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Poems about Light: Philosophy, Poetry, and Illumination by Noelle Leslie dela Cruz, Ph.D.

Philosophy Department, De La Salle University

Good afternoon! My name is Noelle Leslie dela Cruz, Associate Professor of the Philosophy Department. It is my pleasure to welcome you all todays event, which is in line with our weeklong aesthetics festival and brought to us in part by our undergraduate student philosophy organization, DLSU Pilosopo. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the presence of two eminent Filipino poets: Dr. Gmino Abad, University Professor emeritus of literature and creative writing at the University of the Philippines, and our own Dr. Marjorie Evasco, University Fellow and Full Professor of literature at De La Salle University. Our aesthetics festival, entitled Thoughts on Taste, features a weeklong set of activities, workshops, and paper readings representing the different arts. Todays program is a tribute to one of the oldest of the fine arts, poetry, and seeks to celebrate its intimate connections with philosophy, the discourse about wisdom. Wedded by language, these two ways of being, if you will, are distinct yet ultimately convergent paths leading to enlightenment or illumination, which is our subject today. Thus, the philosophy majors, my students in Existentialism, shall be reciting five poems by Filipino poets who show us, through various images and implicit philosophical argument, what language does with light and how it affects our manner of seeing. To underscore the bond among the sister artsin fact, one of the pieces is an ekphrasis, a poem that addresses a paintingthe faculty and students of the Philosophy Department have composed their own musical interpretation of these poems about light. This is also our tribute to some of the most prolific voices in Philippine poetry. In his most famous work, The Republic, Plato refers to what he calls the perennial quarrel between poetry and philosophy. Adopting a dualistic view of reality which favors the abstract over the concrete, Plato rejected art (as mimesis) for being at least thrice removed from reality. Take for example the painting of a bed, Socrates says. It is a copy of an actual, physical bed, which itself is a copy of the carpenters idea or conception of a bed. But the true Form of the bed is intangible, universal, and ultimately unrepresentable, existing in an ideal other world. Our rational souls, however, can have access to the Forms by ascending the four different levels of knowledge. The lowest of these Plato calls the level of conjecture or imagination, a precinct to which he confines the works of Homer and other poets. Thus, to achieve enlightenment, one must ultimately leave behind the emotive and sensual ground of our being. In a delightful reversal of this logocentric hierarchy, poet Gmino Abad writes, in his short poem entitled Derridas Peut-tre, I think Derridas a poet! having worked so hard with logos il y a peut-tre, he says, perhaps
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there are forms of thought that think more than does that thought called philosophy. Ah, perhaps it is first feeling without word; feeling is deeper and wider than thought. Sonot to deridethe poet must needs leap over Derridas putatre. (Abad 2010, 73) That poetry is closer to feeling and philosophy to rational thinking is affirmed by Marie La Via, a young poet who had majored in philosophy and who had won the Philippines Free Press and Palanca awards in 2008 for the suite entitled The Gospel According to the Blind Man. In an essay about her creative process, she writes, Ive been writing poems for almost ten years, and took my first philosophy course about a year and a half ago. Inevitably this introduction has changed the direction of my writing in a way I have yet to put my finger on or fully articulate. My poems have always begun with imagery instead of idea, while philosophy is about ideas and uses a language quite different from literature. Still there are immediate similarities between the two disciplines. Both rely on language to process experience. Both love paradox. But for the most part, Ive yet to reconcile the two, even as one discipline affects my understanding of the other. It seems philosophy tends toward explanation, lucidity, while poetry thrives on ambiguity. They also approach insight in different ways, poetry less directly than philosophy. When I begin to write a poem, it is rarely with insight in mind. For me the poem has always communicated feeling before concept. Its language conveys imagery and sound before meaning. (La Via 2008, 1) This goes to show that despite the ancient line drawn between poetry and philosophy, the twoprecisely because of their contrasting approaches to what we call truthare in fact, complementary. This complementarity is demonstrated by the writing style of Plato himself, who, paradoxically, expressed himself in an exceedingly poetic way and used narratives that are flowering with symbols. His works, collectively called The Dialogues, are classic works of drama featuring his teacher Socrates, also his quasi-fictional mouthpiece. His entire philosophical system is presented through the memorable allegory of a man in an underground cave who breaks out of his chains, ascending to the real world outside which is illuminated by the light of the true sun. Meanwhile, in contrast to his teacher Plato, Aristotle, the great theorist of art as mimesis and author of one of the oldest works in literary theory and criticism, The Poetics, wrote in a logically rigorous and densely abstract form. Indeed, as La Via wrote, philosophy and literature have much to offer each other for the enrichment of both disciplines.

Later on in the 20th century, German philosopher and phenomenologist Martin Heidegger would abandon philosophical discourse in his inquiry about Being. Philosophy, according to Heidegger, had heretofore concerned itself solely with being (with a small b), which refers to the existing thing, and not its proper subject matter, Being (with a capital b), which pertains to no less than existence itself. Having failed in his unfinished treatise, Being and Time, to answer his own question, What is Being?, Heidegger later turned to poetry, primarily the works of Friedrich Hlderlin and Rainier Maria Rilke, for illumination. It is in the spirit of this long tradition of philosophical fascination with poetry that we bring you these five poems about light. The theme of light arose organically in our selection of Filipino poems in English to recite, inasmuch as the metaphor of light itself is integral to the activity of philosophy. The quest for knowledge has been defined as the quest for enlightenment, which is indispensable to wisdom. The journey of Platos escaped prisoner is one from darkness and into illumination. But we should not be misled by a superficial reading of Platos seeming preference for logos over emotion and the body, for light itself is paradoxical, and in fact contains many layers. Quantum physicists still cannot agree on whether it is a wave or a particle, showing that even the most rigorous empirical investigation is inadequate to describing reality. The phenomenon of light is especially elusive even for the many ruses of language, inasmuch as light is not what we see, but it is that which makes it possible for us to see. In this sense, it is not unlike the Heideggerian notion of Being. The first poem, The Properties of Light by Eric Gamalinda, is a lyrical paean to the spiritual aspects of light. The central symbol with which it opens is an elm that the persona comes upon in Central Park, in early autumn, which is burning with a light/grown accustomed to its own magnificence (Gamalinda 1999, 45). There are only so many ways that language can attempt to describe a mystical experience without doing harm to the experience itself, but Gamalinda accomplishes this with considerable narrative force, contributing to the way we see light which is in terms of the places it has traveled to. We end up believing him when he concludes, there is no other way to live than this,/still, and grateful, and full of longing (Gamalinda 1999, 46). The second poem, Sun in Empty Room by Joel Toledo, is an ekphrastic piece on a painting by the same title by American realist artist Edward Hopper. Toledo shares that he has long been fascinated by this particular painting by an artist famed for the starkness of his treatment of light (Kilates 2010, 1). As the title itself suggests, Hopper depicts a room which is otherwise empty except for the insidious presence of light. With his customary lyrical elegance, Toledo describes absence in terms of its opposite: presence, force, movement. He encourages us to see the many exists/existing in the shade, pointing to them as if/they have always been there and there/leaning sharply into the corner, found by the after-/noon emerging from the floor. (Toledo 2011, 62) The third poem, Lunas Lost Earrings by Marjorie Evasco, is a celebration of a womans special relationship with the moon. Indeed, critic Isagani Cruz has written that to read Evascos words is to turn into a woman. The light that she writes of here is a powerful luminescence that creates its presence in the backdrop of darkness. The moon, after all, represents the feminine yin
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principle. However, the poem encourages us to re-envision femininitys lunar association not in terms of womens traditional role as satellites in patriarchal society, but in terms of their selfsufficiency. Diana, goddess of the moon, is the virgin huntress: virgin in the sense that she will dance her dance of fire/Under the blue moon. Alone or with (Evasco 2009, 18). Lunas earrings are a special kind of mooni.e., the full moon of June, which occurs twice. Thus, they are symbols of wholeness and completion, the most beautiful form there is. The fourth poem, Fadeout by yours truly, is an attempt to describe, with brevity, the inchoate swiftness of time as experienced by a persona who is in the cusp of adulthood. The revelation of the speakers age, A year has passed and/I am thirty-one. points to the necessarily subjective landmarks in ones life in which things appear in a different light. The new urgency of existence makes itself felt through the image of my pupils adjusting to sudden sun, reinforced through the activity of language which is still loping/after flux, the lightning/swift bodies of things/contracting into dots. The brightness of the blank page can be both refreshing and merciless, both a warning about and an invitation to the existential crisis, and the new demand for finding ones form. The fifth and last poem, Care of Light by Gmino Abad, is about a light generated by humans: the lamplight. Thus, for it continue to illuminate, commitment, diligence, and a strong sense of duty are key. These qualities are exemplified by the lamplighter on a planet visited by the little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exuprys novel, which Abad alludes to. After his beloved professor has had to move to her sisters place due to old age, the persona assumes the task of turning on the lights in her cottage at night, and turning them off again in the morning. These actions mimic the dedication of a teacher who would call our names as though each had irreplaceable/post in her invincible order of things;/ and then, with her shoulders hunched, teach/with a passion that drive us bleating/on the open plain of the worlds sharp winds (Abad 2010, 59-60). This is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language by a professor about and for his professor, reminding us all why we teach, and how we learn. Putting this program together was quite an experience. Setting these poems into music involves not only creating a wordless melody and tempowhich entails a personal engagement between the musician and the poembut also figuring out the musical instrument that would best fit each ones sensibility. My colleague, Mr. Mark Anthony Dacela will play the piano, and students Wito Concepcion, TJ Meneses, Julia Villanueva, and Miguel Carag will play the acoustic guitar, the bass guitar, the violin, and the cahon, respectively. Our poetry readers are Caylene Canlas, Miguel Carag, Mia Sera Jose, Ninotchka Albano, and Rasel Alcancia. In line with the long tradition of poetry as artistic performance, the poetry readers also had to practice reciting these pieces in conjunction with the music, with just the right intonation, pauses, and feeling, so that the overall process really was a marriage of logos and intuition, thinking and feeling, mind and body. We would like to imagine that the duende, no less than the angel, would look twice at light. So, without further ado, let me present Poems about Light: Philosophy, Poetry, and Illumination.

References:

Abad, Gmino. 2010. Care of light: New poems and found. Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc. Evasco, Marjorie. 2009. Skin of water: Selected poems. Manila: Aria Edition, Inc. Gamalinda, Eric. 1999. Zero gravity. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books. Kilates, Marne. 2010. Approaches to infinity. The Electronic Monsoon Magazine, No. 20. Light & Shadow. [Available online] Http://moonmageditor.blogspot.com/2008/10/lightshadow.html. Accessed 18 July 2011. La Via, Marie. 2008. According to the blind man: On writing poems as a student of philosophy. [Available online] Http://www.admu.edu.ph/soh/global/module.php?LM=articles.detail. Accessed 18 July 2011. Toledo, Joel M. 2011. Ruins and reconstructions: Poems. Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc.

The Properties of Light by Eric Gamalinda Mid-October in Central park, one of the elms has changed early, burning with a light grown accustomed to its own magnificence, imperceptible until this moment when it becomes more than itself, more than a ritual of self-immolation. I think of sacrifice as nourishment, the light feeding bark and veins and blood and skin, the tree better off for wanting nothing more. I used to imagine the chakra like thisa hole in the soul from the top of the head, where the light of knowing can shimmer through. In the summer of 1979 I saw that light shoot from my brothers forehead as we sat chanting in a temple in Manila. He didnt see it pulsing like a bulb in a storm, but he said he felt the warmth that wasnt warmth but peace. And I, who have never been so privileged, since then have wondered if we believed everything because not to believe was to be unhappy. Ive seen that light elsewhere on a river in Bangkok, or pixeled across the shattered faades of Praguebut it is here where I perceive its keenest rarity, where I know it has passed over all the world, has given shape to cities, cast glamour over the eyes of the skeptic, so that it comes to be informed with the wonder of many things. I cant begin to say how infinite I feel, as though I were one of many a weightless absence touches, and out of this a strange transformation: the soul ringed with changes, as old as a tree, as old as light. I am always learning the same thing: there is no other way to live than this, still, and grateful, and full of longing.

Sun in Empty Room by Joel Toledo No need for furniture and moving figures and heartbroken women. For now, the light is enough to point out the many exits existing in the shade, pointing to them as if they have always been there and there leaning sharply into the corner, found by the afternoon emerging from the floor, more and more doors opening in the walls so that nothing is remaining when you get there. And never mind the window, which is only for entry.

Lunas Lost Earrings by Marjorie Evasco The almost-full first moon of June Rises above the labyrinth garden. And I hear her gather her skirt high, Up her thighs, as the slender fingers Of night pluck the first note of ache In her heart. She stretches out her arms To the burnished moon and puts it on Her left earlobe like a lost earring. In this month of blossoms brimming With two full moons, she sings of finding Her other lost earring. She will stretch out Her arms, put it on her right earlobe Then, she will dance her dance of fire Under the blue moon. Alone or with.

Fadeout by Noelle Leslie dela Cruz Many things disappear without explanation graveyard of cicadas in winters recollection, fifteen degrees of warmth falling into spring, longest vector of light in summer solstice. A year has passed and I am thirty-one. I have absorbed all color, turning a merciless white: The final washing, the blank page, my pupils adjusting to sudden sun. And language is still loping after flux, the lightning swift bodies of things contracting into dots. Life has become too bright to be seen.

Care of Light By Gmino Abad As soon as it gets dark, I turn on the lights in my old professors cottage, and the following morning before office, turn them off again. With one key I open the iron gate, and with two, the main door. I turn the lamp on in her library, the vigil light for the Sacred Heart on the shelf jutting out a wall; then I switch on the single electric bulb outside the kitchen, and last, the red and green halogen like Christmas lights below the front eaves. I follow strictly her instructions. She loves order in her life, and requires a similar order in other peoples behavior a discipline of mind sometimes terrorized by the haps and hazards of thieving time. She needs to be always in control, but shes old now and frail, can hardly walk, deaf and half-blind, and often ill, so that, having no choice, no housemaid able to endure her sense for order, she had to leave and stay at her sisters place, finally dependent. In the half-darkness and mustiness now of her deserted cottage, all its windows closed, her books and papers, once alive with breath of her impetuous quests, are filmed with dust on her long working table, awaiting it seemed her return. I think of how a time ago shed walk briskly to her early morning class, dressed in style to shame old maids; then call our names as though each had irreplaceable post in her invincible order of things; and then, her shoulders hunched, teach with a passion that, before the imperious gale of her questioning, drive us bleating on the open plain of the worlds sharp winds. So; at the days end, Im her lamplighter on her silent asteroid, among books, papers, rubble of chalk. I close the gate behind me as I stride out, making sure I hear the locks tiny click. I follow strictly her instructions. Down her street the street lamps cast my shadow ahead. Crickets in the bushes whirr according to their nature. In the same order, the sun too will rise tomorrow, and I shall be back.
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