Tuesday, October 4


Mabi David has been on my mind recently. Something about Ondoy and trying to render the experience poetically. What experience? Exactly. I cannot claim to be a victim of Ondoy. For surely, being a victim constitutes more than being stuck in your house while playing cards in candlelight. The challenge, said my professor, was to find a proper form to dramatize, well, water. Lots of it. And attempt to find/build solidarity with a city changed forever without co-opting and, worse, reducing its experience to poetic fodder.

Blurring the divide in You Are Here

This place after / all has held graver unfastenings.
- You Are Here (She has yet to learn to find her way), Mabi David

Mabi David's project of historical interrogation in You Are Here oddly involves little recollection of the pertinent events. Instead, what hovers above the poems is a pervading sense of dislocation, an unmistakable feeling of distance and a pain that is so intensely personal. Against this backdrop, the stage -- and the page -- is set, as it were, and so when the historical is unveiled here and there, its junction with the personal is so tightly interwoven, so masterfully laced that there is little separation between the somber narrative of a war that killed hundreds of thousands and a private tragedy that injured only one, but acutely; that each travail benefits from and informs the other like two sides of a coin.

This is no mean feat. The attempt to tackle both all too often ends up sacrificing one for the other, if not crumbling in the face of the gargantuan task. A grave historical import can, for instance, lend a work of art a naked political project that some deem "unpoetic," while a fictive persona that sure-footedly engages history can be accused of tokenism or, worse, shameless co-opting.

The trajectory of the poems in You Are Here dodges these bullets by coming clean, by admitting that the personal shrinks powerless in the face of something massive -- "impenetrable" even -- but at the end of the day can be "describable" although not without uncertainty and second-guessing (David, 51).

This attempt to collide the personal with the political is evident in the fact that, for instance, the whole collection is couched in the seemingly innocuous holiday itinerary of a woman, perhaps David herself, very much private on one hand because of its preoccupation with solitude in a foreign land, then alternately problematizing topics of perspective, cosmopolitanism, spatial place, and The Other. In "Soliliquy (When my friend)," the framework is almost romantic:

    getting him to get you,
               wandering into

where words, i.e., to hold
           a thing in your freezing
hands, is not the currency,
           but that someone holds

you, you are held in place,
          the world is unmindful
of you, little, little walkers,
    that he holds you (25)

The narrative, blatant in its attempt to engage with history, is pursed with highly personal turns, including episodes involving her father's death. In "Postcards (At the Nature Sanctuary)," what starts out as a foray into terriotoriality and habitat transitions quite jarringly into one such recollection, the two intersecting only in their points of origin. Always, there is an awareness of the persona's position, including her individual history. As a result, the flow of the narrative, both in individual poems and in their succession, is always tentative, only gaining a convincing voice whenever it asserts (and indeed she had called it an "imperative") that "you are here" ("Tourist"):

It insists on the contemporary individual’s implication in this historical inheritance, fixes him in the here and now if there is to be an active and meaningful engagement of it ... I wanted to explore in the book how one might be able to arrive at the condition that transposes the contemporary self from the mediated past into an immediate, living present and presence.

This engagement she lays out rather thickly in "Itinerary, Day Five (Tribute to the Survivors of the Battle for Manila, Fort Santiago)":

Look at you, listening. Listen to yourself as you listen to your
self speaking out of an actor's mouth, feeling more spoken of, also

at, the unique experience that brings you here becoming an alienation.
Being narrated, the narrator is wrenched from his story (13).

"Itinerary" is only the second poem in the collection, plunging us headlong in her universe after a seemingly (and perhaps purposely) timid piece of situating with "Accommodations." Already, there is an attempt to engage beyond the normal route, a seeming disclaimer after the whirlwind journey that took place, the seeing, remembering and contemplating in the first four days of the itinerary: from promenading along historic Unter den Linden in Day One and imagining trapped World War II soldiers jumping to their deaths in Day Two, to listening to the sound of limestone drilling in Simacolong, Siquijor in Day Three and contemplating on the need to forget after a disastrous war in Day Four.

In describing the interaction between history and the contemporary individual seeking to look back, she further asserts this persona position, and in the process elucidating on its almost circular quality that, to a certain extent, allows union in spite of the distance:

History has a cruel prepositional gaze: it fixes you. It mounts you

its students come for you, your transparency a visible thing to look at,
over, then through, to not forget what must not to be forgotten, that grief

a tunneling predicate fixing everyone in their place in that auditorium.
Look at you looking back. Heroic composure. What elegance (13).

Is the purpose, then, to situate the persona -- and us -- in the narrative of history, to reassert that it is ours, despite being absent in its unfolding? It certainly seems that way. After all, she ends that section with, "Either way, first person, singular." But then darkness follows, and the brand of witnessing that we are allowed to experience is revealed to be problematic in Day Six (Malinta Tunnel Evening Tour):

but the dark -- unintelligible disinterest
-- disables all knowing interrogation that is
our presence, then my unknowing

heartening as a kind of sight, and the body
is a membrane of sightless intelligence (14).

Problematic is perhaps too simplistic, but how can an "unknowing" be "a kind of sight" when dealing with an historical subject? 

Does this mean that their suffering is ours as well? Comfortably distant and safe from the crossfire during the Battle of Manila, is it right to claim kinship with the tragedy and therefore speak for its real victims based merely on being born in the same group of islands? John Berger writes, "The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation betweeen a present and its past ... Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss. Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. If we saw the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history" (11).

David's way of bridging the gap is acknowledging it and coming to terms with its insurmountability. In "Repository (That it has to depict the experience)," two "capsules" are presented, both inadequate to delve thoroughly into the past and resonate with vigor to the future (32). The attempt and eventual inability, the falling short in the gargantuan "expectations," is demonstrated with the poem's long sentences, heavily enjambed but nevertheless conjuring forward movement, such that you feel out of breath after reading. There is a fleeting sense of futility there, but by insisting on parallelisms, history becomes personal and therefore less remote.

In the face of the unknowable, we settle for anything familiar. Lost in the labyrinth of history, we grapple for signs that we recognize. Dramatized in "You Are Here (She has yet to learn to find her way)," the persona realizes that the place is "reminiscent / of her old one," but the comfort is short-lived when she finds out that "the names of / of streets have changed" (26). Some time passes and another figure emerges, one who has "come a long way / from when it was all foreign to him" (28). Again, there is an attempt to bring up "similarities," this time between home and a foreign land. Unsuccessful, there is no shame, for, "This place after / all has held graver unfastenings. We honor these / clefts no less by not naming them" (30).

In "Repository (Lamplight on, cone of curiosity)," the abyss that separates the acts of experiencing and speaking is made more pronounced and even antagonistic, but paradoxically, the connection between the two is never more heartfelt:

all that they carry too much for this dark
            meager bar; fifty years
                        later there are forms for "breaking
their silence" Were any of your relatives and/or friends
           killed during the battle for the liberation?
                      If so, please

name your victim, your relation to the victim,
             the approximate location of your victim's death,
                        your victim's manner of death

[please check]: by
            crossfire or
                       shelling or

bayoneting or
          burning or
                     torture or "others,"

the blanks below accept
           every imaginable manner, meaning
                      if we fail to mention it, here are your blanks to fill, (37)

"With your research," she asks, harshly, later in the poem, "are you finally in their shoes?"

This interogation dismisses verisimilitude and empathy, virtues that are typically lauded in fiction, and indeed in all of "humane" literature. They are not only futile, but insensitively assuming as well. It is a repudiation of any claim at solidarity with victims (and poetic subjects), all too often reduced to faceless names, alongside a catalog of dates and events lumped wholesale as history. The tension ensues, then, right in the middle of the collection because we, after accepting our position as sympathetic outsiders to the events, are now complicit in reducing them to, at best, mere statistical data, and, at worst, material for art.

The accusation is perhaps prompted by the formalist overdependence on the powers of "creativity" absent critical engagement of a material. "But imagination," Edel Garcellano writes, "grounded on materialist ground, can not be allowed to transmogrify into pure abstraction" (11). 

As David navigates the murky task of merging the political and the personal, she intentionally blurs the divide even more, a move that results in a kind of crystalization. By elucidating on the terrain of experience -- its limitations as well as opportunities to create new meanings and directions because of such limitations -- we know that we are "here," and we are not completely powerless after all.


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin and the BBC. London. 1972.
David, Mabi. You Are Here. High Chair. Quezon City. 2009.
----"Tourist". High Chair Online. July-December, 2009. Web. 22 March, 2011.
Garcellano, Edel. "Extra Memo" in 24/7 The 2004-2005 Philippine Collegian Anthology. LJA Printing Press. Quezon City. 2005.


  1. Indeed worthy of the piece it tackles! Thank you for posting this; and timely too, accompanying my re-reading of YAH this week. :)

  2. Hi, Tin! Thanks for introducing us sa Chingbee despedida! Haha. You Are Here is something I will read and reread for a v. long time and always, I know I'll pick up something new. Galing no? A gift that keeps on giving.