambil: Mga Pagsubok, Pahiwatig & Interbensyon
is only San Juan’s latest book of poetry in
Filipino that serves as a means of social critique and the dreaming of a better world. It is a
continuation of a long trajectory from
Kung Ikaw ay Inaapi Bakit H
indi ka Magbalikwas
which was published amidst the dark years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, up to his newer
volumes of poetry such as
Sapagkat Iniibig Kita
(2004) and
Kundiman sa Gita ng Karimlan
The poems in
do not
only represent the contemporary realities of exploitation
and resistance as content. San Juan’s method of representation

the poetic form itself

in illuminating these realities. Inspired by avant
garde movements from Dadaism, Surrealism, up
to Con
ceptual Art, San Juan seeks, in his own words, “to provoke critical resistance to consumer
culture and the narcotic spectacles saturating the corporate mass media and the public sphere.”
San Juan’s poems in the collection take on the form of distinctive va
riations of
, a Filipino
word which is defined as an “interpretation of a word, phrase or statement different from that
originally intended; pet name; constant repetition of a word or expression for the pleasure of the
sound or for its being a favorit
e expression.”
garde inspired
Taking its cue from its avant
garde conceptual art inspirations,
goes beyond the traditional
concern with traditional formal devices (like sound, rhyme, metaphor, irony, etc.) and instead
trains its attention to
making the circumstances of the poem’s conceptual construction more
discernable to the reader.
The poem “Pagpapasubaling Di Mabali
Bali? Makabagong Litanya,” for example, repeats the
(trans. however) to begin line after line in order to piece
together a litany of facts
that give witness to the seemingly never
ending list of human rights violations by the Philippine
Subalit kamakailan pinatay si Dionisio Garite kasunod ni
Capalla sa Panay
walang imik ang military at rehimen sa karumal
krimeng nangyari
Subalit patuloy pa ang dasal at misa sa memorya ni Cory
Subalit wala pang hustisya ang 13 pinuksa nila sa Mendiola
noong Enero 22, 1987
Juan adroitly places ironic details side by side in order to highlight the absurdity of a social
order wherein fair trade advocates helping the poor are killed by state forces with impunity while
the scions of the Aquino
Cojuangcos, a landlord clan respon
sible for the massacre of poor
peasants calling for land reform are praised to high heaven.
Much of contemporary writing aims this interrogation of the text within the field of language,
discourse, and the play of meanings divorced from any reference outsi
de of the writing itself.
San Juan, however, goes beyond textual surfaces and is much more interested in pointing the
readers to the material realities referred to in the poems

that is, in situating them back to the
real world.
The simple recombination o
f previously created texts instead of creating fresh material is another
method culled by San Juan from the arsenal of avant
garde conceptual art. The ruling order,
crumbling under the weight of its manifold contradictions, is a walking corpse that is mine
d for
texts and other materials that can be used for the recreation of the new.
“Asignatura sa Mga Anarkista (Hinangong ambil mula kay Yoko Ono)” comes in the form of an
instruction manual for the treatment of formalist literary texts and grammatical books
. This text
represents an interesting counterpoint to Jean Luc Godard’s film
La Chinoise
where student
radicals proposed criticizing conservative books as opposed to burning them:
C. Tipunin lahat ng librong nagkukunwaring siyang
pinakamabuting balarila o
gramatika ng wika, pati
lahat ng mga
arte poetika
mula sa
Noceda at Sanlucar hanggang mga turo nina Lope K
Santos at Julian Cruz Balsameda, pati na lahat ng
tulang may tugma’t sukat ayon sa regla ng mga
awtoridad at premyadong pantas.
Ilagay sa isang trak, dalhin sa Payatas, buhusan ng ilang
balde ng gasoline, at sunugin.
“Diskarteng Pag
urirat sa Cogito
Sum ni Descartes” meanwhile plays on the famous
dictum “I think, therefore I am” to playfully tease out how consciousness, in the
last instance,
cannot be the ultimate guarantee of being. Discourse as expressed in the poetic lines abruptly end
when the persona runs out of breath. The material is primary over consciousness:
Tumutol ako’t nakibaka, samakatwid ako ay
Nakulam ako,
samaktwid ako ay
Naghihingalo, samakatwid ako
Humingi ng saklolo, samaktwid
Wala nang hininga, sama ka
Production of the new
San Juan’s utilization of devices inspired by conceptual art is not mere artistic whim. This is not
simply borne out of a desire to
be fashionably novel but a serious attempt to represent
contemporary realities of economic crisis and global disorder in new ways. The new here,
following Fredric Jameson, “is not some unusual object, as in so many avant
garde conceptions
of modernist inn
ovation, but a whole new world of relationships . . . into which writer and reader
alike must penetrate by means of daring exploration, and appropriation.”
This brings us to avant
garde conceptual art’s interrogation of the notion of authorship. While
of contemporary literary theory considers the author as a mere function of the structure of
the text, San Juan hints as to how the text are not only the poet’s or the reader’s but are also
shaped by the social and historical world in which he is situated.
In “Pinakahuling Paalam ng Koro ng mga Taga
Salin ng ‘El Ultimo Pensamiento’ ni Rizal,” for
example, San Juan plays with varying Filipino translations of a line from Jose Rizal’s last poem
before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities in 1896.
s, queridos eres, morir es
is translated differently according to the standpoint, language, formal style of the
purported translator from Andres Bonifacio, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Idelfonso Santos, Felix
Razon, among others:
Mamatay ay siyang pagk
Mamatay ay ganap na katahimikan.
Paalam na, giliw, at pamamahinga tadhana ng mamatay.
Adios, mga iniibig na nilalang, kamatayan ay pagpapahinga lamang.
Conceptual art construes the idea as the machine that generates art. San Juan takes off from
tenet but never fails to refer to the social basis of all consciousness. He engages in playful games
of making the reader participate in the creation of meaning, but not as the end goal but rather as a
step towards making more visible the social reali
ties surrounding the reader.
“Transkripsyon ng Ilang Bytes ng Kompyuter ng NSA, Washington DC, USA” concretely
illustrates the overwhelming scale of the online spying on the global population and the
consequent massive violation of people’s rights to priva
cy perpetrated by the United States
government through its National Security Agency’s Prism Program:
Makibaka ba, huwag matakot? Nilabasan ka ba? Kailan tayo
tutugpa? Sino iyang nakamaskara? Peks man? Sino ang
nagsuplong? Swak na swak ba? Dapat ba nating d
alhin ang
kargada? Mabigat ba o magaan? Sino si Yolanda? Liku
San Juan’s poetry is often labeled as difficult, even incomprehensible to the common reader. His
poetic writing’s affinity with the artistic avant
garde and references to other literary te
philosophical ideas, events, and socio
historical conditions is often cited to prove this branding
on his works. It is hence surprising how at the immediate level surprisingly lucid San Juan’s
poems are. They are often mistaken as daunting only becaus
e they require the reader to think.
In the end, this is poetry that seeks to push the reader away from just submitting to the text
uncritically and be disabused of the illusion of simply being a passive consumer of the poetic
line. San Juan’s poetry shows
us the way in how progressive writing must not only descend to
what is already popular but also to endeavor in the popularization of the new. As the Guatemalan
poet Otto Rene Castillo eloquently st

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