Poet Fidelito Cortes makes the everyday extraordinary
“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.
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.
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.