Notes & Essays

Cirilo F. Bautista, National Artist for Literature, on the Pages of Esquire

The National Artist for Literature passed away yesterday.
IMAGE National Commission for Culture and The Arts
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National Artist for Literature Cirilo F. Bautista passed away early yesterday, May 6, at the age of 76. He is fondly remembered as one of this generation's literary greats, whose works were expressive of the Filipino experience. Esquire was lucky to have published some of those works in previous issues, which we now revisit to commemorate his passing.

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In Praise of Sardines

This Monday morning started two months ago
in a dockyard in Lisbon
when a container ship pushed toward the East
under calm weather. A flock of seagulls
trailed it, described arcs and lines
in the sky

You gaze at a flea market painting
Hanging on your kitchen wall—
A small house tucked in a crack in the mountain.
Wood sidings. Aluminum roof.
A vase of flowers on the windowsill
to catch the sun. A backyard that sways or seems
to sway over a precipice that ends nowhere.
No fence. The light gets in by sheer force
attached to the flowers, now yellow bells
with rhymes filling the window.
By the door a well for drinking water
and cooking. Any pick-up truck would groan each time
it takes the steep road to where the gate should be.
No hinges grating in the rusted wind.
August 1994.

The ship plowed through caves the storm carved
on the ocean floor, came out undisturbed,
heavy-set but fast, soon to take on
a load of onions in Singapore.
The baker’s boy brings your order
of bread at 7 a.m.—ten small
round wheat pieces still warm from the oven.
You wrap them in cloth to retain the heat
                  and imagine the ship having arrived
in Manila. Electrical winches and croppers
open the cargo hold, the motorized
ladders lower the shelves and pile their contents
on the floor. A man ticks them
against a list he has on a clipboard,
looking for something, and there they are—
boxes of sardines, product of Portugal,
packed by Pinhais and Company, Limited,
in Matosinhos. They are forwarded
to a consignee after being cross-checked
with other items,
                  and your share you bought
last night in your neighborhood grocery,
so now when you uncover your breakfast tray
you gaze at a small splendor—
six sardines, each about four inches long,
ensconced in a rectangular tin can,
redolent with olive oil
and tomato sauce, premium delectation,
avant garde of the tongue, nothing to scoff at,
companion of the lonely.

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Henry Miller in Paris

I saw my first MTV in a café
in Paris so many years ago.

I had my fries and cola while above
the lighted menu board Julietta Greco

walked in an autumn garden singing about
falling leaves though outside the trees were robust

against the swirling wind. Henry Miller
in 1952 could have sat in

a corner there, near a window, his finger
toying with his wineglass or just watching

the crowd moving in the sidewalk, quick-eyed
for movie stars. Oh so many times he wrote

about his love life, the kiss in the rain
and the furious encounters in corridors

and anterooms—a devil lover, they all
said of him—show him your heart and he’d make it

bleed, but he was a master writer who could turn
to exquisite the inexquisite, with

candor and no excuse, with surprising wisdom.
And he was shameless. He borrowed money

from everyone when money was a problem
with a promise to pay and a reminder
that people ought to help him, it was
their duty. In a visit to Manila,

William Saroyan told me he did not like that
of Miller. “He was borrowing money from me

the moment we were introduced.” But he paid
Sure as sunrise he paid. From his royalties.

From other loans. He wrote novels that were
about himself in postwar time

when nightmares waited to jump you
in streets with the pavings torn off and no birds

visited the park. In writing which was
his only work he flogged his sex again

and again as though expecting a return
to Eden, as though a penitent

in an auto-da-fe. Leaves fall but he looked
for humans falling who could be questioned

about the higher end of life when even
the apples of Hieronymous Bosch

wilted on the branch. There was a sadness
he could not understand, not even

in his most theological mood when
Milarepa and Apollonious

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Of Tyana seemed to be his familiars,
he just crumbled under grief, and went home

to California. He’s been dead
several years now but he must be there

somewhere sipping his whiskey. People
like him don’t vanish just like that.

They hide messages under our skin
and make us live uncomfortable lives.

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Five Poems From "A Salt Crown," a 15-Sonnet Cycle

Salt is food for the dead or the living,
toasted or melted for mushrooms and cabbage,
the threat for looking back at a village
where your gold hides in a hole under the fl oor,
where the fl ower vase on the window gleams
and glimmers in the morning sun. O poor
victim of love’s sick entanglement whose sting
pushes men to war and great defining schemes,
belief is a matter of conviction
not of fear, whose end reposes in this—
the unsteady hand, the unfocused vision
toward the brownish hill to spell out ‘bliss.’
So what if you crumble into softest bone—
the gold is divine, the life is your own

The gold is divine, the life is your own
despite days of trembling with pricks of spell,
you’ll harvest the thunder whose bolts you have sown
and gather salt and God’s mercy as well.
And if on your legs the white particle grows
then fairness works—the village will not know—
slumbering after threshing the common grains—
that unspoken faith gives strength through the night,
or angels conspire to shape what remains
of human longing into passion and spite.
Tell the dog, the bird, the cow, the waterwheel
the plain unspoken facts that cannot conceal
secretive houses carved in old fearing
of tribal decline, of floods fast nearing.


Of tribal decline, of floods fast nearing
the mind catches the hint, a lookout
on the tower scanning the vale and the breeze,
and in the square a few people sit, hearing
a dirge as it climbs over the wallside,
rolls over the fields to a meadow where trees
stand in straight somberness: many here have died
protecting sheep and crops, the shrubs about
the grass a trampled witness to blood and shame,
yours and mine, mine in my dream, in the name
your parents want of clarity, clarity,
though clarity is not an issue of the throne,
and that redundant fl ower, charity,
blooms last in corners where the dust has blown.

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What blooms last in corners where the dust has blown
may spark a kindness that will put to a test
the fruition of grapes in the changing valley,
speak, for the red trips the pragmatic and the best,
and yellow plucks the vine from what is known
as tillage of the soil. We marry
and fill the porch with toys and running feet,
we fall and we regroup, we bury our dead
in holes in the ground, we say what must be said
to comfort us more than them, in pain we meet
in their remembrance but not too long
and not in quietude. Perhaps a song
about mansions to warm their journey
but not a speech for what can be mercy.

Not a speech for what can be mercy.
But today the talk around the table,
with boiled potato and fig and wine,
examines a supposed conspiracy
to raise the value-added tax on swine
hauled in from the hinterlands. This we call
abuse of office, we’ll put up a blockade
and drive them back. No need to start up wrong,
hide the lamp in the bush, suffer what belongs
to us to stay with us, paid or unpaid,
of sex and the meadow, bear as best as you can
the load of fickle fate like a faithful man.
How can they know as they sing in drunken tune
of a slaughter to come with a darkened moon?

..

These poems were published in previous issues of Esquire Philippines (In Praise of Sardines and Henry Miller in Paris appeared in the February 2014 issue, and Five Poems From "A Salt Crown," a 15-Sonnet Cycle appeared in the August 2017 issue).

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About The Author
Cirilo F. Bautista
Cirilo F. Bautista is a National Artist for Literature whose poems, essays, and fiction—including The Trilogy of St. Lazarus. and Sunlight on Broken Stones—stand among the most significant contributions to modern Filipino literature. He taught creative writing and literature at St. Louis University, the University of Santo Tomas, and at De La Salle University-Manila, where he is now Professor Emeritus of Literature.
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