Poet and social critic John Berger believes that desiring justice is as multitudinous as the stars in an expanding universe with the suffering caused by genocide, war and natural catastrophes which happen unnoticed every day.
Jim Agustin’s latest collection of poetry, “Alien to Any Skin” (University of Santo Tomas Press, 2011, 186 pages) acknowledges the depth of these suffering and meditates on the cruel use of power as our moral compass has gone awry.
“Rounding Up the Dogs of the Children Who Died of Sadness” tackles militarization and the violence committed by armies as they rounded up and evicted people out of Chagos Islands, part of Mauritius, then a British territory campaigning for independence.
In the1960s the Chagos Islands were separated by an Order in Council and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT, displacing thousands. Agustin dramatizes the horror of these children as they see armies as monsters, rendered in lines, Monsters came one day, dressed/ in stiff uniforms. They were fed/ largely on red meat and so had grown/ like giants compared to the islanders/. The poem effectively ends with that terror: They were taken amid screams and cries/ hearts cracking like husked coconuts/ flung against jagged rocks/.
In “That Bullet is Alien,” the persona tries to interrogate his trained killer, telling him that bullets are alien to any skin or race and people everywhere have suffered enough. Agustin is very perplexed of the inhumanity of some people. This theme of loss of sense and sensibility or the persistent inquiry to an old philosophical question why evil exists is evident in this collection.
In “Preliminary Notes on the Physics of Modern Torture, Big Dog Takes a Walk” and “TALON Robot Examines a Body,” Agustin demonstrates how our knowledge and technology become instruments of aggression and oppressive power, implying that our modernity only amounted to barbarism and extended fascism.
Sometimes, acts of aggression can be seen in the most innocent acts of our tourists as they take pictures of other people, unaware of the violence and the very abstraction concomitant to these acts, as intimated in “What You Have Taken.” Agustin renders Blakesian philosophical musings on the existence of evil and unwarranted sufferings as most of his poems end with questions, such as “If you speak a human language, tell me/ that I may somehow understand/ what words taught you how to pull that trigger?/ or in lines like Will anyone know how carefully/ his young fingers treasured/ the very first feather/ in his hand?”
Agustin documents the homelessness of millions deprived of the most basic freedoms as his poetry become mute testimonies to terrorism and the profound despair arising from it. Consider “Threats and Deeds,” which looks at US imperialism, its seemingly benign face against its threatening deployment of power as demonstrated in Afghanistan and Baghdad today and as had been experienced in his own country, the Philippines. The poem mocks this imperial face:
“You are everywhere. Not by choice/ of those who are/ forced to stare/ at your long arms,/ or are they tentacles?//
“Hard to see/ when, just as we think/ we can sense your kindness,/ one of us gets whipped/ to submission.//
“Barbed Barbie/ on missile point/ heels,/if anyone says/
“We get a taste of your beauty and animosity.”
Indeed Agustin’s poems serve as reflections and illuminations in these troubled times and become more ever relevant when the bombardment of images induced by cultural capital numbs us, make us complicit to these crimes and dehumanization.