by Jim Pascual Agustin
There are poets who take a lifetime to find a voice of their own. They begin as no more than mimics of others they have read or were taught to admire. Young poets tend to be snagged by rhymes or too much philosophy. Some get caught up in an eternal spiral of personal demons and whimsical indulgences. Often it takes them many years to find a unique way of seeing things, of expressing particular emotions, of capturing that elusive moment, that they can claim as truly theirs alone.
Many will either give up writing altogether or continue to delude themselves that they have indeed perfected their craft. Some will persevere through the years and, perhaps with luck, find a voice that may not stand out but is nonetheless worth hearing.
And then there are those rare few who, upon putting their first few poems down on paper, instantly find that voice. A voice so compelling, so original, that the reader can only step back in silence, in awe. Many years ago, while a student at the Ateneo de Manila University, I came across one such poet, Emmanuel Q. Velasco.
I still remember the very first poem of his that I had the good fortune of reading, “Badyaw.” It is a mesmerizing piece of poetry. On the surface it is the quiet contemplation of a sea gypsy. It reveals a simple pleasure that is not without a sense of wonder, but at the same time it is a recognition of human frailty and surrender to the elements, in all of nine lines.
Dalawang pulgada na lang at tubig.
Kay sarap matulog sa sahig,
malamig, kahit walang hangin mula sa langit.
Ang hingal ng agos
kumakanti sa buhok, at daig ng lagaslas
ang pagaspas ng pakpak ng lamok.
Hindi ko tuloy maiwasang isipin,
inaawitan ako ng paligid, kahit
dalawang pulgada na lang at tubig.
Sometimes Velasco writes poetry that seems less linear. Fragments of images fall like rain on dry concrete. Then suddenly a startling picture comes to life. Such a moment can be found in “Tag-talbos” where the snapshot of a woman gathering talbos ng kamote by the road unexpectedly reveals a bitter struggle for survival.
This poet infuses common place scenes with vivid details and turns of phrase that set the reader off to an unsettling journey. There is cutting commentary in the poems that deal with rural life, but it is never heavy-handed, as in the opening lines of “Bilog ang Buwan sa Ibabaw ng Bukid.”
Mula sa bintana ng aking kubo,
walang imik ang daigdig, hindi gumagalaw,
nakatirik at nag-iisip.
Halos marinig ko ang paghinog ng palay.
Dahan-dahan, bumibigat ang mga butil,
napupuno ng buhay at tigas…
In the poem “Sa Tindera ng Kutsilyo” he cleverly takes the possible menacing scenarios of dealing in such a trade and turns them all on their heads. The woman the reader expects to be either a victim or perpetrator becomes – horror of horrors – merely just another human being.
One senses that the true source of wisdom in Velasco’s world is not the university-holders or red carpet treaders. With his unique depiction of the often simplified view of rural life, the reader grows a renewed appreciation of what urban children have lost.
Velasco’s words and images linger in the reader’s mind. It is as if a ghost manages to enter one’s peripheral vision and refuses to leave, yet never completely shows itself. But it is there, forever. This amazing writer has kept the fire of poetry burning in him through the decades, in near seclusion. The release of Velasco’s first poetry book, Dalawang Pulgada at Tubig, should be welcomed by those who seek renewed faith in the power of words to move.
Emmanuel Q. Velasco has a voice that seems to originate from a place of myth and wonder. His language and vision come from a wiser age where human strength and frailty are exposed to the elements – humbled, but never lost.
Jim Pascual Agustin (http://matangmanok.wordpress.com/) is the author of the poetry collections “Beneath an Angry Star” (Anvil, 1992), “Baha-bahagdang Karupukan” (UST Publishing House, 2011), “Alien to Any Skin” (UST Publishing House, 2011), “Sound Before Water” (UST Publishing House, 2013), and “Kalmot ng Pusa sa Tagiliran” (UST Publishing House, 2013). He has lived in Cape Town, South Africa since October 1994.