Review Issue 2

   Issue#2: Jan. - Mar. 2003

Kristine Domingo

Mother Superior
Review of An Edith Tiempo Reader, published by the University of the Philippines Press
Edited by Gemino Abad, Isagani R. Cruz, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, Alfred Yuson and Edna Zapanta Manlapaz.

There is a rightness to Edith Tiempo's poems as there is to Elizabeth Bishop's, and a quiet intensity as there is to Emily Dickinson's, though the comparison to any other poet or writer stops there. So does the comparison to other works of art for that matter. There is no major and minor with which to unfold "The Rhythm of Violets", no oil/acrylic which could perfectly envision the footfall of the wanderer anticipated in "Between-Living." And where is the Tragedy for the image of the stillness of the woman in "Speck of Rain Roaring"?

The life in her poems tends to leave one at a loss for words, at times even incapable of fumbling for familiar terms for the breathlessness of such an encounter, like "euphoric" or "reverberates." In this careless state, what is clear is the completeness there is to her poetry. There's a finish particularly apparent in poems where it is from the union of nature and the nature of human condition itself that arises, and makes inevitable, that "lyrical blending with the intellectual" phenomenon her poetry has been accustomed to deserve praises for.

      After a year of flowers,
      Bright clustered coronets,
      The violets went,
      Leaves and all,

      But not to die.
      Slow and sudden
      As the swell and fall of twenty-four hours,
      Again the leaflets,
      Furry-green and without scent.

      So it's loosen the soil, then:
      Small need to prod and pry.
      Simply to listen.
      And the earth's stir
      Sets a rising murmur
      Under the hands;

      The veins' blood beats
      And spreads the swift rumor:
      Something has burst the bands;
      Sprung now from old bondage
      Of water, sod, and air,
      Heat and coolness race,
      Or stall, or meander,
      By hidden tutelage;

      And the world holds grace
      By strict season and art,
      For blood is a wanderer
      And must have the heart,
      Where rhythm is prisoner
      In the careful cage.

      ("The Rhythm of Violets")

At the same time, of course, it is the "blending" that allows "the swell and fall of twenty-four hours" to remain in that state, in that passage, a hundred anthologies later. And yet, what is that which leaves room for a reader to break out of the spell of "The Rhythm" at the instance of a phone call, a small errand, or even the opening credits of a movie on television?

One supposes that when faced with both the wholeness and vastness of her poems, what cannot help but come to shore is the subject of faith, which may at times have the effect of pushing away the reader, even as s/he is drawn with a stone in palm, especially if s/he has at some point recognized poetry as religion. One finds a description of this tension in several poems.

      So it's the space between
      The wishing and the end
      That is the true unknown;
      The massive world's timekeeping
      And our own agile flow
      Never to blend.

In this lifetime, the faith that recurs in Tiempo's poems is the faith in The Word, well after the written word. It is one that is strengthened, rather than doubted or tested, by the power of words to create, from which one's awareness--of the very same world this power draws from--grows.

      And what are mind and eye
      But traps for light?

      True that life is given,
      And received. But truer still:
      The single-act of giving
      Makes the offerer the beggar, too--
      For when down on the knees
      The man (or god) stretches the arms
      In giving,
      It is no accident the hands
      Are curled like bowls or cups,
      For he offers self, yet
      Begs it back again,

      As when wind and mist
      Bear away the gift of fragrance
      To far fields massed with flowers,
      And heavier-scented, blow it
      Back into the giving hands
      To drench the eye, and mind, and heart.

      ("Guru Puja:The Offering")

Tiempo's mastery of the cycle and of continuity advances the recurring meditative theme perfectly. Her rhythm alone cups this poem into a bowl, a prayer, which somehow makes poetry something more than "witchery to bind and spell/ life without breath but permanent." It is also remarkable how there is not a beat missed without there having to be the usual repetition of lines somewhere, in the tradition of the last lines of Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." It is through Frost, she writes, that she learned how "the rhythm tells us how to go." From the innate grace in the internal shifts of her poems, and her insights on the haiku, the pantun, and kakekotoba, one supposes that her own "how" has been nurtured more by Asian, rather than Western poetry.

There is a three-stage cycle in writing poetry, writes Tiempo. Intuition comes first, where "something inarticulate and dynamic" is experienced, becomes insight. Tiempo assigns Wordsworth's poetry to represent this raw stage. The insight crystallizes, as "the astute intellect uses the needed craft with words and images, and the needed skill with the standard poetic devices, in order to make an authentic and acceptable truth out of such strange and contradictory feelings and convictions." Eliot is invoked at this intellection stage, while. e.e. cummings is summoned to represent the last stage, "the leap" she emphasizes in her articles and in workshops. It is the intuitional stage once again, the leap of faith back from the mind that has framed, structured, the gut, where "the logic of everyday is transformed, enriched, and made vigorous…to infuse fresh insights into the old…to know the excitement of original and authentic experiences which the barrier of reason conceals or negates."

It is a little past the center of An Edith Tiempo Reader that one finds Tiempo's poems, past interviews and photographs, past the foreword to her short stories, the short stories, bibliographies of works, and just before her critical essays. And past the center is precisely where it seems she would have the poems placed, and where the reader is somewhat placed after these are found and rediscovered, for these certainly practice what she preaches in her literary criticism. In his essay on her work included in the Reader, Gemino Abad points out that Tiempo describes the nature of her own poems in her essays: "an intellectual poetry of deep moral feeling, it exemplifies that tradition in writing which draws its motive power from the Romantic faith in the heart's intuitions, and its aesthetic principles from the American New Criticism." To read her poems is to forget the mind, the body, and soul, or at least where one thinks each resides.

As to how the poet has heeded the advice of the critic concerning the use of the English language, mainly "to learn to exploit his cultural position to turn it from an uneasy endowment into a legitimate and helpful limit to his art"--it is perhaps the same "Romantic faith" in Tiempo's poems that does not allow her to be either the Filipino poet who "bypasses the particular and strikes directly at the universal", or the one who attempts "to express his indigenous particulars in a foreign tongue." Must one simply cast "A View of Water in a Lake" to the right and "The Fisherman" to the left? With the soul, mind, and body of "The Mirror", could one judge Tiempo as a poet who "evades responsibility of asserting for others, and speaks only of his own esoteric insights"? The reader need not remain at the center of her poems.

      In the pages of the books
      It's true the mind's look
      Fixes the sea and soil
      Of our own world;
      This indeed the word can do:
      Mirror, where sand, foam, and all periled
      Forms dazzle like shook
      Hard glittering foil.
      Word-glitter is never cracked,
      Deflect the touchable fact
      If one is lessoned true.