Field of Mirrors: An Anthology of Philippine American Writers Edited by Edwin Lozada
(Philippine American Writers, Inc., San Francisco, 2008)
Field of Mirrors: An Anthology of Philippine American Writers is third in a series of anthologies, Reflections: Readings for Young and Old (2002) and Whisper of the Bamboo (2004), published by Philippine American Writers, Inc. What used to be an anthology featuring writers primarily from California has broken state borders and now showcases the work of established and just-beginning-to-publish writers from the Hawaiian coasts to the eastern shores of the United States. There is no single theme but an open invitation to a variety of prose and poetry. Although most of the pieces are in English, there is a delightful dose of Tagalog, Spanish and a regional dialect, Ilocano, in this collective brew.
Anthology editor Edwin Lozada explains his choice for a title thus: “As individuals of Filipino or Filipino American heritage living in a society in which we are but a piece of a larger quilt, we reflect on our identity and at some time come to an understanding of who we are and the role that our heritage plays in our lives and work. This period of reflection, investigation, and introspection, sometimes life-long, is the ‘Field of Mirrors.’” The output from such a search, he adds, “includes issues of identity” and “immigrant experiences in which our Filipino idiosyncracies come face to face with the local culture and traditions” and “these at times result in difficulty, conflict or humor.”
Seventy-one writers contributed to this hefty 414-page book of poems, short stories, essays, articles and an excerpt from a novel. Contributions range from Al Robles, who remembers the jazz of his youth in San Francisco to U.S. born-and-bred new writer Jennifer Almiron and includes recent winner of the Filipino Global Literary Award for Poetry Patrick Rosal, rapper Alberto Vajrabukka, and Penelope V. Flores who shares her mother’s stories growing up in a small town in Nueva Ecija and being taught by a Thomasite (the first American teachers in the Philippines).
In verse and prose, from steady traditionalist narrative and the rough-edged union of conversational diction to the more experimental pieces of the younger practitioners, these writers mine imagination and memory to flesh out the remembered world of their youth, the grief and sense of loss of a beloved landscape, the coming to grips with post-immigrant culture and the world of fact and fiction in the many-hued lives of a great variety of characters. The collection is a house with many rooms: some intense and carved in deeply loving precision, others preoccupied with diaries of grief and bottled-up suffering, still others fluid and assured, a few struggling with the dark freight of adopted language, culture and country.
You can hear the music in Al Robles’s riffs as he struts the streets of Fillmore in his poem, “Jazz of my Youth”:
i remember jazz of my youth
in the streets of fillmore
crossing over to cousin jimbo’s bop city
where the green between his dark ebony fingers
flapped in the cool post street win
take the A train & slide all the way down
listening to sounds close to the ground (p. 46)
Or the memorable conviction in the pithy poetic lines of “A poem about Philip Vera Cruz,” (Vera Cruz was a Filipino American labor leader and farm worker who helped found the United Farm Workers in 1966):
No disheveled weathered grass-minds
Lay dead around the rich grower’s ground
Who will touch us
Who will cripple us
We will not sit still...
Let the fish swim deeper
Across the fields
Into the mouth of the manongs
I saw poets cried down the grapes (pp. 47-48)
This precision and attention to detail is also present in up-and-coming poet J.P. Catenza’s imagery. His poem in couplets, “A Forest Full of Bears/ An Alley Full of Thieves,” draws from day-to-day minutiae yet sharply brings in tenuous connections between the “I” from the old country and the “I” of the city where the narrator now lives.
In the morning
I wake up late for the sunrise
and read a six o’clock sky
by its shade and attitude
to gauge the cold
I spy with farmer’s eyes
the people at Washington Square
a furlong of shawls
is zero degrees
my city quantified
in cab rides, bus stops
and lonely measures
of street lamps
a rhythm of
surrogate moons (p.176)
Barbara Jane Reyes, in her prose poem “call it talisman (if you must),” traces the myths and legends from her rich heritage of women not bound by gender restriction: the Filipino woman as warrior, priestess (babaylan), peasant, homemaker.
it is no secret. women did indeed fight alongside the men
once. few talk about it these days. the black robed and
hooded ones who carried more curses than prayer, so
feared armed women, they branded it savage and sinful
—women who tucked skirts between their legs, wielded
knives and tilling tools, then returned home to nurse
their babies after washing clean their bloodied hands.
no, daughter, these are no talismans upon my flesh. the
blind old man wished to give me markings in the pat-
terns of my father’s fields, for he walked my father’s
lands, from new growth’s edges to the greenest center.
every sunrise in wordless prayer. many years, he did this,
never once opening his eyes. but by the time i grew old
enough to marry, all his fields my father lost to the fire,
and to the papers of the wealthy, not of this land but of
grey cities far away from here. (p. 151)
Maria Teresa Mendiola Crescini brings a different sensibility to her short story, “Twilight at El Dorado Drive-In,” its language as sharp-edged as its principal character.
Rosario curled up in the corner and hugged herself tight. She flinched at the movie scene where the dead horse’s head laid in the yellow satin sheets of the movie director’s bed. He screamed and screamed at the sight. An offer he should not have refused.
For a moment, the moon slid out from behind the clouds. Rosario dried her eyes and asked his permission to clean herself in the bathroom before she opened the door to the leaden evening. As if sleepwalking under the mercurial moon, she felt abandoned by all the people she loved, her parents and even by Jesus and Mary at whose stony feet she offered flowers and prayers in exchange for blessings. A quickening raged through her veins, she felt dangerous, with nothing left to lose. (p. 277)
In Jennifer Almiron’s deeply engaging story of a young student straddling two cultures, “I am She,” the young woman’s struggle to carve her own image is submerged in doubt and painful self-recrimination.
Her last day at St. Paul ended in the Mother Superior’s office. After forgetting her lunch money on a “hot lunch” day for the third time in a row, she was told to turn in her tartan skirt before Friday. Her father told her that she wasn’t Catholic anyway. She was relieved until Sister Clementine died of a heart attack two days later....
Things started getting complicated. She began to doubt she was on the right track. She began to question her experiments, her words. She started to favor her violin. Every weekend she went to the city to play with other children with stringed instruments. She enjoyed the wordless company of children who played the music with her. When she played in the orchestra she had the sense that she was both alone and connected, moving in a single wave of sound through the pieces, despite the different voices, registers. In one moment she would be playing with a stillness, a near silence, and in another she was moving through runs, playing as loud as she possibly could. (p. 77)
Jean Vengua, in “The City and the Garden 2,” tries to grapple with that ever-present question of what constitutes being Filipino, and how fleeting this identity becomes as it appears and disappears with the passage of time.
...I told no one else the details. How walking on Green Street I will romanticize a small store like a Joseph Cornell box full of objects where “East meets West.” That is to make beautiful where the dissonance begins to tear. The city is rife for that artifice. There are grey mornings, so anyone is willing in moments to search for happiness among damp newspapers and mortar.
I have a sense of what “Filipino” means and I carry it outwardly, but there is also that gathering and we have names for it, that is, we. It is not a constant, what I think I am disappears and emerges in time. (p. 169)
Patrick Rosal, in his poem “As Glass” from his award-winning collection My American Kundiman, speaks of a father-son relationship that’s a love-hate familial conversation that goes on and on in several languages, among them “the dialect of conquerors,” and “400 years of horseshit” running through the old man’s veins.
For the moment I love my dad more in this
Castillian (this dialect of conquerors
this larcenists’ parlance) I love him more than I will
in English in the many years to come in the American
slang I’d rather spit at his feet…
flesh sinew and gut — this human crucible —
were to fall away (as it must) what’s left is the clear
anatomy of a man’s invisible-within —
cast in the most fragile human language gone
77 years unsummoned: the whittled wooden fans of his childhood
calesas rocking over Vigan cobblestone
hand-carved rosary beads the curious Chicago cold
the solitary cough from a Brooklyn pew
soup and cots and elevators and burnt offerings
and 400 years of horse shit poured hot through his veins
In Edwin A. Lozada’s Kansion/Cancion/Song, a poem in three languages—Ilocano, Spanish and English—the rhythm, cadence and precision of individual syllables as iterated in each language gain nuance, polyphony and meaning as each word is mirrored in the other.
Kansion Cancion Song
Papanam ngay ¿adónde vas where do you
Billit ave callada bird
Nga naulimek, y mansa so quiet and meek
Sika tú you who can
Ti makapagtalna que apaciguas appease
Day langit? el cielo? the heavens?
Sinno ngay ¿quién sino tú who but you
Ti makangeg oye can hear
Dagita regalo los obsequios the gifts
Nga rumrumwar brotando coming forth
Diay pusum? de tu corazón? from your heart?
In “Prelude to a Gig,” Oscar Peñaranda recounts the story of a famous musician (Charles Mingus) and a not-so-famous one, Yaw-yaw, a Filipino guitar player from the Visayas. Here, in this scene, Penaranda describes Yaw-yaw’s roots:
Beside the famous Hungry Nightclub, across the street in his room the International Hotel, as he was quickly getting ready, Yaw-yaw thought of his own guitar playing days as a youth among the vast plantation fields of Dole in Mindanao. Yaw-yaw was a guitar player himself who had a makeshift band in his hometown in the Visayas. It was a rag-tag type of a band with a one-string bass grounded on an upside down washbasin, a wash board for some fancy percussion, a guitar and/or a ukelele, and for vocals, whoever was drinking and/or handy at the time. He played guitar with a lot of spontaneity (they way he played pool) all his life so he could be considered a jazzman, only his text was Filipino music with some contemporary mainstream U.S.A. music around the Second World War era. But this Charles Mingus fellow he had never heard of before. He put on a fresh dip of his Three Flowers Brillantine pomade then put on his floppy-brimmed hat. He was ready to step out.
He met Manong Al waiting at the lobby and started walking towards the Keystone Korner. Manong Al, unlike most of the manongs here in Manilatown, was born and raised in the City. Never been to the Philippines. Manong Al was ten years senior to Yaw-yaw, but they always talked like peers. Just as they were passing the police station about a block away from the joint, Yaw-yaw asked.
“Are you sure about this Mingus cat, Manong?”
“He’s the real Mccoy, youngblood. Aint you heard of Charlie Mingus, man?
“That’s him,” said Manong Al.
“Mingus my ass,” said Yaw-yaw. “He owes me money and he’s gotta pay.” (p. 283)
Another bar room and dance hall scene is painted in Jon Pineda’s poem, “Return.”
when he was young, stationed in Norfolk,
a few of the Filipinos from his ship would
spend weekends at a dancehall in Oceanview,
and many times over, the nights would end
with white sailors starting fights with them,
those young Filipinos in their custom-
made Hong Kong suits, slick as snakeskin,
their black hair primed with pomade,
they had to know they were dangerous
for girls would come those nights wanting
only to dance with them and so, one night,
my father says, before the dance, those young
Filipinos fashioned thick chainlinks around their
necks, under silk shirts, metal pressed
heavily against their skin and covered
marks left by a mother’s rosary. When
the white sailors cut in with their worn routine
of violence, my father says, smiling, as if
he wasn’t there, “those Filipinos pulled off
their chains and began swinging them at the other
sailors’ legs,” the music then had stopped
and the only sound it seemed to him
was the popping of bone into the void. (p. 163)
Sometimes the recollection is neither funny nor bloody. In his poem, ``Particle and Wave,`` Rick Barot explores childhood memory, an aging grandmother’s debility and last struggles, and the pain of loss soon to be learned.
...This shows that memory can be particle.
That is a certain justice
administered in time, the shape of it
exact in mind, long after the dispersed
fact. For years after that,
there seemed only waves
depositing their silt, then taking away
what they first gave: the manzanita tree
we made a kind of house,
the wire from fence that pierced
my cheek, the killed pig`s acrid
screaming from someone`s backyard,
things coming to mind
then pushing past the mind.... (p. 138)
From Sarah Gambito, author of Matadora (Alice James Books, 2004), comes a terse and moving paean to determination and will as a stranger to a foreign land submits her allegiance to her new homeland yet knows she will keep her country of origin as part of herself in every place she goes.
Here`s an excerpt from “Immigration 88”:
It’s important that I know our old love. That I slide
down on the bathroom floor in front of our original
country. There was a map on his wall with everything
pinned to where he had been. I felt each location. I
listened with every ear I had. I slid to the floor. I said
this is where we are going to go. (p. 168)
An excerpt from Benjamin Pimentel’s novel in Tagalog, Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street, engages us with the writer’s deft attention to detail and to the humor and the raw pathos evoked by the colourful character Ciriaco, one of the manongs or oldtimers, who have become part of the train station scene on Powell Street in San Francisco.
I. Ang Makauwi Nang Buo
Gaya ng bawat isa sa aming mga tambay sa Powell, Street, ang pinakapangarap ni Ciriaco ay ang makauwi nang buo. Iyong nakahiga sa ataul. Nakasuot ng barong Tagalog o naka-Amerikanang may kurbata. Hindi iyong ginawang abo na, tapos e sinaksak sa garapon, kahit gaano pa ito kaganda o kakintab.
Isang araw, buong pagmamalaki niyang sinabi sa amin na siguradong ganoon nga ang mangyayari. Nasa labas kami ng estasyon ng BART sa Powell. Kahit papaano, sabi niya, makakabalik daw siya sa Angeles, Doon siya ibuburol. Makakapag-mahjong sa tabi ng kabaong niya ang mga kapatid niya’t kamag-anak. At makakapaginuman habang tumitikim ng sitsaron at sisig ang mga dating kabarkada, o ang sinumang gustong makiramay o makikain.
Habang nagkukuwento, nakapatong ang isang paa niya sa sa isang bangkong bakal sa maliit na park sa laba ng BART. Nakapatong naman sa tuhod ang kanang braso niya. Suot niya ang lagi niyang suot noong mga araw na iyon. Botas na pangkoboy na gawa sa pekeng balat. Sombrero ng mga taga-Texas. “Tenggalong,” kung tawagin niya. At pekeng fur coat na pambabae, kulay puti, at halatang masyadong maliit sa kaniya. Lahat ng ito ay nabili niya sa Salvation Army. (p. 366)
Edgar Poma with his short story “The Suffer Brothers,” Rey Escobar and his “TULI Poems,” Anthem Salgado and his short story “Congers” (“a working class town that manufactures mean stares and crass jokes”), H. Francisco V. Penones, Jr., with his novel-in-progress, Salvage(d)—they are some of the yet-to-be-discovered writers who make Field of Mirrors such a rich and varied offering of the uncatalogued, still-to-be-told stories and poems of the Philippine diaspora. There are rough passages in some of the works included, and some pieces that could be considered expendable, but such is the nature of most anthologies. Considered in their entirety, the pieces in Field of Mirrors hold together as a strong and solid cultural document of distinct and disparate ways of viewing, thinking and writing by still-evolving generations of Filipinos in America.
Patria Rivera is the author of Puti/White (2005), shortlisted for the Canadian Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and The Bride Anthology (2007). She is also a co-recipient of the 2007 Filipino Global Literary Award for Poetry. Rivera won an honorable mention in the 1997 ARC National Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Contest and has received fellowships to the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada and the Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat Centre in Scotland. In 2005, Rivera’s poem, “Rare species,” was selected as the second prize winner in the Eric Hill Award of Poetic Excellence competition held by QWERTY, a literary journal published by the English Department of the University of New Brunswick. In 2009, her poetry will be anthologized in the Oxford University Press series Perspectives on Ideology.