A POETICS FOR THE LYRIC SEQUENCE:
AND THE NECESSARY ENGAGEMENT OF EVIL
My book project is a lyric sequence about Martial Law.
I was born in 1976, believe it or not, by the time I was 7 years old in 1983, when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, that cold-blooded murder served only to confirm my childhood fear: that there was something very wrong about Filipino Society—and I don’t use caps lightly—that the big, bad world out there was really big and really bad.
The lyric sequence is built, stacked, layered. One can liken it to a novel or a marathon in terms of “chapters” and “pacing.” Those are very apt comparisons. But for the purposes of this poetics, I would like to use the concept of collocation. Someone has defined the lyric sequence as:
A collocation of lyrics, the l. s. is generally thought to have gained its vernacular identity in the Ren. and after from Francis Petrarch (1304-74), who wrote and arranged his s. tailed Rime sparse or, alternatively, Canzoniere over 40 years. Both titles (“Scattered Rhymes” and “Songbook”) ironically point away from the rigorous ordering of Petrarch’s 366 amatory and devotional lyrics, which manifests several patterns at once (formal, fictional, calendrical) to establish a continuum, ordis-continuum, considering the new-found structural importance of the white space between the lyrics, that greatly exceeds the unities of earlier lyric collections.
One of the merits of the lyric sequence is that, like the novel, it can transport its reader to its particular world. Worlding is one of the concerns of many sci-fi and fantasy writers: whether the world they build through description is effective enough to transport the reader through portals. One of my aims then was to transport, teleport back into the Martial Law.
One of the themes of my lyric sequence then is nostalgia. In poems like “Julie Vega” and “Manunggal Street, 1985” I sought to rebuild my childhood world. After all, who does not remember exactly where they were when they heard that Julie Vega had died? Or who has not played tagged and eaten mangoes and duhat? But this nostalgia is one that is colored by death and fear: deaths of loved ones, fear of the world out there. But there is hope, because Voltes V and Daimos always defeat their enemies, no matter what family empire seeks to conquer theirs; because Julie Vega, at least in her films, had the moral compass to overcome any evil or temptation thrown at her; because in the end, the good always triumphs over evil.
Which leads me back to the Aquino assassination twenty-four years ago. I have always had that feeling that death was always near so I cried at Ninoy’s death just as much as I did when my own paternal grandfather died. Because it was a collective growing-up moment for many Filipino children. It was the moment they realized, in the pits of their stomach, that evil could very well triumph across the country, that good can actually be vanquished, and hope can disappear.
Aside then from this darkly colored nostalgia, one other theme of my lyric sequence is claustrophobia. In poems about burial, for example, “The Unborn” and “Hide and Seek,” I repeat this fear. This fear is complicated by the fear of dying anonymously: being buried without a name, or a gravestone, not even a marker. The claustrophobia of anonymous death—not being remembered because no one knows your name—is for artists, a far more terrible death. And so these echoes of burial reverberate across the poems, in earlier ones like “Film Center,” where the burial is literal and just as terrifying, while you’re still alive. To go back to the earlier definition of the lyric sequence, I want readers to collocate with those men who remain buried and anonymous under the Film Center.
I wish to end this poetics with a challenge to engage the evil that has surrounded us since the beginning of the Duterte administration. There are two kinds of evil:
Natural evil is evil for which “no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible for its occurrence.” By contrast, moral evil is “caused by human activity.”
The moral evil that is extrajudicial killings that we have named it as today has its roots and reverberations in the killings during Martial Law. The challenge for many artists and writers is to engage that evil and make stand against such impunity. It can be said that the moral challenge now is whether or not we engage this evil, but rather how.
What words can we forge against weapons that treat human life so worthlessly? We must film films about it. We must sing songs about it. And yes, we must write lyric sequences about it. I hope you agree with me that this is the most needful thing to do.