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ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Four days ago, I wrote one of those rare love poems that I hazard to create with considerable trepidation. Not only are love poems difficult to write, but they also turn out to be risky business. “Love in a Butterfly Garden” is one of the only two love poems I have ever dared to write for my wife of almost half a century. Now I am revising it.

Revising it? Why and what for?

Although rewrites and endless revisions are part of the artistic discipline, in this case, one risks being asked: What was wrong with it? Not enough sincerity in it? Was it for real? How about the raw feelings that spontaneously gave rise to the amorous and poetic utterance? How authentic were they? Did I mean it at all? The love element at least?

This late in life, I like to believe that would not be the trigger for the rewrite. It is, as it has always been, a case of the critical mind vetting the initial pristine utterance -- once upon time, this was the sacred core of the creative process. What initially issues from the depths of the balance of thought and emotion was THE creation. Frequently, out of artistic arrogance, the first draft is THE poem until a revisiting in the tranquility of post-creation would reveal possible sections that could come back to embarrass the poet because he could have done a better job with those essentials of style and technique.

What if revision resulted in the stultification of the original aesthetic experience? What if the strictures of style and technique would only obfuscate the fervour of the initial poetic utterance? Revision could certainly be a result of artistic dread. Nevertheless, it is always accepted as the artist’s exercise of creative prerogative – the art remains unfinished until the artist says he is done and is happy with it. His divine right, like it or not.

In this revision, however, I thought the first version’s long lines dulled the function of the internal rhymes, and obscured the subtlety of the feminine rhymes that control otherwise effusive outbursts of verbal effluence (maybe even of periphrastic effluvium). The shorter lines serendipitously objectify the shape of the papillons involved in the act of love and immolation, of birthing and dying. The sensory-impressionistic ideograph of the poem-on-the-page could suggest the butterflies, the flitting female bearing the pupa (in stanza 1.) and the supine male (resigned as victual; i.e., food for post maternity) in a force majeure ordaining its supreme sacrifice of becoming food for the short-lived birthing mariposa, all for the grand design of issuing another butterfly to go through the same process (stanza 2.) ad infinitum.

The tonal impressions from the preponderant sounds of b, p, f, ing, and alliterations shaped out of these phonemes suggest the process of flight and birthing, the reproductive ritual, and the eventual “pfffttting” of all that effort.

This being merely the beginning of a string of revisiting and hopefully not eviscerating revisions, I leave the reader to his preference. Did the revision do the poem any good? At this point, which do you prefer?


--- The female carries the male butterfly on her back while they reproduce, and then the female eats the male while waiting for the pupa to become another butterfly, and then she dies shortly after. --- Bohol Butterfly Farm Guide Felix.

How a butterfly farm can turn
an upside down imitation of life,
haunts me still this side of art as life
or life as art as transfixed visions
of what we must be now:
like the gravid mariposa luring its mate
in a flight of duty -– she must bear
the male of her specie on her back
while they consummate a dance on air
not unlike our act of mating ---
she enamouring her mate
with scents purloined from blossoms
as, conjoined, they flit from flower to leaf
tumbling on air in ecstasy
not unknown to us when wild and young
and brave with joie de vivre,
for they must breed their kind
in a chrysalis of quiescence hurriedly,
urgently, before an inexorable end
where the male must be consumed
as her victual while clinging
to bramble branches bearing her pupa
seen to us now, voyeurs of unfolding
beauty and arresting splendour,
as the preening papillon bestirring
the dry air into a flutter of magic
sprung from throes of death and dying,
for she, too, must soon perish
after this function of issuing
a magnificence that for us can only be
borne of love and loving, yes,
perhaps also onto death and dying.

The poet’s refrain, “how do I love thee”,
is supercilious here, cher ami,
it cannot match the male butterfly’s sacrifice,
nor this mariposa’s dying
to bear life, beauty, and splendour.
Alas, beauty is an omen here.

(Revised August 28, 2009)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

LOL Literatures in Other Languages: Literature in a colonial language

LOL Literatures in Other Languages: Literature in a colonial language



--- The female carries the male butterfly on her back while they reproduce, and then the female eats the male while waiting for the pupa to become another butterfly, and then she dies shortly after. --- Bohol Butterfly Farm Guide Felix.

How a butterfly farm can turn an upside down imitation of life,
Haunts me still this side of art as life or life as art as transfixed visions
Of what we must be now: like the gravid mariposa luring its mate
In a flight of duty -– she must bear the male of her specie on her back
While they consummate a dance on air not unlike our act of mating,
She enamouring her mate with scents purloined from blossoms
As, conjoined, they flit from flower to leaf tumbling on air in ecstasy
Not unknown to us when wild and young and brave with joie de vivre,
For they must breed their kind in a chrysalis of quiescence hurriedly,
Urgently, before an inexorable end where the male must be consumed
As victual for her while she clings to bramble branches to bear her pupa
Seen to us now, voyeurs of unfolding beauty and arresting splendour,
As the preening papillon bestirring the dry air into a flutter of magic
Sprung from throes of death and dying, for she, too, must soon perish
After this function of issuing a magnificence that for us can only be borne
Of love and loving, yes, perhaps also onto death and dying.

The poet’s refrain, “how do I love thee”, is supercilious here, cher ami,
It cannot match the male butterfly’s sacrifice, nor this mariposa’s dying
To bear life, beauty, and splendour. Alas, beauty here is an omen.

August 26, 2009 (From the Writer’s Notebook of a Visayan Vacation, 2009)

Thursday, August 13, 2009


(Click on image to zoom in on text and pictures).

There was a lot of dying to do in August during my holiday in the Philippines.

Philippine heroine and former President Corazon C. Aquino succumbed to colon cancer August 1. The grief and nation-wide angst over her demise just about obscured another death or dying --- that of the National Artist Award, a presidential recognition for Filipino artists who have distinguished themselves as assets of Philippine culture and patrimony. We will not even mention those who died in the landslides and floods triggered by yet another typhoon pummelling this archipelago in the season of the storms. Drowning of kids in fetid, bloated esteros and murky rivers around Manila and its environs excite scant column inches in the papers and desultory sound bites on broadcast media. Insurgency in Mindanao rounds up the death count with citizens, soldiers, and rebels snuffed out in the hands of territorial wars. Dying is de rigueur here.

“At a ‘necrological service’ for the award (National Artist Award)---a protest action held yesterday afternoon (August 7)---four National Artists ‘buried’ their gold medallions to protest what they said was a mockery of the recognition given to exceptional Filipino artists,” a daily, Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

The kerfuffle resulted from President Gloria Arroyo’s appointment of a film director and “funnies “writer Carlo J. Caparas and National Commission on Culture and the Arts executive director and stage and theatre artist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, who runs the recommending body for the awards. Their appointment did not go through the nomination process of the joint recommendatory boards of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and the NCCA. Nothing, however, in the process precluded the President from appointing her own nominees.

“We want to show our disgust. We will not use our medallion until the issue is settled,” National Artist for Literature awardee, poet Virgilio Almario told the Inquirer.

“It‘s really frustrating how some people like (Mrs. Arroyo) disregard the real essence of the award,” Bienvenido Lumbera, another awardee for literature, protested.

National Artists for Visual Arts Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera and Arturo Luz also laid their medallions to rest in a symbolic funeral ceremony in front of the CCP in Pasay City. National Artists (for Sculpture) Napoleon Abueva, (for Cinema Arts ) Salvador Bernal and Eddie Romero were “also in attendance” according to the paper.Novelist and National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil Jose was among the leaders of the protest who lambasted President Arroyo’s exercise of her prerogative.

They all heaped umbrage on Caparas’ and Alvarez’s nomination. In the process of lambasting President Arroyo for her choices, they also attacked the awardees -- Caparas as not up to par and Alvarez’s as “inappropriate” or without “delicadeza” (sensitivity to niceties), simply crass.

None of the protesting awardees, however, returned their medals, a hundred-thousand-peso lump sum award, or waived a 24,000-peso monthly pension, health benefits, and ceremonial place of honour prerogatives in state functions. A genuinely no-holds-barred grand gesture of dumping the award altogether, a surrender of these perquisites was the logical conclusion of their loss of faith and disgust over the Presidential “mockery” of the process of selecting awardees. A symbolic funeral for the awards sufficed for the “insulted” National Artists. Some branded it as a theatrical “palabas” (show or spectacle). Former Censor Board chief Manuel Morato alluded to this as “so much falsehood, insincerity, and hypocrisy have infected our culture…it is indicative of the culture of hatred that is so embedded in our society today,” Morato said in the course of lamenting the violent reactions to the President’s award of the title to his friends Carlo J. Caparas and Cecile Alvarez, the paper reported.

Caparas, who said he did not ask for the award, called a press conference and labelled his critics as “elitist”, and his wife said “if you don’t belong to their cliques, you are declared unqualified.” The issue cracked a wide chasm between the “elitist” and the popular “mass” artists, and exposed an essential flaw in the awards. Critic Lumbera invokes the sanctity of the “real essence of the awards” as a source of frustration, disgust, and insult. Is not the award a recognition of artistic achievement whether it is “high brow” or “low brow” art as long as they are a contribution to the national patrimony and cultural heritage? Are these critics prepared to denounce popular art (like stage burlesque, soap operas, exportable scenery paintings of the Ermita Impressionists) as flotsam and therefore not contributory to national culture? Is Dolphy not an artist on his own? What about the late Chichay and Tolindoy, Pogo and Togo, et al as stand-up comics of pre-and-post-war years?

Alvarez said she did not have anything to do with her selection. A pioneer in educational theatre, she is deemed in various artistic quarters as eminently qualified, but why did she have to be appointed to the order outside of the normal process? The NCCA chairman, Dr. Vilma Labrador said President Arroyo was attentive to Alvarez’s “lifetime dedication to the arts … in leading the movement for a national theatre and its development to forge our cultural identity and preserve our heritage.”

Who is an artist? If he comes from the disparate regions and not Manila-based, what are his chances of being considered for the title? Is he a fine artist or an artisan? What has he contributed to the culture of the nation? Who will pass judgment on his particular art? Is there a standard state yardstick for what a national artist must be? Will this not delimit the universe of celebration of the creative artist who must hew close to “national aspirations” as opposed to free expression and creative imagination? Why must there be a national artist, but not a national teacher, scientist, biologist, pharmacist, farmer, businessman, overseas worker, salesman, or call-centre expert? Reductio ad absurdum, it is pretentious, superfluous, and discriminatory to recognize only the national artist.

If the awards are calculated to compensate the artists for their work, why not create a National Arts Council that would determine the subsidy for the artist’s work. That is a more substantial recognition of his work than any photo-op award or medallion. That guarantees continued production of art as part of the stockpiling of treasures that form part of the nation’s cultural heritage. Otherwise, the artist will be pigeonholed as destitute and deserving of a pension to continue supporting him throughout his lifetime. Why limit it to artists? Are there no other contributors to culture who deserve the financial support?

It is just as well that the protest took the form of a funeral and necrological tableau. Let the National Artist Award die this ignominious death.

When it was first conceived during the rule of deposed President Ferdinand Marcos, its exponent, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, saw it as a manner of getting the art community behind the Marcos regime. Then Presidential Strategic Services Institute director, the late Adrian E. Cristobal, saw it as an opportunity to recognize Philippine artists, some of them expatriates like Jose Garcia Villa. A noisy critic of the Marcos regime, the late lamented writer Nick Joaquin was a hesitant awardee who saw it as a chance to create leverage for petitioning the martial law government to free incarcerated writers and journalists.

Hatched in one of those Cristobal-led meetings of artists and intellectuals in the 70s, the award offered a P75.000 prize for the winning artist, a medal, and a chance to grace all state functions as an honoured guest. In one of these meetings at the Solidaridad Bookshop of author and now National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose, Joaquin said he might consider to receive the award if the martial law government would release political prisoners like poet and journalist Jose F. Lacaba, imprisoned for vitriolic articles in the Philippines Free Press against the Marcos regime.

Throughout the subsequent years, the Award metamorphosed into a pension fund for the awardees who would then consider themselves beholden to the leader who appointed them.

Because there was money behind the award, it became a sought-after award; lobbying for it became a game of chance for whoever felt like an entitled artist. (What would prevent graffiti artists to lay claim?) Cliques of artists considered others outside of the ambit of the award. Those in the academic circles felt those practising their art in the “market” (Ermita art shops, script writers, commercial movie directors, fashion designers) were not of the same league as they were who preen in the ivory towers of the academe. Academics doubled as cushioned poets, novelists, and avant-garde authors whose works got published by their university publishing houses. They provided for their own health benefits and pension funds. Meanwhile those in the “palengke” had to scrounge to please the bakya (wooden clogs) crowd to support their popularized by-products.

Hence, Carlo Caparas cannot be an “artist” within the ambit of the National Artist Award, if Virgilo Almario and Bienvenido Lumbera were consulted. Who has the right and the imprimatur to determine who is a qualified artist who might compete for the awards? Dare other artists do that? When did art hew only to the line of the Parnassian? What is so base about the artistic aspirations of massmen or the great unwashed? What is art for, but also for those among the benighted that they may edify their small lives in the slums of unforgiving poverty? Arts gratia artis (art for art’s sake) died with Aristotle, Cervantes, and Shakespeare and the authentic artists who lifted their audience from the depths of ignorance to the light of celebration. Art is for all men. Art will be democratic, like it or not. "Let the artist beware" is his own caveat in a world of diminished sensitivity.

Davao City Writers’ Guild president, poet, and university professor Ricardo de Ungria wrote the NCCA and CCP a comprehensive set of proposals to improve the selection process and policies of the National Artist Award last May 2009 to forestall the looming disrepute and disenchantment over the awards. His suggestions were not acted upon. Author Jose Dalisay, Jr. said in his Penman blog, had the NCCA and CCP acted on de Ungria’s suggestions, the imbroglio that has become the “other death” in tandem with Corazon Aquino’s would not have happened.

Artists as contributors to a distinct patrimonial, cultural heritage deserve to be honoured. The country’s now moribund Republic Heritage Award would have been a better vehicle for this award. Artists are not the only contributors to a heritage worth living in the Philippines for – there are as many sectors as there are Filipinos who believe that greatness abides in this nation. If heroes have to be “emulated” by the restive populace, a system of recognition could be developed by the Philippine Government that is free of partisanship, political opportunism, and spurious image building. The Filipino as a hero in his homeland need not be a puffed-up “bayaning huwad” (fake hero) na karaniwa’y hubad” (often stripped of value). The Filipino as hero is a paradigm of Citizen Juan de la Cruz, but not at the expense of authenticity.

Leave the artists to carve their own monuments among the people. No Government award can do that. If Caparas’ komiks and movies are more cogent communicators of Philippine culture and values, they will be supported by art’s consumers, the masa, the Philippine everyman. The authentic culture of a people is what they develop and live by. Neither Presidential award nor isolated artistic persuasion (artistic cliques, salon artistry, boutique and haute couture, ad nauseam) can beget this. Besides, awards for those who strive to create beauty in their souls are nothing but craven vanities -- a refuge of the shallow and vacuous poseurs who strive for the wind -- vanity of vanities. Art remains as the artist’s life blood. Awards or none.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


We are back from a 3-week holiday in the old country. Like all the other breaks to the Philippines, I need a vacation from that vacation. Off to Las Vegas next week.

Here are indelibly telling residues of experiences thereat:

A Death in the Afternoon

1. From a 22-hour plane ride, my wife dragged me on the first day to a parlour to get a haircut and a foot scrub. That afternoon was abuzz with fearful banter among the “aestheticians” (haute term for today’s barbers, hair stylists, foot spa attendants, pedicurists, manicurists, and the kibitzers to garner bigger tips) --- “Who will bring that homeless man sprawled near the parlour to the hospital?” The attractively transgendered manager called the barangay tanod (village watch) to come pick up the distressed man whose gangrened leg (from a diabetic reaction to an earlier amputation) precariously dangled from a pushcart he fashioned from scavenged debris or termite-eaten lumber from abandoned houses. The barangay bureaucrats said it was a job for the Department of Social Services and Welfare, not theirs. The security guards at the nearby Jolibee fastfood restaurant harrumphed that something must be done quickly to get the “wreckage of a derelict” out of sight – the munching customers inside are beginning to squirm. Who will help him, the fluttering beauty parlour attendants chimed in with feigned concern (How come even the females talk like tarty maricones (gay)?).

What’s this fuss all about? My foot-spa-treated missus enquired in the busy-body unctuousness of the parlour denizens. It’s about a dying man outside, I barked from the barber’s chair. No one wants to take him to the hospital, the transvestite parlour boss said. No one wants to shell out money to the hospital – before the man is admitted. You know, he’s got a son in the States and another working in Dubai. They must have abandoned him. Or he was too crazy to even get in touch with them. The parlour kibitzers chorused like cackling hens. That’s what’s wrong with our system --- no money, no health care. Even the village officials would rather pass the buck to the distant national government DSSW (they are fond of abbreviated names here) who likewise passed it back to the barangay (village) government. Dios ko, naman, baka mamatay na lang diyan! (Good Lord, he might just die right there!) sighed the outraged parlour overseer.

Done with my haircut and foot scrub (to remove calluses from ill-fitting shoes, my wife prescribed, and “to restore epidermal softness common to the ruling class”! ), I stepped out of the noisy marketplace of rubber-nosing fencesitters. It was about that time that a small crowd started clucking collectively angry tongues. Patay na siya! (He is dead!) Huli na’ng lahat. Saan ang tanod? Ang DSSW? (It is too late. Where is the village watch? The Department of Social Services and Welfare?) Sprawled helter-skelter on the makeshift pushcart is a diminutive, unwashed, half-naked old man who must have finally gasped his final breath begging and waiting for help while balik-bayans (citizens who have come back from their homes elsewhere abroad) like me had their foot-scrubbed into baby-pink like smoothness inside the air-conditioned, perfume-scented beauty parlour. I shuddered at the microcosmic likeness of the “moment” to the macro situation of the Philippines – nobody steps up to answer the critical question: Are you your brother’s keeper?

My wife averted her gaze away from the crumpled body on the pushcart. I heard the Jolibee “sekyu” (security guard) yell at the now het-up barangay representative who has just wheeled in to ask – where is the man who needs to be brought to the hospital? Ayan, patay na siya! Pulutin na ninyo, o kami na ang pupulot sa kanya bago mawalan ng gana ang aming mga parukiyano! (There he is. He’s dead. Pack him up or we will do it ourselves before we lose our clients in the restaurant who will surely lose their appetite from seeing him there!)

A death in the afternoon, I muttered to myself. The crowd dispersed; the transvestite parlour boss went back into the parlour, and asked who’s next in the foot spa.

A Mother’s Death

2. Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon C. Aquino, the military-backed post martial law President who toppled Ferdinand Marcos died August 1, 2009. Her wake became a spectacle despite her family’s rejection of a state funeral --- the mourners from all walks of life – from the abject poor to the disgruntled rich, the ignorant massmen to the academic navel-gazers, the religious to the secular opportunists. The entertainment sectors (the great guns came out to sing: Kuh Ledesma, Lea Salonga, Gary Valenciano, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Dulce, Martin Nievera, Apo Hiking, Jose Mari Chan, etc.) and the broadcast media tried to outdo each other with their hosannas. Are there recordings of those performances one could buy from the enterprising recording industry? The singers did a better job of honouring the cancer-struck Cory Aquino; the wake will be remembered for a long time as that which brought out the best rendition of “Ang Bayan Ko” by Broadway actress Lea Salonga.

The has-been Cabinet members and wannabe Presidential pretenders could not stop stringing high-falutin encomiums about Mrs. Aquino’s simplicity, honesty, and sincerity. They were astounded silly by their pride over her humility.

Past Presidents Fidel Ramos and impeached leader Joseph Estrada, erstwhile military backstop/puppeteer and vehement critic of Mrs. Aquino respectively, joined the photo-op throng to say goodbye to the lady in the unprepossessing coffin. At 4 a.m. on the Wednesday before Aquino’s interment, the present President Gloria Arroyo rushed to the Cathedral (cutting short her trip to the United States, her press secretary Remonde protested), offered a Palace Mass for the fallen former President despite the latter’s pre-demise people-power threats for Arroyo to resign as an interloper President (grabbed power from Estrada). Hiya. The Filipino value of hiya (politesse) came in good stead.

These are symptoms of an unhappy country that needs a hero.

Unhappy, indeed, are the citizens who would even make heroes out of the hapless honour guards who stood ramrod straight all throughout the 9-hour funeral march beside Mrs. Aquino’s bier. They would be promoted in rank and awarded business-donated bonuses of 25 thousand pesos ($520US) each.

In fact, Congress filed resolutions to declare her a “hero”, even before the august chamber of learned men and women could proclaim martyred patriot Dr. Jose Rizal, rebel supremo proletarian Andres Bonifacio, and those who valiantly struggled against Spanish, American, and Japanese colonizers as Filipino national heroes. The expression of grief bordered on adoration so that after her interment, some admirers --- including former Aquino functionary now vaunted public intellectual and economist Solita Monsod – wanted her to be beatified by the Vatican. They wanted a Saint Cory Aquino to boot.

That, of course, crystallized the overflowing expression of fealty, over-reacting brush-fire devotion to the almost forgotten Mrs. Aquino who came back to claim power and fame through her youngest daughter’s revelation that she had terminal colorectal cancer (Kris, the actress and TV personality). The death watch culminated, of course, into the spectacle seen throughout the streets of Pasig, Makati, and Manila. Filipinos made a fiesta out of her wake and burial. They have long needed a semblance of EDSA People Power, a phenomenon admired the world-over that seems to have been squandered through the subsequent years after President Marcos’ dethronement. A week after the interment, the yellow shirts and dresses have vanished, and a Congressional murmur of abandoning the Charter Change resolution of the House of Representatives is now being bandied around as a good manner of honouring Mrs. Aquino’s memory.

If simplicity and humility were Mrs. Aquino’s exemplary virtues, she would have spurned the over-wrought mourning. After all, in the words of her martyred husband, Ninoy, their deaths were an overlapping stream of lives and sacrifices for the “Filipino who is worth dying for.” KISS was Ninoy’s favourite advice as a journalist and speaker: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Serendipitously, I had a lachrymose moment with my mother, now a decade older than Mrs. Aquino, who realizes she is inexorably joining my father who went home ahead. My visit with her this time had a note of peremptoriness. Bury me with your father, and learn to forgive, she whispered as I kissed her hand.

I will remember Mrs. Corazon Aquino's requiem as a grander version of whatever I would be able to muster for my mother when the inevitable comes. I wept when her youngest daughter repeated her final entreaty to her family: Take care of each other. My mother made the same feisty advice when I bade her goodbye. She has this third eye that might have sensed my anger over not being able to take care of her from this distance, and my disappointment that remaining siblings have not been as understanding and tolerant of her obstinacy and intractable exercise of maternal authority even when she rues that she has probably outlived her usefulness.

The Filipinos could best revere Corazon Aquino's memory by taking care of each other, as intoned in the anthem's final words: Aming ligaya na pag may mangaapi, ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo! (It is our supreme joy to die for thee (mother Philippines), should any tyranny befall thee.

Next: The National Artist Kerfuffle: A Fly in the Holiday Soup