Saturday, March 04, 2006



Katipunera and Other Poems by Elsa Martinez Coscolluela
(Anvil Publishing, Inc., 1998)

Kassandra and Other Heroines

The poems in this collection were written between 1965 and 1973, overlapping Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972 by only one year. Historians claim this period in Philippine history is the country's most prosperous. When Marcos declared martial law, all forms of expression were suppressed -- newspapers were shut down, publishing almost ground to a halt. Stories of writers, labor and student leaders disappearing have entered into the Philippines' history pages and mythology.

During that time, Elsa Martinez Coscolluela pursued graduate degrees in Siliman University and De La Salle University and tried her hand at playwriting. When she tookp up poetry again in 1993, she would create collections that would win awards -- Katipunera and Other Poems won first place in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, a national writing contest, in 1995. This collection along with new poems appeared in book form in 1998.

"Katipunera" reflects the prosperity shortly before martial law that the Philippines would have pursued had writers not been diverted from craft to survival. Coscolluela draws from the Philippines' relationship with China and Spain in telling about a recently-passed grandmother in "Camphor Chest":

The men say you always knew your place, standing
By Grandfather at every feast...
The women praise your tidy
Home, your upright sons...
Your honoring the head of your house.

(They do not speak of your absent daughter.)...

And though the hour is late, it's too early yet
To sort out all the tokens fixed and sealed
In you precious camphor chest...
Carefully crafted by your mother in China
When she sent you off across the sea....

And here, more precious than all these, a stack
Of letters from your daughter: frayed and stored
And ribboned, and now I know what I always
Thought I knew with inner knowing. As I unfold
The letters, one by one, the vague aching
Spaces in my heart are filled with love.

Though you could not send her off with woman--
Things in a camphor chest, I know she brought
With her your silent blessings, knowing
Perhaps all mothers know she had to break
Her vows to be. And so you set her free,
And secretly sent her off across the sea.

(Father does not care to remember.)

This poem features most of Coscolluela's themes in this book, her first. She highlights gender differences in favor of the female almost to a fault -- intuition, deferrence to her partner, the infinite secrets that the female supposedly keeps, the taking sides of your own as opposed to your son-in-law, the need for space. She renders these themes beautifully throughout the book.

Coscolluela also uses Greek myths and heorines and turns them into Filipinas --

O knowledge known too soon for faith! Prophecies
Die at her throat, and as her irides cup
The colors of scorched earth, she weeps
For living twice the sight.

With the dominance of social realist works in Philippine literature in the last 20 years, one quite forgets that the writer is Filipino. And yet Coscolluela doesn't betray her realist roots with a fixation on Western figures. "Kassandra" is the calculating Gabriela Silang, the brave Tandang Sora, the worrying nurse thinking of her troubled spouse and children in Manila, in Dumaguete, in Surigao.

A new generation of readers might scoff at the social traditions etched in Coscolluela's collection, but if they remember how painful it still is to have a daughter or wife leave for overseas to work because there are no jobs for the men, the collection turns priceless.

In a society where expression is rarely seen or taken for its value alone, writing is a luxury and writers, messengers. Coscolluela offers an alternative to families straining under the weight of earning a living from across continents.


Yvonne Hortillo is an editorial assistant for The Associated Press. She has never owned a business card in her life. She has crossed the Chicago River countless times, and is fated to cross it untold times more. She adores truth in all forms.


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