Epic

Villa D'Este fountain. Free image via Pixabay.
Among the Fountains of Villa D'Este
Cirilo F Bautista

As if he owned the ocean.
Here, one man’s dream explodes in
water, carved in splashing splendour
by lion teeth, angel mouth, breasts

of virgins that do not rest. Day
and night the liquid sizzles, channeling
the dream from terrace to terrace,
from stone to stone, till it gathers to a pool
that caresses the fish. My brain swims

with the fish as they trace their antique
silence to a thousand spouts
and fountains, then back to the pool again....
One dies again, also, bursting through
the skin, and flings his wingless wars

to the sun, broken and raining sadness
on the soul; but just for a moment,
like spumes in air, or the swing of swans
to shore, no longer, no better. Bodies
bloom and reel in space, juggled and spun by

light, by water, to flash a brilliance,
no longer, no better. Was this what he
thought, he who planned the garden of his mind,
to freeze that brilliance? Did he, in despair,
command the water to move his mind

to each crevice, each pool, each silent
sibilance, each flowing,
each song of many endings, each murmur,
while he slept, as if he owned the ocean?

May is also the month when we celebrate the death anniversary of Cirilo F Bautista. To the literary world he is a poet; to the Philippines, he is a National Artist for Literature; and to me, he is a teacher.

Dr Bautista was my professor in undergraduate and graduate school. It's ridiculous how many courses I had with him. Throughout those years, it's safe to say that I'd developed a fondness for him as a mentor, though we didn’t really have that one-on-one mentor-mentee relationship.

He has a big influence on me, now that I think about it. And now I go back to his essay in this book called A Passionate Patience, which is a collection of essays by Filipino poets on the writing process of one of their poems.

This book was published in 1995, and I would say that Cirilo's poetics has remained unwavering.

He strongly believes in an "epic consciousness". For him poetry is an aural art form, and the poet is the quote-unquote "antenna of the race", interpreting and articulating the dreams, struggles, realities of their society. And it's also the poet's responsibility to improve on history.

Then there is the aspect of length, when we talk about epics. I remember in one of our final exams in poetry class, we had to write an epic poem. Or, I'm not sure now if it's an epic poem or a hundred-line poem in one sitting in, I think, three hours. So that's the test. I'm still here, I survived that test. My poetry — my epic poem — didn't make it. I don't know where it is now, I actually forgot what I wrote about.

Anyway here's a nice quote in the essay that shows a bit of Cirilo Bautista's teeth:

My bias for the epic explains my disdain for poets who produce only short pieces. Such works, no matter how successful, are appallingly pathetic and unsatisfactory, to say the least. A true poet must be capable of sustained performance, as this is the true gauge of his skill and genius.

I said earlier that his poetics remains the same, because the last time I spoke with him — it was in his home with a group of fellow writers and friends a couple of years ago — he said that he was writing or was planning to write a sonnet crown. I have to get some news about that, if there is a draft somewhere or if he had actually done it before his death.

It's an ambitious project. It's an epic project. The poem that I have just read, Among the Fountains of Villa D'Este, though not long enough by Cirilo's standards, is about something epic, as well. It's about the garden of Cardinal Ippolito D'Este. If you've been there, good for you, I envy you. If not, google it and you’ll see what the poem is describing.

It's an epic piece of architecture and landscaping. But the poem is questioning the purpose of this garden. This is what Cirilo wrote in his diary after seeing the garden with his own eyes:

Terrace after terrace of gardens have fountains and cascades, as though nature had created water simply for the use of the villa.
His tone matches the tone in the opening and closing lines of the poem, "As if he owned the ocean".

I think that when we talk about art, we're mostly concerned about two things: one is art's connection to reality, and the other is the artist's genius. Closely connected to the latter is the artist's quest for immortality.

The poem for me has done something clever. By writing about it, and us reading it, and me sharing it now, D'Este continues his life. Yet the poem exposes the futility of this attempt to freeze time and freeze brilliance. The fountain becomes this beautiful cycle of water powered by despair and fear of fading. The poem crushes the ego.

Going back to the subject of "epic consciousness", I must confess that I'm so far from having it, in every aspect. I like short poems — I do love long novels, though, and I can binge-watch entire seasons of a TV series in a day. Also, I am very selfish. Arrogant, yes; and super greedy, too.

I hope I am making some tiny progress through this podcast — also motivated by narcissism, full disclosure. But seriously, these poetry readings have heightened my appreciation for the art. For the longest time, poetry for me is word on paper. Even with the popularity of e-books and Instagram poetry, I still consider poetry as the art of language seen and not heard.

By the way Cirilo has a comment on this in the essay. Let me share it with you. He says:

The thrill of language heard cannot be equalled by the thrill of language seen. The invention of the printing press, though it liberated the mind from the tyranny of ignorance, initiated the decline of the poem as 'voice'.

It's true, Among the Fountains of Villa D'Este gives a flowing sensation when you read. You follow every word because they slide off the tongue. Mid-stanza, you may lose your train of thought, as in a trance, but you just have to go on reading because the music keeps pushing you forward.

Finally, all this talk of greatness in art is pointless if I can't find a space for it in the everyday. We may not be writing sonnet crowns or constructing a ginormous garden, but I do hope that we have a capacity for sustained love and labor.

Let me end with this nice, relatable quote from Cirilo's essay. He liked to draft, revise, and edit a poem in his head. To him a poem written down is a poem finished. But as he grew older, he needed, to his dismay, the aid of notebooks. This is what he said:

Sometimes, in the middle of the night while I am trying to get some sleep, some beautiful phrase will blink in my mind; the more I ignore it, the more insistent it will be. So, cursing under my breath but mentally grasping the phrase, I will grope for my notebook, write it down, then fumble my way back to bed. Several of my poems were founded on some such nocturnal disturbances.

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