For years when asked to sign my books, I often signed off with the slogan: “To Poetry As A Way of Life.” It seems apt, therefore, that when asked to write on a figure influential to me as a poet, I choose Angela Manalang Gloria (1907-1995). Gloria was once called “the matriarch of Filipino women poets writing in the English language” by the noted Philippine feminist and literary critic Edna Zapanta Manlapaz. I wouldn’t say that Gloria influenced my writing process or styles. But she is influential for affirming many of my poetic interests, including living and writing outside of inherited gender roles. For Gloria, enforced gender roles played a role as she lived in a Filipino society steeped in male chauvinism—she was criticized and dismissed as a poet whose oeuvre was assumed to touch solely/mostly on love and/or romance because she was a woman.
Gloria certainly wrote well on love and romance—and I adore her passion; a favorite poem is “Soledad” where she writes about a woman who “shattered every mullioned pane / To let a firebrand in. … / for one insane / Moment with him.” The poem ends with
…no one guessed that loveliness would claim
Her soul’s cathedral burned by his desires,
Or that he left her aureoled in flame …
And seeing nothing but her blackened spires,
The town condemned this girl who loved too well
And found her heaven in the depths of hell.
The notion of “heaven in the depths of hell” reminds me of certain photographs of ascetics which are moving specifically because the camera captured a burning passion within their gazes. That passion would seem antithetical to an ascetic, but actually hearkens a knowing by the ascetic who turned that way precisely because, once, that ascetic partook of—thus, fully knows—the desires now foregone. Relatedly, certain saints were first full-blown sinners. I put poets in this category—when some ask me how to be a good if not great poet, I reply (with the usual caveats), “through wide experience.” Thus, I note to the misogynistic and/or Catholic prudes, Gloria (or all of us) should not be chastised for passions which, after all, are no less than Biblical; “The Song of Solomon” sings, “My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.”
Nonetheless, Gloria also often leavened romance with wisdom in many of her poems. For instance, this moment of ars poetica in “Pain”:
Pain at my side has been a sharp reminder
I must not love too much or cry
For brighter suns and firmaments
But o this pain that lashes long
To slip into my hungry senses after—
The sustenance of song!
While Gloria’s poems critique the male chauvinism that reductively categorizes according to gender, only about half of her poems are on love and romance. The other half is devoted to “such diverse themes as illness and death, poetry and criticism, faith and unbelief, and sexuality and war,” as summed up by Manlapaz.
Arguably Gloria’s most famous poem, “Revolt of the Hymen” was part of a manuscript Gloria submitted to the Philippines’ 1940 Commonwealth Literary Award. There are several reasons why the manuscript did not win—and not necessarily tied to poetic quality (the Philippines’ most important English-language poet in the 20th century, José Garcia Villa was but a finalist). But it’s telling that the poem was judged to be “immoral” as well as that, beyond the contest, censors asked Gloria to change the word “whore’s” to “bore’s” in the poem’s last couplet:
To be alone at last, broken the seal
That marks the flesh no better than a whore’s!
Gloria’s “Revolt of the Hymen” was controversial for its topic—the poem protested marital rape. I don’t recall what in my loving childhood upbringing caused me to be so sensitive to female versus male roles, but Filipino culture certainly presents strict guidelines on what is appropriate female versus male behavior. Perhaps it was simply being the only girl with three brothers; I do recall a childhood where my brothers had more freedom, including being able to go who-knows-where for hours after the school day ended while I immediately had to return home. Thus, when I first read Gloria’s “Revolt of the Hymen,” I was struck most by its subject versus the poem’s other assets, including a wonderful musicality and energy; it begins
O to be free at last, to sleep at last
As infants sleep within the womb of rest!
Notwithstanding how it sings, the poem’s subject matter raised my resentment over limits enforced on women, including how the definition of “woman” must mean subjugation by men in that a husband supposedly cannot “rape” his wife.
But it’s also noteworthy that Gloria’s poems are supple enough to transcend its original/authorial contexts—such can be how a poet and/or poem continues to live long after the author has shuffled off that mortal coil. For example, Vina Carla V. Gonzaga (writing for a site I once managed, “Meritage Press’ Babaylan Speaks”) contextualizes the poem within the colonial and postcolonial history shared by the United States and the Philippines so that the two countries create the “couple” interrogated by the poem (you can see her presentation at this link which also presents the poem in its totality: http://whirlsofambiguity.blogspot.com/2004/11/revolt-from-hymen.html )
The poem’s suppleness to generate Gonzaga’s interpretation presents at least two significances: 1) the impossibility for a Filipino poet writing in English to get away from how s/he ended up writing in English, which is to say, colonialism (U.S.-American English became widespread in the early 1900s after the U.S. recolonized the Philippines which had just thrown off 300 years of Spanish colonialism); and, 2) how great poems often transcend authorial intent and/or its initial context.
Due to her extraordinarily effective poems written as a member of what Manlapaz calls “the first generation of Filipinos aspiring to write a national literature in a foreign tongue” as well as her ability to buckle down and do what it takes to support her three children after her husband was killed by a Japanese patrol in 1945, I’m happy to call Gloria one of my Mamas.
Yes, Gloria ultimately ceased writing poems to support her family by managing (and successfully) an abaca (hemp) business. But I actually also admire Gloria for being a successful businessperson if only because that helps disprove the lie of critics assuming women poets—and by implication, women—can only be “delicate.” Gloria understood her priorities (children who relied on her) and clearly recognized the significance of hermitry as she writes in “Apology”—and by writing disavows what she apologizes for in her paradoxically-entitled poem—
“Too long concerned with marble floors
And pillars tangent to the sun,
I quite forget beyond my doors
The carnival of life is run.”
Her proven mastery at the poem and decision to forego more writing is an example of my long-held slogan: “To Poetry As A Way of Life.”
Finally, Gloria moves me as a poet because I recognize the tight clench of her Muse onto her pen. Despite the often unsatisfactory verses that result from our attempts to write—despite the failure of our raw material of language—the poet is a poet for not being defeated by the task. To be a poet, too, is to persevere. In Gloria’s “Poems,” that process itself becomes a poem—as befits a poet who’s earned her slyness:
There are so many poems in my head
All wanting to be seen
And some are bright in silver lace,
And some are plumed with green.
But all of them, however perfect
In my mind’s retreat
Appear bewildered when released,
And oh, so incomplete.
Eileen R. Tabios has released over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. Her 2020 books include a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora; a poetry collection, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019; and her third bilingual edition (English/Thai), INCULPATORY EVIDENCE: Covid-19 Poems. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form, and the MDR Poetry Generator that can create poems totaling theoretical infinity, as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into 11 languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com