DIWATA by Barbara Jane Reyes
(BOA Editions Ltd, Rochester, N.Y., 2010)
In Barbara Jane Reyes’s Diwata, the author explores issues of myth, magic, translation and identity through a poetic reconstruction of the Filipino’s shared and imagined past. Through poems such as “Eve Speaks,” “The Fire, Around Which We All Gather,” “El Mas Supremo” and “The Bamboo’s Insomnia,” Reyes creates a tapestry of loosely connected narratives and images that reimagine the creation of the modern Filipino. In “A Genesis of We, Cleaved,” she imagines a creation story of “a man of dust and fire” who comes into being and is “cleaved in two” by an “unseen hand” that exacts “penance for our joy.” The agency of creation is not vested in an omnipotent power from above; Reyes’s man creates himself. Rather, the divine limits the man of dust and fire, punishing him for the act of dreaming. The lessons that man learns are of “lamentation and shadow,” sorrow and finally, “hope.” This reimagining of Genesis resonates precisely because it takes the traditional Catholic story of hope and reinvents it in a way that grants agency to the human.
In her poetic musings, we see the concerns of the Filipino diaspora brought to life: the desire to reclaim our pre-colonial past, the lament of colonialism, the search for an “authentic” voice, the terror of rape and war, the universal struggle to translate ourselves and, perhaps most importantly, our capacity to dream. In “She Laments Unnumbered Losses,” Reyes reimagines the myth of the siyakoy. In one brilliantly constructed sentence, she explores how our medicine woman’s “tongue” is “severed” and how the child curses her father for smothering her “every cry.” The poem then appropriates the prayer “Holy Mary Mother of God” and remarks on the promises of priests for “salvation” and turns sinister; the priests “creep into my bed” and “force me on my knees” before discarding her and casting her into the sea. We see the siyakoy reappear and conflate with the Diwata and Eve in “Having Been Cast, Eve Implores.”
I want to know the scent of your promise
An azure calm that rises and falls, your lungs
Drawing air, whispering. Muse, Diwata,
I am your constant siren, your ocean lullaby.
Diwata, I am your midnight dragonfly song
These lines are lyrical and mystical in their rhythm; they speak of the reaffirmation of the woman’s voice as something that inspires and has power on its own. The woman becomes the “midnight dragonfly song,” an entity filled with power and history, ready to create her own story.
Part epic, part fairy tale and part love story, is a highly ambitious work and a monumental achievement. It serves as a singular yet oddly universal expression of what the Filipino was, is and ultimately can be.
G. Justin Hulog writes stories about ruined gods, forgotten spaces and new worlds. Born in Baguio City, he grew up in California before leaving home to study Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written for Karma Magazine. Justin is current completing his MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.