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San Juan


A Critique Paper by Charmaine Bramida

A term paper for Poetry: English 137

October, 2013

E. San Juans poetry collection, Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from
Exile, as suggested by the title, was birthed through the many travels of the
poet. This work is a collection of old and new poems and also includes a long
essay on exile and diaspora entitled Sa Loob at Labas ng Bayan Kong Sawi:
Emergency Signals from a Filipino Exile. It gives the impression of a
travelling journal of some sort, especially with some of his poems entitled
like a journal entry (Tag-sibol sa Den Haag, Nederland, 25 Marso 2007;
Biyernes ng Hapon, Oktubre 1, 2005).
The authors sweeping knowledge of geography, history, politics,
religion, and literature blossoms in this poetry collection. Most of San Juans
work, including his poetry, is political and looks outward upon the world
(most evident probably in his poem Spring in Den Haag, Nederland, 25
March 2007, among others).
As you go along, page by page, his poems are explicitly and implicitly
suggesting different places. The poet, in his exile, somehow finds himself in
these places and comes to an almost nostalgic state of his homelands
history. Wherever he goes, his country seems to follow him. It almost
appears like it pays (an ironic) homage to the Greek epic, Illiad, where
Oddyseus sailed for a homeward journey yet ends up in a twenty-year exile.
But, instead of being lost on his way home, the poet, in his exile, meets his
homeland somewhere along in his consciousness.
The diversity of language used in translation of the poets poems in
this collection emphasizes not only the journey he is going or have gone
through but also reflects him as a person. Someone who speaks an array of
foreign languages impresses us that this person must have done a lot of
travelling in his lifetime, or have lived in different places, or is simply well11

versed as product of a privileged education. The poet is in fact all of the

aforementioned. However, the bevy use of language does not exactly
celebrate the multilingualism of the poet in exile. The variety of language
may as well serve as a mapping device as to the whereabouts of the poet.
However, it may primarily be that, although the majority of the poems in the
collection were written in Filipino, but their translation into English, Chinese,
Russian, German, Italian, and French underscores the universal dimension of
the struggle in the homeland of the poet. The poet might have intended to
have his poems translated and transformed, to make the vernacular
international, not particularly language wise, but the things addressed by his
poems, the content-his motherland. The poet wants the world to experience
whatever it is that his motherland is going through, and this want makes him
consciously or subconsciously think of the Philippines wherever he goes.
Travel, Diaspora, and Double Consciousness
The first poem of the collection, entitled Voyages, is very fitting as an
opening for this collection. It conditions our sensibilities that we are about to
set sail on a journey across lands through the pages, a poem steeped in
classical mythology which starts in a memorable line: To exile I ride on the
bountiful surf. And foam-flowers/ of her dreams gather to waylay my
The form of the poem at a distance mimics the waves through its
enjambments and indentations. The image of the poem is relaxed and it
gives us the experience of being in the middle of a sea on board a moving
ship. Although travelling is the first thing that may come to mind once the
first poem is read, the collective work is not necessarily a travel literature,
but focuses more on the history and the going-ons of the poets motherland.


As one reads though most of the poems, you can encounter conflict
between locations. W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term double consciousness,
which is defined as the two-ness of a persons identity. Double consciousness
describes the individual sensation of feeling as though your identity is
divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have one
unified identity (the conflict of being African and European/American
discussed in Dub Boiss book, The Souls of Black Folk, written in 1903). The
Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as the removal or conveyance
from one person, place, or condition to another.
The poet, with the juxtaposition of his thoughts, most evidently found
in his poem, Balikbayang Mahal (which could be identified as the main
piece of his collection), we come to this idea that the poet is not really from
that place but comes from or lives elsewhere and is very nostalgic and is
internally coping with his chronic travels from one place to another. The
epigraph chosen by the poet for this poem is from Dante Alighieris
reputable, Paradiso: You will leave everything you love; this is the arrow
first released by the bow of your exile. Excerpts from the first part of the
poem shows the idea of this epigraph: Youve flown to Rome and London
Youve flown to Riyadh and QatarYouve flown to Toronto and New York
Youve flown to Chicago and San FranciscoYouve flown to Hong Kong and
TokyoYouve flown to Sydney and Taipeh The lines under these
statements of the (seemingly) itinerary of the poet expresses a sense of
longing for what he is about to leave behind at that moment: Youve flown
to Rome and London/ Anxiously looking back to clouds loaded with dreams
wandering/ Sunk in memories of tomorrow slowly drowning Youve flown
to Hong Kong and Tokyo/ Ill never forget youthe temptation of a farewell
unclenched/ soars.
One of the concluding lines of the first part confirms that feeling of
nostalgia of the speaker: Youve flown, O beloved sweetheart, but on whose

bosom/ will you land? Wherever the poet is headed or has been, he feels
that he have been set free, that he has the freedom of being a citizen of the
world through the power of travel and is able to pursue his ambitions, but
this question connects us to his feeling of uncertainty as to where he will end
up at the last league of his worldwide journey. The last line of the first part
shows how the poet have invested himself into every place he has ever
been: My soul cut up and scattered to all the corners of the planet.
The above mentioned excerpts come from the first part of the poem.
Obviously, it speaks of departure. However, in the second part of the piece, it
offers a parallel, yet opposite and contrasting situation, thus, the double
consciousness that is being shown in this piece. The lines directly show a
mirror of the first part of the poem, that instead of departing, someone is:
Late, they said everything is late. Its gone, that train loaded with/
memories and dreams, Late, weve been left behind by the airplane
headed for Tokyo/ and Los Angeles, Already departed/ So distant now is
the ship sailing toward Hong/ Kong and Singapore. Throughout the second
part of the poem, the speaker is expressing his feelings of regret over lost
time, Taking a chance that the telegram will reachwhat a pity, no/ kidding,
a terrible waste.
Apparently, the poet is addressing someone which is confirmed in the
line: Youre lateyour promises rotting with anxiety and doubts/

The unnamed persona that the poet is addressing in these

statements is confusing. Is he addressing himself? Is he speaking for a wider

demography? His countrymen, maybe? The proceeding lines of the poem
presents us the image of the persona that the poet is addressing: Wilder
than desire struggling to escapewhere did you come/ from? Where are you
going?/ Hoarse, exhausted, starved, elbows and knees bruised, crawling/ on
all fours from the abyss These lines seem to give us an image of the
struggle of what the Filipinos underwent through the different colonizers and

how they battled for freedom. Yet, with this freedom, the poet continues to
question where they are headed.
Basically, the most evident issue that the poet is embodying in his
poems in this collection is his homeland. Despite him being in other places,
or in exile, he cannot tear away from the reality of where he come from.
However, one may also think that the poet is addressing the colonization of
the Philippines. The line, My soul cut up and scattered to all the corners of
the planet, also seems to suggest that the Filipino identity has become a
mixture of the different countries that have colonized the Philippines, or
rather, it gives us the idea of the Filipino people inhabiting (almost) all places
in the world.
The concluding line of the poem enlightens us and confirms as to who
is the addressee of the second part of the poem, Beloved foreigner, lets
catch whats left inside, waiting for joy in/ abeyance, nothing ahead or
behind, endless. As confusing as it may seem, but the persona that the
poet named as a Beloved foreigner may refer to his countrymen, the
Filipinos. The contrasting idea given through this label shows us the reality of
the Filipino lifestyle. We travel. We migrate. We build our homes not in the
lands of our mother country. The Filipinos have become citizens of the world.
The home of Filipinos have become endless, so to speak.
The above excerpts embodies diaspora. Diaspora in the Philippines is
very much palpable. His essay that concludes the collection ratifies that fact.
This may be the reason for his double consciousness because of bilocation.
Allusion and Free Verse in a socially driven poetry
The most consistent features of the poets poems are the use of free
verse and allusion. Some of his poems heavily use allusion as a device. The
poetry reminds one of T.S. Eliot in its overflow of allusions. This could be

expected since his theme is very historical and political. An example of this is
his poem Spring In Den Haag, Nederland, 25 March 2007, where the poet
alludes to Arroyo and the socio-political happenings in his country. It
commemorates the Permanent Peoples Tribunals verdict of Guilty! for the
U.S.-Arroyo regime. The poem also mockingly contrasts the peacefulness of
the Dutch city of The Hague with the murders and abuses, still found in the
Philippines despite the findings of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal, the
subtle point being that the sense of satisfaction the speaker receives from
the verdict does not translate into action in his homeland the verdict does
not stop the suffering half a world away. Although, the poem ends with hope:
through continued and renewed struggle, justice will be found: Your lips
breaking apart the chains binding the mornings/ sunburst , suggesting
that The Arroyo regime will be defeated, and peace will prevail.
This poem, once again, shows evidence of double consciousness as
most of his politically themed poems are. Such as the discussed poem
above, it is springtime in The Hague and the poet thinks of political detainees
in Muntinlupa. Or again, as dusk descends, for instance, on the Italian town
of Punta Spartivento (the title of the poem), the poet-exile is haunted by
names of the dead Juvy Magsino, Benjaline Hernandez, Eden Marcellana,
Rafael Bangit, Alyce Claver, as shown by the following lines: Souvenirs of
the future/ what tidings are trumpeted by the turbulent winds?/ They killed
Juvy Magsino, Benjaline Hernandez, Eden Marcellana,/ Rafael Bangit, Alyce
Claver./ On the shores of Punta Spartivento, the waves encounter each
other/ and separate/ right or left, here and thereas if without any/
decision, pushed to the right/ or pulled to the left/ divided by fate or










consciousness straying towards his motherland is shown. The poet-exile

remembers the Moslem insurgency in Mindanao as night falls in the land of
the Pequot Indians in his poem Friday Afternoon, October 1, 2005, In
Willimantic, Connecticut, USA with the lines: My cigarette stubb I interred

beside the Bridge of Frogs while the/ traffic procession headed for the
Foxboro Casino now owned by the/ Pequots./ But why does the Abu Sayyaf
sneak into the mind.
In his poem Megamall in Metro Manila (Megamall sa Metromanila),
with the use of statements, it becomes evident that the poet is addressing
the different problems of the Philippines; from commoditization: Your vision
is shrouded by Stateside goods galore even though you/ dont know the
signification of commodity fetishism.; to politics: No more barricades even
though crocodiles continue to scavenge the/ shores./ The odor of Pasig River
snakes its way up to the boudoir of/ Malacanang Palace; to the
Westernization of his countrymen: We watch on the movie screen the
fantastic rumbles of/ Schwarzenegger, James Bond, Bruce Lee and Sigourney
Weaver. The poem somehow exploits how dense the Filipinos have become,
Your dreams are now on motorcycles.
In the same way, his poem Wanderlust in Makati (Lagalag sa Makati)
touches on the socio-political issues looming over his country, specifically,
poverty. The poem set at the darker side of the streets of Makati-the great
metropolitan city of Manila, which is Whirling in the maniacal traffic. The
person addressed by the speaker of the poem explains to us the situation:
youre still jobless and traipsing/ here and there./ Counting posts and

you arrive

at nirvana/

The persona


the poem


representation of the many jobless Filipinos in the country, a country ran by

the machinations of capitalist society, as the poet puts it. Jobless. No
stable path. Hungry. The last line of the poem offers no hope. As in its
original Filipino version kumapit na lang sa patalim.
The poets poem also touches the subject of industrialization where he
alludes to Valdimir Mayakovsky. Valdimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky was a
Russian and Soviet poet, playwright, artist and stage and film actor. He is
among the foremost representatives of early-20th century Russian Futurism.

As it appears, Mayakovsky, being a futurist, adores and worships the age of

technology and the speed, efficiency and noise that comes with it, which is
evident in the poem, Vicissitudes of The Love and Death of Valdimir
Mayakovsky. The poet uses strong images that creates the idea of the noise
and chaos brought about by these advancements and the fascination of
Mayakovsky towards these things. Even the form of the poem imitates
disarray. It also appears the poet creates a fusion of the physicality of
Mayakovsky together with a machine in order to heighten Mayakovskys
regard for technology: Your torso rocketed beyond the Eiffel Tower/ Now
your lobster-red tongue spits Pentecostal vodka / But neon x-rays from
your submarine catacombs/ kicked them in the loins
The poets use of statements
According to the principles of poetic content, a poetic idea is best
expressed through the use of special images and situations that dramatize
the idea. The poet, clearly, with his use of free verse and allusions, used
statements in most of his poems in this collection. However, these direct
statements were not used merely literal facts and assertions, but were used
to embody the idea of the poem. His poems include situations, details, and
characters that satisfies the conclusion (see:

Wanderlust in Makati,

Vicissitudes of the Love and Death Of

Valdimir Mayakovsky, Punta Spartivento, among others).
Lyrical poems
Although the poets poems in this collection is more evident of free
verse and allusion, his poems such as Voyages, The Three Temptations, The
Way Things Are, and Hail and Farewell, and others, show a lyrical side.
Perhaps the most lyrical poem is The Way Things Are, which is made of five
quatrains with images of birds hovering in old buildings; yet even here We

wait for miracles / With daggers to console / Us, and a metaphor for circling
birds of angel droppings that May nourish the exchange / We are
possessed of and by suggests a vision to console Every animal that
As discussed earlier, the poems begin on a lyric called Voyages, with
the line, To exile I ride on the bountiful surf. The same as the collection is
introduced, the poetry ends on a lyric called Hail and Farewell, with a
closing quatrain still alluding to Mayakovsky: But Mayakovsky is our kin /
We also reek / Of incense / And formalin. wherein the poet sanctions the
attitude of the Filipinos towards industrialization, Westernization, and the
technology of the new age as he suggests that we are in the same fascinated
consciousness to that of Mayakovsky.
Away from the political outlooks and looking inwards
Although most of the work is heavily political and looks outward upon
the world, Mask of the Poet is one of the few poems in this collection that
looks inward. The poet speaks of solitude: No self, none at all; I exist alone.
The voice of the poem is the poetic inspiration itself. Its paradoxical and
metaphysical message being that in randomness and aloneness, we find
ourselves connected to the world: In ones vision and hearing/ In the soul
and love of every creature/ Moves and dances every organic being.
Conclusion: Essay on Exile
The collection ends with an almost twelve-thousand-word essay
entitled, Sa Loob at Labas ng Bayan Kong Sawi: Emergency Signals from a
Filipino Exile.

This essay addresses aspects of many types of exile and

many diasporas, but it begins and ends with the complexities and
consequences of what it means to be a Filipino far from home. In this sense,

the diaspora of the Filipino race, which usually tends to gear towards the
West, is an evidence of Orientalism (Edward Said, 1978). It may seem that
Filipinos are still, hypothetically, colonized by the Westerners through
political forces. Filipinos, being Orientals, are, in a way, seen as people who
exist for the West. However, on the contrary on the thought that the diaspora
of Filipinos towards these parts of the globe embodies a different kind of
colonization, yet still a colonization in that sense, these migrations actually is
a liberating moment for the Filipinos, that this time, they get to be the
The poems and the concluding essay confront injusticethe ways, for
instance, in which oppressors colonize even time and space. From labourers
to domestic helpers, caregivers, entertainers, and professionals around the
planet today, the Filipino, as a subject, shares the history of slaves, refugees,
detainees, war veterans, and immigrants. These are the communities in
motion that the poet-exile is addressing on behalf of Filipinos everywherethe kinship.
It seems that this collection of San Juan marks an important break in
the Filipino literary tradition. From Francisco Balagtas to Jose Rizal, the
homeland has been imagined as a bounded territory where people cannot go
beyond their motherlands.
In this work of the poet-exile, a new conception of homeland is
heralded. The poet may be dreaming of returning to Manila (as suggested by
his poem Balikbayang Mahal), but the place is not a final destination for him.
Instead, it is a portal to other places where homeland is without boundaries:
endless. It is not an essential place, but a set of kinships that Filipinos
everywhere and other people with similar fates can embrace and connect.
The poet presents us that the planet has become the homeland of the

The poems in Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile are mostly

about the sorrows of migration and exile and the history and struggles of the
poet-exiles homeland, to be sure, but they are also about the hope of
connections and with this, the poet-exile, E. San Juan Jr., of Balikbayang
Mahal is, in the best sense of the word, the translator of the many Filipinos in
the different corners of the world.


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Consciousness. American Literature. Vol. 64, No. 2. pp. 299-309:
University Press
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. (1903). New York, Avenel, NJ:
Gramercy Books; 1994
Brown, E. J. (1973). Mayakovsky: a poet in the revolution. Princeton Univ.
Oxford English Dictionary. (1989). Second Edition.
San Juan, E. Jr. (2007). Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile. Morrisville,
Carolina: Lulu Enterprices, Inc.
Said, Edward. (1978). Orientalism. Post-colonial studies at Emory. 2012.