The Breaking

The soldiers brought the victim to a holding cell, his hands bound with rope and his feet shackled with chains. The room was barren, save for a couple of bamboo cots. The room reeked of things you would expect from places like these: sweat, urine, and animal dung that wafted from the boarded-up windows. In the room flickered the light of a solitary gas lantern, casting a pallid yellow glow on the cracked concrete floor.

“San Juanico,” the commanding officer said curtly, as if referring to the bridge miles—or perhaps a short walk, who knows—miles away. The crickets chirped a little louder. A lone rooster crowed in the distance. The prisoner’s eyes, swollen from lack of sleep and bruised from the unforgiving blows of truncheons, lit up in fear; the whites of his eyeballs piercing the darkness briefly.

“San Juanico” was nothing more than a euphemism for the torture invented by the Marcos regime at the height of Martial Law. Countless activists have been made to suffer the sentence, named after the great bridge that connected two of the country’s poorest islands. The bridge was a marvel that would be shared in postcards for generations to come; the torture was a memory best left forgotten by those who miraculously survived it.

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The Crimson Stain

That’s not a scarlet terno that Imee Marcos is wearing. Rather, it stands for the mountains where Macliing Dulag was killed. His blood ran down the slopes of the Cordillera in much the same way he wanted the Chico River to flow. To his dying breath—and years thereafter—Dulag fought against the hydroelectric power that threatened the survival of his people, in the hands of a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

That’s not Imee Marcos gracefully crossing her well-formed, tanned legs. Emmanuel Lacaba’s legs were found in the same way, tied and chained, as his corpse was dragged to an unmarked grave. In 1976, Lacaba was captured with a pregnant 18-year-old comrade in the underground, and was shot with a .45 caliber bullet not once, but twice. His crime was to write literature in opposition to a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

That’s not a tasteful bodice that highlights Imee Marcos’s ample curves. That bodice conceals how forces of the constabulary killed Edgar Jopson in 1982. He was found alive in Davao, but was still executed. It took nine bullets to murder Edjop: chest wounds, arm wounds, leg wounds. This son of a grocer became another statistic in a very long list of human rights abuses in the 70s and 80s, and personally earned the ire of a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

Those are not the features of Imee Marcos, carefully airbrushed. Those were the walls put up along the routes whenever any foreign dignitary or visitor passed by to visit Malacañang Palace. Entire edifices were built around the Philippines to celebrate and commemorate the “New Society,” all the while those displaced are kept hidden from view. For one cannot be seen poor and starving when guests come by to entertain—and be entertained by—a dictator named Imelda Marcos.

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The Big Against The Small

“It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest.”

– Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” Mythologies

When you break wrestling down to its essentials, the general context of wrestling is quite simple and straightforward. Some compare it to David and Goliath, but I’d rather much compare it to Samson breaking down the pillars of the Temple of Dagon. Before this all descends to the Bildung and frisson of analyzing simple things, it’s quite simple: in a match between the good guy and the bad guy, the good guy gets kicked and slammed around first before he mounts a comeback and beats the bad guy. This may last for as short as a quick 5-minute match, or throughout a whole storyline.

For those enthusiastic about pro wrestling trivia, this pattern emerges throughout the history of the spectacle. Take Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Or Shawn Michaels and Vader. You can even go back as far as the match that started it all: the muscular, chiseled George Hackenschmidt versus the athletic and toned Frank Gotch. In a post-“wrestling-is-scripted-not-fake” understanding of professional wrestling, it’s easy to see why passionate wrestling fans all over the world think that the WWE brass is screwing over Daniel Bryan in favor of the Big Show.

But isn’t that the very basic foundation pro wrestling is built on: the battle of big and small? And isn’t that applicable to things like, say, life itself?

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For Mom Edith

It’s been over two years since that lesson on the porch of Edith Tiempo.  There were 15 of us, fortunate enough to be in that little world, about to be taught a quick yet meaningful lesson in writing by the Grand Dame of Filipino Poetry herself.

I still remember the lesson from Mom Edith: form must grow together with content.  Meaning arises naturally from the subject of the piece, but it should also reverberate.  “How do you write a better poem?  You should read and revise, but do not revise to the point of destroying your work altogether” she said.  “Like a bell… the sound still reverberates.  And a good poem is no different from the sound of a good bell.”

The bells toll in grief for Mom Edith’s passing, but they ring true in her legacy. Not only for the body of work she left behind, but in the minds and hearts of the writers she taught over the years. We were all her children.

Our batch – one made memorable by the cases of beer drank at Hayahay and the infamous story of ten people getting stranded in Siquijor Island for literally missing the boat – was “fortunate enough to learn at the feet of Mom Edith.”  That surely may be construed as something high and mighty, but there was no other place where I personally learned more about the art of writing than in the National Writers’ Workshop.

Or, more properly, Mom Edith’s workshop: the one she worked hard for and sustained, the one that she made renowned and respected, and the hundreds of fellows that have considered her the matriarch of a group of writers that includes some of the country’s greatest and most respected poets, essayists, and fictionists.

It was fun to see it: the way she treated Jimmy Abad as still her student, the way Ernesto Yee referred to her affectionately as “Mama,” or the way even Susan Lara and Chari Lucero listened intently; even if for the entire duration of the workshop, we looked upon them as teachers and mentors.  If anything, it was a sign of how pervasive Mom Edith’s legacy is.

I wouldn’t say that I know her work by heart – which is a shame, really – but if anything, her greatest gift to the craft and the work was what she taught.  If not for the workshop she and her husband started, the ways of our words would not grow.  She laid standards, lit beacons, and in my case, rang a bell that somehow stood for me as the standard and beacon of what good writing should be.

We live in a world where art is only recognized upon death, or when they’re controversial enough to be part of the headlines.  In her passing I think the most timely and fitting way to pay tribute to Mom Edith is to share her work:

WHAT DISTANCE GIVES

When you reach for me in that obscure
World where like ashes of the air
Your eyes and hands and voice batter
With a stark and ghostly urgency
The transparent doors of my closed lids,
I struggle to confine the precarious grace,
The force, the impulse of this fantasy;
Yes, I grieve. But in its sure
Wise way it is this grief that bids
The ghost to go.
This is the reality we stand to lose:
That the push of muscle strength
Is also the dear enfolding brute embrace
Of reason shocking all our length,
The loss is gain for the will to choose
The distance-given right to know.

When we left her residence at Montemar that afternoon, I left her two tokens of my appreciation: weaved tapestry, and a couple of wooden figurines of highland warriors.  I’m willing to bet that they’re set aside somewhere in her curios and tokens collected over the years.  I’m sure that I’m just one among the hundreds she has called her “children” by way of the art and craft of writing, yet I’m equally as sure that the most fitting way to say thanks to the Old Lady of Montemar is to keep writing.  To know that form and content grows together, that meaning comes forth naturally but making that meaning reverberate is the task of writing itself.

There are those out there who can probably write better eulogies or more fitting tributes, but I think it’s best to leave mine here as a belated gesture of thanks.  Among the many teachers I have had who taught and encouraged me to write, it is the confidence, trust, and magnanimity of Edith Tiempo and her workshop that made me see more meaning into what I do.  Perhaps, one day, I can pay it forward.

Tonight, her sons and daughters grieve for her loss.  Tomorrow, and for days on end, we shall celebrate the work she has made possible.  Rest in peace, Mom Edith… and thank you.