Okay, back to poetry. And back to my "Filipinos at War" theme from a couple of days ago.
In early 2003, while I was putting together my poetry collection Ghost Wars, originally intended as an anti-war protest specifically against the Iraq war that was about to launched, I thought long and hard about the question of whether or not war can ever be just . . . you know, St. Augustine and all that.
As an answer to that question, I wrote the following poem about the killing of Ferdinand Magellan by Lapu-Lapu, first hero of the Philippines, who struck the first blow against colonialism. Granted, the poem is quite romanticized (like pretty much all the lore about Lapu-Lapu), but it does make, I think, a credible case for the justness of war through dramatic means.
Pale blonde sand glaring white into his eyes,
Lapu-Lapu stood on the beach with his tribesmen.
His wooden shield — a vertical rectangle rounded
at top and bottom, scalloped inward on the sides —
rested on a sinewy left arm, his lean legs slightly
spread, brown muscled chest rising, falling, softly.
Clenched in his right hand, his sharp kampilan,
a hefty metal sword with ornately carved hilt.
Tramping up the sand from rowboats beached
on a reef, los conquistadores labored in helmets
and breastplates, cutlasses drawn. In the lead,
Ferdinand Magellan, a dandy’s pointed beard,
sweat stinging his eyes in harsh tropical sun.
With a crash of wood and metal, like trees
falling under the typhoon’s wind and thunder,
the two met, swords arcing like lightning bolts.
Thrusts, parries . . . then Ferdinand’s eyes
opened wide a moment as Lapu-Lapu’s blade
swooped over his, an eagle diving from the sun.
The Spaniards turned, fled as Lapu-Lapu thrust
the severed head into the blue dome of sky.
Magellan’s vaunted circumnavigation: a lie.
Lapu-Lapu, brave brown defender, circumcised
that vainglorious invader’s ultimate round trip.
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Pinoy Poetics (2004).
Similarly romanticized is this statue commemorating Lapu-Lapu, located near the actual site where he and Magellan crossed swords . . . in the Battle of Mactan on the island of Cebu. Note particularly the oversized sword the sculpted Lapu-Lapu is holding, his kampilan . . . quite the phallic symbol there.
This poem happened when I was copyediting Cecilia Manguerra Brainard's fiction anthology Growing Up Filipino. The title pages for the sections of that book featured photographs accompanied by excerpts from poems. One of these photos was a chiaroscuro image of this Lapu-Lapu statue.
That silhouette of a Filipino warrior, sword and shield limned starkly against sky, was so incredibly moving for me that I went straight to the computer and wrote "Just War" in one sitting. The question I was posing with regard to the oncoming American war in Iraq was this: Who would be Magellan, and who would be Lapu-Lapu? I trust it would be clear to anyone, of whatever political stripe, that we would definitely not be Lapu-Lapu. To bring it closer to home, we would be the Redcoats this time.
On a side note, take another look at the statue Lapu-Lapu's sword. (Click on the picture to see a larger version.) The sword is shaped like a mix between a Bowie knife and a 1900s military bolo rather than a kampilan: a curved blade with a one-handed hilt (like a saber) vs. a straight blade with a two-handed hilt (like a single-edged broadsword). If you compare earlier plans for the statue with the finished product, you'll see that a different sword was originally planned, a straight-bladed one.
To the right is a painting of Lapu-Lapu's fight with Magellan (from a website about "Pre-Spanish Tacloban"). Note Lapu-Lapu's weapon in the painting: a two-handed sword with a straight blade and two points. In other words, the stock kampilan.
It may be that the statue's designers were trying to be true to Spanish written accounts of the Battle of Mactan, in which Lapu-Lapu's sword is described as a "cutlass" and a "scimitar." It may also be that the kampilan of 500 years ago was shaped differently from the kampilan of more recent times.
What I do hope is that, whatever reasons there may have been for altering Lapu-Lapu's sword, the change did not arise from some misguided motive to make the weapon appear more familiar to Western eyes. More like a harem guard's exaggerated sword in a Hollywood movie. That would be truly unfortunate. Lapu-Lapu's sword would make him look like Captain Hook in loincloth. Ay naku.
In any case, Lapu-Lapu's war was indeed just. And Ferdinand Magellan, whom many people think circumnavigated the globe, did not complete the trip. Lapu-Lapu saw to that. The End.
NOTE: The poem "Just War" ended up not being a part of Ghost Wars because that collection evolved into a a more specialized focus only on American wars. I am now considering writing a book of poems on Filipino myth, legend, and folklore; that would be a good home for this poem.
Also, there is more background info on "Just War" (the poem) and just wars (as an intellectual question) in my essay "Love and War, Contrapuntal: A Self-Interview" from Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics, edited by Nick Carbó (Meritage Press, 2004).
Finally, here's a 2006 YouTube video featuring Filipino martial artist Yuli Romo demonstrating the use of a kampilan.