03 July 2013 @ 10:45 am
Bino A. Realuyo's The Gods We Worship Live Next Door  
Bino A. Realuyo's The Gods We Worship Live Next Door (University of Utah Press, 2006) is a historically-oriented collection of poems, considering the layers of colonialism that have structured Filipino lives in the archipelago and the diaspora.



Realuyo's work echoes other Filipino American poets' thoughtful engagements with language, history, transnational movements, and identity. Many of Realuyo's poems in this collection include prefatory notes about the historical situation addressed. For example, "Consummatum Est (It is finished)" includes a headnote that reads, "U.S. military bases in the Philippines were officially closed in 1992. Departing American servicemen left behind more than 30,000 unacknowledged children born to Filipino girlfriends and bar girls." And the poem ends with a footnote that the title comes from the "alleged last words of Jose P. Rizal, a national hero of the Philippines before he was shot by a firing squad in 1896, two years before Spain surrendered to the U.S. to end the Spanish-American war." These notes are helpful for framing the poems themselves and offer important starting points for readers to understand the enfolding of historical events into poetic exploration.

The Gods We Worship Live Next Door contains six sections of poems. The first focuses on diaspora, the second on the Spanish colonial era (1565–1898), the third on the U.S. colonial era (1898–1946), the fourth on the Japanese colonial era during World War II (1942–1946, overlapping with U.S. rule), the fifth on witnessing, and the sixth on a long poem titled "The Gods We Worship Live Next Door," which is a phrase borrowed from a poem by Filipino American writer Bienvenido Santos.

The first poem in the collection, "Filipineza," begins with the note, "In the modern Greek dictionary, the word 'Filipiniza' means 'maid.'" The poem imagines the position of Filipino maids in the diaspora:
If I became the brown woman mistaken
for a shadow, please tell your people I'm a tree.
The speaker of the poem is a Filipina maid who has left family and home like millions of other Filipinos (mainly women) who work all over the world in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East to remit money to their families in the Philippines.
The better to work here in a house full of faces I don't recognize.
Shame is less a burden if spoken in the language of soap and stain.
My whole country cleans houses for food
The poem turns on the figure of Elena, another Filipina maid who disappeared while she was working as an overseas maid. Elena is a cautionary figure for other Filipinas, as the speaker's mother warns her, and the speaker imagines that she had a child by her married employer and then went off into the foreign world to live a secret life, becoming "part myth, part mortal, part soap."

While the poems in the first four sections focus on diasporic and historical realities for Filipinos, the poems in the fifth section imagine the subjectivity of people in the contemporary Philippines, especially the interiority of people referenced in news stories (often sensational ones). "The Pepper-Eater," for instance, takes as a starting point a news item about the Guinness Book of World Record holder for most hot peppers eaten. The speaker of the poem is a champion pepper eater, where the act of eating hot peppers becomes a metaphor for a fiery engagement with life.
Oh, this flavor, this life! If sweetness reveals the fruit,
our character hangs on the burning flesh of bulbous peppers.
The intensity of peppers' heat resonates with the speaker's town's heat, with its "hot-tempered men, / exposed torsos all day, hungry for a night of peppery-itch."

The long poem, "The Gods We Worship Live Next Door," takes an interesting approach to considering religious conflict and political strife in the Philippines, focusing on Islamist separatist groups engaging in guerrilla warfare in the Mindanao region and struggles with Communist forces. The poem seems brings Catholic imagery, especially of mother and child (Mary and Jesus), to bear on questions of war, neighborliness, religious difference, and nationalism. In particular, the poem considers the sexual violence men bring to bear on women during war and the effects of such oppressive acts and conditions on children as well. This poem bears witness to the horrible situation of war and the question of how God or gods allow such suffering.
 
 
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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
janetisserlis: janetjanetisserlis on July 31st, 2013 04:20 pm (UTC)
thank you for this. Have you also read Bino Realyo's fiction? it is also stunning
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )