Wednesday 19 January 2022

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, an introduction to his Filipino poetry in translation


Kristine Ong Muslim recently translated Hollow (original title, Guwang), a collection of some of Arguelles's early poems written in Filipino. Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s works and interests encompass books, conceptual writing, translation, film and video, installation, found objects, and text-based experimentation and the poems in Hollow range from ekphrasis to Philippine history. One sample poem, "Deep Well" can be read in Asymptote [] and another, "Curse", in Circumference Magazine []

Here, in a guest post for the Translation blog, she offers the Introduction to Hollow, written by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III and translated by herself.

Introduction to Hollow, Access and Topology, by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III

While many things have been said about poetry, I want to begin by insisting that there is always poetry in insistence. And that there is always insistence in poetry.

The reality and force of both statements is not something new or peculiar in the history of poetry. The works of Roque Dalton, Enrique Linh, and Nicanor Parra—three of the many great poets (and “antipoets”) Latin America had sired in the 20th century—come to mind as precedents when referring to this seesaw between insistence and poetry. One can marvel at Dalton’s confident posturing against private property in “Acta” (Act); feel the infinite struggle between innocence and ignorance in Linh’s “Porque Escribi” (Because I Wrote); and poke fun at Parra’s enunciated renouncement of language and literature in  “Me Retracto de Todo lo Dicho” (I Take Back Everything I’ve Said). But the one thing that’s common in their poetry is their simultaneous faith on and irreverence against the many things that poetry can say, retract, and do.

Interestingly and incidentally, Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’ poems, especially those collected in this volume (originally published in 2013 as Guwang [High Chair]), summon the similar spirit present in the works of the aforementioned Latin American masters. This is not to say by any means that the poetry of Arguelles is not of our times. Save for the works of Allan Popa and Carlos Piocos, I cannot think of any contemporary Philippine poetry than Arguelles’ which has both belonged to its moment and to the period of its intended and unintended precursors—a sense of the unspeakable, a constant unearthing of what is not known about the known, and a dogged persistence of tracing the illegible in the legible. In this choreography between what passes for poetry in insistence and what is believed to be insisted (or retracted) in and by poetry, we find in this volume (beautifully translated by Kristine Ong Muslim) the many ways through which Arguelles’ poems make accessible the topological and material nature of images and language.

Regarded as one of the most prolific Filipino poets in the 21st century with 18 volumes of poetry under his belt, Hollow represents the many conceits present in both Arguelles’ past and succeeding works. While older Filipino critics tend to describe Arguelles’ work as a welcome departure from the weary lyrical and symbolist tradition, doing so does not really do much justice to what his works have to offer.  For instance, the poems “Your Life Will Always Fail” (Ang Iyong Buhay ay Laging Mabibigo) and “Vocabulary” (Bokabularyo) can be seen as more relaxed, refined, and chiseled versions of Arguelles’ “surface poetry” and non-lyrical pieces in Menos Kuwarto (Pithaya Press, 2002) and Ilahás (High Chair, 2004). “Exercises in Futility” (Pagsasanay sa Walang Saysay), on the other hand, reads like a sequel to his first book-length erasure project in Alingaw (High Chair, 2010) and a prequel to the same project featured in Pesoa (Balangay, 2014). Then there are, of course, pieces that showcase the deceptive simplicity of Arguelles’ language, and how they lend themselves to translation in different ways. Take for instance the piece “Curse” (Sumpa):


Because you discovered that

the world was not yours, your world                                               

crashed. Your world

that just because was not yours

crashed but not because of you

Until you stand up now

to a world built on nothing

While the translation maintained the source text’s overall structure, it is in its fidelity where the difference between the source and target text lies. In the original, most of the emphasis is placed on the possessive pronoun “iyo” (“Nang matuklasan mong hindi sa iyo/ang daigdig, gumuho”), denoting the possibility of owning (or having owned) something as abstract and immense as the world, notwithstanding the poem’s persona suggesting otherwise.  In the translation, however, the emphasis is inevitably placed on that which that cannot be ever owned (“Because you discovered that / the world was not yours, your world”), thereby negating any possibility of owning something in this world—even the things that were supposed to be ours. While one can easily dismiss this difference as a product of a target language’s intrinsic linguistic features, one can also see this as Arguelles’ deliberate attempt to write in a language he both owns and (unwittingly) disavows. Following this logic, the poem’s implicit question and insistence becomes all the more clear: how can something be “not yours” when you can put it into words?

Seeing translation not as a means of understanding a poem but as a way of revealing that which that lies beyond meaning (Arguelles, 2014), the poems in Hollow and in his other works implore readers to see words and images as objects possessing multiple surfaces: as sites where the possible and impossible, visible and invisible, exist as sides/layers of the same shape and landscape. This insistence of the topological nature of the word and the world—the insistence that the word is of this world and that the world is made out of words—is more evident in the collection’s longer works, such as “Deep Well” (Balong Malalim),  “Fourteen Pictures” (Labing-apat na Larawan), “Landscape” (Tanawin), and “Cain” (Kayin).

In all the mentioned poems, Arguelles forces readers to reconsider the boundaries that separate the image(s) and the real. Ponder, for instance, these lines from the poem “Deep Well”: “…Why say the word is profound. The well will be / surrounded by children. Why say the well is deep / if the word can bring up the word…” Or in the succeeding stanza where the image is shown as a trap on its own: “…You cannot climb out of a well in the image of the well / The word you are about to put into words that are steadily / trying to reach you. / What you raised cannot be raised/ not forever…” 

The same worldliness of a scene/portrait/image is also displayed in the final lines of “Landscape”: “…You examined his body / You were of similar build, almost identical-looking, too / It is possible you are him but not him. You / are the narrator, you/ are the one being heard the by the Reader, in the afterlife / before the page…” This seemingly abrupt shift in the poem’s tone and focus is nicely set-up through the consistent use of the pronoun “you,” as if to say that the object of and in the poem is present before the poet and the reader, breathing and alive.  Through his use of direct address, Arguelles’ poems provide readers access to a place beyond meaning—a space/hollow/gap where the prospect of an encounter between the word, the world, and the self is but a foregone conclusion. While Arguelles already expounded on this in his essays on poetry and translation, I believe that reading the poems themselves will give readers a different experience and a full view of his poetic project(s). 

To end, I want to leave something from Jean Luc-Nancy which is reminiscently similar to the way Arguelles’ poetry “arrive” to its readers.  In his essay “Making Poetry,” Nancy describes poetry as something that “does not exactly have sense; rather it has the sense of an access to a sense that is each time absent, and postponed until later.” Following this logic and before I leave the readers of this collection to their own devices, I leave to readers the tenth Russian doll from “Fourteen Pictures”:


That which is concealed by the hand

that was concealed by the hands

that created the fourteen pictures

 on the walls that spanned

the entirety of his sanctuary

 That which is insisted on by the paintbrushes

That which is held by the mold

in his hands kept secret

from everyone


Hollow is published by Fernwood Press. [forthcoming, 2022]. Kristine Ong Muslim is the translator of four bilingual volumes of poetic works by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles—Walang Halong Biro (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2018), Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), Twelve Clay Birds: Selected Poems (University of the Philippines Press, 2021), and Pesoa (Balangay Books, 2021). Hollow (forthcoming from Fernwood Press) is her fifth published translation of a book-length work by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles.