Wednesday, February 7, 2018



Marawi  by Albert E. Alejo & Eileen R. Tabios, with translations by Aileen Cassinetto
(Mi-Go Zine Issue 2 Paloma Press, 2017)

Albert E. Alejo is a Filipino Jesuit priest who worked with trade unions and informal labour groups in Manila before earning a doctorate degree in Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A published poet and philosopher in his native Tagalog language, he is now based in Mindanao where he engages in advocacy for indigenous peoples’ rights and in dialogue with Muslim civil society. He teaches graduate courses in anthropology, philosophy and development studies at the Anteneo de Davao University.

Based in California, Eileen Tabios has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction and essays, and experimental biographies in eight countries and cyberspace. She has also edited, co-edited or conceptualized 13 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays as well as served as editor or guest editor for various literary journals.

An extract from a Wikipedia entry on the topography of Marawi offers us with an idyllic portrait of Lake Lanao and hills that surround Marawi, officially known as the Islamic City of Marawi, being the largest Muslim city on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. The book cover is equally idyllic—a blue-coloured boat tied up at the shoreline hinting at journeys to come.

In stark contrast, the catalyst for this pamphlet of poems, one each by Tabios and Alejo, a bilingual edition in Filipino and English with translations by Aileen Cassinetto, was the Marawi siege—a five-month armed conflict which started on 23 May 2017 between Philippine government security forces and militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which became the longest urban battle in the modern history of the Philippines. In the early days of the siege, residents were advised to stay locked in their homes until troops arrived but as the fighting continued many fled for their lives. About 300,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and stay in temporary shelters outside the city. A quote from ChannelNewsAsia heads up Tabios’ contribution.

Whenever there is news of war or of extreme weather events I not only think about the cost to human life but I also feel for all living things. I often wonder what happens, for example, to domestic and farm animals who are caught up in such situations.  Aside from the news of human casualties, we are never told anything about them. As innocent victims, their injuries, sufferings and deaths, go wholly unreported. Tabios addresses this in her poem “Marawi’s Pets.”

In her poem, the threefold repetition of the word somehow which appears at different points throughout the text lends a sense of dignity while at the same time expressing a sense of puzzled disillusionment. In English, the repeated use of the plosives b and p as in behind, bowls, beckons, buzzing, bear, bombarded and petted, poster, proclaim, puppy, pock-marking, etc., provide the soundtrack to the violence that has taken place during the siege.

Tabios chooses to highlight the crisis by the use of contrast:

signs recall lives
now evaporated

One poster proclaims
Graduate!” Another
sign beckons for
health examinations
Yet another indicates
a school road crossing

Here we have a snapshot of academic advancement, good health and a safe society; everything that adds up to security which is just what the abandoned animals are looking for now. The security of the daily routine has been destroyed. There is a torn road, there are torn pages, calendars have been ripped from the walls. Rupture is at the core of this poem.

Alejo provides us with a very different contribution. Despite the difference in tone, it is surprising how, by changing a single letter in a word, we can bring these two poems so close to each other. I am thinking here about the words RUPTURE and RAPTURE for rapture is at the core of this poem. In “A Hand’s Breadth Journey,” the topography of Mindanao that he sees in his own hand is to a certain degree mirrored in the palm of a lover’s hand. Alejo’s love for his country is expressed in terms of his longing to be with a loved one but moments are never still for long enough and meetings have to take place in secret. The topography, expressed in terms of ravines and brooks against a backdrop of clouds and the changing seasons all point to nature in a state of constant flux because nothing can remain the same forever.

Rapture is about extreme delight, it seizes us like the clasp of a hand, it carries us out of this world, it transports us somewhere else. It is not surprising that the word Journey in the title should be complemented by the word trip at the end. A handbreadth is by definition the length of the hand from the wrist to the fingertip, a space of about 7.5 or 10 centimeters. Alejo offers us a poem in miniature. Like Tabios, he is concerned about the safety and safekeeping of his homeland.

[Editor's Note: I don't usually post reviews of my work as I edit Galatea Resurrects, but I make exceptions for publications that involve other writers--Eileen Tabios.]


Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey (Littoral Press, 2010); Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014); and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). His work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.