Quantcast
Latest Stories

REVIEW

Poet Fidelito Cortes makes the everyday extraordinary

By

“Everyday Things” dwells, it is true, on daily rhythms of living in California and Manila. The routine is “stronger than us and more durable,” its title poem affirms.

But there is nothing routine about Fidelito Cortes’ recent book (UST Press, 2010). It is a beautiful, searching work of poetry.

Where in the works and days of hands is there space enough for contemplating grief, skepticism, and wonder? That is the question Cortes seems to be asking, as he delves into the common tasks of cleaning house or dealing with the hiccups of marriage.

The first poem, “Letter to Home,” is a tribute to the poet’s wife. It is also a minimalist reworking of a form traditionally given to poetic quarrels with a loved one or with oneself.

Soon, however, the rooms of lyric give way to larger spaces. Cortes hears in the life of departure tonalities other than exilic melancholy.

Though the everyday holds Cortes’ center of gravity, the greater number of his poems are political elegies of complex tone and texture. They revolve around problems of collective memory, and of archaic violence prevailing in modern life.

In the sequence “Housekeeping,” for instance, one key piece describes Cortes’ wife sweeping the floor and picking up “the hair she sheds/ copiously everywhere.” In a piece on defrosting, Cortes yields “a bone/ lying half-submerged in the ice water.”

The latter piece more than revives an ancient idea (Tempus edax rerum, time chews things up). Cortes’ quiet, casual idiom ponders the human appetite’s complicity with destruction. “The meat, I put back in the freezer,” the piece on defrosting ends.

Refreshing technique

The technique is refreshing. Rather than channel well-worn uses of surrealism, Cortes simply wipes the dust off things, dust that often comes from the mind itself. The humdrum compels without oracle, and without turning goat legs into knife handles.

What shines through here might be called “soul.” I use the word advisedly, because it is Cortes’ answer to the question asked earlier. Soul is what renews perception amid banalities—including blocked creativity, an ordeal beautifully depicted in “Fish.”

With self-deprecating humor, Cortes writes: “I shivered at the cosmos/ and vowed a poem as vast and knowing,/ but when it came it was small fry/ and I had to let it go.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s wee fingerprint on this poem is not its main source of charm. “Fish” by Cortes writes over Bishop’s “The Fish” a different kind of surrender. Cortes surprises with his ending: “I put it back in the water./Here, watch it swim toward you.”

The terminus opens out to an invisible reader. Soul, too, would be the name for this opening. The attentiveness Cortes cultivates allows his audience to recall the discreet powers of the human, beholden neither to the canon nor the powers-that-be.

It should not surprise, then, that Cortes is able to compose the everyday soul beside shards of political memory. And while both history and spirit deeply intrigue Cortes, he makes no pretense to reconcile these two.

Take the funny prose poem “Here, There and Everywhere.” Sorting trash, Cortes comes up with a fresh metaphor of soul: “a nearly empty bottle of Mountain Dew out in the sun.” Soul is what gets salvaged not by epiphany per se but by the act of seeking it.

Cortes goes on to say: “If you leave the same bottle out overnight and come back in the morning, you’ll find the Mountain Dew has returned, or at least something less Mountain and more Dew if you were brave enough to taste it.”

Returning from dispersion marks the shift from spiritual longing to a wry, earthy sense of history. In Cortes’ work, soul seems to be detected in the time lag between collective, historical processes (thus far) and our deepest common wishes.

“Moon, Blues” also dwells on this tension. The poem appears to focus solely on how a married couple quibbles over misprisions. But consider its first two lines: “Arguments are uncommon but when they come/ the moon is either full or new; it is always night.”

Soul-work in marriage yields pithy notes on how the disputes of history hinge on delayed cognition. Doing right by history, Cortes suggests, means taking pains to read the “always night,” to expose how belatedness unsettles absolute knowledge.

“Angel Island” is another exemplary poem in this regard. It recalls a visit to a San Francisco landmark, the early-1900s entry point for Asian immigrants. As the immigrants waited interminably for processing, some etched on the station’s walls “poems of such despair and desolation,” Cortes recalls.

Traumatic past

Regarding the difficulty of reading the remains of the traumatic past, Cortes writes: “There ought to be some trace of such/ immense sadness, yet the day was/ too brilliant even for shadows/ and the happy cries of picnickers/ still rang from the docks we had left behind.”

Cortes suggests that leaving history behind ironically is what tourism enacts. It tends to obscure the grief it seeks to memorialize. In commemorating the past, it may be wiser to regard “the holes left/ as testament to the uprooting.”

The allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth adds another layer of resonance to “Angel Island.” Echoing Banquo, a character killed by a political usurper, Cortes notes how Angel Island had “no walls,/ barbed wire or watch towers; and the boards/ and bricks made to look honest by age/ and decrepitude.”

The effect is thought-provoking. In Cortes’ hands, a literary ghost becomes history’s medium. Cortes puts the tourist in touch with bygone immigrants via Banquo, allowing readers to link Shakespearean tragedy to the myth that Angel Island harbors.

The link is the idea of hospitality turned dark. Just as Macbeth shreds hospitality’s meaning by killing his guests, so do wealthy nations quash the dreams to which they play host, propelling migration but imposing strict limits on migrant citizenship.

Many poems in Cortes’ book are like “Angel Island” in that they trace the vexing contact zones of soul-making and history’s privations. The voice, jarred by such contact, risks falling into “gaps and ellipses.”

And it is there in those spaces of risk, where the language of “Everyday Things” wakens. By all means, get hold of this book; read it slowly. Daylight and the hush of nightfall will alter when you turn its pages.


Follow Us


Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter


Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Tags: Everyday Things , Fidelito Cortes , Lifestyle , Poetry



Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
Advertisement
  1. How Zsa Zsa Padilla found Conrad Onglao; Sharon Cuneta played Cupid
  2. Noli Yamsuan, Cardinal Sin’s ‘official’ photographer: ‘I could smell the aftershave lotion of the Pope’
  3. Palawan favorite getaway of show biz celebrities
  4. Fashionistas flock to designer’s wedding
  5. Joe de Venecia visits the Queen Mother of Cambodia
  6. President Quezon was born here–and so was Philippine surfing
  7. A tale of two Priscillas: my mother Prissy and Chona Recto Kasten
  8. This is not just a farm
  9. ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  10. Levine designs womenswear with help from fiancee
  1. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?
  2. Are your favorite malls open this Holy Week break?
  3. Sarah Geronimo and Matteo Giudicelli sing ‘All of Me’–and we all swoon
  4. How Vitamin B can be a remedy for ‘manhid’ and neuropathy
  5. 90 percent of Filipino households don’t practice proper toilet hygiene, sanitation
  6. ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  7. Boots Anson-Roa to wed in Eddie Baddeo
  8. Prince William fuels speculation of second royal baby
  9. Marcos grandson to wed beautiful Rocha scion
  10. This is not just a farm
  1. Mary Jean Lastimosa is new Miss Universe Philippines
  2. Did Angara ruin Pia Wurtzbach’s chances at Bb. Pilipinas?
  3. Dominique–Gretchen and Tonyboy Cojuangco’s daughter–now an endorser
  4. Manila in shock over model Helena Belmonte’s death
  5. Vinegar test helpful vs cervical cancer
  6. From Jeannie to mom of suicide victim
  7. San Vicente beaches hidden but not for long
  8. Borgy and Georgina are back; others are off–again
  9. Sen. Angara: I thought Pia Wurtzbach gave a good answer
  10. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?

News

  • 2 teenagers killed in Mlang, North Cotabato
  • No sympathy from North Korea over ferry disaster
  • 4 French journalists freed from Syria captors home
  • De Lima on Gigi Reyes: Let’s wait and see
  • South Korean relatives divided over whether to raise ferry
  • Sports

  • Pacquiao courtesy call to Aquino set for Monday
  • Nick Calathes suspension a reminder of supplement risk
  • Teague scores 28 as Hawks soar past Pacers in Game 1
  • Warriors beat Clippers in playoff opener
  • Pacquiao top Mayweather contender
  • Lifestyle

  • Britain’s baby Prince George visits Australian zoo
  • Noli Yamsuan, Cardinal Sin’s ‘official’ photographer: ‘I could smell the aftershave lotion of the Pope’
  • Simplifying and lightening life
  • Where to go for Easter night-out
  • Joe de Venecia visits the Queen Mother of Cambodia
  • Entertainment

  • Show-biz celebrities’ other choices of summer getaway
  • Why ‘Noah’ can’t dock his ark at Philippine theaters
  • Acclaimed artist goes wild while on holiday
  • Believing in this mermaid
  • Missing Xian
  • Business

  • Top-selling insurance agent opens her dream café
  • Connecting and transacting with one another
  • Building wealth for health
  • Why Mandaue Foam buys, rather than rents, space
  • A workplace of new possibilities
  • Technology

  • Nasa’s moon-orbiting robot crashes down
  • Netizens pay respects to Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Nokia recalls 30,000 chargers for Lumia 2520 tablet
  • Facebook rolls out ‘nearby friends’ feature
  • Netizens seethe over Aquino’s ‘sacrifice’ message
  • Opinion

  • Epiphany
  • Unpaid creditor vs distressed debtor
  • Moving on
  • From culinary desert to paradise
  • Response to China: ‘Usjaphil’
  • Global Nation

  • Asia seeks Obama’s assurance in territorial spats
  • Cesar Chavez movie sparks memories of Fil-Am labor leaders
  • Filipinos in US poised for success
  • Visas for priests and other faith leaders
  • DOH to continue tracking co-passengers of OFW infected with MERS virus
    Marketplace