Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s 18 books in Filipino include, among others, Guwang, Pilas ng Papel: Mga Sanaysay sa Tula, Pesoa, and Kurap sa Ilalim, as well as a volume of selected poems, Ang Iyong Buhay ay Laging Mabibigo (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2016), a limited-edition release called Talik from Balangay Books, and Walang Halong Biro (Dead Serious) forthcoming from De La Salle University Publishing House in November 2018. English translations (by Kristine Ong Muslim) of his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Samovar, [sic] – a journal of literature, culture and literary translation, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Cossack Review, Speculative Masculinities (UK: Galli Books, 2019), and The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism (Canada: Undertow Publications, 2018). A recipient of multiple national awards and fellowships, two-time Philippine National Book Award finalist Arguelles is co-editor of the journal hal., works as a book editor, and teaches literature and creative writing at the De La Salle University.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books, including the fiction collections Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), and The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), as well as the poetry collections Lifeboat (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), and Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017). She is editor of two anthologies: with Nalo Hopkinson for the British Fantasy Award-winning People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, and with Paolo Enrico Melendez and Mia Tijam for Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines (Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press, forthcoming 2019). Her short stories have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Tin House, and World Literature Today. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.
Antares is a collection of fifty poems whose lines are created via systematic erasure and translation from English of Internet Movie Database (IMDb) descriptions involving sex scenes in films. Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Antares is found art constructed from what is more or less marketing copy on a website that is part of Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world. More specifically, Antares is found poetry in translation. I essentially translated it back to English while rereading it through the lens afforded by its lyrical form, its ekphrastic-intertextual constitution, its stylized interpretation, its stark minimalist dispensation. The poems are also arranged alphabetically according to title, which I take as a nod to objectivity, an attempt to replicate the organized neutrality of a database. So, how does one set out to translate poetry engendered through all these means?
The book’s title poem consists of this single line, “Ang saksi ng katawan ay hindi mata,” whose literal equivalent is “The body’s witness is not the eye.” My translation is “The body’s audience is not the gaze”—an inflexible proposition on the nature of the physical body and its manifold stances, as well as its varying levels of estrangement from the eye of the beholder. Here, a speaker establishes the physical body as an entity whose attributes exist independently of an observer’s sensibilities, persuasions, and tools for measurement. The speaker does not simply negate the gaze as audience for the body and its manifold stances. By specifying the negation, it underscores the importance of the gaze, because it is quite telling how ‘gaze’ has been singled out among all possible ‘audiences’ to negate. This exclusion of the gaze as the body’s potential addressee sets the tone—and sets it in no uncertain terms—of how the reader is supposed to view the body as depicted and reconfigured in various poses throughout the book.
Antares is forthright with its thesis, narrowing the prescribed path for reading the book. To do away with the gaze as audience would mean deviating from other likely ways of reading. After all, it is this gaze, which is inherently gendered, that lends sensory dimension to an otherwise mundane biological construct that is the body. It is also this same gaze that fetishizes. It can be weaponized, dispensed as social critique, and made to color perception with its nature-nurture underpinnings. The liberties taken and the compromises made in my translation draw loosely from my interrogation of this seemingly disparate body estranged from the gaze, the subjective eye of the beholder, as is the case in “Ai no korīda,” the second poem in Antares, which details the manifestations of an alienated body.
Ang katawan ay isang pulo.
Ang dagling naghahanap sa iba ng isang bati.
Ang isang instrumento ng pasakit. Ang isang sulat.
The body is an island.
A vignette seeking solace.
An instrument of pain.
These are potent metaphors, attesting to Antares’s boldness and remarkable lack of willingness to compromise. Many other poems in the book are structured this way—the actual paired with the figurative in a terse, unflinching, and commanding way. The connection behind the pairing is not immediately clear, but once examined, such connection proves to be organic. But there’s no calling to attention of how organic this connection might be between the two concepts. Antares does not see the point of doing so. Therefore, one reads and translates Antares with the tacit understanding that its artistic truths are designed to be authoritative and timeless. Antares basically writes itself to literary immortality. It does not, will not, and cannot be made to apologize for its artistic truths. It is what it is because it is so. Surely, a reader engages with the work by building context around it at a unique pace. The reader calibrates and recalibrates his engagement with the text based on the level of intimacy and lack thereof with the suppositions and complexes of Antares.
According to “Caligula,” estrangement occurs uniformly throughout all bodies.
Ang katawan ng isa ay katawan pa ng isa
One’s body is also another’s
The homogeneity may enable anonymity and contribute to the body, which is ultimately reconstituted into a person in some of the poems, being objectified. It is through this gaze that objectification begins. The latter is the rationale behind my decision to inject sexist language where I felt the material called for it. I also believe that neutralizing ‘slut’ into ‘prostitute’ or ‘pussy’ into ‘vagina,’ for example, is disservice to literary translation.
Meanwhile, the body, when clothed, is distinct from when it is stripped bare, as in this elegant couplet “Daisy Diamond.”
Ang laman, ganap na hubad, isang estranghero.
Flesh, once laid bare, a stranger.
The speakers of the poems in Antares do not feel the need to conform to societal conventions on privacy and censorship. They also do not cast judgment and are able to freely articulate their explorations of the body at rest, doing foreplay, and engaged in “unsimulated sex.” Speakers tell of how lighting influences the reception to a naked body. They also tell of the scintillating folds and revelatory brokenness of the naked body, of the “disclosed exploits of flesh/ and reason,” of how “All flesh is bared,” and that “All flesh—/ desires/ all flesh.” Additionally, the one-liner “Much Loved” tells us that flesh—or what gives the estranged body its heft, familiarity, and pleasure—is said to be a “performance of self.”
laman ang gumaganap sa isang tao
flesh is performance of self
“Gumaganap” also translates to “consummating” or “consummation,” a version I think is inconsistent with the etiology of Antares, which repetitively describes a disparate alienated body. And once this body is endowed with flesh, a physicality, that’s when it is recognized as a person. “Consummation” suggests the existence of a prior state where flesh has not yet reached its supposed point of consummation. To differentiate between these two states entails the involvement of an observer whose gaze is grounded on a set of social, cultural, and biological circumstances. But then, Antares already says that seeing and unseeing the body go beyond the gaze.
Reading the sprawling assemblage of Antares under the light of Jungian psychology raises intriguing questions. Self is the person defined by personality. The body of flesh, which is supposedly estranged from its respective beholder’s eye, is a performance, a theatrical implementation of self. So, what qualifies the performance as performance? If there is no audience, is a performance still considered a performance? What happens if there is refusal to perform? What happens if the performance is interrupted? Does the self then become the other outside the performance?
In translating Antares, I constantly remind myself of what I am dealing with: found poetry. It is a collection of erasure poems, which I have long associated with the take-noprisoners mode of artistic irreverence. I am conscious of the redactions that contribute to Antares’s seemingly uneven yet audaciously poised architecture. Such redactions are results of a deliberate sifting through, an intensive curation. There are gaps created by the new poems flexing their intricate and compact assemblies outside the tenuous mold of the page, the digital interface, where they had been found. Whenever I touch on the limits of the elasticity of language and whenever I fill in the gaps to achieve fluidity in translation, I become complicit in the erasure. In many ways, translating erasure poetry is attending to and making peace with the perceived shadow cast and magnified by what used to be there. It is an act of reconciliation—whether or not such an act is possible, let alone necessary—with the illusory memory and after-image of the source material that has been knowingly erased for reframing. Language is very much like the narrators in Antares voicing out their irresistible, staggering truths laced with tell-tale slip of the tongue. It retains the shape of what it excludes and does not acknowledge.
Antares: a selection of poems
Click on the link to read the poem’s in bilingual format: Antares-Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles trans. by Kristine Ong Muslim