Heart Anatomy (a heartrequiem, not a literary critique)

Because justice is the hip word today, I thought it best to render one to a now-forgotten collection of poetry written by Amelita Málig, née Cuala, a native of Luisiana, La Laguna. The book, entitled Heart Anatomy, was published in 1973, six years before I was born. It didn’t receive much fanfare. It didn’t catapult the author to literary stardom. Copies were very limited and were given only to a select few, mostly to friends. But the book had served its purpose: it released the author from her “promethean / sea of agonized / red”, putting her “putrefied heart” and “blasted brain” and “broken body” at peace with the God she once doubted.

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Mrs. Málig (1934-2000), as most students used to call her, was my literary instructor at Adamson University. Her only son Christian was a batchmate who became a dear friend of mine (he, myself, and Yeyette who is now my wife once formed a faction; we called ourselves “The Triad” although that silly faction was really meant to be a joke on my then girlfriend). Naturally, I first knew about Mrs. Málig through Christian but never had the chance to talk to her. I only got to meet her two years into college. To my observation, Christian seemed to be apprehensive in introducing his friends to her. But perhaps rightly so because to us students, there seemed to be a touch of eccentricity in her (a usual trait of writers, anyway). Her Bohemian appearance (it’s difficult not to remember her large circular earrings, loose and wild-colored blouses, and heavily made-up face) and booming voice shook fear in the hearts of youngsters who had had traumatic experiences from terror teachers during their high school years. These same kids called her names behind her back (one such memorable tag was “Mrs. Maligno”).

But Mrs. Málig was no terror. She just had a peculiar way of dealing with people. This I found out when she became my teacher in one of the subjects she had handled (Essay and Essay Writing if I remember correctly). She entered the class with aplomb despite her small stature, immediately instructed a student in front to lead the prayer, and off she went with a fun rhetoric that seemed to have been delivered many times before but nonetheless still effective. Not once did she look us in the eye, her scrutinizing iris always gazing at the ceiling as she spoke. And she spoke only English, but her witty one-liners drew down the whole class of mostly provincial kids who rarely use this language in everyday speech, even in English subjects.

After the obligatory introductions, she then bid us to write an essay, any essay. Almost the whole class winced, even myself (believe me, writing is not an enjoyable task). She didn’t explain, but it seemed to me that what she was doing was some sort of a diagnostic test. After several minutes of contemplation, I jotted down a list of pet peeves in sarcastic fashion, ending each item with a “blast it!” exclamation. I then counted the number of students: around 30. There’s no way for her to read all our essays, I thought back then. I was sure that she will not read everybody’s work.

Two or three days later, Christian reported to me about that essay I wrote. He said her mom was all into it. I couldn’t remember if I had laughed. All that I remember was that I was able to grab hold of her attention, and it excited me of course. It was the first time I have submitted a written work to be read by somebody. I immediately got praise although to my mind, even at that early stage of my life, I have always thought that all my writings were mediocre.

On the second day of class, me and my classmates stood up to greet her and to prepare for the mandatory prayers. But she ignored the courtesy and called out my last name instead. In a loud and seemingly angry voice, she boomed:

“Where is Mr. Alas?”

I could feel the blood streaming up to my cheeks. What happened this time? Was Christian playing jokes on me? Slowly, I dragged my feet towards the front of the class. I walked down the aisle, with all my classmates looking down at me as if I was to be sent to the gallows. When I was a few feet from the poetess, she interrogated me… without even looking at my face!

“Since when have you been writing? What books do you read? Who are your favorite authors?”

I didn’t know if I should feel proud or embarrassed. I was sweating profusely as I answered her rapid-fire questions in a low voice. I could feel my classmates inquisitive eyes, wondering what in the world was happening.

She didn’t mention anything about the essay. She lavished no praises. After questioning me, she simply bid me back to my seat. After the day’s lecture, she called me again and asked me to accompany her back to the faculty room. She had some packages and books. I carried them for her.

It was the start of a weird friendship. She rarely talked about her son to me (I never bothered to ask anyway, haha). We didn’t even talk about literature at all, nor about the day’s lectures. She never taught me anything, never recommended any authors. I simply accompanied her from time to time, doing small talk. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even remember the things we had talked about during those times that we had trod the aisles of the university.

It was during one of these walks when we bumped into Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, a colleague of hers in the College of Liberal Arts. She introduced me to him as a fine young writer. I was embarrassed because Señor Gómez already knew me as one of his naughty students who never paid attention in his Spanish class, in fact was always absent; he later on gave me an incomplete grade (humorously enough, I later became a lifetime advocate for the return of the Spanish language in Filipinas). In response to Mrs. Málig’s introduction, the jolly Hispanist looked at me from head to foot and exclaimed in his thick Spanish-accent: “Admirable!” Señor Gómez has since become a close associate and a friend.

But there was this one time when me and Mrs. Málig walked home together that I will never forget. I was accompanying her towards the LRT station in United Nations Avenue. It was nighttime and there was a light drizzle as we hurried toward the covered Falcon Walkway. I’ve been having problems at home, so I involuntarily made a comment about the rain, and how it makes me lonely all the time (up to that point, I had never liked the rain). But I stiffened. I couldn’t pour out my heart to her, and she wouldn’t let me. She never probed. But she had said something about the rain, about its connection and non-connection to whatever I was feeling at the moment. About being and seeing. It was not the rain who’s at fault. It’s how I perceive the rain to be.

She had made me love the rain in an instant. Since then, I’ve become a pluviophile.

Mrs. Málig became my instructor again in another subject: Introduction to Literature. It was there where she introduced us to José García Villa’s poetry, paying more attention to his work than any other writer I could remember from that class. She pronounced Villa’s name as “Hosey Garsha Vila” (for all I know, Doveglion must have had pronounced his name in that manner when he was still alive in the States). It was obvious that she was an admirer of Villa’s uncanny poetry. Inadvertently (or was it purposely?), she made me an admirer, too.

Almost nobody in our class paid her much attention. What I mean is that the few others who had excelled in that subject did it for the sake of grades, not for the sake of learning the craft of versifying. I remember her instructing me and Christian to photocopy pages from her book of poetry to be given away to the rest of the class. The book contained techniques on how to master allegory, metonymy, imagery, alliteration, consonance, and a lot of other stylistic devices. We had it photocopied for days because the book was thick. After it was given away, nothing happened afterwards. We never discussed about literary devices. Nobody from the class bothered to ask. But I have always wondered.

(Fast forward to 2001, or a year before Mrs. Málig’s unexpected demise: On top of the mountain ranges of Abra de Ilog, my wife’s hometown in Mindoro Occidental. I was studying the contents of those photocopies. I studied and learned the literary devices she had given to us on top of a cloudy mountain, all by myself. Sometimes, I’d like to tease myself that those photocopies were really meant for me and not for the whole class).

Life had shown to me its rather unfriendly side when, in late 1999, I allowed immaturity to take over reason. Yeyette became pregnant, and we haven’t even graduated yet. Christian and her mom were one of the very few people whom we divulged our predicament to. Me and Yeyette got to talk with her in front of the SV Building. She gave us moral support by telling her lifestory. She was once a freethinker during her days in UP Dilimán, prompting her disappointed father to transfer her to St. Theresa’s College Manila (which has become a part of our alma mater since 1980). During her inquisitiveness, she had suffered a nervous breakdown, then went on a retreat with a group of religious to find herself. Along the way, she had met Jesuits as well as famous literary critic and poetess Josefina Constantino. She then took pen and paper and focused all her strength into creating this book that I now speak of  (Constantino gave it positive reviews).

She later invited us to her house. Actually, it wasn’t a house but a cramped up, studio type room in an ageing condominium near the expressway. There were three of them living there: she, Christian, and her husband who was suffering from colon cancer. Much of the small room was taken over by their large, double deck bed and a shelf filled with Mrs. Málig’s books and a TV set (Christian says she didn’t have any liking for it, calling it an “idiot box”). The shelf also served as a divider, creating a make-shift room for their dining space. There were boxes underneath the double deck bed, filled with more books and other papers. The room was dank and lonely, blighted even more by artificial light. Little did I imagine that a fashionable poetess like her would be living in such a cramped condition. But then again, she’s a writer, not an office worker.

We had dinner and small talk that evening. I remember it to be a cold one as Christmas was fast approaching. Before we left, she gifted us with a blanket, some pillow cases, and a ladle with her nickname etched on it. Something for us to start with, she said. We still use those items to this very day. And Yeyette is now a very excellent cook.

PEPE ALAS

That was the last time we saw Mrs. Málig. A few weeks later, we confessed the pregnancy to our respective families. Life soon followed, a life that ached the heart.

Yeyette gave birth to Krystal in July the following year. We were already on our own, living in a basement somewhere in Villamor Air Base. And a few months after she gave birth, Christian gave us the shock of our lives when he brought news of his mother’s demise. It practically stunned us since we were all expecting Mr. Málig to go first. We regret the chance of not being able to show Krystal to her in spite of our place’s proximity to hers.

Without mincing any words, Heart Anatomy is the story of Mrs. Málig’s poetic journey from agnosticism to Catholicism, and her newfound devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s divided in two parts. The first is about her spiritual struggles, her “heart transmutation”. The second is a new insight on the world, using her heart (instead of just her senses) from her newfound devotion. All her poems on this book are short. But it doesn’t matter. Just like what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “The Poet”:

It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word.

And like Villa, she was nontraditional. Almost all her verses were experimental, dictated not by tradition but by the heart.

Ever since I became active on the Internet, I have always planned of publishing Heart Anatomy online as a token of gratitude for the literary inspiration she had planted in me and to a few other kindred souls (Palanca Awardee Joe Bert Lazarte, award-winning essayist Imee Rabang, and award-winning poet Radney Ranario) in one way or another. I feel bad and guilty because when I was still an active blogger (I was more active before than now), I’ve never given time for that plan. But two years ago, when I unceremoniously freed myself from writing constraints, I was able to snatch enough time to convert my only copy of her book into PDF form. I then uploaded each PDF page into my Facebook account as an album format, even changing its privacy settings to public in the hopes that it would reach many people. But the endeavor only proved how terrible I was when it comes to online marketing. Only four people “liked” it, and the only other person who left a couple of comments other than myself was Mrs. Málig’s daughter-in-law whom she had never even met.

About an hour ago, I received a chat message from Joe Bert (Mrs. Málig was much closer to him compared to myself and the other writers I mentioned on this blogpost). He told me of his plan to republish our teacher’s only collection of poetry. It excited me because exactly a year from now would be Mrs. Málig 85th birth anniversary (today’s her 84th, which is also the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo). It would be the best time to relaunch her book. I then thought of changing that PDF album to private, choosing only a very select few who can access it. It will do her justice if littérateurs would get to read her poetry collection in book form. Nevertheless, to honor her on her 84th natal day, I included below seven of her sensory-filled verses from her book’s poem one: you. You will, at least, be treated to witness a few steps of her versified journey from barrenness to a Land of Promise.

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Writing prolificity

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Image: FUCCHA.

“Write only when there is something you know; and not before; and not much later.”
—Ernest Hemingway—

Last month, US film company Universal Studios announced the title of the sequel to Jurassic World, that science-fiction adventure film which earned more than a billion dollars two years ago. Titled Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it will be the fifth installment in the Jurassic Park film series, all of which were based on two best-selling novels by the late Michael Crichton (1942—2008): Jurassic Park, published in 1990, and; The Lost World, published in 1995.

Crichton was a very prolific writer. He had published 25 novels and 4 non-fiction books in his lifetime, not even counting several short stories that saw print in various magazines. So prolific was he that there were even times that he was able to publish two or three novels in the course of only a year. And even after his death, three more novels of his saw print. The guy was a virtual writing machine.

One other prolific writer from the US, also a novelist, was Stephen King, arguably more well-known than Crichton because many of his horror novels were adapted into films that played well in the box office. King, who is turning 70 in a few months, appears to be more prolific than Crichton; he has published 57 novels, 5 non-fiction, and several other publications (short stories, novellas, etc.).

Skeptics who have not yet read both Crichton and King might think that, with the rate that they publish books through the years, their works might had been hurried, thus robbing them of quality storytelling. But fans of both Crichton and King (myself included) will immediately tell them that it is far from the truth. Both novelists have crafted into each of their books the kind of entertainment that will glue readers to their seats for a prolonged period of time. Even in fast-paced scenes, readers will not sense any hurriedness in their writing. Each sequence, every subplot, is carefully crafted and well thought out. That’s how damn good these writers are. There is an apt adjective to describe their books: page-turners.

For sure, a lot of writers from the US are page-turners like Crichton and King no matter what genre they’re using. Many of their names are familiar to us (Judith Arnold, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, etc.) even though we have not yet read any of their works because they have become homegrown, always marketed as best-selling authors, which is always the case anyway. Back in college, I remember one brief chat that I had with one of our instructors about these amazing US writers. While our country has its fair share of excellent writers in English, how come almost none of them are best-sellers? Why couldn’t we produce such page-turners? His reply had stupefied me for years: those US authors absolutely do nothing anymore but write. And because they can afford to give 100% of their time towards writing, it is always expected that they can churn out some of today’s best stories and write-ups. On producing excellent writing, King has this to say:

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

But here in our country, the Filipino writer is forever burdened with other tasks other than reading and writing. In his book The House of True Desire: Essays on Life and Literature, National Artist Cirilo Bautista perfectly describes the dilemma faced by his fellow writers:

“…the Filipino writers cannot live by writing alone, no matter how masterful they may be.”

“My magnum opus, The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus… took me thirty years… The enterprise begot another odd aspect by the fact that I stood to gain nothing monetary by its realization; indeed, it depressed me by its fruitfulness and drove me to misanthropy by its selfish demand on my attention.”

Most of our best writers today are those who use English. Young Filipino writers are always encouraged to hone their writing craft in this language. Even the English Division of the Palanca Awards is the most sought-after contest in the country’s biggest literary award-giving body. But up to now, even after more than a century of English education, the only writer we have ever produced to be of the same caliber as Crichton or King is Nick Joaquín, and only him. It’s because the Filipino writer is poor. His writings, if of any merit, will only give him fame, trophies, but not money which is needed to sustain him. Like Bautista, the Filipino writer is always faced with the dreaded reality that no matter how he strives to make his craft the best it could ever be, he couldn’t because his freedom is limited. The harsh reality of making both ends meet weighs more than art, thus jeopardizing the quality of their works. They could have done more, but employment is a necessity in order for him to physically survive. Crichton and King (and to some extent, Joaquín) didn’t have to worry about monetary problems; they were always assured of huge sums of money. That is why they have more time to focus on the creative writing process.

But the foregoing accounts may have not always been the case. In the last century, we have had prolific writers (and researchers) who have poured their everything into their works despite the absence of any promising monetary award. They may not have had published as much as Crichton or King or Joaquín, but the circumstances they were in will astound any aspiring writer today who are also faced with the dilemma of focusing solely on their craft for the sake of quality. Take for instance former diplomat León Mª Guerrero III who was able to translate Rizal’s memoirs and novels despite his political and legal chores. And then there was the daunting task of writing Rizal’s biography even as he was fulfilling his duties as ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s in London (that biography of his ended up first prize in the Rizal Biography Contest of the José Rizal National Centennial Commission in 1961). Years before Guerrero entered the scene, another nationalist, Teodoro M. Kalaw, wrote essays every single day for the newspaper La Vanguardia. He also wrote several books on history and politics despite his schedule as director of the National Museum and as a public servant. Dr. Domingo Abella was both surgeon and historian. Máximo Solivén was writing profound and up-to-date political commentaries in his column at The Philippine Star while serving as its publisher, making him a writer-businessman. So was Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsín, Jr. who was able to helm those biting editorials that we now sorely miss in his defunct Today newspaper while serving as board of director for big companies, one of which was San Miguel Corporation (he rarely writes nowadays as he’s too busy with his tweeting engagements).

However, it should be noted that Guerrero, Kalaw, Abella, Solivén, Locsín, and a few others like them had the wherewithal to accomplish their tasks. They could afford to delegate mundane chores (cooking food, washing clothes, payment of bills, etc.) to other people so that they could go about with their writing/researching assignments without any hassle, unlike in the case of many writers and researchers today. Including myself. With five kids to raise (no nannies!) and a job that requires a rotating graveyard shift, it’s virtually impossible for me to focus on what I’ve always wanted to do: read, write, repeat.

Speaking of my kids, I remember one meeting that I had with novelist Joe Bert Lazarte in some monotonous fast food near his place in Bacoor, Cavite more than a decade ago. He was then helping me out to secure an employment with the company he was working for at the time. I can still clearly remember how he told me that when he had heard about the news of my unplanned marriage years before, he felt disstressfully sorry for me. There was, of course, no derision from his part. He was just aware of the travails of being a writer and a family man at the same time, and his being distressed was simply a show of concern. If I’m not mistaken, I only had one child back then. Now I have five. Just imagine (disclaimer: in no way am I blaming my family for my shortfalls in being a writer).

I also remember one brief chat that I had with poet Radney Ranario many years ago. Chancing upon him as he was exiting one of his classes, he mentioned to me that he was thinking of going on a hiatus from his teaching job to focus on his poetry, even if just for a while. With a frown on his face, he complained that his teaching job, even if it has something to do with literature, was also draining his creative juices.

The likes of Crichton, King, and many other US authors never had to go through such challenges. But Lazarte, Ranario, myself, and a host of other Filipino writers had to struggle monetarily just for our dreamy heads to keep afloat in this sea of unreality.

For my part, I’m trying my very best to follow at least part of King’s advise just to stay alive, to keep me sane, by reading during traffic jams on my way to the office and by blogging every day. That is why if you have noticed, I have been blogging every single day since the inception of this blog last June 24. Ideally, a blogger really has to post daily since a blog is considered as an online journal. But due to daunting challenges that I face (working as a wage slave by night, as a consultant for two local government units by day, and as a dad in between), I might not be able to keep this up. Most probably after this blogpost, I’d be able to blog only during weekends. Or during my free time. Or perhaps only if I feel the urge to write about something that I know (“and not before; and not much later”).

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, talent and discipline are the true accomplices of a prolific writer no matter what the challenges. Don’t give up on your dreams. The Filipino writer simply has to rally on no matter what the odds.

And those odds are not forever. This I believe.