Poetry

Barbara Jane Reyes, “To Love as Aswang”
and “Psalm for Mary Jane Veloso”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

An Aswang is a shapeshifting spirit in Filipino folklore and myth, something like a vampire, demon, or ghoul, generally depicted as evil but also as capable of unexpected acts of grace or aid to humankind. Aswangs often appear in the form of women, and during the day look like everyday people, but at night transform into monstrous predators of human flesh. For a poem as mercurial and expansive as this one, the “shapeshifting” attribute of its subject seems quite apt! In any event, knowing what an Aswang is allows us better to understand the title, “To Love as Aswang.” The poem is dedicated not just to “Love” but to a love the speaker says is akin to something as large as myth and as terrifying, dangerous, and strange as a vampire. So, we know from the start that this is not going to be your everyday love poem.

Before we begin to sort that out, let’s have a look at the poem’s form. “To Love as Aswang” is composed in four unrhymed couplets, but there is something unusual about them—the couplets are broken in half, appearing as two distinct columns on the page. We are not certain, at first, how to read such a poem, and the Poet’s Note confirms that she is often asked this question. Is each column a separate unit? Or are the lines meant to be read all the way across, so that the space functions more like a caesura or mid-line pause in Anglo-Saxon verse?

I’ve been calling this form a “column poem” since I heard my first one read aloud, “I Do Have a Seam” from Jamaal Mayes’ debut collection Hum (Alice James Books 2014). Jamaal explained it to me like this: First you read the left column, interpreting it as a separate unit. Then you read the right column, doing the same. Finally, you construct a “third” poem made of both halves of the line read all the way across, line by line. I loved the result in Jamaal’s poem (and the fact that the poem, like its title, had a “seam”). The form is considered successful when all three pieces work on their own, and it’s even better when the third “fusion” poem manages to go further or achieve something greater than is delivered by the experience of just reading the two poems separately. The form is praised for encouraging reader engagement, generally thought to be a good thing in poems. It has enjoyed some popularity and is seen often in literary journals, so I was surprised not to find it named in my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics (maybe because mine is an older edition) or talked about much online. Some poets use it to compose two-voice poems that can become a call-and-response or conversation, or as a way of presenting alternate views of a topic.

Some call this form “Cleave Poetry,” defining it as “a dichotomy that embodies the concept of fusion” and noting that the word “cleave” is itself “a contranym” that embodies opposite meanings (to split apart and to bind fast). In the same way, a cleave poem is “at once a fusion of two poems to form one, and a splitting apart of one poem to form two.”

Let’s call “To Love as Aswang” a Cleave Poem, then, and consider the (at least) three ways it can be read. First, try reading just the four couplets in the leftmost column. When I do this, I hear an extremely incantatory poem, almost a chant, that uses a kind of repetition called anaphora by beginning every line but the last with the word “with.” The result is a series of introductory prepositional phrases that, in each of the short poem’s two sentences, delay subject and verb until the very end. In the case of the first sentence, the subject and verb do not appear until the fourth line (“We sometimes kill”); in the case of the second sentence , they are held in abeyance until the eighth and last line (“We wither your roots”). These devices—anaphora and syntactical delay—combine with simple but increasingly menacing diction to build intensity. The use of the collective “we,” along with the italics in every second line, suggests that multiple voices are uttering or chanting these words—almost a Greek Chorus of Aswangs, perhaps joined (or, we sense, at least cheered on) by Filipino women. As a curse poem or choral piece, this brief lyric is quite effective indeed.

Now, try the same thing with the rightmost column of couplets. Here, anaphora is also used, but in this case in every other line, with repetition of “The Filipina is” at the beginnings of lines 1, 3, 5, and 7. The intervening lines do not use this or any other repetition, and are, moreover, continuations (enjambments) from the lines before, two properties that have the effect of interrupting or diluting the anaphora. The piece is still quite arresting, but in a different, more subtle way than the first column’s relentless chant. It presents with more distance and decorum, less a chant than—an insistence. Until the last line, the tone is ironically decorous, the text reading as if cribbed from a 1950s etiquette manual and spoken in the voice of an entrenched critic of such manuals. Decorum and irony—nothing could be further from the visceral rant of the left-column poem. The only thing that seems to link the second with the first column poems is its reference to “claws” in the last line. But we can see, at least, that we are getting two very differently modulated “takes” on a single issue: anger at the modest, meek, and humble role to which Filipina wives are traditionally assigned.

The third, fused poem that emerges when each line is read all the way across is less straightforward but yields a number of interesting interpretations. I imagine its speaker to be the “we” in the fourth and eighth lines, Aswangs bent on setting someone (a “you”) straight about the Filipino women that “you” plans to love. Read this way, the poem feels like an admonition. What would-be lovers can expect from Filipinas neither the harpy-like Aswang of column one nor the meekly submissive wife of column two, but rather, a “total package” that fuses both extremes. Each traditional wifely virtue listed in the poem comes with an edge: sincerity, with “razorblade eyes,” and loyalty, with “animal teeth.” Instead of being weak, Filipino women emerge in the poem as dangerous and quite powerful.

Each line can be read as a riddle that yokes opposites in right and left halves, but they are opposites that can, with a bit of thought, be reconciled. We do not normally associate “razorblade eyes” with a person at their “most sincere,” but then again, why not? “Razorblade” could denote a ferocity and singularity of purpose utterly consistent with apogee sincerity. Or, perhaps the lines are meant to be ironic, with each latter half undermining and contradicting what came before. Either interpretation gives us a way to fuse the two diametrically opposed visions of Filipino women offered by the poem. There are some surreal moments, such as “with ribcage unlocked” in line 7, but that example could also be read as a metaphor for vulnerability, or an open heart.

In the fused poem, the introductory dependent clauses build an intensity—more deliberately than in the first-column poem, but still building—resolved in the flat declaration of “The Filipina woman is not for you.” That statement is complicated by what follows. “We wither your roots,” the Aswangs say at the beginning of line 8, but the second half of the line modulates the declaration into a threat, something conditional rather than absolute. That is, the withering will happen only “If  you cannot handle her (the Filipinas’) claws.” The admonition is not to avoid Filipino women entirely, then, but instead to treat them with the respect they deserve.

What sounded in column one like a curse and in column two like ironic commentary on traditional gender roles here fuses into something very different: a poem casting a spell or charm to protect Filipino women. The Aswang are usually female, remember, and are known for sometimes helping people in unexpected ways. In “To Love as Aswang,” they are giving a warning or threat that can be summarized like this: Appreciate the gorgeous strength of Filipinas and respect their ferocity—OR ELSE!!! That’s my interpretation, anyway; all poems can of course be read many different ways. This one in at least three times as many different ways, and I am betting that you can come up with another.

“Psalm for Mary Jane Veloso” is quite different. Like Reyes’ first poem, it is written in unrhymed and unmetered free verse, but here, the lines are very long—going in many cases all the way to the right margin the way prose does, organized into six couplets and a singleton for a total of thirteen lines. Each couplet consists of one to three sentences broken into one very long and one very short line, and it is arguable that but for printing and page-dimension limitations, the poem’s form might actually be even more simple than appears here, namely, just eight very long lines.

Walt Whitman is perhaps the most famous practitioner of poems in long lines, and he was said to be inspired by the prosody of the English Bible, especially Psalms and Ecclesiastes. Long lines create a very different effect than short ones. Contrary to what you might expect, they move more quickly—that is, deliver information at a faster rate—than the short lines that force the eye more often to stop, switch to the left margin, and drop down to the next line. Long lines can feel vast and oceanic, washing over us like waves, or like long, deep breaths.

Such lines are sometimes given credit for the expansiveness and universal quality of Whitman’s verse, and here they communicate a sense of largesse and generosity wholly appropriate for this poem of praise. “Psalm for Mary Jane Veloso” also resembles Whitman in its use of syntactic parallelism, that is, in structuring clauses and sentences in ways that are recognizably similar. Of the poem’s fourteen sentences, eight are injunctive, telling an implied “you” (that is, us) to “praise” something and adopting the same structure of an implied subject (“you”) + verb (“Praise”) + an object (the thing to be praised). Parallel construction is seen, also, in sentences following the same noun + verb structure of “we thin,” “we run,” “we look back,” and “we pump.” Mimicking the parallel syntax of the Bible’s Psalms, this patterning has the effect of creating reverence and awe, somewhat surprising given what is being praised, things like “the bitch slapped face, the hemorrhaged eyes” and the “trafficked body” of Veloso.

The biblical Psalms offer history, poetry, prayer, song, chant, prophecy, and most of all, praise for God and his works, so their form lends authority and religious resonance to the utterance in today’s poem. We feel ourselves in the presence of the sacred, and I believe the poem’s intent was in fact to sanctify its subject, a woman used as a “drug mule” to smuggle narcotics, then abandoned to face the legal consequences. Convicted and sentenced to death in Indonesia in April 2010 for smuggling 2.6 kilograms of heroin in a suitcase, Veloso has always maintained her innocence, claiming to be a victim of human trafficking duped into carrying the suitcase. Her date of execution has been set and delayed several times, and according to Wikipedia, she was still awaiting execution in her Indonesian prison cell as of June 2017.

A psalm is defined as “a sacred song or hymn.” Praise poems are sometimes also called odes, which can be very formally prescribed (as in Pindaric or Homeric Odes) but can also be irregular and free, retaining only the praising element from the original forms. Another word for a poem or hymn of praise, “paean,” is used interchangeably with “ode.” There is a long tradition of writing poems in praise of specific individuals, typically epic heroes in ancient times but more and more about ordinary people in contemporary times. Ode subjects can be something unexpected, as in Christopher Smart’s “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” or Pablo Neruda’s “common odes” to ordinary things like an onion, an avocado, or his socks. The subjects treated in odes now are so broad that it is not as shocking as it might once have been to come across a poem of praise for someone despised and discarded by society like Mary Jane Veloso, but the language here is so extreme and the details so unexpected that we are still surprised. In this poem, Reyes makes a sanctity from an act of abomination (what was done to Veloso), giving Veloso the power she lacks in life to prevail over her aggressors and captors. In this way, the poem affirms Veloso’s essential lack of culpability and shows support for her cause. Using a traditional form—the ode or paean, the long lines of Psalms—to praise a woman convicted of a drug offense and sitting on death row—feels fresh, exciting, and even subversive here, one of the many ways that poetry wakes us up to clear seeing and continues to make things new.

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