Tag Archives: Martial Law

Hope and Memory

On 18 September, 10am ET, the online Zoom event for the announcement of the manuscript that would win the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize started. The organisers of the prize, Singapore Unbound and Gaudy Boy Press, are based in New York.

It was 4pm in Cape Town, South Africa where I was, half a world away from my country of birth, the Philippines which is six hours ahead. By the time I was about to read, the son and namesake of the former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was landing in New Jersey. It was his first time to return to the USA where numerous legal cases had been filed against him and his family. But he was untouchable, having gained diplomatic immunity as the supposed president of the Philippines in the recent elections which “failed to meet the international standard of a free, honest and fair election” according to the International Observer Mission.

On 21 September 1972, the late dictator announced martial law in the country. His regime was brought to a dramatic end when the people chased his family out of the presidential palace in 1986. Now the Marcos family appears to be back in power, propped up by the brutal legacy of the Duterte regime. They are once again flaunting their excesses without a hint of remorse for all those years of tormenting a people.

So on that day, as part of the five shortlisted poets for the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, I decided to highlight particular poems from my manuscript, Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight, that hoped to revisit the martial law years. With my voice quaking, I read from a prepared text:

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines by the late deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The lies that continue to be spread by Cambridge Analytica-trained social media handlers of the Marcoses will keep trying to decimate the memory of those who fought the regime.

My manuscript doesn’t just tackle martial law, but I chose these particular poems today to highlight the anniversary of the declaration.

I did not think my manuscript would win. For many years my country of birth, sad to say, never really took to my work as I had hoped. I have had more recognition in South Africa and elsewhere. I was told not just a few times to consider stopping putting out books, for who reads them anyway?

Days after the announcement, sometimes even when I’m driving, I would still suddenly be struck by a surge of emotion not unlike when I momentarily remembered a loved one who had just died. But this time, instead of tremendous grief, it was of overflowing joy.

I will have to keep reading this press release to remind myself that maybe I should keep writing no matter what happens:

What presence, what exquisite sensitivity. Such perspicacity of mind and heart illuminates Jim Pascual Agustin’s crystalline poems. Masterfully observed, shone through with Zen penetration, these songs of innocence and experience divine a universe of complex lives lived, torn asunder, celebrated, and mended. You are enveloped in these entirely believable scenarios filled with people and creatures finding themselves in everyday moments, and extraordinary circumstances. With a few deft strokes, many of the poems here range far and delve inwards. Politics, nationality, identity, family, laws of nature – everything everywhere all at once, yet intimately, pulsatingly at home.
Prize Citation by judge Yeow Kai Chai

Thank you, Yeow Kai Chai, for finding something worthy in my work. Thank you, Jee Leong Koh and the wonderful team behind the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize.

Books by Jim Pascual Agustin

Bloodred Dragonflies (Deep South, 2022/San Anselmo Publications, 2022)

Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems (San Anselmo Publications, 2020)

How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems (San Anselmo Publications, 2019)

Wings of Smoke (The Onslaught Press, 2017)

Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento (University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House, 2016)

A Thousand Eyes (USTPH, 2015)

Kalmot ng Pusa sa Tagiliran (USTPH, 2013)

Sound Before Water (USTPH, 2013)

Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (USTPH, 2011)

Alien to Any Skin (USTPH, 2011)

Salimbayan (Publikasyong Sipat, 1994)

Beneath an Angry Star (Anvil Publishing, 1992)


Injured in the Night – a poem for Joel Pablo Salud

Here is part of what I said during the Zoom event (watch it on YouTube) for the announcement of the winning manuscript for the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize:

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines by the late deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The lies that continue to be spread by Cambridge Analytica-trained social media handlers of the Marcoses will keep trying to decimate the memory of those who fought the regime.

My manuscript  doesn’t just tackle martial law, but I chose these particular poems today to highlight the anniversary of the declaration.

There are four sections – Bound by Wood, The Belly of a Termite, Something in Its Grip, and Resonate. The first three sections deal with nature, politics, and departures respectively. The fourth has all three, but the themes are bound together by a single line from a song by Icelandic musician Bjork, a line “misheard” in different ways becomes the title of each poem in the final section.

“Injured in the Night” is among the poems I read, written for Joel Pablo Salud who has many interesting stories about those martial law years.

Injured in the Night
for Joel Pablo Salud


September is a war of memories
in the home country. Roads and alleys,
unmarked cemeteries. Billboards
are nothing but metal skeletons hiding
behind the clash of colours on tarpaulin.
The promise of whiter skin looms
over the patchwork maze of shacks.

No one mends a bullet-ridden car.
It becomes fodder to the crunching jaws
of scrap machinery, not a piece of evidence.

Who will remember those injured
in the night, the disappeared?
Are we only here to scavenge
a landscape where smoke coils
long after the last burning?

-o-


UPDATED: More Wax than Human Remains

Duterte Marcos

More Wax than Human Remains

The late dictator’s image rendered
in wax, displayed in a Quiapo-quality
glass box, is what his family would love
to drag down from the North

all the way to sweltering Manila.
Only those who have lived
through the darkness might ask:
How many candles could they carve

out of his non-human remains?
Will his greatest admirer simply
mow us down with curses and bullets,
deaf as he is to any protest?

-o-

 

 

The above is the first draft. Here is the new version which I hope is a bit of an improvement, thanks to the generous members of my secret online poetry discussion group, The Boathouse:

More Wax than Human

The late dictator’s image
rendered in wax, displayed
in a Quiapo-quality glass box,

what his family and most touched
admirer would love to haul
all the way from the North

down to sweltering Manila.
Only those who have lived
through the darkness might ask:

How many candles
could they carve out
of his non-human remains?

-o-

 

Related reading.

THE NARRATIVE has always been that the body in the glass coffin in Batac, Ilocos Norte, lying there since 1993, is yet to be buried because the state refuses burial. As a result, the body lies embalmed until God knows when. There is an irreverent twist to it, sacrilegious even, that appeals to most cultural norms barring the desecration of the dead. In short, the message is: The state is cruel to disallow proper burial.

I have had two opportunities to visit the crypt of Ferdinand Marcos. The tourist gazer is usually led to an inner chamber inside the mausoleum just beside the family’s “ancestral house.” I enclose that in quotation marks because the house is anything but old; it is a new building designed to have fake, exposed “paletadas” so as to conjure antiquity; this is also part of the narrative. This first visit had an Imeldific air to it—the sound of choral cantatas filled the chamber.

The second visit some years later was unexpectedly and surprisingly revealing. A close Marcos family friend escorted us to the crypt. There in the stillness of the chamber (no choral cantata this time), looking down on the finely chiseled body of the deposed president—you could clearly see the veins on his hands, or so I thought—the family friend whispered: This body is just a wax replica, the real corpse had already been buried underneath. End of the narrative.


Burying a Dictator

My country of birth has an incoming president who won by garnering less than 40% of the votes. It can be said that over 60% of the voting population did not choose him, and when he gains control of the country this many people will be watching his every move, hoping all their fears be proven wrong. More than a month away from being sworn in, he mouths the same things during his notorious campaign. The ghosts of those killed by the so-called Davao Death Squads (documented by international agency Human Rights Watch and the country’s own Commission on Human Rights) will continue to haunt him until justice is done.
One thing that seems to have forced even his own supporters to declare disagreement with him even this early has to do with the remains of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. The incoming president apparently sees him as worthy of being buried at the Heroes’ Cemetery. The public – perhaps more aware of that dark part of the country’s history – has started various campaigns to fight this utter disrespect for the countless victims of Martial Law. One of the campaigns is on Change.org. Here is the LINK. Please consider signing it and then sharing the petition link.
In showing my support, I am posting this poem which appeared in my book ALIEN TO ANY SKIN (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011). My poem is nothing compared to what the people of the Philippines suffered under the rule of the dictator, his family, and various cronies.
 

Tracks on Grasslands

It begins with that one step. A boot
on the slenderest blade
of grass. The faintest
crunch of bright green veins
nearly invisible to your eye.

But it happens. That breaking.

It happens again and again
as you move on, forcing down
other blades of grass,
leaving your tracks,
making a path of near
silent destruction
to somewhere
you think is yours
to claim.

And when you encounter
thicker grass that dare
to keep you out,
you make them sing
with that sharpened edge.

You do this in the dark.
You do this mostly in the dark.

October 2007
-o-