Notes & Essays

Poetry in Three Languages: English, Filipino, and Hanunuo Mangyan

Quintin Pastrana writes about nature, love, and heartbreak in seven-syllable lines.
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Quintin Pastrana was working on a community library in Mindoro when he fell in love with the ambahan, the traditional form of poetry of the Hanunuo Mangyan, an indigenous group. 

Each line of an ambahan is made up of only seven syllables, each poem revealing shared stories about everyday objects, nature, and the group’s collective memories.

Pastrana has adopted the metric structure of the ambahan in his own poetry, and has gone further, binding his sensuous words in seven-line stanzas. He wrote the first drafts of the poems while taking his Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford. 

“The ambahan is a truly Filipino form, and its heptasyllabic form gives the best of both worlds: an artful structure to crystallize language, yet versatile enough to allow for a more conservational narrative,” says Pastrana, the founder of the Library Renewal Partnership, which has built over 1,000 libraries across the country. “Our Mangyan brothers and sisters had the prescience to craft a verse form where each line spans the runway of the human breath.”

In his book, Ambahan, published by Far Eastern University, Pastrana’s poems were originally written in English, translated into Filipino by author and poet Danton Remoto, and then transcribed in the script of the Hanunuo Mangyan by the Pinagkausahan sa Daga Ginurang, the recognized council of Hanunuo Mangyan elders. Hence, the poems are presented in trilingual form.

The themes are more contemporary than traditional, many centering on love and heartbreak, but still paying homage to the natural: the sea, the sky, the trail-winds, the first star.

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Below, some excerpts from the original English:

DUSK

Estuary light and dark,

communion and confusion,

poetry and prophecy—

grant these unkept dreams passage.

Beguile me as a lantern

dances with the untamed winds

that languished in the canyon

 

Until yours eyes uncoiled the

fragrance in these pistils that

had slept in the wake of all

that I was becoming, like

unsheathed earth, my two bits’ worth

That your way is the doorway

to the chamber of the sun



ONSET

Fireflies forge constellations

as the bangka’s prow grazes

the murky mangrove branches

and the boatman’s oarblade stirs

the myriad plankton glowing

through brackish grosgrain water

in the narrowing canyon

Our vessels, tips of spears, pierce

the moonless velvet sieve, with

questions bereft of answers,

rippling through the reflections

of tonight’s scattered jewels

and we find our senses blurred,

gently spinning out of time


TRANSCEND

If I dwell on this trifle

I begin to remember

how an ordinary day

can write chapters of a book

And here I am, stuck in a

puddle that strayed from this flood

that seeks to rejoin the sea

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