‘Bago Aplaya’ by Macario Tiu: A Translation and Analysis

Bago Aplaya
by Macario Tiu

Hinay ang tapya sa balod
Ug nagsugod na ang taob.

Namasbas ang pari sa bangkang de motor,
Ug lakip tang nawiskan sa bendita.
Uban sa mga gagmayng mananagat nga nanag-alirong.

Nalipay ako sa ilang kalipay
Nga nakaangkog himan sa panagat:
mao kana ang atong gisaulog.

Apan hinay ang tapya sa balod
Ug nagsugod na ang taob.

Ug sama sa karaang magbabalak,
Akong nabati ang walay kataposang kasubo
Nga dala sa balod.

Apan dili tungod sa pangagho sa katawhan
kondili sa akong kaugalingong kahimtang.
Ugma, mobiya ka na sa hangtod
Samtang hinay ang tapya sa balod
Ug magsugod na ang taob


Bago Aplaya

Gentle is the dashing of the waves
and the tide is rising.

The priest blesses the motor powered boat;
and we are sprinkled by holy water
along with the humble fishermen gathered.

I am happy for their happiness, gaining
a new tool for their fishing:
This is what we celebrate. But

Gentle is the dashing of the waves,
and the tide is rising.

And, like some old poet
I feel the ceaseless sadness
washed ashore by the waves.

But not because I hear
the endless sighing of mankind,
but because of my own sad predicament.
Tomorrow, you will leave me forever
While gentle is the dashing of the waves
and the tide is rising.

Macario Tiu’s poem ‘Bago Aplaya’ is by now a local classic in Davao literature, often being thought in college literature subjects in local universities. It is usually one of the first poems to be taught to students (and in the Ateneo de Davao’s case the first work of literature discussed in class). This at once serves to ground students’ literary appreciation to the local (as opposed to the more distant National) and gives them an easily relateable but nevertheless substantial piece with which to start their appreciation of literature in general.

The title establishes its narrative setting, the Bago Aplaya area south of Davao city. This is a seaside area, less urbanized than central and northern Davao and home to small time fishermen who make a living out of the Davao gulf.

The poem begins with what may be called the poem’s refrain, ‘hinay ang tapya sa balod, ug nagsugod na ang taob,’ two lines describing the movement of the waves and tide, further establishing the poem’s seaside setting. These two lines are repeated throughout the poem, stylistically mimicking the repetition of waves and the coming and going of tides.

The second stanza establishes the narrative situation: a motor powered boat is being given a Catholic blessing by a priest, and the fishermen are gathered to celebrate the ceremony. This stanza indicates to the reader that this is a narrative poem: it tells a story. Macario Tiu has always been more of a storyteller than a poet.

The first person pronoun is also used in this stanza, showing that the persona is a character in the story Furthermore, the original ”ta’ (shortened ‘kita’), the inclusive plural in the original Cebuano, also establishes the presence of an addressee, who is also a character in the story.

In the next stanza the persona expresses his sympathy for the fishermen’s happiness with their new boat (the boat may be communally owned, or at least the neighbors may borrow the boat from the owners).

But the first repetition of the refrain is introduced as a contrast to the preceding stanza’s emotion, hinting at the sad character of both the image of waves and tides, and of the poem as a whole. This sudden change of mood from celebration to sadness is a simple, if somewhat underwhelming, example of a volta, the sudden change in the poem’s dramatic tone.

The poem then states this sadness explicitly and sustains the change in mood in the fifth stanza, where the persona expresses feeling not just misery, but endless misery. This misery the persona describes as being ‘brought by the waves.’

What could this misery be? This part is best appreciated if one considers the sound of the waves, which resemble sighing. Sighing of course is associated with negative feelings such as regret and sadness. And so like the ceaseless sighing of waves, so too will mankind sigh and suffer ceaselessly.

This is an old image in poetry, going all the way back to the Ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles. In his Antigone, the chorus at one point recites the following line:

Where once the anger of heaven has struck, that house is shaken
For ever: damnation rises behind each child
Like a wave cresting out of the black northeast,
When the long darkness under sea roars up
And bursts drumming death upon windwhipped sand.

(translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald)

The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold would later allude to this in his most famous poem, ‘Dover Beach,’ when he writes:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery…
…now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind

But not before the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker comes up, in his comedy The Honest Whore, with the line ‘like waves, my misery drives on misery.’ The Romantic French novelist Alexandre Dumas, through his character Athos, also says in Vicomte de Bragelonne, ‘We shine like those fires and stars, we sigh like those waves.’

With the simple phrase ‘old poet,’ the poem thus alludes to a long and established idea, lending to the poem an intellectual and discursive tone: it at once brings the insight of human misery’s endlessness to the poem’s local context and elevates the Davao scene to the level of classical contemplation. What could have led to this realization other than the sighing of the waves? Perhaps, we can speculate, the persona sees the suffering of poverty in the poor, small time fishermen present.

On a side note, the poem’s setting could not reflect this insight any better. Bago Aplaya is named after the Davao historical character Datu Bago, the precolonial leader who struggled against, and who was ultimately defeated by Spanish forces led by Jose Cruz Oyangguren. His defeat, along with the fishermen’s poverty in the place named after him, could only make human suffering palpable. Tiu, an accomplished historian and a noted  sociopolitical critic, would easily be aware of these nuances.

But is the poem simply a reiteration of the metaphor and insight of ‘the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’? The penultimate stanza reveals that this is not the case. In fact the contemplative, abstracting nature of the previous stanza is completely dispelled here: No, the persona is not made sad by ruminations of the abstract concept that is ‘endless human misery,’ he is preoccupied, bothered by his own, more immediate suffering. He has a problem of his own to worry about. If the shift in mood in the fourth stanza is a volta of emotion, this stanza is a volta of insight. Human misery is endless, but one suffers one’s own suffering now first before anything else.

And what is the persona’s problem? The last stanza reveals it: the adrressee (who has hitherto played little part in the story) is leaving, never to return. This hints a close, intimate relationship between him/her and the persona. Far more than about the defeat of Datu Bago, the poverty of small time fishermen, or the whole ocean of mankind’s suffering, this poem is about the persona’s particular personal misery, and so is mankind’ experience with suffering. This last stanza reaffirms this insight by revealing the specific cause of the persona’s troubles. The poem ends with the last reiteration of the refrain.

Written in Cebuano Bisaya, the poem demonstrates its medium’s remarkable terminological precision. It contains many words with no direct equivalent in English: ‘tapya’ is the specific verb of waves dashing gently against a shore (it must be gently, violent dashing is ‘hapak’); ‘taob’ means high tide; ‘wisik’ (root word of ‘nawiskan‘) is untranslatable, but means being sprinkled on by droplets of water thrown out into the air; ‘panagat,’ literally translated, makes ‘dagat’ (‘sea’) into a verb, only hinting at fishing (to which it is not limited, the term may be used for any livelihood having to do with the sea). But the most interesting word in the poem is ‘biya,’ a word that implies both departure and leaving behind.

‘Bago Aplaya’ is a simple poem, but it is appropriately so, as it is one which, while touching on abstract contemplation of general suffering nevertheless portrays this abstraction as secondary to the immediate appreciation of more personal suffering.

Properly taught, it will make a great introduction to Philippine Literature!




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