“…National literatures became a central terrain for claims to national existence; very little literary content could be imagined without a reference, direct or indirect, to the historical specificities of the national space.”Pascale Cassanova, Combative Literatures
Jim Pascual Agustin’s How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems (San Anselmo Press, 2018) comprises 60 poems spread across four parts. The volume has received international recognition, having been awarded the Gabo Prize in Winter/Spring of 2017. An aerial survey of all sixty poems will show that Agustin continues to work within the modernist tradition, which is consistent with his earlier works, particularly, Wings of Smoke, which The Onslaught Press published in 2017.
Agustin’s modernist poetics have always involved various languages and spaces of resistance. How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter exposes the poet’s personal and political commitments more clearly, and this sixty-strong collection will likely stand the test of time as it resists silencing and co-optation. Committed writing involves risks, and Agustin willingly faces these risks as he translates his memories, experiences, and politics at a depth worthy of both ordinary and critical reading.
In a time when many Filipino authors have willingly sold their souls to power, Agustin’s work continues to resist and attack state propaganda, narratives, and artifices that celebrate the death of human lives and democratic principles. This poetry collection also came at a time of excessive ideological polarization and collective national grief over the loss of lives and a widespread loss of humanity.
As a migrant Filipino writer, Agustin’s poetics articulate the widening gyre of diasporic culture that is necessarily transnational. The nation-state’s physical boundaries are not a hindrance to the successful expressions of self, culture, belonging, and nation. In a big way, the third part of Agustin’s collection (Abominations) serves as his performance and affirmation of being a Filipino within the bayan’s discursive space in dark and dangerous times.
His poem “Duterte Confesses His Crimes,” in “Abominations” deploys satire to unmask the impotence of the poem’s subject:
“A man with a wrinkled member rows backwards
in a boat full of holes. The sun has long gone
behind him. There’s little light,
yet he seems to know where he is going.” (60)
The poem magnifies the infantile figure, before sinking the figure into nothing:
“Soon his rough hairy knees go under. And yet he rows,
cursing, calling to a mother who will never answer.” (60)
“Tokhang Santa” is a terrifying inversion of the Yuletide story. Agustin grapples with the pretentious and embellished “kindness” of the police state. Beneath the title is a portion of a report by Amita Legaspi, stating that “a total of 120 children of drug suspects received gifts from Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald Dela Rosa (Bato).” (50)
“Tokhang Santa” begins with a caricature of Bato Dela Rosa:
“He believed his intentions were pure
and shiny like his light bulb head when,
sometime after All Soul’s Day, he wondered
what it must be like to be a child.” (50)
The scenes turn much darker as Agustin splits the narrative and creates a parallel one that involves the recipients of the gifts:
“These kids may not remember
that lost parent for a day, or forever
if they’re lucky to be too young to retain
memories. But surely, they’ll never forget
the day Tokhang Santa came for them, the chosen
120 from the ever-growing thousands.” (51)
“Tokhang Santa” combines several important elements in its discourse. Christianity is the dominant faith in the country, and magic numbers figure strongly in Filipinos’ belief system. Agustin’s use of “120 children” questions and highlights the folk belief system/s to assert irony and absurdity into the poem. Why 120 children? And more importantly – what is the purpose of this ‘kindness’ amidst bloodbath?
How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems covers immense territory, from political resistance to personal remembrances, vignettes, historical fragments, and the migrant poet’s life abroad. There is a loose structure and logic in how the collection was divided into four parts.
“Pieces meant to fit” contain poetry that mostly delved into the idea of body, form and time. “The Man Who Wished He were Lego” aligns with the thematic of strangeness and the changed/unknown body, both of which can also be found in poems like the “The Man-Moth” by American modernist poet Elizabeth Taylor.
Agustin regularly plays with corporeal representation and uses humorous asides to provide additional depth and layers of meaning. “The Man Who Wished He were Lego” alternates physical descriptions and philosophical ones:
“His hands would be yellow
and forever curved
into a semi-square “C.”
Designed only for quick
and easy snapping.
Of pieces meant to fit.” (3)
The poem ends on a humorous note veiled by irreversible sadness:
“And best of all, his chest
would be too stiff and hollow, ‘
far too small
for a heart.” (Agustin 3)
The thematic of the strange body continues and filters down to necessarily stranger ‘organs.’ “Making Paper Hearts with Ragged Edges” narrates the vagueness of fragile, paper hearts:
“Use your fingernails to trace
the faint lines formed. The dip,
though dull, defines the heart.” (Agustin 7)
The second part of the collection, “The Human Link,” features slices of life and selected photography. In this part of the collection, Agustin highlights quieter times and unique tensions, as exemplified in the atmospheric “Old Woman Amid Leaning Candles,” which reconstitutes the concreteness of meditation and ritual:
“The light from above, perhaps from a window
With dulled glass, casts in her shadow.
Her glasses reflect the floor where the candles
Mark what passes for prayers.” (Agustin 34)
“Frantic Wings” is the final part of the collection, and the poet literally ‘goes home’ to his oldest memories, with both fondness and sadness. “How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter” is meant to disturb despite the comfort of knowing that it is part of childhood memories:
“when he let it go,
but only in circles with the stone
dead center. We laughed.
I could feel the wind
from frantic wings.” (Agustin 86)
“My Father was a Marcos Loyalist” is an open question, perhaps one that we often ask ourselves when faced with individuals who continue to support the dictatorship. The misalignment of experience and loyalty to the dictator is refreshed:
“The things he had to do before
he considered himself a Marcos loyalist
would seem irrelevant. Joined the military
for a regular income to support
a sister through her studies, giving up” (70)
A tiny break in the gray area of ‘personal politics’ in these lines:
“When heavy rains come his name disappears
in the rising waters. He cursed Marcos once
for kicking us off our land to build a highway.” (72)
One can always see a strong sense of longing in migrant writing. Perhaps, the different kinds of longing that poets like Jim Pascual Agustin can muster as they struggle with the entire brutal process of creation are necessary, contrasting readings of the same things we face at home. The separation from the motherland strains the poet so that there is a much more magnified desire to express what is already visible but not fully understood. In this sense, the poet has overcome pure aesthetics and has weaponized his work against the oppressor.
Agustin, Jim Pascual. How To Make A Salagubang Helicopter & Other Poems. San Anselmo Press, 2018.