As I write this the barangay captains of Tarlac are tickled by the prospect of their participation in swearing in the new president of the Republic of the Philippines—the possibility a rebuttal by the incoming spawned by a slew of midnight appointments by the incumbent, chief of which involving no less than chief justice of the Supreme Court—while lawyers hash out the symbolic repercussions of the supposedly legal gesture, if not the legal repercussions of such symbolic moves. Senators 1 to 9 have just been proclaimed by the Comelec, and number 11, ever the deadbeat, refuses to budge and give way to number 13, the Left’s last woman standing. It is the day after the death anniversary of Emily Dickinson, poet of deep privacy at times read as poet of extreme indifference to the American Civil War, and a week after the fiftieth anniversary of that most blessed of inventions, The Pill. It is for me a foreseeably forgettable week of deadlines and delays, complete with the perfunctory afternoon of guiltless banality at the mall. As I write this the Ampatuan patriarch—one of those charged in the slaughter of fifty-seven in what is arguably the worst case of election-related violence in this country—has just lost the race for vice-governor of Maguindanao, the defeat excessively compensated for by successful electoral bids of around ten clan members, including one son also accused of the grisly murders who is now the newly elected vice-mayor of Shariff Aguak. It is the year of the grand slam which makes official the Marcos Restoration, cemented in twenty-four short years, and it is six long months since the Maguindanao Massacre.
Vigilance finds its match, and often enough, its assassin in fatigue, a reality I am made all too aware of each time I pass the College of Mass Communication on my way to work, where a makeshift sign announces the number of days since the Maguindanao Massacre. The days of injustice are numbered, it reads, and as the number inches its way up, the sign grows increasingly weather-beaten and exasperated, at times even losing count, only to recover its composure and remind us definitively, dust and grime notwithstanding, that it is this number of days since the unthinkable occurred. With no end to the countdown in sight, the reminder teeters on the brink of futility, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing in a country where simple recall is literally all that matters to win an election, where memory hardly goes beyond the sonic familiarity of a name, obscuring the forest of correspondences—the conviction for plunder or the documented abuse of power or the chronic incompetence—to which the name is tethered, where history is so negotiable we no longer commemorate anniversaries of key events, only the Mondays they come closest to, and where our commitments are as disposable as our latest Facebook status message, one grievance expressed or cause advocated replaced, soon enough, by another, or scrapped altogether in favor of what we had for breakfast or a funny thing that happened on our way home, sure to trigger the upping of so many thumbs and the necessary daily dose of banter.
And why not? Humor, whether opiate or palliative, is at the very least, bound to serve a purpose, which is more than we can say of ourselves, i.e., those who make art, who, despite our fiercest convictions and bleeding hearts, can only do so much, can hardly claim the ability to do enough when confronted with terror, injustice, impunity, and all the synonyms making up the dense nest that enfolds the Maguindanao Massacre, let alone the reality of the massacre itself. “There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning,” writes George Oppen, and I hope the fiddle-and-fire imagery is less an appraisal of art as an activity of the cruel and demented and more an articulation of the seemingly contradictory impulses of taking immediate political action and fermenting an artistic response—an opposition felt so strongly by some writers that idea of contributing to High Chair 12, a special issue devoted to the Maguindanao Massacre, seems, well, pointless. And perhaps this goes to show how art, within the admittedly severely limited circles in which I move, is practiced today, i.e., divorced from reality (Oppen again: “There comes a time in any such discussion as this when the effort to avoid the word reality becomes too great a tax on the writer’s agility”), or perhaps this goes to show how politics is practiced today, i.e., separate from art. Perhaps this is why a special issue like this published by High Chair is ”out of character“ when looked upon kindly, and “presumptuous” when viewed with harsher eyes. Perhaps this is why the anthologies that instantly surface in the search for models of protest poetry or committed writing or the poetry of witness are for the most part trapped in the period flanked by the tumultuous years leading up to martial law and the EDSA Revolution. “And so it was a time for poetry,” write editors Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and Esther M. Pacheco in Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983-1986. ”No other literary form could have hoped to capture the ties better or to distill the season’s emotions more effectively. It was a time to be brief and it was a time to be direct. But it was also a time for nobility of spirit; thus poetry was needed to bring that sense across, a sense that could not be delivered by slogans, by manifestos or by hoary oratory.” Already I am flinching at what I perceive to be the valorization of an art produced by a few and read by even fewer in the context of social unrest, or is this perhaps precisely the response of one whose coming of age transpired post-EDSA, under the rule of a handful of presidents whose governance, apparently, did not merit the same flourishing of protest literature as the Marcos era?
The rest of this piece is available here.