The River: Time Rushes On by Luisa A. Igloria

This post is part of the River of Stones guest post series, our mindful writing challenge. Properly notice one thing each day, and write it down. Click here to find out more. 

Today we’re delighted to host Luisa A. Igloria. Luisa’s essay is the longest one in the series. I encourage you to make time to read the whole thing. Luisa is writing about how art forms a bridge to our homes and asks what this means for those of us unfixed from our homes. (There are some of Luisa’s poems here too.)


Go and make yourself a cup of tea, or coffee, and come back, settle down, and read something wonderful…

“Literature can console, but not enough.” ~Derek Walcott
“Writing … becomes a practice of gathering and giving back what one has received.”  ~Vicente Rafael

The world was once nothing but a wide and level plain

Luisa writes: In the northern Cordillera region of the Philippines (I am from Baguio City), there is a legend that tells how, in an older time, the world was once nothing but a wide and level plain. There were no mountains or hills then, nor rocks, trails, or landmarks by which to calculate distances and tell a man where he was going. Thus, people who went on journeys always lost their way; or, venturing far afield, when they stumbled into enemy villages, were killed or captured. Their god Kabunian pointed out that all they had to do was note where the sun rose in the east and set in the west, and they would know where they were. But the people complained that since the land was flat and unmarked, east and west seemed the same. Their god sent a messenger from the underworld to make a journey alongside a representative of the tribe. If the former managed to find his way back unaided to the starting point, he would be allowed to take the souls of people with him into the underworld; if he lost, then the god Kabunian would have to give the land more definition. The messenger from the underworld was crafty; when he set out on the prescribed journey, he made deep holes in the ground with his walking stick, creating a trail he could follow back to the village. Some of the young hunters from the tribe saw what he was up to. They took a jug of rice wine and raced ahead of him and set it on his path. He came across the wine, and delighted; sat down to drink. When he was thoroughly intoxicated, the hunters emerged and did away with him. At the end of the day, the people said defiantly that since the messenger from the underworld technically did not finish his journey, Kabunian had to keep his part of the bargain. And so Kabunian made mountains and hills of many heights and shapes, created rocks, ridges, landforms and water forms, each one different from the rest; and it is said that from this time on, the people never got lost again.

Departure from … home.. is paradoxically what allows for the traveler the fantasy and in some cases the reality of “return”

I thought of sharing this story because Fiona’s and Kaspa’s blog is called “Writing Our Way Home.” It’s a story that privileges place, location, mapping, landmarks, and travel—all of these, insistent motifs in the works of nomadic/expatriate or multilingual writers. At the same time, the legend reveals how the creation and foregrounding of difference—that departure from the notion of the familiar and homogeneous, whether we call it home, village, culture or nation—is paradoxically what allows for the traveler the fantasy and in some cases the reality of “return”.

Granted, there is a simplicity to the tale, one that does not completely take into account the specific situation or sense of nomadic subjectivity experienced by the one who has left her original home. Edouard Glissant* writes: “… Subjectivity emerges from … traumatic memory, rooted in [the] abyss and given to thinking with ghostly figures. If subjectivity cannot appeal to a single root in history, memory, or place as a holder of [its] center, then we have to think the subject without fixity. What names this subject? How can we think subjectivity without [the] ultimately nostalgic undertones and resonances of alienation and dispossession?” Glissant’s answer in Poetics of Relation is something he names the rhizome, which we might perhaps think of as a state of being marked by a peculiar nomadic character. A rhizome is something that becomes rooted in several places, cannot attribute itself to a single origin or root, and consequently manifests as a hybrid or polyvocal character that thinks of itself as both/and rather than as either/or. Or maybe it’s a stone, tossed from place to place along the path, picked up and examined with curiosity by those such as we— who are trying to write our way home.

Borrowing from these notions then, for the migrant, the anxiety-provoking separation from the past and from history give rise to what a few other writers have referred to as a “poetics of detour, diversity, and relation.” In other words, the traveler’s unfixing from what came before gives rise to uncertainty, but also to important opportunities for strategic reinvention and creative possibility: unhoming gives rise to tactics of negotiation and survival as the traveler inhabits foreign spaces. Practices of memory are bridged and recreated by the traveler across time and space through language (stories, poems, songs, art). In this way language also simultaneously becomes the repository and a kind of mobile museum for those artifacts of former existence that could not otherwise be carried into the new. Every moment becomes a way to encounter a new relationship to the past as well as the future.

The task of writing nomad experience and memory resonates with political implications too; it urgently presses for an aesthetic and praxis that demands that writers honor history but at the same time not concede the ability to work free from its claims. These were some of the issues I found myself working with as I wrote the poems that went into my latest book Juan Luna’s Revolver. The material forming the background for the poems is rooted in the very personal, in ways that we associate sights, sounds, smells, memories and feelings with their locations; yet it does not remain only within the personal or anecdotal. For instance, when I wrote about my family members on the paternal side (who liked to emphasize their mestizo or Castilian origins) and how they were violently opposed to my parents’ marriage because my mother was a farmer’s daughter, I found that I necessarily had to deal with the complicated web of relations that included the Philippines’ colonial, postcolonial, and transglobal histories.

MIL BESOS
From Juan Luna’s Revolver (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009)

In this town filled with solid Midwestern architecture
and the barely noticeable twang of vowels, she is unsure

of why ghosts of foreign languages haunt her,
even those she has not learned enough to master.

She copies phrases from books she reads— lenguaje electrico,
lenguaje del rayo—intuiting their patina, tasting their

elusive salt. Her daughter, sleepy from waitressing
at a Japanese restaurant, yawns on the phone.

She laughs and says Good night, eat something;
there are ghosts everywhere. Here among sweet clover,

coneflowers, queen anne’s lace, and other respectable weeds,
she feels monkish, brown. Her brother-in-law remarks

at lunch that hazelnut butter is So Euro. Years ago,
her Castilian grandmother fell and shattered

her pelvis on the patio. Bedridden three years before her death,
she darkened in the sheets like a mildewed El Greco.

Punctually after midnight, the plaintive command: ven aqui!
which her son’s wife met with bedpan and warm water.

Light dapples the windows in a room where linens
and sheets have just been changed. There is no smell

of lavender water, but she remembers how she and her mother
would climb the seventy-five steps to the Cathedral.

During Lent, candle wax petaled the mosaic floors.
Penitents bowed to kiss the statue of the crucified Christ

laid prone on a velvet bier—in each painted wound, the trace
of spittle flowering from fervent, uncountable mouths.

ARCHIPELAGO
From Juan Luna’s Revolver (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009)

The scent of camphor strays across a hedge
and I am back on Mabini, where as a child

I stared at man-roots growing filaments, fluid-filled mason jars
next to powders ground from deer horn and dried seahorses.

It wasn’t till later that I’d read of revolutionaries
and blood compacts, an island traded for a hat,

the annual parade of caravelles and galleons
setting sail for Spanish ports, their holds filled

with copra and anise, barrels steeped with stolen
fragrances, bales of peppercorn and laurel. The dead

swim back and forth alongside these vessels, brown-skinned
sailors and their sad Marias, throwing cameos

on black ribbons at the moon. The dead,
not Magellan, circumnavigate the world,

jump ship somewhere near Louisiana, build houses
on stilts. The dead are magnetized by the call of water.

The dead peer through bedroom curtains, including
Grandmother, half-breed who wants to tame

your tongue and braid your india hair tighter than
that careless peasant bun. Infidel, will you return to the house

that holds the ghosts of your forbears? I’ll look for the town of Zafra,
I’ll look for the villages of San Fernando and San Juan,

for a yellow house where the statue of San Vicente
sits at the foot of El Sagrado Corazon, his blood

perfumed with roses. I’ll close my eyes and imagine
ceilings fed with rain, where every night

mold-stippled constellations emerge, islands too
insignificant for any maps save those in our vagabond hearts.

Writing the poems in Juan Luna’s Revolver, I was also increasingly struck by the idea that artists who lived and worked in a different time and place nevertheless grappled with the same issues I find I am always trying to respond to: what are the subjects of my work? who is my audience, who am I addressing in and through these poems, who listens to these poems? I was led to examine more closely the lives of some of the Filipino writers, artists, and intellectuals who left their homeland in order to study and travel abroad in Spain and other European destinations in the 1800s. It was a time of change and shift perhaps in certain ways comparable to our own: colonial anxieties over race and class had become uncontainable and by this time had given birth to a newly mobile, enlightened class called “ilustrados.” In a way, their migratory journeys also prefigured later outflows of Filipino migrant and diasporic labor all the way into the American colonial period and beyond. When the Filipino painter Juan Luna won one of two gold medals in the Barcelona Exposition in 1884 for his mural “Spoliarium” (painted in the neoclassical style and depicting two defeated Roman gladiators being dragged from the arena and into a small antechamber where their bodies were to be stripped in preparation for burning), both his feat and the image he created were appropriated as allegories prophesying the emancipatory future of the Filipino subject and the Filipino nation. Nevertheless, this was also a time undeniably fraught with trauma, including for the expatriate or immigrant artist:

THE MINIM
(from Juan Luna’s Revolver, University of Notre Dame Press, 2009)

In a music studio waiting room, waiting
for my daughter to emerge from piano lessons,

I read a magazine article on tubercular
Modigliani—how after his death, his lover Jeanne

leaped to her own from a Paris rooftop, pregnant
with his second child. It was a time

that critics describe as the emergence of
Modernity, the coming-of-age of that inconsolable

and perturbing child who gazes
through window gratings of an apartment

and sees the world fracturing into little cubes of blue.
What a world to have lived in, to have arrived in,

especially for the wayfarer, the exile
with his portmanteau of souvenirs, describing

the pavement between the world of no return and the world
of always beginning, and the light that shimmers

somewhere in the dusty trees. A public outcry shut down
his first exhibit, because it threatened prevailing notions of decency—

those women’s necks lengthening in twilight, their tulip thighs
promising welcome. Not sixty years before,

the painters from Manila made their way to Rome and Barcelona.
Only fifth or sixth class, said Retana of Juan Luna: no notable place

among the ranks of Spanish painters. Reviewers said the same
of Jose Garcia Villa when he came to America to write

among the early Moderns: at best, a minor poet.
Modernity, Modernity, how cruel you’ve been

as Muse, demanding constant servitude and reinvention.
In Luna’s Spoliarium, the two gladiators dragged from

the arena to the chamber of bodies where they will be
stripped and burned, leave rust-colored tracks upon the floor.

The music teacher, a Russian émigré
who used to be a biophysicist in her former life,

might recognize the paradox: distance
infinitely halved, never sutured close.

The Cordillera legend I referred to at the outset, describes the flat expanse of a world extending outward. Without differentiation and any landmarks to anchor memory, it has no apparent boundaries but also unnervingly lacks nuance. The story hints too at the violence of both extremes—of the danger in making one position more important than the other. And so for the nomadic writer, the real challenge lies in figuring out both how to embody and open to further examination, the liminal spaces that lie between the romantic(ized) or exotic past and that equally alluring and open-ended future, without privileging one over the other.

“Postcards from the White City” is a sequence of poems in Juan Luna’s Revolver that I wrote on the 1904 World’s Fair and Exposition, to which 1100+ indigenous Filipinos were brought to serve as live exhibits in a pageant demonstrating America’s bid for status as a new empire. Strangely enough, some of these poems first came to me during a two week summer writing fellowship in St. Petersburg, Russia – walking abroad in the streets past buildings of corroded beauty where grandmothers carried their string bags from market, it felt as if I were in a more familiar place, as if I were glimpsing figures from my own past in this other place so far from home. Writing poems about the galleon trade between Manila and Spain via Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries, or about Filipino expatriates in Europe inspired by “native American Indians” in the Buffalo Bill Cody show to re-appropriate and revalorize the pejorative name “Indio” for themselves— likewise returned me to those spaces where I could see more clearly how much my own personal narratives are always deeply connected to that larger story that others are also trying to tell.

Perhaps, then, this often hallucinatory, vertiginous and time-traveling sense of subjectivity is one of the gifts of an aesthetic that urges the constant contextualization and re-contextualization of stories, which in turn gives deeper definition to the place one seeks to occupy both in time and in poetry. Perhaps, it is a good reminder: picking up stones on the path isn’t such a bad place to be, for a poet.

MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY; Spring 2003
From the sequence “Postcards from the White City”
In Juan Luna’s Revolver (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009)

Underneath plaster moldings, old barns,
stables; plain masonry, blocks of factory space.
Rafters where finches once scattered in a panic
of light. Marvelous facades applied in layers—
so the white glare of buildings rendered smoke
glasses an absolute necessity.
The muses of science and industry
press marbled foreheads against the pitched
roof. Scrolls flutter down the length of pillars
by the entryway; crowds thicken
on the esplanades, lining up for tickets.
In the galleries, a low monsoon hum—
camera shutters whirring open and close.
In rooms where lamps are shaded with mica
bodies hang from walls, robed in dusky brown.

*  *  *

Luisa is the author of Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame), Trill & Mordent (WordTech Editions, 2005), and eight other books. She has degrees from the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was a Fulbright Fellow from 1992-1995. She now teaches on the faculty of Old Dominion University, where she directs the MFA Creative Writing Program. Luisa keeps her radar tuned for cool lizard sightings.

Her author website is at http://luisaigloria.com/, and she blogs at The Lizard Meanders.

*Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation (trans. Betsy Wing), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Texas image by cobalt123

Comments & replies

6 thoughts on “The River: Time Rushes On by Luisa A. Igloria

  1. Hannah Stephenson

    This is a stunning essay, and I really enjoyed the legend at the opening.

    Place or setting is never only backdrop (never just “where the story happens”), then. It creates the plot and shapes the characters. It’s interesting…I’m always thinking about how place and identity are intertwined.

  2. Heartful

    This is deeply thought-provoking for me. My life until adulthood was nomadic, and I never lived in the country where I was born and where my parents are from. As a writer, I constantly struggle with place, with setting. I’ve always been dimly aware that this struggle has been about my own unsettling, but never knew how to respond to this struggle as a writer. The last paragraph of your essay especially is giving me so much to think about. Thank you. Tammy (Heartfulblogger)

  3. The Poet's Lizard

    Tammy, thanks for sharing and for the likewise affirming response. It’s sometimes difficult to gauge that one’s assessment or sense of attunement (or not) to place, space, time, etc. – are not just “fictions” we make up for ourselves. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it feels reassuring to know that others are on a similar journey as you are.

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