Nob 16, 2014

MASKING, SPLITTING, AND RALLYING THE SELF: A reading of Lacaba’s “Diyalogo ng diwa at damdamin”

“Dialogue” in this poem is an act, a way of splitting the self in order to contemplate and formulate a solution to a problem. However, these apostrophes never fully separate from each other nor do they become truly human characters. Hence, in the title we have “diwa at damdamin,” not “Diwa at Damdamin”. The voices are too similar (ex. damdamin: “aruy, aruy, aruy,” diwa: “naku, naku, naku”) and agree almost immediately with each other. They both raise questions and issue answers in the same way (ex: diwa / damdamin: “If that is the crisis / what ought to be done?” and “If you ask me / I’d tell you this...”).

Note that the dialogue began and ended with diwa. It raised the first question and delivered the final articulation of the solution. Diwa and damdamin came closest to an argument when the manner of solving the crisis became the issue: must we take the problem head-on or resort to circumvention (i.e., the use of masks)? Must one sing the old song or “the true” (i.e., the truth of the poem’s present-day)?

The artifice of this separation—the premeditation and deliberateness behind it—brings us to question why unity was considered wanting, incapable of solving the problem. Perhaps the unity pre-existed, and that the very fact of splitting indicates the power of the adversary (the queen): that the self needed to be halved, but also doubled, in order to face the enemy.

It’s also possible that the self had always been split into two (or more) in the persona and that these sub-selves are being hailed (and are hailing each other), being rallied toward a solution.

The mask is central here, a method as well as the bone of contention (according to damdamin: “how hard it is to breathe behind a mask”), but also as the identity of the agonists, as damdamin and diwa are also masks, apostrophes that preserve the “I” hidden in the poem.


In order to clarify damdamin’s framing of the problem, diwa poses a question: Wherein lies the difficulty? Before we address this question ourselves, we need to discern whether or not diwa changed its sentiments in the course of the dialogue.

                      Kung ako ang tatanungin
                      ito ang aking sasabihin:
                      kumanta ng lumang kanta
                      tungkol sa dragon at prinsesa
                      o prayle’t Katipunero
                      o Kano at insurekto
                      o Hapon at gerilyero—
                      kahit luma, may tugmang totoo.

Here we have diwa’s position regarding creation in their present straits while “the work of art is guarded,” “contained,” “mutilated,” and “prohibited”. The old song is being proposed as an alternative here. The artist would enter an old form (such as this present dialectic), accept its restraints, all to slip from guards and wardens of thought, their prohibition of free speech, disallowing these guards from cutting or blocking their expression, choosing to police the self rather than suffer censorship or imprisonment. Since diwa has chosen to shape art according to a poetics of subterfuge and evasion, it embraces the necessity of the “masks” found in old songs, an old style if we consider Florante at Laura as a form of masking, if we remember how Simoun “dressed” his personal tragedy in the smoke and mirrors of ancient Egypt, addressing it to his rival, Padre Salvi.

Diwa lines up the historic figures as types (prayle, Katipunero, Kano, insurekto, Hapon, at gerilyero). The list begins with a dragon and a princess, as if history itself borders on fantasy, depending perhaps on how it is used, how it is worn. A special problem here, where history could be set up as a manner of evasion. Diwa’s poetics had been derived from his samples, the tactics of the Katipunan, guerrilla warfare, and insurrectionists being brought to bear not merely as the poem’s decor, but perhaps its motivation. “Diyalogo” could be read as an aesthetic assimilation of violent subversion.

However, these tactics lead us to an ordering of the present predicament as a fantasy, the allies and enemies not named, projected into other identities and time frames. On one side we are given the protagonists of the national fantastic tale—princess, Katipunero, insurrectionist, and guerrilla. Ranged against them, the antagonists—dragon, friar, the American, and the Japanese.

A solution has been found then, the work of art surfaces as projected, having slipped through enemy defenses, escaped censorship. A new problem surfaces, however. The artist needs to guard his own name, submerging signs that indicate his milieu, burying the struggle of his people under masks. Lacaba himself does not name the dictator or the first lady, does not list the imprisoned or the desaparecidos, the martyrs of the cause. It comes as no surprise when damdamin complains:

                      Ang hirap kumanta ng lumang kanta,
                      ang hirap huminga kung nakamaskara.

Diwa and damdamin then changes their roles, diwa raising the question for damdamin to answer. However, it falls again to diwa to speak in the declarative, sum up their dialogue, provide the resolution:

                      Awitin mo ang totoo,
                      sagad-buto, tagos-apdo.
                      Ang totoo ay mabuti
                      kahit mapanganib sa iyo.
                      Ang totoo ay maganda
                      kahit pangit sa reyna.

Mind the shaping of this response. It maintains elements of the “old song,” containing two rhyming pairs (totoo/iyo and maganda/reyna). While the rhymes ring true, diwa does not commit to the scheme and leaves one pair unrhymed. The same goes for meter of the stanza with eight syllables in almost every line but not in all, the last line lacking a breath.

We don’t see “reyna” capitalized, unlike Kano and Katipunero. It falls under the same category of medieval-type fantasy as the dragon and the princess. “Reyna” partakes of the poem’s “present-day” as an alternative method of naming the adversary, not directly, exalted perhaps as the last word of the poem— almost as if the queen was the poem’s main objective—but not to the point of making a proper noun out of “reyna,” a form of mockery rather than respect.

Notice also that where diwa sees danger (mapanganib), damdamin finds difficulty of breath. The mask poses a predicament for damdamin (“how hard it is to breathe behind a mask”). Damdamin would rather breathe easy, would rather resort to popular tunes, to narratives where heroes and villains are unambiguous, the line between them clear-cut.

Damdamin pines for the direct expression of “lust” and “suffering” as opposed to diwa’s princess and dragon. In diwa, we find an affirmation of the mask as an instrument of resistance, of truth, in fact, for while difficult and perilous, the mask must be worn, a form of it sung, for the very presence of these masks indicate the truth of oppression, the beauty of making-do, and the good behind the sacrifice of safer, more popular forms—along with the easier ways of breathing and thinking—in order to oppose the queen and achieve the freedom desired.


                      kumanta ng lumang kanta
                      tungkol sa dragon at prinsesa
                      o prayle’t Katipunero
                      o Kano at insurekto
                      o Hapon at gerilyero—

These pairings are mythic in the sense that they represent old structures but also because they present types, i.e., simplistic binaries. El Filibusterismo presents differences of personalities among the clergy, ranging from the lascivious to the kind of heart. History presents the case of insurrectionists, the differences in their methods, the terms of their struggle or surrender, their aspirations. So too for the guerrillas whose weapons are trained against the Japanese, yes, but also against the guerrillas of other regions.

In Lacaba’s lines, however, these differences are submerged to assume the form of “song”. We need to interrogate the definition of “truth” here, that aside from rhyme ringing true so too must the reason, the contents and intents of the song prove true.

“And” is also significant, joining the pairs together instead of the expected “versus”. It seems that these symmetries of presentation (heroes in one column, villains in the other) sterilize the topic and its song in an interesting manner. Yes, it is still about struggle but time and language has rendered it impotent, so that instead of violence we receive pairs robbed of gravity, instead of the betrayal of an old friend, the rape of the wife at the hands of the enemy, all we have are words paired off in the shape of a fairy tale.

We get the sense of a safe topic, of songs serving solely the purpose of entertainment. And while the rhyme remains true, the song calls us away from reality.

Compare this with the complicated pairing of diwa and damdamin, similar in voice but not in terms of interest and method. Aside from this, the possibility that this pair (that weaves other pairs) exist inside the consciousness of one individual or a group of like-minded people, and that this person/people is besieged by a clear threat, a nameable and present danger, the source of containment and mutilation, censorship and torture, the force (or system of forces) masked in poem as “reyna”.


Some literature resists being decoded, being spelled out, close-endedness at times beheld as a manner of death. If for example you have the moral lesson in file, then rest of the fable become mere backdrop, the characters assume the two-dimensionality of cut-outs. If a poem is kept open however, doubt and double-meaning kept as intrinsic to the form, then the poem becomes deserving of a reader's conversation.

While literature enters and at times actively courts discourse, it also maintains means of undermining definitions, evading full view, provoking contrasting ideas and entertaining non sequiturs, therefore stimulating discourse by means of multiplicity (therefore deferral) of meaning.

Poetry has provided centuries' worth of these procedures—passed on from generation to generation as rhetoric, poetic devices, and imagery—and continues to find novel ways of generating such procedures because of its intense attention to language, language being the inescapable site, unavoidable method, and (in the case of literature) undeniable objective of discourse.

One feature of poetic discourse that deserves special mention in the case of "Diyalogo ng diwa at damdamin" is self-reflexivity. This poem systematically upon its origin, the difficult conditions of its own "coming to being", its basic struggle and definitive aspiration. Whenever words like "song," "rhyme," and "art" are mentioned, we consider these as instances of the poem directly contemplating the possible duplicity of its nature as well as its desired fidelity to truth. Definitively too and true-to-form, the poem disputes with itself regarding these very notions about itself.

Thus we may read the poem as a performance of an active choosing of its own identity (pop ballad? lullaby? a document of damning truth?).

There are also indirect ways of referring to the poem's self. It's use of the image of the "mask" might be considered as itself a manner of masking, a hidden possibility for the poem to behold itself, its truth as a poem, especially as this co-occurs with other truths: the peril of the poet, the plight of the crowds, and the cruelty of the powers that be.