“You see, for me art’s not one of life’s ornaments, [a] rococo relaxation to be greeted affably after a day of hard work; I’m inverted on this: for me it’s my very breath, the one thing necessary, and all else is excretion and a latrine.”
–Arno Schmidt, Nobodaddy’s Children
“The poet is not true to his word if he doesn’t change the names of things.”
–Nicanor Parra, “Changes of Name”
For both initiated and uninitiated readers of Marlon Hacla’s poetry, there are several ways to approach this publication of his sophomore collection, so aptly entitled Glossolalia (originally published in the Philippines by High Chair in 2013). These are not, by any means, ironclad conditions that need to be met in order to fully understand the unrelenting force and elemental fury that suffuse the poems in the collection.
As intuited by one of the collection’s poems entitled “Ostinato,” any prospective reader of Glossolalia can treat what I am about to spell out as “sacrilege[s] against the source of mental clarity,” or obstinate intimations on the contours of Marlon Hacla’s poetry.
The first and most obvious approach—for both types of readers—is to regard this Glossolalia as an entirely new work resulting from a translation. As such, readers familiar with Hacla’s work and its source language (Filipino) can marvel at the new ways in which the collection’s opacities, barrage of incongruent ideas, and commitment to insistence are reproduced in a new language. On the other hand, those who are new to Hacla’s work and who have no knowledge of the material’s source language will have the first-time opportunity to navigate, via Kristine Ong Muslim’s clever and resourceful translation, Glossolalia’s labyrinthine passageways.
For readers like myself, the experience of reading Hacla’s work in two languages is similar to that of the persona from the poem “Halfway Through Eternity”—that is, finally seeing two different “glints of light” that were once imperceptible. There are two levels to this brand-new mode of perception. The first is being able to comprehend in the translation certain opacities previously undetectable in the original. Even Muslim, in her translator’s note, admits to utilizing explanatory phrases to make sense of translated passages she felt lacked the clarity of the original.
This impulse to illuminate is evident in the translation of the poems “Ecclesiastes” (“Eklesyastes”), “Howl” (“Panaghoy”), and “Bundle” (“Tungkos”), among others. Needless to say, this proves that some of Muslim’s decisions as a translator have been influenced by the generative quality of Hacla’s poetry. Thus, the process of translation ceases to be merely an act of absolute fidelity or replication, instead becoming the very site of the production of sense and meaning. The second level, meanwhile, constitutes being able to notice the successful rendering of the original’s incongruent images, revelatory arcs, off-kilter neologisms, and intentionally crude turns of phrase in the resulting translation.
This, I believe, is what Muslim means when she says, “I chose the language that I felt best captured the spirit of the book.” For English-language readers, there will certainly be moments of pause and surprise in the face of passages strung together in the most unexpected ways. The syncopated tempo of the poems, more so evident in the translation, might be jarring for some as well.
In my case, however, reading the resulting translation of Hacla’s poems afforded me new ways of experiencing the conceits that drew me towards his poetry in the first place: its maximalist gestures, visceral force, constant dose of delirium and drama, and unflinching revolt against everything that suppresses a poem’s iterability. In relation to that last point, Muslim’s translation is able to make legible what the late Jean-Luc Nancy called the inscribed “infinite resistance” in all literature.In the case of Glossolalia and Hacla’s poetry, there is no other recourse but to translate against the grain.
For English-language or first-time readers, things are somewhat simpler. They get to experience Glossolalia and the full force of Hacla’s poetry in a language that is more or less familiar to them. Further questions about the collection, the poet, and the reading experience itself will only arise once the specter of comparison, the need to find a precedent or parallel tradition, begins to haunt them. This brings me to my second intimation.
This approach involves the search for a precedent or a parallel poetic tradition that can serve as a cushion for the untelegraphed flicker jabs of Hacla’s poetry. This may come in the form of comparisons to writers (or artists of other mediums) who give off the same electric energy and irreverent disposition present in Glossolalia. I have, for instance, written elsewhere that in some respects the structure of Hacla’s almost unbroken prose poems in Melismas (OOMPH! Press, 2020) can be compared to the long atonal overtures of the oft-misunderstood jazz musician Cecil Taylor.
The same holds true for most of the poems in Glossolalia. Take, for example, the slew of seemingly unrelated vignettes in poems such as “Rosanna” and “Dance on the First Day of Wandering.” Meanwhile, the collection’s sometimes digressive (but always whimsical) paeans to documentary photographers like Josef Koudelka and Shomei Tomatsu read like Javier Marias’ erudite and essayistic narratives about obscure historical figures.
This intentional maneuver of Hacla to obfuscate in order to stretch the limits of meaning, his refusal to be tied down by the age-old dictum of organic unity, is probably the heart of most of his poetic projects. Instead of a period or a full stop to signal the completion of a single thought, what we get from the poems in Glossolalia is an almost infinite stream of “and,” as if signaling to readers that signification has always been an act of stubborn insistence.
For readers familiar with the almost always contentious tradition and history of Philippine poetry, placing Hacla under the confines of a specific movement or period is a tricky proposition. For one, Hacla made his mark by necessarily exercising all possible détournements against the Philippine literary establishment. Save for his maiden collection, all of his books were published by small presses. Unlike most writers in the Philippines, he is not formally affiliated with major academic and literary institutions.
Moreover, in an attempt to forge a union between computer science and poetry, Hacla launched the poetry-generating robot called Estela Vadal in 2018. Reminiscent of non-anthropocentric literary projects such as Christian Bök’s The Xenotext (Coach House Books, 2015), Hacla’s Estela Vadal raises questions about the possible origins and dispensers of poetry. For another, I agree with Muslim’s claim that Hacla is the first and only poet in the Philippines who uses “…maximalism as an aesthetic and generative tool.”
Eschewing the spare language, subtle imagery, and quietism featured in most contemporary Philippine poetry, Hacla’s poems, especially here in Glossolalia (and in its informal sequel Melismas), read like an unapologetic statement against the New Critical tradition that has been pushing its weight in the Philippine literary scene for more than half a century. While most of my predecessors and contemporaries in the field would probably take me to task for the previous claims, shackling Hacla’s poetry to the foundations of a tradition it militates against is just inaccurate. This brings me to my last intimation.
This involves the nasty (but sometimes necessary) business of gatekeeping. This involves the crude expectation that a translated text should always carry with it the hopes and aspirations of the literary culture that birthed it. This also involves the provincialism of writers and critics rearing its ugly head. This provincialism ultimately leads to translation analyses done by critics or writers who have not themselves experienced the labor of translation.
While I am not saying all of this to absolve translation from criticism, or to argue for its immutability, I will always take a stand against readings that use the veneer of “fidelity to the original” as a way to disguise fealty to a certain tradition. In the case of Glossolalia and Hacla’s poetry, there is no other recourse but to translate against the grain. Only then will the Babel yearned for by the persona in the poem “Dance in the Fortieth Day of Wandering” emerge from the ashes and rubble of tradition.
— Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III
“Ang Nagpapanginig sa Lahat ng Aking Mga Salita”
Sa gitgitan ng mga puno ng akasya, parang may naghugas ng pabango sa paligid, may nag-iwan ng galit sa mga tinapakang gumamela. Sino ang magsasabing sa gitna ng gabing ito, may magbubukas ng galeriya ng mga implikasyon ng iyong mga salita? Sa tuwing magkukuwento ako ng panaginip, magbibigay ka ng paliwanag. Sa tuwing ididetalye ko ang disenyo ng mga sagot para sa katanungan mo tungkol sa pagdadalamhati, pagdurusa, paghihirap na tila noong una’y inakala nating nagapi na ng sarili nating pagsusumikap, ngunit sa katotohanan, nanahimik lamang palang tila isang isinaradong baul ng mga sumpa, tinututop ng iyong palad ang aking bibig at sinasabing, sshhh, sshhh, hubaran mo ako ngayon din at patatawarin ko ang iyong kahangalan, dadalhin kita sa kakahuyan, dadalhin kita sa halikan ng tubig-alat at buhanginan, sa dilim ng mga arko, dadalhin kita sa bukana ng pintong magpapatuloy sa huling limang gabi ng iyong kaluwalhatian, dadalhin kita sa hindi natatapos na wakas ng tubig, dadalhin kita sa matrimonyo ng unang dalawang araw ng iyong paghihingalo, dadalhin kita sa ibabaw ng ragasa ng ilog, sa ilalim ng libingan ng mga nalimot, dadalhin kita at ilalapit sa makinis na batok ng iyong iniirog, sa kaguluhan ng kanyang kaselanan, dadalhin kita sa hapon, sa pagliliwanag ng araw, sa pagitan ng sakit at ligaya, dadalhin kita sa kaganapan ng pagdidilang-anghel ng iyong mga kaaway, dadalhin kita sa bawat bersiyon ng salawahan mong kaluluwa, sa paanan ng Ina ng Laging Saklolo, sa unang salita ng iniwan mong wika, dadalhin kita sa mga awit ng sarili mong kapangyarihan, sa lugar na hindi matatarok ng sarili mong kapangahasan, sa tuyong lalamunan ng iyong minamahal, sa pahingahan ng isinugo upang undayan ka ng siyamnapu’t siyam na saksak, dadalhin kita sa silangan, sa alegoryang ginawa ng pagtatatwa mo sa iyong identidad, at doon, hahawiin ko ang mga tinik, babanlawan kita ng alak, hahaplusin ko ang iyong mga binti, at mangangako akong babantayan ko nang may takot at pag-aalala ang bawat mong hakbang.
“What Makes All My Words Tremble”
In the jostling spaces of acacia trees, someone nearby must have rinsed with perfume, must have ditched rage among the trampled hibiscus. Who would have said that in the middle of this night, there is a gallery opening that holds the implications of your words? Whenever I talk about my dreams, you give me an explanation. Whenever I detail the design of the answers to your questions on grieving, misery, suffering, all of which we assume at first to have been overcome by our efforts, but the truth is that they are simply quieted down like a shuttered trunk of curses, your palm is trying to hush my mouth with a sshhh, sshhh, take off my clothes right now so I might forgive your insolence, I will take you to the woods, I will take you to a place where the seawater kisses the sand, under the shade of the stone arches, I will take you to the passage leading to a door that allows you to carry on the last five days of your ecstasy, I will take you to the endless death of water, I will take you to the matrimony of the first two days of your death throes, I will take you over the rapids in the river, underneath the burial grounds of the forgotten, I will take you and nudge you close to the smooth nape of the one you love, to the bedlam in her loins, I will take you in the afternoon, by the lifting of the day’s overcast, between pain and bliss, I will take you to the satisfying conclusion of your enemies’ prescient words, I will take you to every version of your mercurial soul, at the foot of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, by the first word of the native tongue you have abandoned, I will take you to the songs that are your power, to a place whose scale is immeasurable to your fearlessness, down the parched throat of your beloved, in a refuge created so you can be stabbed ninety–nine times, I will take you eastward, to the allegory that results from your self-denial, and there, I will whisk away the blanket of thorns, wash you down with liquor, stroke your thighs, and vow to watch over your every step with dread and care.
Inutusan akong kumuha ng mga kahoy na panggatong. Ipinahiwalay sa akin ang panganib sa pamamagitan ng isa pang panganib. Para akong pinasabog. Napunta ako sa lahat ng dako. Gumawa ako ng isang panibagong buhay. May ilaw sa aking balikat at gumaling ang lahat ng pumila sa aking bahay mula sa pagkakaratay at mula sa pagkawili sa mababangong halaman. Nabundat ako nang nabundat. Nawalan ako ng karanasan ng kabaliwan. Isang ipinintang bangkay ang nagsalita gamit ang mga ipinintang salita at para sa akin, ito ay kasagutan sa mga tanong natin tungkol sa kamatayan. Ako ay naging punong-abala ng maituturing na mga karit ng isang pamayanan, isang pamayanang abala sa paghahakot ng mangga at lansones, isang pamayanang natutulog na parang isang pamayanang walang inililihim. At tungkol sa mga lihim, inalam ko ang lahat ng mga lihim pati ang lihim ng hangin, ng baging, ng isang pusod na araw-araw nililinis, pati ang lihim na sinasabi ng mga ibon bago sila bumitaw sa sanga upang tuluyan nang mamatay, upang tuluyan nang matigil ang kanilang mga awit. Minsan akong natisod sa burol at napatingin sa paligid. Ang nayon na aking pinagmulan ay dalawa nang nayon at ang dalawang nayon ay magkaparehong-magkapareho ng hugis, bilog na bilog, parehong may bukid ng pakwan at patola, parehong may pulang bahay kung saan ako isinilang. Nakaramdam ako ng saya at takot at pag-aalinlangan at hindi ko malaman kung anong nayon ang aking itatakwil, kung anong nayon ang aking pipiliin.
I was ordered to gather firewood. I was told to disassemble a threat by using another threat. I could have been a detonated bomb. I was spread all over the place. I created a new life. A light source turned up on my shoulder, and all the people who queued at my doorway were healed from their bedridden state and from their addiction to aromatic herbs. I ate too much, and then I ate some more. I had lost my touch for lunacy. A painted corpse began to talk using painted words, and for me this is the answer to our questions about death. I became the host of those considered to be the scythes of a community, a community busy gathering mangoes and lanzones, a community that sleeps like a community that has no secrets. And when it came to secrets, I knew all about secrets, even the secret of the wind, the cliff, the one navel that had to be cleaned daily, even the secret divulged by birds right before they decide to let go of a branch and plunge to their death, silencing at last all their songs. I tripped once, stumbled on a tomb, and began to look around. The town I had come from is now two towns, and the two towns have exactly the same shape, perfectly rounded, both with farmlands where watermelon and silk squash grow, both with the exact same red house where I was born. I am happy and scared and unsure and I don’t know which town I should disown, which town I should take.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and several other books of fiction and poetry. She has co-edited numerous anthologies of fiction, including Destination: SEA 2050 A.D. (Penguin Random House SEA, 2022), Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021), and the British Fantasy Award-winning People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! (2016). Her translation of Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III’s novel, Book of the Damned, won a 2023 PEN/Heim grant. She is also the translator of nine books by Filipino authors Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, Rogelio Braga, and Marlon Hacla. Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories have been published in Conjunctions, McSweeney’s, and World Literature Today and translated into Bulgarian, Czech, German, Japanese, Polish, and Serbian. She lives in a small farmhouse in Sitio Magutay, a remote rural highland town in southern Philippines.
Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III teaches courses on Southeast Asian literature and creative writing at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature, University of the Philippines Diliman. He is the author of the novel Aklat ng mga Naiwan (Book of the Damned), coeditor of Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines, and co-editor and co-translator of Wiji Thukul’s Balada ng Bala (The Ballad of a Bullet). His research and other creative works have been published in Likhaan, JONUS, Southeast Asian Studies, Talas, and Tomas.
From Glossolalia by Marlon Hacla, translated by Kristine Ong Muslim. Introduction by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III. Copyright © 2023. Available from Ugly Duckling Presse.