In Time Passing by Elsa Martinez-Coscolluela: An Analysis

In Time Passing
by Elsa Martinez-Coscolluela

In time passing there are things you come
to learn as well: codes crafted by our fathers
and silences of our mothers as they spun
tapestries of their secret songs.

In time passing, you have broken through
hurtling past law and language defining
you to Other, Daughter, Sister,
Wife or Mother: keeper of bones and beads.

And so you are all these: but always
you are more.

Adam’s rib, apple-gatherer, candle-bearer;
though you have plucked the forbidden fruit
still, in time passing, you hold infinity
in your womb as from your blood and bone

Lie the primordial source: revealing
there your awesome power – reaping
there a rich harvest of sons and daughters
all sprung from your marrow.

In time passing, though life has etched landmarks
and milestones upon your face, and your words
are weighed with mother-wisdom, you remain
stronger than light, gentler than rain.

 

While Elsa Martinez-Coscolluela (ma’am Elsie, my literary mother from Iyas) is better known as a playwright, she is also much decorated for her poetry, winning awards for her poems and having at least one collection published.

“In Time Passing,” perhaps her most anthologized poem, demonstrates the symbolism, the rich texture of diction and deft stylistic execution that make her poems some of the most musical in Philippine Poetry.

The poem begins by not yet defining the addressee, but revealing to the reader (as the addressee itself is exposed to the same) the “codes crafted by our fathers and silences of our mothers.” From the active role of the fathers and the passive role of the mothers in language (codes and silences are linguistic terms), we can infer a context of a paternally dominated discourse. This is the context the addressee is born in, and it comes to learn the roles. That the first stanza goes on to focus on the mothers hints at the addressee’s being a woman, and there is almost disclosure of the “craft of silence” in the mention of “tapestries of their secret songs.”

In the second stanza, the image of language is continued. The addressee is said to hurtle “past law and language.” Mention of female social roles (daughter, sister, wife and mother) establishes the hint of femininity, while the power of “law and language” to define, as well as the explicit mention of “Other” lend to the male-dominated discourse mentioned in the first stanza a coercive and dehumanizing connotation. The image of menial work, established first in “spinning tapestries” is repeated in “keeper of bones and beads.”  This alliterative statement is rich in solidity of specification: “bones” could have ancestral connotations, making the home the altar of ancestors (progeny is piety to our progenitors? Domesticity as the ritualistic remembrance of our ancestors’ ways of living?), or it could have culinary connotations (the woman as cook and, after the meal, the one who cleans after scraps); “beads” could be an allusion to the rosary, further strengthening the image of domesticity as ancestral worship, or it could simply mean crafting, strengthening the image of crafts established in the first stanza’s “tapestries.” In any case, the woman, along with the limiting roles in the male-dominated discourse, is relegated to menial jobs.  What makes this stanza ideologically consistent is how it implies the emergence of a character even in spite of all the restrictive “codes” that try to define the woman: in spite of all these limiting roles there is still a person behind.

The short stanza “and so you are all these: but always you are more” is delightfully ambiguous to the heteronymous degree. On one level it is a complaint of more roles to play. On top of being other, daughter, sister, wife and mother, and of keeping the bones and beads, the woman has other roles, and these are listed by the first half of the next stanza: adam’s rib (an allusion to the biblical inferiority of women), apple-gatherer (also a biblical allusion, but has additional culinary and domestic connotations), candle-bearer (a solidification of the mother’s role as “light of the house,” which at the most basic might entail actually holding candles while the children study, but at the most symbolic reading might again be alluding to the genesis, when woman brought about the “light of understanding” to man, beginning the fall. The specificity of “candle” nevertheless gives this word a domestic connotation). But it could also stand for an affirmation of the “hurtling past” of the woman in spite of her restricting roles, reaffirming her “always being more” than them. In this line of interpretation, the list of trivialities become trifles that do not stop the woman from being herself.

The biblical reference established in this list is continued with the plucking of the forbidden fruit, but is at the same time a symbolic phrasing of sexual intercourse. In spite of this “defilement” (sex having always had a connotation of impurity in the Abrahamic-dominated western culture), the woman is still superior in that she is the source of life. The very endlessness of posterity as springing from conception is solidly expressed in “holding infinity in your womb.”

The last stanza situates the woman addressee into later life, reaffirming her strength and her gentleness. The image of wrinkles is metaphorized to landmarks and milestones when it is “etched… upon your face.” There is immense solidity in “words weighed with mother-wisdom,” as it at once describes the care given by mothers to every word (“weighed” meaning the act of measuring weight) and the gravity of wisdom in each mother’s word (“weighed” being reminiscent of “weighted”).  The simile of “stronger than light” is at once kinetic and visual: the woman shines bright, and in her non-solidity she is indestructible. At the same time this could mean the woman is more than the role of “candle-bearer.” “gentler than rain” evokes rain’s delicate touch on the skin and its nourishing effect on the earth, but the line at the same time hints a continuation of the thought of strength, as rains can be strong in spite of its gentleness.

This all happens with language lush with stylistic flourish. The lines are semantically diverse, lending the poem a sense of grandness scope and diversity of subject matter. There are a lot of aural devices that contribute to the musicality, alliteration, assonance, consonance and rhyme. The most deftly executed stylistic device is parallelism. In the list of “more” things, there is a parallelism of two part phrases. In the penultimate stanza rhyme is used viz-a-vis the parallel structure “verbing there” (“revealing there…” “reaping there…”). The poem ends with another parallel structure, “Xer than Y.” But what gives the poem its most musical tone is the refrain of the title, “in time passing.” The immense scope of the line also lends the poem an almost epic flavor.

The poem is stated explicitly as an affirmation of womanhood, but at the same time it subtly reveals concrete realities about women. It is not arranged rhetorically but chronologically, and the ideology of womanhood emerges not as a result of conceptual buildup but is stated alongside the facts of being woman. The poem then uses explicit ideology to reveal experiential reality. It glorifies women, but in the process makes them human. “In Time Passing” is the quintessential woman’s poem. It is the epic poem of every woman.

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