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Review of E San Juan's AMBIL

by P Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 at 6:53 PM

Filipino activist Karlo Mongaya reviews the avant-garde postconceptual writing of E San Juan Jr., and its critique of author-centered institutionalized expression in the neoliberal regime of Aquino in neocolonial Philippines.



Garde Poetry in the Time of Crisis

and Resistance:


by E. San Juan Jr.

By Karlo Mikhail I. Mongaya

If E. San Juan, Jr. has continued to write poetry on subjects that many would deem radical or

even subversive, it is because the essential

conditions of exploitation and oppression that he has

written about in his younger years have remained basically unchanged up to the present. The

world capitalist system continues to wreak havoc on the workers, peasants, and oppressed people

around the wor

ld who suffer from rising levels of inequality, unemployment, and hunger.

Global capitalism condemns ever widening sections of humanity to poverty and misery even as

the ruling classes who own the means of producing the material wealth of society become ri


than ever. The unabated crisis of this system has meant the intensifying exploitation and plunder

of Philippine cheap labor and natural resources by the monopoly capitalists and financial

oligarchs living the life in the United States, European Union,

and Japan, among others.

The dominant culture legitimizes and prettifies this unjust and ugly dispensation. Most art and

literature, including poetry, consequently draw the people’s attention away from the fundamental

problems confronting them through the

proliferation of banal and sensational consumer

spectacles. Anything else is deemed unmarketable.

But this has not kept E. San Juan, Jr. from continuing to challenge the dominant order and

offering an alternative vision of the world through his writings.

It is precisely this stamp that

cemented San Juan’s standing as a writer of world


renown in the fields of literary criticism,

cultural studies, and poetry. And it is precisely in this way that San Juan inscribes the new into

the shell of the old rotting or


Ambil: Mga Pagsubok, Pahiwatig & Interbensyon

is only San Juan’s latest book of poetry in

Filipino that serves as a means of social critique and the dreaming of a better world. It is a

continuation of a long trajectory from

Kung Ikaw ay Inaapi Bakit H

indi ka Magbalikwas


which was published amidst the dark years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, up to his newer

volumes of poetry such as

Sapagkat Iniibig Kita

(2004) and

Kundiman sa Gita ng Karimlan


The poems in




do not

only represent the contemporary realities of exploitation

and resistance as content. San Juan’s method of representation

the poetic form itself


in illuminating these realities. Inspired by avant


garde movements from Dadaism, Surrealism, up

to Con

ceptual Art, San Juan seeks, in his own words, “to provoke critical resistance to consumer

culture and the narcotic spectacles saturating the corporate mass media and the public sphere.”

San Juan’s poems in the collection take on the form of distinctive va

riations of


, a Filipino

word which is defined as an “interpretation of a word, phrase or statement different from that

originally intended; pet name; constant repetition of a word or expression for the pleasure of the

sound or for its being a favorit

e expression.”



garde inspired

Taking its cue from its avant


garde conceptual art inspirations,


goes beyond the traditional

concern with traditional formal devices (like sound, rhyme, metaphor, irony, etc.) and instead

trains its attention to

making the circumstances of the poem’s conceptual construction more

discernable to the reader.

The poem “Pagpapasubaling Di Mabali


Bali? Makabagong Litanya,” for example, repeats the



(trans. however) to begin line after line in order to piece

together a litany of facts

that give witness to the seemingly never


ending list of human rights violations by the Philippine


Subalit kamakailan pinatay si Dionisio Garite kasunod ni


Capalla sa Panay


walang imik ang military at rehimen sa karumal




krimeng nangyari

Subalit patuloy pa ang dasal at misa sa memorya ni Cory





Subalit wala pang hustisya ang 13 pinuksa nila sa Mendiola

noong Enero 22, 1987


Juan adroitly places ironic details side by side in order to highlight the absurdity of a social

order wherein fair trade advocates helping the poor are killed by state forces with impunity while

the scions of the Aquino


Cojuangcos, a landlord clan respon

sible for the massacre of poor

peasants calling for land reform are praised to high heaven.

Much of contemporary writing aims this interrogation of the text within the field of language,

discourse, and the play of meanings divorced from any reference outsi

de of the writing itself.

San Juan, however, goes beyond textual surfaces and is much more interested in pointing the

readers to the material realities referred to in the poems

that is, in situating them back to the

real world.

The simple recombination o

f previously created texts instead of creating fresh material is another

method culled by San Juan from the arsenal of avant


garde conceptual art. The ruling order,

crumbling under the weight of its manifold contradictions, is a walking corpse that is mine

d for

texts and other materials that can be used for the recreation of the new.

“Asignatura sa Mga Anarkista (Hinangong ambil mula kay Yoko Ono)” comes in the form of an

instruction manual for the treatment of formalist literary texts and grammatical books

. This text

represents an interesting counterpoint to Jean Luc Godard’s film

La Chinoise

where student

radicals proposed criticizing conservative books as opposed to burning them:

C. Tipunin lahat ng librong nagkukunwaring siyang

pinakamabuting balarila o

gramatika ng wika, pati

lahat ng mga

arte poetika

mula sa



Noceda at Sanlucar hanggang mga turo nina Lope K

Santos at Julian Cruz Balsameda, pati na lahat ng

tulang may tugma’t sukat ayon sa regla ng mga

awtoridad at premyadong pantas.


Ilagay sa isang trak, dalhin sa Payatas, buhusan ng ilang

balde ng gasoline, at sunugin.

“Diskarteng Pag


urirat sa Cogito




Sum ni Descartes” meanwhile plays on the famous

dictum “I think, therefore I am” to playfully tease out how consciousness, in the

last instance,

cannot be the ultimate guarantee of being. Discourse as expressed in the poetic lines abruptly end

when the persona runs out of breath. The material is primary over consciousness:

Tumutol ako’t nakibaka, samakatwid ako ay

Nakulam ako,

samaktwid ako ay

Naghihingalo, samakatwid ako

Humingi ng saklolo, samaktwid

Wala nang hininga, sama ka

Production of the new

San Juan’s utilization of devices inspired by conceptual art is not mere artistic whim. This is not

simply borne out of a desire to

be fashionably novel but a serious attempt to represent

contemporary realities of economic crisis and global disorder in new ways. The new here,

following Fredric Jameson, “is not some unusual object, as in so many avant


garde conceptions

of modernist inn

ovation, but a whole new world of relationships . . . into which writer and reader

alike must penetrate by means of daring exploration, and appropriation.”

This brings us to avant


garde conceptual art’s interrogation of the notion of authorship. While


of contemporary literary theory considers the author as a mere function of the structure of

the text, San Juan hints as to how the text are not only the poet’s or the reader’s but are also

shaped by the social and historical world in which he is situated.

In “Pinakahuling Paalam ng Koro ng mga Taga


Salin ng ‘El Ultimo Pensamiento’ ni Rizal,” for

example, San Juan plays with varying Filipino translations of a line from Jose Rizal’s last poem

before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities in 1896.


s, queridos eres, morir es


is translated differently according to the standpoint, language, formal style of the

purported translator from Andres Bonifacio, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Idelfonso Santos, Felix

Razon, among others:

Mamatay ay siyang pagk


Mamatay ay ganap na katahimikan.

Paalam na, giliw, at pamamahinga tadhana ng mamatay.

Adios, mga iniibig na nilalang, kamatayan ay pagpapahinga lamang.

Conceptual art construes the idea as the machine that generates art. San Juan takes off from


tenet but never fails to refer to the social basis of all consciousness. He engages in playful games

of making the reader participate in the creation of meaning, but not as the end goal but rather as a

step towards making more visible the social reali

ties surrounding the reader.

“Transkripsyon ng Ilang Bytes ng Kompyuter ng NSA, Washington DC, USA” concretely

illustrates the overwhelming scale of the online spying on the global population and the

consequent massive violation of people’s rights to priva

cy perpetrated by the United States

government through its National Security Agency’s Prism Program:

Makibaka ba, huwag matakot? Nilabasan ka ba? Kailan tayo

tutugpa? Sino iyang nakamaskara? Peks man? Sino ang

nagsuplong? Swak na swak ba? Dapat ba nating d

alhin ang

kargada? Mabigat ba o magaan? Sino si Yolanda? Liku



San Juan’s poetry is often labeled as difficult, even incomprehensible to the common reader. His

poetic writing’s affinity with the artistic avant


garde and references to other literary te


philosophical ideas, events, and socio


historical conditions is often cited to prove this branding

on his works. It is hence surprising how at the immediate level surprisingly lucid San Juan’s

poems are. They are often mistaken as daunting only becaus

e they require the reader to think.

In the end, this is poetry that seeks to push the reader away from just submitting to the text

uncritically and be disabused of the illusion of simply being a passive consumer of the poetic

line. San Juan’s poetry shows

us the way in how progressive writing must not only descend to

what is already popular but also to endeavor in the popularization of the new. As the Guatemalan

poet Otto Rene Castillo eloquently st

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