You are Here by Mabi David
(High Chair, Quezon City, 2009)
Inside, Outside, and Here: Reading Mabi David’s You are Here
Lyric poets who incorporate historical material in their work contend with a number of pressures. First, there is the dominant mode of the lyric poem -- a mode that employs, in relation to history and the historical material, several readily discernible strategies. In this mode, history is a trove of narratives -- we get an anecdotal poem that starts with encounter, ends with insight, and at various stops expresses wonder. Variants of this mode include the persona speaking as a historical figure, the politically engaged persona with an engaging real life, and the persona describing atrocity, then delivering shock value. Another set of pressures, and this time specific to the Philippine poetry scene, comes from the old yet persistent debate on art for art’s sake and art for the masses. The challenge for the poet, of course, is to rethink these pressures, through poems and a poetics that reassess the potency of the dominant lyric mode, and go beyond a simplistic view of the political as extricable from art, or art as totally subsumed by politics.
An historical material is a privileged object because it continues to be transmitted through time. Its transmission is subject not only to chance operations, but also to a system of power, an archive. In the Foucauldian sense of the term, an archive is not merely a repository (of the state, or of a culture), but is the “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.”
As it was is as it should be, so that historical preservation
in that city means mutability, the untempered erosion of its ruins,
the bombed-out church refused repairs since the war
as constant reminder of the horror, its half-steeple in steady
decline, a mouth to the elements crying its aged warning, dribbling
granular and gray on the shoulders of the frightened faithful.
(from “Itinerary, Day Seven (Sens de la visite)”)
Certain historical materials result from a tension between erasure and recording. Their once being-at-the-verge-of-erasure is a necessary condition for their recording (or acquisition) and their consequent transmission (or exhibition). The evidence of this erasure has value, if not for memory, then at least for the spectacle of the memorial. Institutions that mediate the transmission of the historical material (distorted by the institutions lenses) require it as it was for it to have value, as spectacle, in this storied age.
If as it was is as it should be,
what ashy leftover to leave as immutable script on this storied age,
by what eternizing rubble do we make handy our brief holiday tale
(from “Itinerary, Day Seven (Sens de la visite)”)
But how can a person respond in this storied age without resorting to the spectacle of the memorial? What forms of response (or resistance) are available to the everyday as it faces the enormity of history? Let’s return to the fact of dominant lyric mode -- the anecdotal, epiphanic lyric.
The impulse to write a poem that treats history as a trove of narratives may in part be engendered by the very size of history. A spatial imagining of history overwhelms our human capacity -- names, places, dates, stories, simultaneities, causalities, events…. an angel of history, even, who Walter Benjamin describes would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed but has his wings caught with such violence he can no longer close them. Inherent to this style of poetry, is a notion of form as separable from content, and the notion of a stable persona (at least socially, if not emotionally) vis a vis the poet’s “voice.” The historical material remains as subject matter -- apart from, yet seemingly affecting the persona through the persona’s deployment of time-tested ruses. The problem with this thought of form apart from content and the singular consistent voice is comparable to an act of detachment, however intimate this “voice” may sound. In this mode of utterance, the historical material is an object of contemplation, external to the persona.
In David, however, what we find is the complexity of a person -- one for whom boundaries between inside (conventional subjective space) and outside (conventional objective space) blur, where history and the historical material permeate the person, and hence constructs her; a person constructing and at the same time constructed as it moves within the forces of a historical field.
Look at you, listening. Listen to yourself as you listen to your
self speaking out of an actor’s mouth, feeling more spoken of, also
at, the unique experience that brings you here becoming an alienation.
Being narrated, the narrator is wrenched from his story. A third
body, nailed to that chair in that discriminate, you are in
the audience but not of it, differentiated by their taste for your tragic
distinction. It looks back at you, looking at it. This strange sensation
History has a cruel prepositional gaze: it fixes you. It mounts you,
its students come for you, your transparency a visible thing to look at,
over, then through, to not forget what must not to be forgotten, that grief
a tunneling predicate fixing everyone in their place in that auditorium.
Look at you looking back. Heroic composure. What elegance. You can
leave now, disappear from view, become unnarrated Narrator, Or
you can stay. This event is endurable. Either way, first person, singular.
(from “Itinerary, Day Five (Tribute to the Survivors of the Battle for Manila, Fort Santiago)”)
A certain displacement is at work here for the you. The you listening to himself speak, looking at himself, himself a part of the audience, but by virtue of his experience apart and distinct from it, a self objectified and hence transparent as a subject from the students’ and audience’s point of view. Displaced, yet still in a position, Either way, first person, singular.
The question “where are you?” or perhaps more accurately “where is the you” is an important question/poetic in David’s poems. Not merely in the literal sense of displacement that persons (people in foreign land or in historic events) experience, but a displacement that subjects one to an experience of being in complex subject positions -- narrator and viewer, at home and alienated, subject and object, where the public realms of history, place and work permeate the private sphere:
you are touched
by their pathos, here where you stand,
a mere 50 years, one century
later, with your research – are you
enjoying the view -- in the same sweltering march
culled from note cards and catalog, are you
finally in their shoes,
finally as if
you were there, is it miserable enough
or real enough or are the facts
representative enough, is it like
you were there -- is it finally your
history -- “You cannot go in
(from “Repository (Lamplight on, cone of curiosity)”)
In “Repository (Lamplight on, cone of curiosity),” where a forward momentum is sustained though the poem’s long sentences, enjambed through indented tercets (a formal means of deploying a force of displacement), we encounter a researcher, trained to objectively respond to and analyze historical materials (the sphere of work), experiencing these historical/work materials penetrating her person-al realm. The poem begins, through an epigraph, with a famous line from Hamlet, “Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.” But how might we speak to it, what language can possibly be used when the personal introduces difficulties while objective means do not suffice?
We’re any of your relatives and/or friends
killed during the battle for the liberation?
If so, please
name your victim, your relation to your victim,
the approximate location of your victim’s death,
your victim’s manner of death
[please check]: by
torture or “others,”
(from “Repository (Lamplight on, cone of curiosity))
How speak to it? We are faced here with the limits of speech, as response, and also as a way to comprehend, to make it comprehensible, at a limit of speech as a possibility for locating the person. If we rely on the “voice” as the means for the lyric, then this limit is insurmountable. Yet there is, in historical as well as geographic displacement, a reminder of the artificiality of speech. In the poems titled “Soliloquy,” we find characters in travel encountering this artificiality/materiality (in the first poem quoted below, the character with a foreign companion, while in the second poem quoted below, in a cocktail in a foreign land).
gone, getting it
“right” and getting him,
getting him to get you,
where words, i.e., to hold
a thing in your freezing
hands, is not the currency,
but that someone holds
you, you are held in place,
(from “Soliloquy (When my friend)”)
What I can swallow
is the delicious bubble
such settings serve as shape to
in the atmosphere, precious
unlikelies one can can string, be
(from “Soliloquy (My friend, who frequently)”)
Relying on speech for locating, we encounter other means for understanding location. How speak of it? Perhaps a response should be made, not through speech, but through writing that creates spaces -- the space of here. Surrounded with forces of displacement, where are you? You are here. The ambiguity of here is important. What the person needs, to be able respond to these forces, is not a certainty of location, not a certainty that builds clear boundaries between inside and outside, but one where these boundaries are blurred, under erasure, in the Derridean sense of the sous rature, enabling us to tackle the it without resorting to dualities. You are here, a mutable, emerging here with its ever-changing referents, a here where inside and outside are in complex interaction constituting and also constituted by among other things, the person. Perhaps in here the indistinguishable despite its ominous tone of erasure, offers salvation. The person prays/sings/writes/travels from mantle to sacramental to multiple to indistinguishable:
Sweep of fronds on the streets, let us
make of the path a green mantle
Though there are no words for what
we enter, let entering be sacramental
If there be nothing on the tables
then let it spread, let it be multiple
Let us with strangeness and hunger
beside them be indistinguishable.
(“Prayer For Palm Sunday”)
Emong de Borja is from Pateros, Metro Manila, Philippines. His ongoing writing projects include a chapbook of poems, a series of reviews on locally published poetry books, and an essay on a possible poetics of sincerity. He works as an IT consultant in the areas of information security and service management.