The best of both worlds

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By Lea C. Lazaro

A person’s roots, with unerring faith, holds him tight, giving him life and fueling his being. If he is uprooted, he takes with him the identity home has given him and with his new one.

This is exhibited by Eugene Gloria’s poetry in Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin Books, 2000). This first collection of 30 poems presents the acquired cultural identity of one who has resided in two different nations—the Philippines and the United States of America—with an established awareness of the social and historical influences of the two countries.

Eugene Gloria was born in Manila and raised in San Francisco, California. He studied at the San Francisco State University, Miami University of Ohio, and the University of Oregon. His works have earned him an artist’s grant from the San Francisco Art Commission in 1995, the 96 Inc.’s Bruce P. Rossley Literary Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Memorial Award. He is currently teaching at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

Drivers at the Short-Time Motel was selected by American poet and fictionist Yusef Komunyakaa for the 1999 National Poetry Series, a literary awards program which funds the publication of five poetry books every year.

Man’s lot

Gloria presents the hard life of people who do not feel their country’s graciousness. In “Winter Fires,” people are forced to vacate their building and are helpless to plead otherwise: “That night the cold swept across our slippered feet/ the fire engines warm and still…as my anthemless neighbors and I stood/ clutching our secret possessions pressed/ against our breasts as if we were all/ pledging allegiance to some cruel god/ who stole us away from happy sleep.”

Another example is “The Maid.” A man sits alone in a restaurant, thinking of his sister who works as a photographer in America. A girl in rubber slippers walks into the restaurant, and the persona “watched her as my sister would/ trail the still flight of a hummingbird…But when her gaze locked into mine, her eyes widened/ like the mouth of an animal about to swallow its prey—/ they were saying, I know you, I know you.”

Society and politics dictate

The author touches upon several significant events that rocked the Philippine political scene. One of these is the arrival of American GIs in air and naval bases, as depicted in “Subic Bay:” “At 12, Lita acts Imeldific…she dances on a platform/ above a sailor from Norfolk, Virginia/ who will not recognize the hopscotch girl/ at the elementary school by the PX…In a nightclub, Lita worries/ about tomorrow’s lesson when/ she must conjugate the verb/ to be.”

“Song of the Pillar Woman” is divided into two parts: EDSA and LAHAR. EDSA describes the operations of the Philippine Constabulary on otherwise normal days: “We read about a girl in a starched white uniform…January 5, 1993. She was sprawled on the road…A voice, quotidian and homely, whispers:/ ‘Sayang, such a shame; a Chinese, only 15/ Her driver, some say, was in cahoots with the PC…/ There was no other way, they had to kill him too.’”

In the second part, LAHAR, the persona narrates her plight of having two jobs; selling medals and religious remembrances, and washing clothes, which barely rakes in income. The hardships were brought on by the onslaught of lahar. “Moonshock of dunes, ashfalls, mounds of salt/ ancient pillars circled by cicada songs./ I cannot love them, these things I list…Believe in my stories/ Every ending has two versions: each beginning with the sea/ If there were two worlds we are made to inhabit/ I would prefer the one I was forced to leave.”

Another poem refers to an incident of violence in Asia that shook the world. “News of Pol Pot’s Capture” tells of a man driving somewhere, half-heartedly listening to the radio about the capture of the Cambodian mass murderer. “I could sleep like an entire race/ of bones underneath the tall grasses/ where a man hacks and hacks/ at something in the heat./ Once in a while he might stop/ to examine the pattern of a tattered fabric/suspended on the tip of his machete/ and try to remember his wife.”

Love, finally

The collection also features poems depicting love, both lost and consummated. “The House in San Miguel” tells of a house cradling several memories of love and family. “I’d rather tell you that I am weeping/ over a poem by Chong Lau about a man/ without a country, mourning his wife/ than admit that I am waiting/ for a warm hand against my cheek/ like the touch of a lovesick/ spirit who startled a maid/ in the keep of sleeping strangers…But night is long and no one comes…”

“Pan de Sal” has underlying thoughts of an early childhood experience. The persona talks of a boy who buys the bread every morning. One day the bread falls to the ground through the broken paper sack. “Did the earth love the pan de sal / enough to summon them from his arms?” “Maybe his great fall is in remembering that first kiss/ when he was seven and the other boy, only five—/ maybe in that first kiss he is forgiven/ because he wants forgiveness, wants always to be loved.”

A husband reminisces about his wife’s arrival in his life, and reflects on his love for her in “White Flower.” “Legend has it that elopement/is another’s word for abduction/ this woman’s version, perhaps not as sweet…Once there was a man who palmed seeds/ on smooth earth as if they were memories/ and a woman’s tenderest hands gave in to love.”

Gloria’s Drivers at the Short-Time Motel offers a wider perspective of social issues such as poverty, subordination and lost freedom through soft-spoken truth. Using a steady, almost musical pace that befits the poignant lyricism of his poems, the author has attempted to use a more expansive study of man’s temperaments and submission to circumstances. More importantly, it relates the survival of the Filipino during times of struggle and conflict, instilling in him the very blood of the nation.

Montage Vol. 6 • August 2002