Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Not St. Paddy's Day but Ash Wednesday

Last night was a truly wonderful evening. I had the good fortune to be asked to give a poetry reading at Wartburg College in nearby Waverly, Iowa. This was part of a "Writing Symposium" put on by Wartburg's English department and The Castle, the student literary magazine. My two fellow guests were Gary Eller, fiction writer and author of Thin Ice and Other Risks, and Tim Bascom, a memoirist whose recent book is Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia. I enjoyed their readings; it was great to see Gary again and very nice to meet Tim for the first time.

My thanks for this kind invitation go to Claudio D'Amato and Emily Van Oosbree (editors of this year's Castle) as well as to Dr. Paul Hedeen, professor of creative writing at Wartburg College. I really enjoyed the symposium; the students in my poetry workshop were lovely people. We'll be keeping in touch to discuss their poetry, and I'm looking forward to those contacts.

The poem below is one I read last night from my poetry collection Fighting Kite. Enjoy. (Though maybe "enjoy" is not quite the right word; I'll wish you the little thrill, the frisson — hair standing up on the back of your neck — that I inevitably feel whenever I perform this poem.)

A Visitor on Ash Wednesday

Papa faced the devil again
on the stairs to the living room.
Seven years old, I couldn't sleep.

Papa shouting: "Make it now, damn you, end it here."
I saw clenched in his hand a buntot pagi,
the long tail severed from a sting ray,

the Filipino's traditional weapon against
spirits. Papa kept his on the living room wall,
and when neighbors would visit and talk

of his monthly standoffs with the devil,
he would take the buntot pagi down, let them
touch it. When I was over at my friends' houses,

I would hear people talk about Papa:
"So brave, that Mang Martin," they would say,
"Did you hear last night he took on the devil again?"

When my great-uncle Tay Birco died,
we prayed for nine days, a novena of dinners
and dancing. Late into the night,

the grown-ups told stories
of encounters with demons. Eyes glistening,
my grandfather Tatay described how when he was a boy,

church bells woke him one night. Peeping out
his window, he saw on the plaza facing San Antonio Church
a man in flames, dancing in red-hot

chains on the flagstone steps. Next day,
all the neighbors asked each other, "Did you see
that burning man?" then rapidly crossed themselves.

Tatay's mother, my great-grandmother,
once met a man in a hooded robe on the stairs
in her house as she left for morning mass.

"Who are you?" she asked. "Can I help you?"
When he threw back the hood, his face was like
molten copper. She shrugged, walked on.

But that Ash Wednesday when I was seven, I recall
I stood rooted to the shadowy floor
of Papa's bedroom. Half-heard voices

downstairs, a glimmer of light wafted up.
I could see the tusks, its eyes like glowing
coals, as it climbed the steps. I could hear Papa

praying below: "oh jesus save us from the fires
of hell lead all souls to heaven help . . ."
I can still see its red eyes. I'm sure if I had

reached out, I could have touched spiny
hackles — it was that close. Gliding by,
the pig entered my dim bedroom.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Caliban 7 (1989).
Also appeared in Fighting Kite (2007).

I'm gonna guess that I probably know precious little about what's really going on in this poem. So much of it is stuff bubbling up from my subconscious. At least I think so. I really don't know 'cause all of that is invisible to me. But here's what I do know . . .

If you read the autobiography I started in the blog back in November, I was born in the US but lived in the Philippines as a small child for some time. While there, I eventually realized that my father would periodically have visions of the Devil. And that in these encounters he would take the Devil on as his nemesis. It was also clear to me as a child (the poem says I'm seven) that people did not write Papa off as a lunatic. Instead they believed in these visitations and saw my father as a visionary man, tormented as well as honored by the Devil.

In the US, of course, Papa was not seen this way; he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spent a great deal of time, off and on, in psych wards. My poem "Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside" describes that other side of Papa's life experience. In fact, at the reading last night, I read these two poems together to highlight these sharp differences between Philippine culture and American culture.

If I could switch over to talking about craft for a minute, I want to point out that I use a framing device. The Ash Wednesday event, in which Papa is visited by the devil and where the speaker sees a devil-like pig moving through the half-darkened house, frames a narrative of vignettes told by relatives at a funeral. My intent is to have the middle section contextualize and legitimize the magic-realist Ash Wednesday event. Filipinos customarily believe in such occult happenings and in fact treat them as everyday occurrences. The speaker's great-grandmother is not at all surprised at meeting the Devil in her house. She is, after all, the wife (so to speak) of a Catholic priest, and the devilish presence may just be par for the course, an attempt to tempt her, to terrorize her as a kind of extension of her husband the priest.

Whoa, whoa. I don't think I've mentioned my great-grandfather the priest in the blog before, have I? Hmmm. Okay, let's hold off on that. I'll tell you more about that another time. Now you'll have to come back to get that story!

So, back to the poem. And back to what I know (or think I know). Seeing the devil pig . . . that's an actual memory. I remember that distinctly. My father was downstairs with the Devil, shouting at him. And then I saw the pig. It was dark. It lumbered right by me, very close, ignoring me. And then it went into the darkened door of my bedroom. Where it disappeared into blackness. I swear to God. This memory is one of the strongest, most vivid remembrances of my life. No surprise there.

I found out later, as a teenager maybe, or as an adult, that Papa had been seeing the Devil for many years, ever since he was a teenager. In fact, probably not long before the poem's Ash Wednesday event, my mother and father both saw the Devil, as a face glowing like fire on the wall. Both Mama and Papa, mind you, not just Papa.

My father always said that the Devil, when he would see him, looked like a goat, so I searched for goat-like images of Satan to use as illustrations here. I included the Doré engraving above because that very image was what, as a child, I thought Satan looked like; in my poem "Wings" I talk about my vision of angels and heaven, based on a Doré illustration of Dante's Paradiso. Dante provided me, when I was a child, with entire cosmologies of belief.

Well, let's leave off there. I worry sometimes about over-explaining and over-analyzing here. This poem is best served with a little frisson, as I said above.

Yes, today is St. Patrick's Day but I never have anything Kelly green to wear. It is Lent right now, though, so Ash Wednesday is also strangely apropos. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. And not to the Devil, one hopes! Take care.

NOTE: The top image on the left, above, is from the Codex Gigas, the largest extant medieval manuscript, often called the "Devil's Bible" because of this illustration of the Devil. The center picture is Baphomet, from Eliphas Lévi's book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie ("Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic," 1854); while the image refers to a pagan idol, it is also connected to the central icon of the Church of Satan, founded by Anton Lavey, where this goat image is merged with an upside-down, or inverted, pentacle. The top image on the right is the Devil card from the Tarot. The image at the bottom is Gustave Doré's illustration of Satan from Dante's Infeno.


Barbara Jane Reyes said...

Muy cool, Vince. Simpatico on the black pig. I like how close it is to your speaker. I also like the reference to the sting ray tail. I hadn't figured out how to incorporate it into any of my few aswang-ish pieces, and I think you do it well here!

Last thing: not sure if you are into graphic novels, but I'd recently read Alan Moore's tome, From Hell (ignore the Hollywood movie; I hear it's crap), in which Moore discusses illness such as paranoid schizophrenia being a 20th century invention; previous to this, it was thought that people were indeed visited by those from the spirit world, and/or had these prophetic visions. These people who experienced such visions are better known to us as great artists, such as William Blake.

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This is the kind of metaphoric and esoteric poetry I love to read. Hadn't heard about it before, so it was quite a surprise to read this. Thank you for posting it, I appreciate it.

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