The Poet as Prophet and Punster: A Review of In Samarkand by Cesar Ruiz Aquino

(I just found out that this came out in the Silliman Journal! This feels timely because sir Sawi won this year’s Nick Joaquin Poet of the Year)

The Poet as Prophet and Punster

A Review by Antonio Galay-David
In Samarkand by Cesar Aquino, a collection of poems and verseliterations, illustrates the poet’s development from the lush lyricism of his salad days to the word-obsessed economy of his more erudite later life. But the placement of the newer poems at the beginning of the book and the earlier ones at the end lend the collection a retrogressive movement, with the succinct newer poems “blossoming” into the more ornate eloquence of younger days. This “blossoming,” occurring in reverse of Wilde’s proposed development of wisdom in the decrease of earnestness, is skewered with the gradual decrease of what T.S. Eliot describes as high intellectualism in poetry: the later poems are whimsical but are dense with allusive reference, while as the collection backtracks the allusions diminish but the poems acquire a graver tone. This is such that the first “X-Sight” of the book appears to be a more succinct but more parodic version of the richer “X-Sight” that concludes the collection. Serving as transition between the younger and older poems are the verseliterations – poems crafted by taking lines of prose – which are on their own works of a certain gravitas easily accessible on closed reading but are in fact crafted experimentally, portending perhaps the poet’s departure from his lyricism into the laboratory of words.
But this generalization would not mention the consistencies found throughout the collection, for across time Aquino’s stylistic peculiarities remain constant. For one thing, many of the poems rely on deft execution of solidity of specification. In the early poem “Song” for instance, the oft discussed unrequited love is concretely demonstrated in all its hopelessness with the lines “your smile was the ripple I made/ on your surface of eternal water.” The same concreteness is evident in the later poem “Like the moon,” with the lines “in the gut of craters that you left” demonstrating the emptiness of absence. This also occurs in the violence of language that borders on surrealism reminiscent of Jose Garcia Villa. This is evident in early poems, like “Verb lovely flesh” as well as in later poems like the haiku “Signs of the times.”
Perhaps the most pervading consistency in the collection is the poet’s own voice of erudition, if not that Eliotian high intellectualism in the poem’s intertextuality then in the poems’ collective portending “of what is yet to happen” to quote the introduction by Edith Tiempo.
As mentioned, the poems are often heavy with allusion, revealing there not only the poet’s vast store of knowledge but also his deep connection to the Philippine poetic tradition. The several “Kalisud” poems, for instance, are given a new dimension if the reader is familiar with the allusion (Rowena Torrevillas gives useful commentary on one of the poems, “Kalisud ala Superman”). In his lyricism the poet does not hesitate to cite spiritual references, from the Kabalistic allusion of Adam Kadmon in “Name” to the Indochinese sanctity of the river Chao Phraya in “In the sign.” In less lyrical works the allusion is almost central to the poem, as the case in “Tendril.” The long poem “Eyoter,” a tour de force of allusions and linguistic puns, is so allusive it even throws in the names of the poet’s writer-friends Susan Lara, Krip Yuson and Ricky de Ungria. Aquino also admits to his influences, and Jun Lansang is oft alluded to in the poems as well. But perhaps the verseliterations are the most concrete demonstration of allusion, as at times the very point of the verseliteration is the content of the source prose.
Many of the poems are of an inherently contemplative nature, departing from pure experience and delving into the humanistic – and sometimes sociological – implications of the experience, demonstrating what Edith Tiempo describes as the “Aristotelian Heresy” in the introduction. In “She” for instance the poet imagines the embers of passion burning within the woman even after the act of intercourse (“she retains the fire”). The speculation begins when the poet declares that “she is the fire” – that in woman sex becomes being. The same goes with “X-Sight” (in both versions). The persona begins by describing the strangeness of the addressee’s lack of impact when he tries to recall her. But then it moves on to realizing why: for the trivialities of the flesh do not last in light of the eternal subject, revealed when the persona “runs into” who the addressee really is. The almost occult poetic wisdom of “Song” is described vividly in Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez’ commentary at the book’s end.
A selection of best poems would not be definitive of the collection’s quality and would come out with pronounced heterogeneity. But undoubtedly the best poems are the two “X-Sight”s, “She comes with horns and tail,” “Shock of Recognition,” “Eyoter,” “Idea,” “Plain Blues,” “Song” and “Word without end.” For the verseliterations, “words,” “The hunt for plums,” “the unprintable word” and “the birds.” “She comes with horns and tail” earns recognition for its transforming image of the crescent moon comet as horns and tail. “Shock of recognition” demonstrates that near madness typical in poetic expression. “Eyoter” almost does not make sense but demonstrates the poet’s deft use of puns (“Cesar Aquino in pun y vino”). “Idea,” like “Shock of Recognition,” demonstrates how the fantasy of imagery can be used to express unpronounceable emotions. “Plain blues” gets recognition for its delightful mockery of the formal device of metaphor in its last lines. The stylistic complexity of “Word without end,” demonstrated simply by the fact that the quatrains’ initials are anagrams of “love,” are analyzed more thoroughly in a closed reading by Ralph Semino Galan. Almost all of the verseliterations are excellent, and the above selection is almost arbitrary. But perhaps special mention should be made of “The college sits down,” which is so well crafted it piqued the curiosity of the writer of this review to try Malachi Martin’s “The Final Conclave.”
The eponymous poem, “Samarkand” deserves special mention because it is the most prototypical piece in the collection. Like most of the poems it demonstrates not the immediate experience but the possible implications of the experience, in this case the persona’s hopelessly romantic “stopping for you to catch up forever.” The allusion to the ancient capital of Tamerlane’s Mongol empire is perhaps to mirror another poem about a Mongol Khagan, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and the aversion of women described in that poem to Kublai Khan. The allusion is strengthened by the subtle pun “tamarind,” an allusion to Tamerlane.
In Samarkand’s lofty intellectualism comes in both densely allusive lines and in the almost deranged nature of its speculative gravitas. As such it is a daunting collection to read. But the reward of tapping into that “abundance of poetic substance of highest merit” (again taken from the introduction) is worth the effort. In Samarkand demonstrates what makes Cesar Aquino one of the country’s foremost poets.


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