|It was with a heavy, heavy heart that I typed the title of this post. Al Robles is gone. Al Robles — the quintessential talk-story poet of Filipino America, the pioneer champion and everyday helper of the old manongs, those immigrant Filipinos who started coming to the US in the early twentieth century. For all of us Filipino American poets, Al Robles was our manong. Our shaman, our preacher, our Moses climbing Ifugao Mountain to seek the commandments and then finding them in the old manongs' daily fishhead soup, in their bagoong and rice. Amen to that, brother.|
I dedicate the poem below to Manong Al Robles, who was there, at the center of the maelstrom, when the whole I-Hotel thing was going down.
In deference to the memory of Al Robles, no discussion of poetics today. That's exactly how Al would have wanted it. He didn't worry about rhyme and meter, etc. Al just wrote things out, breaking his lines when it felt right. When it fit the cadences of his soul, that consummate storyteller that lived in his heart.
When I was a young Filipino American poet — young in poet years, not person years — I made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to San Francisco to meet with the master. I really treasure that memory: having dim sum with Al on a lazy Sunday morning in some Chinese restaurant on Clement Street. Then he wandered outside at just the right time, watching the people walking by, thereby leaving me with the check. That was Al, right there. Teaching the young apprentice a lesson about props, about who was to pay for what. But Al's sage wisdom, the song of the ten thousand carabaos in his soul, that was all for free. That was to be shared not just with a young poet but with everyone and anyone around him. That song was emblematic of Al's generosity of heart, mind, and soul. The generosity of his work: the poems on the page, the talk-stories in our memories, and Al's community-based caretaking of the manongs. That work will live forever in all our hearts.
Manong Al Robles
Many thanks to Barbara Jane Reyes, who took the picture of Al Robles above. To read a longer account of my "pilgrimage" to meet with Al, check out my article "Moments in the Wilderness: Becoming a Filipino American Writer" in the journal MELUS (2004).
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