First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
As the day rises to life, ears vigilant to the honk of a vendor
peddling bread, the bellow of another hawking soybean
custard, silky to the tongue, to the mouth’s hunger that
cannot be slaked—
—“Prime,” Rodrigo Dela Peña, Jr.
So begins Aria and Trumpet Flourish, Rodrigo Dela Peña, Jr.’s first and much-anticipated full-length poetry collection. Dela Peña, Jr., an award-winning poet and the author of two previous chapbooks, Requiem and Hymnal, has lived in Singapore since 2011. He was born in the Philippines, and his book transverses the terrain of faith and doubt, of poetic tradition, of Singaporean cultural history, and of personal grief. The book opens with a breathtaking suite of contemporary devotional poems, which recast the language of religious faith amidst the hustle-bustle of metropolitan life. Dela Peña, Jr.’s is a God-haunted poetry, realized in the quotidian detail of honking bread-sellers, bellowing hawkers, and the slide of soybean custard on the tongue.
if you are the creator then I am
what you created flesh blood and bone hair
sprouting from my groin the itch I feel
is that you god you are the bread the riven body risen lord create the scab
to crust my wound your hands can heal
and yet and yet you also let the body fail (“Hymnal”)
In taking the divine and rendering it deeply human—groin itch, crusted scab, the speaker positions himself within the central paradox of the Christian faith. With this move, the poems embody a conversation between the eternal and the temporal, the ordinary and the otherworldly, and, most poignantly, between tradition and lived experiences of desire, failure, and grief. As the poet contemplates iconic tropes of religion and mythology—including, in a later poem, the story of Icarus, Daedalus, and the Minotaur—he asks what it means to encounter the self and its surroundings within the inheritance of cultural history, joining T.S. Eliot in his consideration of the relationship between tradition and the individual talent. Thus we have the biblical character Noah, caught in the “sudden downpour and knee-high/ flood” of a tropical monsoon storm. We have a poem like “Vespers,” which originates in a reckoning with the sacred, but then takes on its own imagistic life, marked by the cadences of doubt and denial. In the midst of the MRT station’s rush-hour crowd,
God is nowhere
in the fading light, the suffocating smog
that envelopes the city. God is nowhere
yet you persist in invoking his name
amidst the rumbling crowd. God is nowhere,
the tinnitus hum repeated over and over: God
is nowhere, God is now here, God is nowhere.
Dela Peña, Jr.’s poems offer a blueprint for the contemplative life, which, according to some, originates in the conversation between the self and the sacred. Yet to engage with a divine interlocutor is to engage with the possibility that one is addressing an absence, and Aria and Trumpet Flourish takes this prospect head on, asking, as in the lines above, how God can be “nowhere” and yet “now here,” in the space of single breath. The book’s ongoing conversation with absence becomes deeply personal in the book’s closing section, in which the speaker’s father dies, becoming himself an absence: “Dear namesake Beloved father Senior/ and signatory Dear father gone and never// to be seen again” (“Requiem”). How can a father be so keenly felt in his—or His—absence? In the aptly titled “Now That My Father Is Gone, I See Him,” the speaker inhabits this poignant question in the hushed, imagistically lush lines:
I feel his presence
in rooms, in trees shedding their leaves, brown and crinkled
as his skin, the swoop and swerve of birds in unison,
before the world falls into darkness.
In places, the poems addressing the father’s death feel confessional and raw, yet even in these moments—or perhaps especially in these moments, Dela Peña, Jr.’s use of poetic form accords texture and complexity to the language, alchemizing the speaker’s sentiment into far more than sentimentality. Here, elegy doubles as a conversation with poetic form, as in “Father in the Hospital,” in which grief visibly ravages the page, enacted in the poem’s fractured lines and staggered tercets. In the pantoum-like “Father, I’ve Come Back to How We Started,” certain lines return over and over through ghostly repetitions, and elsewhere, imagined scenes from the father’s life are written in rough pentameter lines, calling to attention the fact of language as artifice, as a made thing. Yet even in its most unrestrained, doubt-riddled moments—as in the sequence “Hymnal,” which eschews capitalization, punctuation, and conventional sentence structure—the writing is formally constrained by the outer “room” of the sonnet, fourteen-line stanza made of lines that skirt the ten-syllable pentameter line, a metrical unit that is the mainstay of traditional English verse. The poem, a breathless tumble of doubt and questioning, appears to require an appropriate container, casting the heart’s wild tumult against the constraints of the form.
Throughout the collection, Aria and Trumpet Flourish remains carefully attuned to the impact of its aesthetic choices, and the poems proceed with measured grace, moving from lyric intensity to spareness, and from formal, metrical verse to looser, conversational tones with assured self-awareness. Dela Peña, Jr,’s voice, capacious enough to contain this multiplicity of modes, is at times song-like, prayer-like, but it is also lovely in its narrative clarity, evoking people and places recollected in tranquility: “It was high/ summer, the vista that whizzed by the window// bone-dry, washed by the glare of equatorial/ light,” (“Bus”).
As in the journey of the true contemplative, in its middle sections, Aria and Trumpet Flourish leaves the inner sanctum to venture deep into the heart of the world, leaving the interiority of Part I to plunge headlong into the fray: the Challenger explosion, Fukushima, the earthquake in Shenzhen, and a host of other catastrophes, both natural and human-made. Yet the poet’s commitment to form remains unchanged—the villanelle, the epistolary poem, the ghazal, and the abecedarian all make their appearance, bringing poetic shapeliness to his observations, especially when it comes to contemporary Singaporean life. Birds with “radioactive/ yellow beaks” scavenge for food scraps, José Rizal makes an appearance at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a monk strolls along the designer storefronts of Orchard Road.
Like the monk, who appears on several different occasions in Aria and Trumpet Flourish, these poems dwell in both the spiritual and material worlds, straddling conflicting realities and seeking to deploy poetic form as a mode of cultural critique. As in “Petals on a Wet, Black Bough,” which is a cryptic riddle of complaint and exile, “Ghazal on Luxuries We Cannot Afford” scrutinize the realities of contemporary Singaporean life, critically considering the nation’s social and political history and its implications on modern life. In these carefully crafted lines, the poet adopts the roles of truth-teller and moral conscience, asking what it means to value the necessary luxury of poetry in a society “awash in cash.”
Old mansions were wrecked, high-rise housing built in their place.
Flowers were uprooted, their frivolous colours a luxury we cannot afford.
A list of contraband drawn up. No chewing gum, no firecrackers.
No poetry. There was no space for a luxury we cannot afford.
And look where we are now, the progress that we reaped:
a city awash in cash, immersed in luxury. We cannot afford
to waste the power we have become, the riches we amassed.
We are the global 1%. There is no luxury we cannot afford
Among the many pleasures of this collection are the audacity and earnestness of its address: to God, to a late father, to a city-nation. With these poems, Dela Peña, Jr. crafts a truly unique encounter with the world and the self, one founded in religious experience but that transcends the boundaries of orthodoxy, re-enlivening tradition in some striking and original ways. Aria and Trumpet Flourish is one that brims with the ecstasies and agonies of being human, and in the poet’s own words, “This is my devotion: to account for the world’s bounty, its finite grace.// To exalt the flourishing it contains, to ache for what is taken away” ("Compline").
by Mia Ayumi Malhotra
Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Isako Isako, winner of the 2017 Alice James Award, the Nautilus Gold Award for Poetry, and a National Indie Excellence Award. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of Washington, and her recent poems have appeared in The Yale Review, CALYX, and Indiana Review.