Wednesday ∗ 23 Nov 2011

The (Un-)Worth of Words*

Because there are no words, none worth using to talk about the Ampatuan Massacre, no words worthy of lives lost to such violence, to such power. What we should’ve been was out on the streets, angry, fearless, pointing a finger at (giving the finger to) the system that has been feeding private armies. But none of that happened. Instead we were quiet and enraged, watching the news at home, receiving word about the rumored real reason behind the encounter, which involved anti-Muslim Christian-biased notions of multiple wives and girlfriends and patriarchy.

We were more dead than those 57 people, double-dead because we knew this possible but we waited for it to happen. What can only be worse than that is having illusions about our words being worth anything.

This is my issue with the Anthology of Rage in Verse I. It isn’t even an illusion of change that’s here as it is a notion that it matters at all to anthologize 100 poems, with no titles and just poets’ names, collecting rage about the Ampatuan Massacre into one epic poem by various contributors. It’s no surprise that this notion of continuity is possible, because there isn’t much to look at here, not much to read as far as diversity’s concerned. Because whatever the individual perspectives (which tend to speak generally of grief/anger/brotherhood/hope(lessness)/rising from the ashes) the tendency at romanticizing the death of 57 seems all-encompassing, is really quite the default.*

This is easy to understand given the established poets’—all of whom submitted poems—defense of the project. There is Marne Kilates’ take on the goals of this anthology, “Protest poetry or poetry against violence is an act of language. It is an instance of language engaging the physical and the experiential, as language always does in everyday speech. But since poetry is not everyday speech, protest poetry or poetry against violence brings the engagement to a higher level.” This higher level’s relationship to poetry and the Ampatuan Massacre is something that Luisa Igloria works with when she says that the murders’ effect on us all should “rightly serve as ballast and ground for the language and lyric of poetry,” where Gemino Abad’s notion of collecting “the finest rage” perfectly fits in.

But what this massacre requires, its goriness, its kabastusan is the language of the everyday. In fact, it requires the use of a language that will hurt because it screams from the gut, shoots from the hip, or is as dirty and angry as those killers were, as fearless as the Ampatuans were/are. To use what is deemed as the high language of poetry, to insist on rage that is fine, or the beauty of poetic language, seems politically incorrect. In fact, poetry such as what’s in this anthology seems politically incorrect.

Because there are many things to do other than write. If writing is your weapon, then there is writing that matters now because it will be read, because it will be relevant, because it isn’t tied up in illusions of beauty and lyricism, highness and artistry.

Because what is relevant, always is. This is why we go back to the Lacaba brothers’ Martial Law poems. This is why we go back to the protest songs, to the songs of the revolution, to poems of nation. This is why books likeDekada ’70 by Lualhati Bautista and State of War by Ninotchka Rosca continue to be reprinted, year after year after year; this is why the Noli Me TangereEl FilibusterismoFlorante at Laura are deemed national literature required in classes across the country. It is because while it speaks of a different time, it speaks of us now. It is because the reasons for rage against the Ampatuan Massacre have been with us forever, have been here since government ceased to be effective, since families across the country were allowed to keep positions of power, regardless of how.

Real relevant protest literature reminds us of how dangerous the pen is and puts fear in our hearts as we write it. It is here that there is bravery and courage in the act of writing; it is here that there is an amount of danger. Real protest literature is a threat to the always oppressive status quo, it’s something that any tyrant will fear enough to judge it worthy of declaring the suspension of rights to expression.

At the height of relevance, writing in protest puts our lives in danger, it is enough to get us jailed.

Kilates says that it’s possible that “we can never exhaust the subject of violence with impunity and too much random death.” True, but why would we want to? Write about violence when we can do something about it, I mean. When what the Ampatuan Massacre should’ve told us was that all our words that condemn oppression, all our literary work that questions the status quo, ends up being nothing but the status quo because it refuses to be more than just those words, because it is repeated as a mantra, it is celebrated as “the word”, fine and otherwise, and nothing else. It is an end point: this is what I’ve got to say therefore this is what I’ve done.

Luisa Igloria quotes Brecht, “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.”

Two hundred five.
One thousand one hundred eighty-eight.
One thousand nine hundred sixty-three.

These are 2001 to 2009 numbers of victims of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and illegal arrests. These are bigger, more urgent numbers, than 57. Where have our poets been through these dark times? Or was the past decade not dark enough? Maybe this was a choice not to speak, not to empathize, not to rage all this time?

Maybe if there was rage then, the Ampatuan Massacre wouldn’t have happened. But then again, that’s giving poets—all of us writers—too much credit. Merlie Alunan says, “<…> let the words flood among us, into us, to grieve, to rage. Maybe to heal this wounded nation.” Ah, but the words that heal this nation don’t come in poems with high language, doesn’t happen on the internet, doesn’t come in any anthology of literary works. It happens on nationwide television, when the media-created messiah says we will be alright, and thousands of the oppressed believe him. There lies the change that disregards our words.

And why there is always reason to rage against the words we use to explain our world. Unless these can kill in the way guns and money and power can, they are nothing but unworthy.

Only poems in Filipino and English were read by this reviewer.

Quotes from poets via the comments section of Marne Kilates’ and Joel Salud’s individual Facebook notes defending the anthology.

Data via Karapatan’s 2009 Human Rights Report.

*this was written for High Chair’s 12, 2009-2010, which dealt with the Maguindanao Massacre, the 2nd anniversary of which is today. Read the rest of the High Chair issue here and here and here.

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