Forum / K Magazine

K Magazine: Forum: Speculative Poetry, Rio Alma’s old-new fantastic adventures

by Marne Kilates

Delivered during the launch of “Ang Romansa ng Pagsagip ng Osong Marso/The Rescue of the March Bear: A Romance” by Rio Alma, with English translation by Marne Kilates, (UST Publishing House, 2013) at the Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center last March 8, 2013.

733838_4490072725468_1857034390_nThis is not the first time Rio Alma has ventured into what I call “speculative poetry.” The first half of the term should be familiar to those who know and love science fiction or SF, and its expansion to encompass a vast fantasy genre that would now include not just science or techno-based narrative but the superworld creations, the alternate histories, and post-apocalyptic inventions of the likes of Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin, or the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rio’s contribution is the poetry part, at least in Filipino literature. Because before him, of course, in another universe, there was Ray Bradbury, who like Ursula LeGuin, defies categorization by virtue of his writing not just SF but simply literature. Bradbury was my first encounter with poetry within the genre of the future and outer space. I’m not sure if any other speculative writer wrote poetry, because I never saw one again in any of the path-breaking, genre-busting Dangerous Visions anthologies compiled by Harlan Ellison which I used to buy at a second-hand bookstore that predated Booksale. Again, of course, there is Tolkien whose conlang, or constructed language, Elvish, always carried verse.

Setting that aside, this is not, as I said, Rio’s first initiative into the speculative, with poetry in Filipino as his own added twist. In his Muli, Sa Kandungan ng Lupa (De La Salle University Press, 1994), there is a section of 13 prose poems, called “Mala-Kuwento” or “Semi-Stories.” One of them is a retelling of the Bikol epic-fragment Ibalong, which he titled “Kuwento ni Handyong.” Here are its opening paragraphs:

Kailangan naming iwan ang Ibalon. Nawasak ang hukbong Lipod at nakatakdang gunawin ang aming buntala. Gayon ang atas ng buktot na si Ammadlum. Ibig niyang masakop ang buong santinakpan. Ayaw niyang may matira sa mapanghimagsik na lahing Lipod. Ayaw niyang may mabuhay man lamang na alaala ng maganda’t malayang buntala ng Ibalon.

Isinasakay naming sa mga sakt’la ang mga bata, babae’t matanda nang ihudyat ni Ammadlum ang pangwakas na salakay. Inulan ng mapamuksang sinagtay ang buong buntala. Madaling nalusaw ang mga bungkalasag at walang laban ang aming mga tanggulan sa mga napakalakas na sandata ni Ammadlum. Noon ko tinipon nang madalian ang aking ilang baggani at mag-anak at inilulan sa isang lihim na sakt’la. Sasabog ang Ibalon. Mabilisang kong iginawa ng palatuntunan ang sakt’la tungo sa isang igpaw-lawak na hindi ko tiyak kung saan hahantong. Isang igpaw-lawak iyong uubos ng lakasnag ng sakt’la, isang paglalakbay na walang balikan.

Halos kapipisil ko ng haypuyo nang lagumin kami ng isang nakasisindak na dagundong. Napapikit kaming lahat. Sumibad ang sakt’la sa kawalan, waring naglakbay sa manipis na siwang ng kamatayan, simbilis ng sang-angaw na taksinag, at nawala kami sa anino ng mga bulalakaw at bituin. Nang mamulat ako’y kaharap ang isang maalindog na buntala, bilog na bilog at kulay-bughaw, waring isang sanggol na bagong silang sa mabalaning kalawakan. Hindi ko na nasiyasat mabuti ang buntala sa hilagyuan dahil hinigop kami nito at mabilis nang bumulusok ang sakt’la naming pinanawan ng lakasnag.

Let me read my translation not just for the sake of the non-Tagalogs in the audience but to give you an idea of Rio Alma’s own experimentation with bits of conlang. You won’t recognize the Filipino neologisms when rendered in English, where they look like ordinary technical words, but remember that they had to be invented in Tagalog or Filipino. So here’s the translation:

We had to leave Ibalon. The forces of Lipod had disintegrated and our planet was only waiting to be annihilated. So had the evil Ammadlum decreed. He wanted to conquer all creation. He wanted no survivors from the race of Lipod. He wanted no trace of the memory of the free and beautiful planet Ibalon.

We were herding the children, women and the old into the spaceships when Ammadlum gave orders for the last assault. Death rays rained on the planet. Our energy shields were easily breached and our defenses were useless at the superior weaponry of Ammadlum. Quickly I gathered some of my star warriors and a few families into a spare vehicle we had secreted. Ibalon was exploding. Hurriedly I programmed an interstellar trajectory that ended I didn’t know where. It was a course that would exhaust our ship’s nuclear fuel, a voyage of no return.

I had just activated the electromagnetic thrusters when we were drowned by a thunderous explosion. We shut our eyes. The spaceship darted into the vastness, as if into a crack in the closing door of death, perhaps in a thousand lightspeeds, and we vanished into the shadows of stars and comets. When I came to, before me loomed a benign and enchanting sphere, so round and blue, seeming like a newborn babe in the magnetic space. I couldn’t take a closer look at the planet on the screen of my radioscope because in an instant its gravity swallowed us and our powerless ship plunged headlong.

(Incidentally, a bilingual edition of Muli, sa Kandungan ng Lupa is set to come out of UST Publishing House maybe later this year. It was my first attempt at translating a whole book of poems by Rio Alma, but it has been preempted by Ang Romansa ng Pagsagip ng Osong Marso and another earlier book project. But watch for it, anyway. I think it is an important book, being the last of the trilogy of major works in the Rio Alma canon, the two other members of which are Doktrinang Anakpawis and Sa Iba’t Ibang Panahon. I think non-Filipino speaking readers deserve to read it as well.)

Now Osong Marso or The March Bear is a strange beast, indeed. In his introduction to Muli, sa Kandungan ng Lupa, Isagani Cruz quips that Rio Alma is “hindi tao, hindi hayop” as Cruz puzzles over the magnitude and frequency of Rio’s poetry collections, and ponders the poet’s long poems of, in Cruz’s words, “semi-epic introspection.” The epic vision of Ang Romansa ng Pagsagip ng Osong Marso sprawls over galactic distances, contemplating moonwalks and meteors, the ruins of gods and civilizations. There is also much to marvel at in terms of the what if’s and dazzling suppositions of perpetual connections between the ancient past, the fantastic present, and the unforeseeable future. But like Cavafy’s Ithaca, it is in fact an adventure nowhere, despite one’s anticipation of the ambushes of the Cyclops and Laistrygonians, but a path inward:

At kung makita mo ang mithi mong Nalendangan
Sa tambakan ng mga patay na araw,
Isang planetang mangmang,
gusgusin, malumot sa limot;
Hinding-hindi man ito ang iyong nagugunitang
Dakilang pamana ni Agyu,
Mapalad ka’t nagkawakas ang paghahanap sa sarili.

In translation:

And if you find your desired and precious Nalendangan
On the ash heap of dead suns,
A dull planet,
Grimy and bearded with oblivion;
Though it may not be what you remember
As the noble legacy of Agyu,
You are blessed that your search for your self has ended.

Beyond that quote, I won’t give you a sampling of the poems in Osong Marso, because you will be reading them soon enough after you have your copies signed today. Suffice it to say that many of them are in fact very compact and reportorial poems, almost shorn of figurative language and whose main purpose is to advance the narrative in the depiction of a fictional Third Universe. It is actually a cosmos not too far away, whose situations are not so much dissimilar to its tropical origins where mountains were green and roses were blooming. But here in the dystopian present, where the words “green” and “roses” are not just useless but prohibited, those mountains and flowers are real memories to a beast that lost its way, the March Bear. A character both sympathetic and anachronistic, the old beast is riddled with self-doubt, questions its own relevance and fears it own mortality, but is nonetheless comic and pathetic, prophetic and Pantagruelian in this strange and brave new world. And just in her kagampan or full-term pregnancy (it’s a she, after all), she is discovered, rescued and is both protected and imprisoned in a reservation, for the curiosity and enjoyment of science and schoolchildren.

I guess I’ve whetted your appetites enough about the contents of the book. Let me just give you a little story about the cover. It’s about the images or graphic elements I used on the cover of Osong Marso, in my other role as the book’s designer. The cover is a digital collage of found images on the Internet. They were not exactly “found” but searched actually, because they represent parts of my own contemplation of the strange and fantastic, my own adventures into eclectic, alternate fields of what the scholarly establishment might usually dismiss as pseudo- and illegitimate branches of science, history, geography, astronomy.

Apart from the grizzly bear, the elements that comprise the digital collage are the main background image of a black moon rising on the horizon of an alien landscape, which is actually a downloadable desktop picture composed by one CGari; and the other images floating around or superimposed on it. These are: 1) a circular diagram of the signs of the zodiac; 2) the rusted artifact known as the Antikythera Mechanism; 3) a projection of the Golden Proportions or the Divine Geometry; and 4) an old Philippine map. Except for the artifact, all are in comingling ghost-images.

Here are their little stories:

1) The astrological diagram illustrates not just the signs of the Zodiac but the Precession of the Equinoxes. Precession is an astronomical (not pseudo-astronomical) phenomenon involving the shifting of the positions of the constellations of the zodiac from the earth’s viewpoint, due to the movement or tilting of the earth’s axis, which is a spin-and-wobble like that of a top. Precession is also responsible for the changing of the seasons, the changing locations of the sunrises and sunsets on the horizon. Now this rotational tilting gains a millenarian dimension when we’re told that it follows a roughly 25,000-year cycle coincident with the cycles of the Mayan long-count calendar. The last completion of the cycle was the end of the world which did not happen last December 21, 2012.

2) The Antikythera Mechanism is an extraordinary device that is about 2,000 years old. Found in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, it is a complex system of gears and spirals, which could have been built in the 20th century. When a working model was built by modern engineers, it was found to be an ancient analog computer for predicting astronomical events such as planetary alignments and the cycle of eclipses. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project composed of independent international scholars is still studying computer simulations or working models built or displayed in museums and university libraries in many parts of the world.

3) The Golden Proportions, or the Divine Geometry is every artist’s dream of the fusion of science and art. Closely related to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (where the next number is always the sum of the previous two), the Golden Proportions are a precise mathematical progression or golden section which can be found in nature, from the proportions of the human face (chin, lips, nose, forehead) to the whorls of flowers, the repeating pattern of fractals, and the spirals of the chambered nautilus. Many artists and poets are very much aware of the Fibonacci sequence from antiquity to the present, from Michelangelo to Raphael, to Leonardo da Vinci, whose Vetruvian Man is perhaps the most popular illustration of the Golden Proportions.

4) Lastly, I placed an old Philippine map on the upper left corner of the back cover. It is a section of a larger Asian map drawn by the French cartographer Jean Janvier (and marked and dated Geographicus 1770). It is there mainly to fix the orientations of Rio Alma’s fictional galaxies as emanating from a real part of the known universe, our good old Filipinas, where everything is supposed to be more fun.

As in the poems of Osong Marso, these ancient-and-modern mysterious objects and images represent back-and-forth movements across time and space, the entanglements of the present in the past and the past within the present. These are ancient and not-too-secret haunts of the poet Rio Alma, in his early or late reincarnations, which I have been privileged to share and witness as his longtime unofficial translator. And they are now rendered and updated, apparently for the first time in the Filipino language, in the constantly changing, brave new vocabulary of speculative fiction.

Friends, welcome to the exotic, exo-poetic world of Ang Romansa ng Pagsagip ng Osong Marso, or The Rescue of the March Bear: A Romance.

Makati South Hills
March 6, 2013

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