Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The quality that characterizes the poetry of Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles is brevity. A book of his can be read in one sitting; a poem in less than a minute. Over the years, his poems have found company in sparser crowds, in the quietness of intervals, in the visibility of erasures. He tends toward frugality, and only through a spare use of language can he envision vastness. “I hate the feeling of excess,” he admits, though perhaps it’s not just the feeling but also the effect.
But this brevity does not concern the tininess of thought or shortness of spirit that relies on the weight of sudden ends. His words know where they are and are there waiting to be claimed. His figures of speech hardly feel heavy and heavy-handed. What may appear complex is in fact a display of honesty. One can call it precision, but this undermines the surprises in his surfeit, in the attempts at fullness that can be achieved only in ambiguity.
In 17 collections published by various publications in over 15 years, many of which by the small press collective High Chair to which he belongs, Arguelles has shown that he is not only one of the best Filipino writers at present but also the country’s most remarkable contemporary poet in Filipino, one whose dedication to his craft and its improvement is felt even in the shortest of his compositions, in his resolve to stay often on the ground to sit and observe.
Balancing his time between academic duties (he teaches literature and creative writing at De La Salle University), family responsibilities (he lives with his wife and two children), and publishing activities (he also edits textbooks and manages an online and print journal called hal., among other things), Arguelles is constantly writing poetry, although now he considers himself lucky if he manages to finish a good poem in six months. Hence, he is glad to welcome changes to his routine. In Oct. 2016, he started to work with ALAB, a non-profit organization of artists, on what would turn out to be his most challenging project yet: “Namamatay ang mga Nagmamahal” — a full-length CD album of his poems set to music, interpreted by artists who have agreed to give voice to his compositions.
In its early stages, ALAB co-founder Vins Miranda, who fully encouraged and supported the project, helped Arguelles. But the project eventually grew and became a community of artists who believed in it: Pearlsha Abubakar, Khrisczen Agres, Cucay Pagdilao, Ian Paolo Acosta, Joseph and Rachi Saguid, Keith Bustamante, Marvin Laureta, Valene Lagunzad, Lolito Go, Vincenz Serrano, Regine Cabato, Bobby Balingit, Ryan Reyes, and Apol Sta. Maria. Arguelles sent them pdf copies of his collections — “Menos Kuwarto” (Pithaya Press, 2002), “Ilahás” (High Chair, 2004), “Hindi man lang nakita” (High Chair, 2006), “Alinsunurang Awit” (High Chair, 2010), “Mal” (High Chair, 2011), “Mga Tala at Panaginip” (High Chair, 2012), “Guwang” (High Chair, 2013), and “Pesoa” (Balangay Productions, 2014) — and they selected poems that they wished to set to music. His only request was that they keep the poems intact.
Relying mostly on crowdfunding and the generosity of friends, “Namamatay ang mga Nagmamahal” had slowly come alive in six months of recording. Balingit volunteered to produce the album with the help of sound engineer Rj Mabilin, two key people whose creative input helped emphasize the lyrical and musical qualities of Arguelles’ poems and turn them into 17 songs of varying emotional intensities.
“I’m just a small part of this,” Arguelles says, and when one listens to the finished record, in compositions taken from eight collections whose themes range from love, loving, life, living, death, dying, existence, and existing, one feels the bigness and broadness that are not underscored in the poems, for they are essentially not poems any more, no longer moving merely between the paper and mind, between gaps of understanding, what with the distinct voices given to them, the accompaniment of guitars and piano, the fine-tuning of sound, the arrangement of highs and lows and softness and silence that, on one hand, makes apparent the capacity of the words to hold life and larger-than-life stories and, on the other, shows their willingness to be transformed into hymns.
In these new forms lie new sensations, and the interpretations done by each artist, one way or another, put fixed outlines and punctuations, with the use of dramatic devices via pauses, manners of phrasing, repetitions, vocal quality, and the liberties asserted to put the sound of the song forward. Which is a good thing. These are new lives, after all, and Arguelles could not have been more satisfied with the result.
In Abubakar’s “Kasama,” for example, there is a sense of lift given to a poem about encounters, about the paths of existence decided in a moment, beautifully encapsulated in that line, “Ang paghihiwalay ay paraan lamang ng pagtatagpo.” The romantic emotion in Agres’ “Habang Wala Ka” is mesmerizing in its calm and brevity. Whether she muses on light and darkness (“Oktobre 15”) or the death of an artist (“Enigma”), Cucay Pagdilao exhibits her soulful storytelling gifts. Such heart-rending weight is also felt in Valene Lagunzad’s “Awit ni Endymion,” enveloping the listener in the mists of the myth and dance of passion.
Arguelles’ request to “keep the poems intact,” of course, is meant to be circumvented. Joseph and Rachi Saguid (“Namamatay ang mga Nagmamahal” and “Ako ng mga Ako”) and Vincenz Serrano and Regine Cabato (“Aksidente lang ang Sarili”) have decided to pick verses from “Mal” and “Pesoa,” both book-length collections of erasures, and rearrange them for their songs. Which is only fitting because these pieces delve on the self, the many selves, the impossibility and variations of selves. Meanwhile, Apol Sta. Maria have done away with the verses altogether and bookended the record with the restful atmospheres of “Ang Tahimik na Berso” and “Si Cezanne sa Ulan.” For his part, rock icon Bobby Balingit — whom Arguelles regards as his hero: “I have all the records of Wuds!” — turns “Postscript” into an introspective five-minute tour de force.
Perhaps owing to the process of creation that puts the material at the center, there is nothing on this record that sounds half-hearted. Ian Paulo Acosta, who had to take on another artist’s responsibility, has a commanding voice that turns “Anyo” and “Ang Katahimikang Wala Ako” into memorable ditties, the former with its slow but onerous tune and the latter with its struggling cadence. The collaboration of Keith Bustamante and Marvin Laureta on “Handog” and “Fiat Lux” shares this seriousness, except theirs plays more with color, and the hook “Katawan/kata ng katawan” is one of the album’s enjoyable peaks. Lolito Go sings about life, art, and failure in “Ang Iyong Buhay ay Laging Mabibigo” and gives justice to Arguelles’ whimsical yet truthful sentiment. Finally, on “Bago ang Mundong Ito,” Ryan Reyes comes closest to the mood of Arguelles’ poetry and conveys the stillness that allows one to believe in the things to come.
At one point, while supervising the recording and seeing how the sound engineer meticulously makes sure every note is perfect, Arguelles has had a realization. “Poetry is music,” he thinks. “Poetry is sound. Therefore, to me, meaning becomes secondary. In poetry, they often give importance to what the poem is trying to say. But I think the poet has to listen to the sound of the words. That’s why it takes me so long to write now. I make sure the sound is right.” Then, in a flash of inspiration, he brings up the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. “I’m not sure if he really said it, but somewhere I read this. And I believe it’s true. He asks: ‘What is the similarity between music and poetry?’” Pause. “Poetry.”
“Namamatay ang mga Nagmamahal” album launch will be held at Conspiracy Cafe (59 Visayas Ave. Quezon City) on Mar. 24, from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tickets are ₱200 inclusive with one drink. The album will available at ₱300 each and is also up for pre-order. Visit the Facebook page for more details.