ALLEN GABORRO Reviews
Doveglion: Collected Poems by José Garcia Villa, Ed. John Edwin Cowen
(Penguin Classics, New York, 2008)
[First published in the Philippine News, October 3, 2008]
Had he been alive today, Philippine National Artist and poet extraordinaire José Garcia Villa would have been one hundred years old. In posthumous celebration, Penguin Classics has published a centennial edition of Villa’s poetry titled Doveglion: Collected Poems. The book, which is edited by Villa’s literary trustee John Edwin Cowen, includes an introduction by distinguished poet and writer Luis H. Francia. In the introduction, Francia writes that Villa would transform poetry “into a mighty engine of flight, winged with an exacting spiritual and aesthetic vision and an abundant lyrical gift honed by a keen critical intelligence.” Eloquent words of praise from Francia, a man who should know what he talks about. He was a student of Villa’s during the early 1970’s.
Doveglion the book is a compilation of what are considered to be Villa’s finest poems, some previously-published, others never before. “Doveglion” the name is Villa’s literary pseudonym taken from the fusion of the words “Dove, Eagle, Lion.” “Doveglion” is also the title of an E.E. Cummings poem written in tribute to Villa.
The poetry of José Garcia Villa is never easy to define. He conceived his works in such a fashion that they could never be a hostage to prosaicness nor to convention. It was Villa himself who said that the greatest poets were in constant revolt against the historical period they existed in. It was in this vein that his poetry became famous for its uncanny ability to defamiliarize verse and reality, and for its bearing against the social, the political, and the literary grain.
Villa’s “comma poems” are a recognizable trademark of his Modernist, nonconformist spirit. They represented, in Villa’s words, “an integral and essential part of the [poetic] medium.” While these peculiar poems were a product of his vibrant artistic mind, many readers grew annoyed at having to read a poem that displayed a comma after every word. For example, in the Doveglion book: “Ripens,and,does,not,fall:/Fruit,of,very-whole,/My,saint,my, prodigal.” Or “Today,/the,/spirituality,/of,/the,/devil,//Challenges,/the,/deviltry,/of,/God.” Villa defended his odd application of commas by infusing them with an aesthetic functionality, which was to manage what he said was a poem’s “time movement” and “verbal density.” He also wrote that his commas bring “visual distinction” to a poem.
Villa’s comma poems exemplified his penchant for avant-garde innovation, an artistic pattern that was even more pronounced by what the poet called his “reversed consonance” method. Villa described what was his original method of rhyming: “The last sounded consonants of the last syllable, or the last principal consonants of a word, are reversed for the corresponding rhyme.” Villa uses the examples of “near” which would rhyme with “rain” or “reign, or “light” with “tall” or “tale.” Professor Augusto Fauni Espiritu referred to “reversed consonance” as Villa’s “attempt to claim a place for himself in the literary history of English and his pose as a technician or craftsman.”
As with any prominent artist, Villa has had his share of criticism. Philippine nationalists found reason to paint a cynical portrait of Villa as a literary Westophile who shunned incorporating social and political commentary into his poetry. He was especially reproached by figures like Salvador P. Lopez and E. San Juan Jr. Lopez panned Villa for stubbornly holding fast to a willowy, politically-pallid “art for art’s sake” stand. San Juan virtually accused the poet of being an agent for American neocolonialism, although San Juan would later amend his views on Villa and his poetry.
Villa’s artistic inclination was to avoid social and political motifs in his poetry and concentrate instead on themes encompassing beauty, humanity, the individual self, and a visionary concept of literature that entailed an understanding of “Imagination” as a universal property. Villa mused a great deal on “Imagination” which he once wrote, in its truest sense, was “the active mind: Insight, Intuition.” In his view, writers endowed with this understanding of “Imagination” were writers “who transcend materialities and can peer into the core—artists.” Villa might as well have been speaking of himself here.
In looking back at José Garcia Villa’s lifetime oeuvre, it is impossible to evaluate it simply as a grand sweep of neo-Modernist poetry. The contingent nature of historical understanding has not spared his poetry from enduring, contextual ferment. For some readers, this ferment is a source of confusion and incoherence. For others, it is an embodiment of Villa’s creative power and an attribute to the wonderfully pluralistic reception of his multilayered poetry.
Allen Gaborro is an art and book reviewer for the Philippine News weekly. He is also a freelance writer who has written historical, political, and cultural articles. Allen is a member of the Philippine American Writers' Association (PAWA) of Northern California. He is based in San Francisco, California.