Poems from The Second World


Two days ago I bought an engine
for a rice thresher in the heart

of Nueva Ecija. When evening came
I could not sleep. The wind would not

allow my trees to just be.
I walked out into the night

smelling of mangoes and eucalyptus.
The moon died of boredom.

It is never as beautiful
anywhere else when the plains

are silver, and god is bellowing
from the darkness

to come play in his fields.
It is like a dream

you find yourself in
where the eye is free

of those things that get in the way
of seeing heaven.

The field is whipping itself.
I watch the world go by for once

without hesitation or regret.
My dog howls and I know why.

There is nothing
morning about the weather.

Crickets slash through the silence.
Frogs chant as though doomed.

I am sitting by a rock.
My skin is silver.

So is my dog’s.
Bats take their place

among the stars. And I am
on the ground

thinning that space
between spark and unholiness.

So that when they marry,
I can come between them

and lose all my suffering
to that tight squeeze of loving.

The good will always know
the ravage in keeping still.

Like my dog who knows
how to love.

He is filthy and he is innocent
and there is nothing more to it.

So many words have been cast
beyond what is necessary.

The mind is greater than the heart
when it levitates.

A dream is made,
a story fades away.

* * *


I’ve broken so many things
in that house, gotten into

so many fights with my brothers.
And now my mother is on one line

Yelling her demands. My father
is on the other phone telling me

to fix it. I make them turn
away. I do the taxes. I am

the wire stretched out across
their lives. When you are young

your family is everything.
Until one day you’re old enough

to know that even when we are held
together by it, love can be a mistake.

The birthday gifts. Grandfather’s
war stories. Ninang’s secret recipes.

There must be a reason we can’t
undo anything. Tremor from contact,

our histories hurtle us onwards
before we can grasp them.

There is so little that separates rage
from joy. The brief years in our lives.

The faded old things we’ve taken
from the voyage. What we’ve given

up. We sold our old house today.
So now I am busy moving out

the moth-eaten rug, eerie old
paintings, unused cutlery.

The living room has squeaky clean squares
where the pegs of sofas used to be.

What’s left in the kitchen are two
tin cans remained unopened for years.

Rafael Antonio C. San Diego
Ateneo de Manila University



           Some time back, I asked a few friends which among the following they prioritize when writing poems: memory, phenomenon, imagination. I told them that there is no catch-all answer to this: that it’s just about preference.

           As expected, the answers were myriad. After all, this is a tricky question that is subject-based; any one of those could be ranked first. Of course, there are many other concerns and fields to consider (Philosophy, History, Science, Religion, to name a few). Moreover, the query comes across as something that has more to do with poetics than the impetus to write poetry. The assumed is that language is the vehicle, the propeller. Command of it is the given, whether language be, as the poet Robert Hass said, “an elegy” to the signified.

           The common platform, these days, has veered away from derelict and beauty, from the spot-lit dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. Yes, no poet now will deny a need for experimentation, if only to get away from his/her comfort zone, which is usually cathartic poetry.

           But aren’t all these diversions just about the conscious? The effect of the good poem comes from it being guttural, offering a seeming rawness: which is not to mean necessarily the conceptually-sound, but the simply affective. Only in the editing is the poet not drunk with choice. Insert this, en-jamb that, indent here…

           Let’s admit it: a thematic collection is hard to come by for the poet. That house is founded, decorated, or even corroded by the critic (who could be the poet him/herself). Theme is always after the fact, a fact dismantled by, for example, temperament, circumstance, a long day of queuing. Imagine a scenario where everything falls into place: The exit is where it should be, the guests leave at the stroke of midnight, the waiting bed extra-soft.

           That’s pure nonsense because the world of the poet is not located in the context of hardcore fantasy. To be involved in poetry is to find ecstasy in moments, and to have language at the figurative tip of one’s fingers so as to try and capture the fleeting. Poetry is either a passage or a labyrinth. It’s not an access with no exit, a world without end.

           Far too many have tried to move ancient stones. And a great few have just visited to marvel at them, to feel good about that wonder.

           Rafael San Diego’s debut collection of poems takes us back to that wonder. It is a haunting exploration of the world, of its animated and immobile things. The Second World is an oft-lyrical sojourn, depicting both the inner life and the phenomenal. Both invoked and informed by meditation, astonishing claims, and keen turns of phrase. In this book, the world endures—while more flowers grow unvisited, uninspected, San Diego insists that they are nevertheless there.

           The Second World is replete with allusions to memory, phenomenon, and the imagined. It navigates the city, tracks the hunt in the fields of provinces, allows the camera to pan so it points inward to personal hurts and celebrations. Both in terms of concern and style, these poems are eclectic, yet the tone is both lyrical and declarative.

           San Diego presents the volatility of The Second World. “State of the Nation Address” sets a strong, seemingly pontificating tone because it is written in the form of a manifesto. The strength of this poet’s ability to make assertions become more crystallized in more-personal and sectioned poems such as “It is Dark Outside and I am a Light,” “sketches of space and reruns with my dog,” “Autobiography,” and “my name in reverse”.

           These poetic claims juxtapose well with poems that are in medias res. In “Moving”, for example, we see the humanization of a vulnerable persona and more importantly, a graceful sublimation of grief. This canopy concern elevates to lyrical ruminations as in poems like “Apology,” “Leap of Faith,” “The Study”.

           In most of the poems here, the poet involves the “I” persona’s conflict with the self and manages to displace with ease. For example, the recurring image of the mother plays a big part in the collection: image of a city as the Mother as presented in “Veneer”: (Sequined city, lamplit goddess, Manila, mother, whose grime and bustle are stolen by / the night), image of the mother as a stranger, and mother as the epitome of grace.

           San Diego’s ability to displace goes hand-in-hand with his keen sense of location. Here is a poet not trying to sound like a foreigner with his diction; a poet unabashedly Filipino, whose données concern not just the self, but place and nation (“sampaguitas,” “Pasig,” State of the Nation Address,” “my name in reverse”).

           On a personal note (and because not all forewords need be replete with rhetoric), Waps is a dear friend. We first met years ago on a night he was high and drunk on The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Clash. Part-punk, part-new waver, he sported a Mohawk, carried a Bukowski line everywhere. (I am inclined to think he was already the epitome of the hipster way before the term was even coined, way before its current duplicitous connotation.) Those were merry times; no politics, keeping up late pondering on witching-hour epiphanies like she-monkeys, our fierce, always-requited loves for/of dogs, and attentiveness. The heart behaves, retrieves. Bouts and fits of rage and grace in Que Rico. A good Friday in Nueva Ecija. Tons of happy Mondays.

           That language is not deadened, muffled, even openly stylized—is this collection’s sharp retort to those more into conceptual poetry. It could be humorous and witty on the one hand and heart-warming/breaking on the other. But The Second World is never a cerebral collection banking on gimmickry.

           To tell the truth is every poet’s greatest lie. Conversely, to accept that lie is the reader’s greatest truth. For how else to say something new? For the reader, involvement; for the poet, it begins with taking risks. For both, consensus, in-between-ness. The heart, after all, as the poet Stephen Dunn once said, “is to be spent”.

           That there is no fear in its risking—in being earnest about its concerns—is what makes The Second World habitable.

Joel M. Toledo
Miriam College

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