Eileen Tabios

On Jose Garcia Villa

These are the notes for Tabios' remarks accepting the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Literary National Award for The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by Jose Garcia Villa (June 17, 2000).


Good evening,

I've just moved to San Francisco after living for 21 years in New York City, and it's fabulous to be welcomed to the Bay Area partly by participating in tonight's proceedings. Maraming Salamat, Thank you so much to PEN Oakland for awarding the Josephine Miles Literary Prize to The Anchored Angel, a book I edited on the Filipino as well as Filipino-American poet Jose Garcia Villa. I was moved to read that this award "represents a so-called perception of multicultural literature that does not seek validation from the literary establishment." I was moved, because if the literary canon of this country during the last 50 years had been as open-hearted as PEN Oakland, there would have been no reason for me to spend three years putting together this book, The Anchored Angel.

By this, I mean that The Anchored Angel is a "historical recovery project" — a book which seeks to recover the works of a poet whose writings undeservedly have lapsed into obscurity, a book which I had envisioned as drawing open the curtain to a stage from which this forgotten poet may begin once more to sing his songs. Jose Garcia Villa was not only a most significant influence on what was a developing English-language literature in the Philippines earlier in the 20th century, but he also was a leading modernist American poet. I'd like to share his poem whose title is simply the number 213:

           I demand brilliance and
Consecration. Because of a star.
How beautiful is the light like
Grass! Love is not far
Nor your hand.
                         This being so
Love me well, love me well.
Because what Love is
I saw.
           I saw Love well:
Love tied a bell
To your heart. Love said, Kiss
Him and let your heart ring.
And this is the thing.

To publish in 1999 a book re-introducing Jose Garcia Villa to an American audience is an act that says much about the long reach of history — as well as how history comes to be written. Villa's life and poetry can be viewed within the context of events 100 years ago partly instigated by the United States and yet mostly not mentioned in American history textbooks (as the events of 100 years back represent an ignominious period in U.S. history). This poet was born in the Philippines in 1907. He was born to Don Simeon Villa, who was a Colonel in the Philippine revolution that overthrew three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. It was a successful revolt — on June 12, 1898, the Filipinos announced their independence after winning the war against their colonial master, Spain. However, just five months later, the United States aborted the Philippines declaration of independence by forcibly taking it over. The United States claimed it owned the Philippines after buying it for $20 million dollars from Spain through the Treaty of Paris. The Filipinos protested, and thus commenced the Philippine-American War — I don't believe many Americans are familiar with this war, and yet this is the war that has been called the United States' "First Vietnam." About 30,000 American soldiers died, but over a million Filipinos were killed in that war. With their prowess on the military terrain, of course, the United States won the battle, and thus did the Philippines become an American colony.

Consequently, Jose Garcia Villa grew up as a child in the household of a Colonel of the failed Philippine Republic, a father who was forever a grim silent man — someone perceived as cold and heartless by his child, the burgeoning poet. As the great Filipino writer Nick Joaquin would put it, the tensions between Jose and his father symbolized the generational tension between two worlds clashing together in the 1900s to the 1920s: fathers who lived in the dying past and impatient sons eager to embrace the new American culture. At age 21, the poet ran away from his father to the United States. Here, Villa continued his poetry which many in the Philippines had not considered "Filipino" supposedly because his poetry did not address the history of his times. He wrote poems like this Poem #4

O the Eyes that will see me,
And the Mouth that will kiss me.
And the Rose I will stand on,
And the Hand that will turn me.

This will be in a time of mirrors.

O the Tiger that will point me,
And the Light that will drown me.
And the Voice that will sing me,
And the God I will dethrone.

This is the death I will stand on.

The poet wrote metaphysically. From the dregs of the failed revolution, from the household ruled by a man living in the past, Villa came to claim that he was born in a country called "Doveglion" — a name he melded from "dove, eagle and lion" and something he described as a "strange country with no boundaries. Only "Earth Angels" can live in this country. Villa would explain, "Land itself is not a real country: it is commerce, agriculture, politics, a husk country." Doveglion, however is a real country because it is a country "that moves to follow fire." Thus, Villa seemed to confirm charges that he wrote as if he wasn't birthed from that troubled country called the Philippines. And yet I would agree with Joaquin who posits that Villa was writing, indeed, as a Filipino. Because his poetry that seems to spring from nowhere is indeed rooted in Filipino history — it is the needful post-Revolution duty of killing the father. The Philippines had to move on; it had to move on into the period of its American colonization.

And, indeed, here in his adopted country, Villa's poems would come to be praised by the very geniuses of the English language — e.e. cummings, Conrad Aiken, Marianne Moore, Mark Van Doren, Dame Edith Sitwell. He would write such poems as this Poem No. 22

Lovely. O lovely as panther. O
Creation's supremest dissenter.
Enter. Teach me thy luminous ire.
O jewelled, pacing, night-displacing
Fire. O night's nimble-dancing, No-
saying lyre. Embrace me. Defy me.
Reave me. None shall defend me.
Not God. Not I. Purify me. Consume
Me. Disintegrate me to thy ecstasy.
O lovely and without mercy. O dark-
Footed divinity. O lovely and Terrible.
O Death-irreducible. O unimpeachable.

This is the type of poem which encouraged Edith Sitwell to say about Villa, "[His] poetry springs straight from the depths of the poet's being, from his blood, from his spirit, from his experience, as a fire breaks from wood." But Villa was not just a metaphysical poet. He was an innovator. He would come to add his own contributions to poetry through such innovations as the comma poems. In the comma poems, he placed a comma after each word — something that he devised to effect a "time movement" whereby his poems would be read with a, slight, pause, after, every, word. As a Filipino-American, I was particularly heartened to discover Villa's poems given the history of English for Filipinos — that is, that English was introduced to the Philippines specifically as a tool of colonialism and imperialism. After the United States won the Philippine-American War, its colonizing efforts continued on the cultural and linguistic terrain: in 1901 it sent 500 young American teachers to the Philippines and the English they spoke came to be the preferred language for education, administration, commerce and daily living. Thus, among some Filipinos, English is sometimes referred to as the "borrowed tongue" although it seems to me that "enforced tongue" would be more accurate. Consequently, when a Filipino English-writer excels in his or her poems or stories — when they do something as fine, as brilliant, as innovative as Jose Garcia Villa accomplished in English — I am heartened. Because to write well in English, in a way, may either be a form of revenge — or a form of transcendence. That is, transcending the history of how English has come to be more widely spoken today within the Philippines than any single one of that country's own dialects.

Politics is personal. Villa's story may be seen as the type of a very personal effect from a government's policies — a government not even his own. So that a political decision by the United States to co-opt the Philippines into a colony results in the familial tension from which Villa the poet is borne. Joaquin calls the generational tension which begat Villa as "perhaps the greatest crisis in [the Philippines'] modern history, [and yet remains largely] unrecorded in our histories." Yes, I would believe it to be a "great crisis" — for what we experience in childhood, in one's formative years, so often forms the trajectory for the rest of our lives.

I'd like to next share a poem by Villa which might also be considered an ars poetica poem — in this poem, I think that when Villa goes up against God, he is going up against "God" in the sense of his father, the failed revolution of his father's generation, Catholicism and, for me, going up, too against English as God whenever Villa disrupted normal narrative syntax and diction. This is Villa's poem No. 5:

Between God's eyelashes I look at you,
Contend with the Lord to love you,
In this house without death I break His skull
I ache, I ache to love you.

I will batter God's skull God's skull God's skull!
I will batter it til He love you
And out of Him I'll dash I'll dash
To thy coasts, O mortal flesh.

He'll be broken He'll be broken He'll be broken
By my force of love He'll be broken
And when I reach your side O Eve
You'll break me you'll break me you'll break me

That poem made me shiver the first time I read of battering God's skull — note that, like many Filipinos, Villa and I were raised in a Catholic or religious household. Still, I think it would be a disservice to Villa if I presented his poems merely in polemical terms. Ultimately, Jose Garcia Villa believed the poem is but a song. This is why I'd like to share his Poem #21:

Girl singing. Day. And on her way
She has to pass by the oldest mountain.
That at least is certain. Rain. That
Doth leave no stain. And again whose
Flowers move jealously. O pity me.
if her eyes move and destroy all
Firmament. How brightly devised is
That moment. Much and muchly praised.
O day imperishably dazed. O woman
God-grazed. Succour God alone, O
Teach him Joy. O girl singing. O
For whom alone God bows out. O lovely
Throat. O world's end. O brightly
Devised crystal moment.

In the mid-1950s, Jose gave up writing poems abruptly. He gave up writing poems because he said he didn't wish to repeat himself. But this doesn't necessarily explain why his work, after receiving such praise, would lapse into obscurity. Some of the theories mentioned within my book — which relate, too, to why PEN Oakland's Josephine Miles Award is so necessary — hypothesizes that the same factors that first allowed Villa to become part of the canon — specifically the "religious" fervor that caused critics to align him with Blake, Donne, Hopkins and Dickinson — diluted Villa's high modernist credentials as an experimenter. It's also hypothesized that Villa's attempts to create his own history through the imaginary homeland called "Doveglion" placed him outside of the subsequent ethnopoetics that are supposed to include the excluded. And finally, Villa's emphasis on craft rather than content (content here including cultural references) caused him to be excluded by certain Asian American critics.

This last factor touches me in particular because I've worked as a poet and editor within the Asian American community for the past five years. One reason why I'm delighted that The Anchored Angel is published by Kaya Press is because Kaya is identified with Asian American and diasporic literature. It seems to me that Villa's poetry and poetics prefigured the battles that contemporary Asian American poets would come to fight in more recent decades — that is, that although we are Asian American artists, we should be able to write about anything whether or not that subject relates overtly or narratively to ethnicity and culture. A poem on, say, the beauty of the sunset, if written by an Asian American also should be considered an "Asian American poem." We don't always write have to write about family, food, immigration — those topics identified with us by mainstream society. Sometimes, the Asian American artist should be able to write about absolutely nothing at all, such as Jose Garcia Villa did in the sense that "meaning" has no relationship to his work. He begins his poems, not with an idea, but with a word — and then continues that poem with other words based on how preceding words resonated for him.

And so, I'll end by reading the title poem for this book. For those who knew Jose Garcia Villa, this is his most famous poem partly because it had been printed in the London Literary Supplement in the 1950s. Ironically, I don't consider this publication an honor for Villa because when Dame Edith Sitwell chose it to be featured in this prestigious publication, Sitwell arbitrarily decided that the commas were not necessary. I don't think I need to explain to this audience the horror of having a poem butchered in this manner. Villa, by the way, had not only thought his commas relevant for effecting the time movement of reading his poem but he wished the comma after every word to offer the same visual effect as do the dots proliferating in a painting by Georges Seurat. Anyway, Villa's poem is printed the way he wrote it within The Anchored Angel, commas and all. Since the release of The Anchored Angel, some folks — including Filipino immigrants who had studied Jose Garcia Villa in high school and colleges in the Philippines — have asked me what this poem "The Anchored Angel" means. I hereby confirm to you, I have no idea — except that I think it has to do with its sound, and that you might wish to listen to it as you would listen to music without words.

THE ANCHORED ANGEL

And, lay, he, down, the, golden, father,
(Genesis', fist, all, gentle, now)
Between, the, wall, of, China, and,
The, tiger, tree, (his, centuries, his,
Aerials, of, light) —
Anchored, entire, angel!
He, in, his, estate, miracle, and, living, dew,
His, fuses, gold, his, cobalts, love,
And, in, his, eyepits,
under, the, liontelling, sun —
The, zeta, truth — the, swift, red, Christ.

The, red-thighed, distancer, swift, saint,
Who, made, the, flower, principle,
The, sun, the, hermit's, seizures,
And, all, the, saults, zigzags, and,
Sanskrit, of, love.
Verb-verb, noun-noun:
Light's, latticer, the, angel, in, the, spiderweb:
By, whose, espials, from, the, silk, sky,
From, his, spiritual, ropes,
With, fatherest, fingers, lets, down,
Manfathers, the, gold, declension, of, the, soul.

Crown, Christ's, kindle, Christ! Or, any, he,
Who, builds, his, staircase, fire —
And, lays, his, bones, in, ascending,
Fever. Verb-verb, king's, spike — who, propels,
In, riddles! Six-turbined,
Deadlock, prince. And, noun,
Of, all, nouns: inventor, of, great, eyes: seesawing,
Genesis — unfissured, spy: His, own, Arabian,
his, love-flecked, eye!
The, ball, of, birth, the, selfwit, bud,
So, birthright, lanced, I, hurl, my, bloodbeat, Light.

And, watch, again, Genesis', phosphor, as,
Blood, admires, a, man. Lightstruck,
Lightstruck, into, the, mastertask,
No, hideout, fox, he, wheels, his, grave, of,
Burning, and, threads, his,
Triggers, into, flower: laired,
In, the, light's, black, branches: the, food, of,
Light, and, light's, own, rocking, milk.
But, so, soon, a, prince,
so, soon, a, homecoming, love,
Nativity, climbs, him, by, the, Word's, three, kings.

— Or, there, ahead, of, love, vault, back
And, sew, the, sky, where, it, cracked!
And, rared, in, the, Christfor, night,
Lie, down, sweet, by, the, betrayer, tree,
To-fro, angel! Hiving, verb!
First, lover, and, last, lover, grammatiq:
Where, rise, the, equitable, stars, the, roses, of, the, Zodiac,
And, rear, the, eucalypt, towns, of, love:
— Anchored, Entire, Angel:
Through, whose, huge, discalced, arable, love,
Bloodblazes, oh, Christ's, gentle, egg: His, terrific, sperm.

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