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Book review: Shifting tongues, moving worlds in Luisa Igloria’s ‘The Saints of Streets’


"The Saints of Streets" by Luisa Igloria. Photo from PositivelyFilipino.com

Riveting characters inhabit the poems of “The Saints of Streets,” Filipino-American poet Luisa Igloria’s recent poetry collection (UST Publishing, 2013).

As a diasporic writer, Igloria deftly speaks in voices of disparate tenors from her native culture and beyond: soliloquies and conversations with hungry ghosts, admonitions to a former husband, letters to a goddess, memories of her native Baguio City, histories of Yamashita and Pigafetta, a phone call from hell. We are surrounded by narratives mapped out in the mind of a postcolonial itinerant, brimming with spiels and anecdotes told with skilled lyricism.

In “Ouido,” for instance, she speaks as a relentless devotee seeking favors from various gods and saints as she copes with life’s travails, only to find out that even saints favor only those who, like them, exhibit the virtue of resilience:

The saints of living by learning as you go would tell you there is no
way to teach any of what you want to learn. They carry little musical
instruments. They have always played by ear.

 
In “Mortal Ghazal” she writes a lyric poem while reminiscing a childhood friendship from Baguio, hinged on her memory of the city’s popular flower called everlasting:

My friend sent me a lei of strawflowers from the city of our childhood:
brittle corollas of yellow undercut by orange we called Everlasting.

I remember the slides in the park, and the kiddy train one summer: it looped around its
periphery. A blur of red and orange. Just a few minutes, but the ride seemed everlasting.  
 

In “Road Trip, Ca. 1980” we are taken through the long 12-hour bus ride from Manila to Baguio, where one finds it difficult to sleep with the driver’s/ stash of Betamax tapes playing musicals or/ Ronnie Poe and Joseph Estrada action films.

And the all-too-familiar City of Pines comes back alive for us in her vivid reckonings of its every nook and cranny as in “The Saints of Trees”:

Carrots thicker than your wrist
    arrive at dawn in carts in the old market; it was

an airplane hangar left over from the war.
    Before the Pines

Hotel burned down and old
    Vallejo creaked its weight on stilts, bolts of cloth
waved stiff triangular flags

    in dry goods stores.


In “Who is the Mother,” Igloria speaks of the wonderment of bubbles that children make out of gumamela flowers, bringing us back to the nostalgia of a childhood in the tropics:

Green-smelling,
prismatic,

lifting too
quickly away,
waving goodbye
and goodbye.


Meantime, “At Night, the Sky’s a Parasol Studded with Points” speaks of the beauty of the Cordilleran night sky, as if a mere breath away from heaven and its radiant constellation of stars. Igloria cleverly paints this in allusion to an indigenous legend about the separation of earth and sky, which was brought about, as the story goes, by an ancient agrarian who once pounded rice with her mortar and pestle, the movement of which touched the sky with such force that it sent the sky to move far away from the earth:  

White and yellow gold fly into the air like chaff.
Little broken teeth, the grains of new-husked rice,
Smile from the bottom of her mortar.


Historicizing the memory of one of Baguio’s celebrated native women, Igloria writes a eulogy in “Chainus,” dedicated to Eveline Chainus Guirey, known for her beguiling beauty and was dubbed the “Queen of the Benguet Carnival” in the 1900s:

Ropes of pearl wound at your neck,
your tiara’s ruby diadem offset by the dark

waterfall of your hair – so self-
possessed, your bearing wrought by mountain

life, cold air, knowledge of the vengeful gods
whose hungers root, white and deep, hard

within the writhing animal’s entrails.


An important, empowering aspect of women’s literary writing, female bonding is what Igloria also fervently takes up as she tackles her female and feminine genealogy using the imagery of dressmaking—a skill she has seen from both her mother and sister, which she reflects on in “Meditation on a Seam”:

…my mothers both: she who birthed, and she
    who raised me. Once I woke to a startling sight –
        they’d hung a wedding dress

from the top of the doorway’s frame
    and knelt on the floor with pins
        in their mouths, working round the hem.


An endearing mother-daughter moment also permeates the storyline behind “Manual,” which was prompted by her six-year-old quizzing her before bedtime: How many boyfriends did you have before daddy? It ends with the author’s recollections of love as a game of “trial and error” and an admonition of how, especially in steering through life as a modern woman, “it helps if you know how to drive.”

Besides the celebration of nostalgia and joy, the author also comments on more recent social tragedies such as the Ampatuan massacre in “Maguindanao Ghazal” where The bodies are no longer there. They’ve dug them up/ and carried them off, exhumed from shallow graves.

Previously published as Maria Luisa Aguilar-Cariño, Igloria is currently a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Old Dominion University, where she is currently Director of its MFA Creative Writing Program.  She is a recipient of several Palanca awards for her fiction, nonfiction and poetry, claiming her place as the first Filipina nesting in its Literary Hall of Fame. The author of 10 published books, Igloria has also committed, since 2010, to writing at least one poem a day. You can find these on her blog.

Igloria, the tireless literary peripatetic, continues to straddle worlds and inhabits voices like a seasoned ventriloquist, grounded in her native roots while speaking in the glossolalia of an ever-shifting world. — VC, GMA News


For orders, contact UST Publishing House via Ailil Alvarez, Deputy Director (ailil.alvarez@gmail.com) or order through the UST Facebook Page.