Sunday, March 29, 2009

Skulkers of the Philippine Night


Over the last five or six days, students in an Asian American Literature class at the University of Georgia have been friending me on Facebook. Their professor, Will Abney, offered them extra credit for contacting and friending authors they are studying.

At first, I was divided about the situation, but it has developed into an interesting learning opportunity for them as well as me: we now have a Facebook group in which we can discuss my poems in their textbook, Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. There is only a small window during which we (along with their professor, who has now joined the group) can address my work online; they start discussing the poems in class this week and will probably be done with them in fairly short order.

In the meantime, though, the students have started asking questions and I am answering . . . though I'm not simply giving the answers away. I find myself responding in such a way that I hope will entice the students to meet the poems halfway, so to speak, engage them to read the poems critically and actively.

Here is one of those poems that are in their textbook, on aswang (ah-SWAHNG), the bogey man (or woman) of the Philippines.

Aswang


Shooting marbles, Carding from across the street
and I knelt on gritty concrete in front
of his house. His mother and a couple of friends sat
on the steps, laughing and gossiping about aswang,
those routine skulkers of the Philippine night. Carding's
mother had a pretty cousin who could
pierce your jugular with her hollow tongue
like sharpened bamboo, then delicately sip your blood,
her eyes darting crimson. One of the friends
had an uncle with fingernails hard as stone,
his breath reeking of damp earth, of human
flesh three days dead. They said Mang Enteng,
who sells baskets at market, changes into cat,
dog or boar at full moon and prowls bundok roads.

That night, I was strolling by Carding's house,
and I saw his mother, a pretty mestiza widow,
her face hidden by hair hanging down
as she bent far forward from the waist.
A manananggal, the worst kind of aswang:
women who can detach themselves at the hips,
shucking their legs at night like a wrinkled slip.
They fly, just face and breasts, to prey on infants.
For a moment, a shadow like a giant bat
darkened the moon, then I ran to my friend's room.
He cried as we sneaked into his mother's bedroom
and sprinkled crushed garlic and holy water
on the legs propped up in the southeast corner. "She'll be free,"
I told his trembling shoulders. "She'll finally be free."

The next day, friends and neighbors gathered
at their house. The priest wouldn't let anyone
in the bedroom, they said. Then six men carried a pine
box into the light. I couldn't forget how his mother
flew in the window at dawn. Her face was white, her
lips full and red. She screamed when
she couldn't touch her legs. He rushed in,
began to brush away the garlic. His mother
like a trapped moth fluttering against the wall.
I leaped and wrapped my arms around Carding.
She swooped, we struggled until the first sunbeam
touched her. My friend sobbed as I wiped blood from
a cut on my arm. The funeral was a week ago, and all
I've dreamed the last six nights is neighbors standing

in a line — I'm running — they whisper, "Aswang. Aswang."

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Zone 3 (1990).
Reprinted in Asian American Literature:
A Brief Introduction and Anthology
(1996).

Vince Gotera, "Aswang: Manananggal"   (click to view full-size)

The opening stanza is a kind of primer about aswang, the Filipino all-purpose monster: vampire, ghoul, shapeshifter. These different types of aswang have European cognates, but not the manananggal (mah-nah-nahng-GAHL) . . . there is no monster in European or American culture that does what she can do: split her body at the waist, entrails hanging like broken cables, unfurl leathery, pterodactyl-like wings, and sail through the night in search of prey.

Now of course all monsters have to have some weakness; otherwise, we humans would be long-extinct. A vampire can be killed with a wooden stake, the werewolf with a silver bullet, the zombie by a death-dealing blow to the head. With the manananggal — typically a woman — the vulnerability is that she must leave the bottom half of her body alone while she hunts. Spread a little salt or a little garlic on her nether regions and she cannot reconnect, reintegrate her body; when sunrise comes, she dies at sunlight's touch.

In the second and third stanzas, the poem moves from primer to narrative. Carding, the speaker's playmate, is the protector of his mother's bottom half. The speaker, off stage, convinces Carding to be brave, to set his mom free from the curse of being an aswang. After all, Carding is short for Ricardo, a Germanic name meaning "hard ruler," a là King Richard the Lion-Hearted of medieval fame.

But Carding is no Lionheart; he wants his mother to live. Her only release from aswang-ness is through death. It turns out not Carding but the speaker is the "hard ruler" and he must battle in epic struggle against both Carding and his monster mother. In the fight, the speaker is injured slightly. Later he fears (no, perhaps is more than certain) that he has damned himself, that he has in his heroism been turned into an aswang.

I suppose I really didn't need to tell you all that; we are all such good interpreters of horror-film conventions. But I wanted to retell the story, rehearse the thrills again.

You see, I really just wanted to write a good old-fashioned horror story, and the clincher was I wanted to do it in a sonnet. Well, fourteen lines was not a large enough space to contain this topic, so it ended up being three sonnets. With a tail, a small caudate: an ending monostich or single-line stanza where the punchline is, full circle from the characters in the beginning of the poem "laughing and gossiping about aswang."

You may not have recognized that the poem is made up of three sonnet-shaped stanzas because, at times, I use quite distant slant rhyme. Here are the rhyme schemes of the three stanzas, broken into rhyme groups:
a
b
a
b

c
d
c
d

e
f
e
f

g
g
  street
front
sat
aswang

Carding's
could
tongue
blood

friends
stone
human
Enteng

cat
roads
               a
b
b
a

c
d
d
c

e
f
f

e
g
g
  house
widow
down
waist

aswang
hips
slip
infants

bat
room
bedroom

water
free
free
               a
b
b
a

a
b
b
a

c
d
e

e
c
d
  gathered
anyone
pine
mother

white, her
when
in,
mother

wall
Carding
sunbeam

from
all
standing   //   Aswang
As you can see, the first stanza is a Shakespearean sonnet, the second a modified Petrarchan (cddc instead of abba in the second quatrain), and the third a pretty standard Petrarchan . . . with the caudate line rhyming with the closing line of the last sonnet stanza.

Some of the rhymes are so slant they may hardly be rhymes — and some of my poet friends probably would say they don't rhyme at all. For example, in the first sonnet stanza, "front" and "aswang" (the b rhyme). Or "stone" and "Enteng" (the f rhyme), though that pair has a more subversive rhyme: the rich consonance of /t/ + /n/ with /t/ + /ng/. Which also rhymes, consonantally, with the earlier c rhyme: "Carding" and "tongue" (/d/ + /ng/ with /t/ + /ng/). Which in turn rhymes in a more standard fashion with the second b rhyme above, "aswang." So, while the rhymes can be quite distant, there is a great deal of subtlety in the rhyming that gives the poem a confident musicality and poetic texture. (I'm particularly proud of the rhyme of "white, her" with "mother.")

Unless you counted the lines in each stanza, you might not have thought these were sonnets at all. You might have thought this was free verse, in fact. While I was pursuing my MFA at Indiana University, my classmates in that program were mainly unfriendly to rhymed and metered verse, so I developed a formalist style that used slant rhymes and roughed-up meter as disguises. A reader expecting free verse could see my poems as such, while a reader looking for formal conventions could also find them there.

Okay, enough craft talk. A few final notes. In the original version of the poem, published in Zone 3 and reprinted in Asian American Literature, I misspelled manananggal. I left out a na syllable. This spelling is corrected above.

In the textbook, a footnote says the manananggal is a "witch who is half-human and flies around in a caldron [sic]." I have never encountered the cauldron element in literature I've consulted on aswang legends, so I wonder if this footnote is in error, though the cauldron may be part of a local version of the myth somewhere.

Here is a YouTube video showing a female aswang transforming into her manananggal form, from the Philippine film Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984). Production values quite low, but interesting nevertheless.

It was difficult to find an aswang image I liked out in the internet. So I made my own; see above. It's more of a cartoon than a representational rendering, though my wife and kids assure me it's nonetheless a scary image. You decide.

And comment below, please. Thanks!


13 comments:

bjanepr said...

Hi Vince! So I've starred this post and plan to read it closely very soon. Just wondering if you wouldn't mind my cross posting this on the PAWA blog, and linking back here? Please do let me know.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, BJ! Sorry to be such a newbie, but I am one. Could you explain what all of that means? I suppose as a blogista, I should know what you're talking about, but I need some schooling from the old pro. Well, not "old"! ;-D Thanks. --V.

Barb said...

Huh. I always thought aswang just meant vampire. I love the legend behind the manananggal. The closest I've heard to that is matatanggal. LOL! Anyway, not being familiar with the story, I would have taken the term literally like, "removable" or something like that. Interestingly, I just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the narrative part of your poem reminds me of the narrative style in the novel, the matter-of-fact telling of "magical realism."

Also, it's totally cool how you're interacting with those students studying your work. IMO, however, I think you totally gave away the answers here!

Barbara Jane Reyes said...

Ha, no worries. I've been looking for content for the PAWA blog (it's hard and impractical for me to continually be the one of the very few generating it), and I'd love to include this post there for our PAWA readers and members to enjoy and think about and maybe even respond to -

then provide the link over to the entire post here?

Vince Gotera said...

BJ ... sorry, I think we're missing each other. I just didn't know what cross-posting meant. But I just looked at the PAWA blog and I think I understand. You put a teaser in the PAWA blog, maybe a couple of paragraphs then put in a "Read more here" link. Is that right? But how will you handle the poem? Will the link be in the middle of it? Okay, BJ ... go ahead and cross-post. --Vince

Vince Gotera said...

BJ: The cross-post at PAWA looks great. Nicely excerpted. Thanks for pulling in my little graphic too. --V.

racruzzo said...

Thanks for the comment, Vince! I appreciate it. I also really enjoyed your aswang poem and the explanation; I'm working on a book of them and would really love to pick your brain sometime.

I'll definitely add you to my blog list, too. Thanks!

Best,

Rachelle

Vince Gotera said...

Rachelle, cool. Yeah, let's talk aswang sometime, absolutely. It's great to meet you. In fact, let's talk not aswang too. ;-D

ibtf said...

enjoyed greatly.

Vince Gotera said...

ibtf: Sorry, I missed your comment. I'm not sure if this is JWSC or DJP or JM or RE I'm talking to (or maybe everyone at ibtf), but I do appreciate your generous comment. Many thanks.

Jewel/Pink Ink said...

Loved this poem. I am a horror fiction writer and afficionado who grew up in the Philippines. I see you have a lot more on your sidebar. I'll have to return for seconds...

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Anonymous said...

I am also studying your work at University of Phoenix, and am using the same textbook that the University of Georgia class used. Maybe I should add you on facebook too! Either way I enjoy your poem, and you are right, the rhymes are distant enough to not be obvious unless you really look for them.

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