Review: Joel Toledo's 'Chiaroscuro' pits art, nostalgia versus childhood demons


Posted at Aug 19 2008 10:39 PM | Updated as of Aug 20 2008 07:34 AM


Courtesy Joel Toledo/UST Publishing House;Cover art Pancho Villanueva

By the year 2006 the Bridport Prize International Creative Writing Competition had earned the kind of  venerable reputation that only a thirty-year history, plus an impressive roster of winners and judges, could grant. Simply put: the Bridport Prize had become one of the most prestigious, major international awards for poetry and the short story in the English language.

It just so happened that in 2006, two poems submitted by a Filipino poet were picked to win the 2nd and 3rd prizes for the Poetry Division of the Bridport Prize. In the context of a non-reading (we would rather watch TV) and unliterary society like that of the Philippines, this was hardly front page news.

Still, that victory by a Filipino poet was significant culturally for the country when one considers that since the Bridport Prize was established in 1973, not a single Asian, not a single Filipino, had won the competition. And then Joel Toledo, who had started out his literary life as a short story writer, comes along and wins two prizes.

But not exactly---the competition rules barred contestants from receiving more than one prize per year, so Toledo had to relinquish the third prize worth 500 pound sterling, and instead received the 1000 pounds sterling cash that went with winning the second prize (by today's exchange rate, that's a little bit more than Php84,000).

We're not here to reflect on how much money a Caviteño poet like Toledo won--after besting British writers in their own language; he recently launched his first book of poems, titled "Chiaroscuro" at the MagNet bar, bookstore and art gallery along Katipunan Avenue, and lovers of poetry will feel rewarded to experience Toledo's work. 

Published by the Santo Tomas University Press, "Chiaroscuro" is a slim volume of poetry that packs quite a punch.

Beauty's fool

The most consistent impression I come away with after reading the poems in "Chiaroscuro" is how the speaker, the voice that wafts through the shadowy geographies of the poems, seems hopelessly smitten by the beauty of the language.

Indeed, the tone that pervades most of the poems in the book is that of hapless lover who experiences the beauty of the language quite intensely, powerfully, like a physical blow.

It is at this point that we remember something that German poet Ranier Maria Rilke (1875-1926) once wrote to describe the phenomenon, the experience of Beauty. He said, " is nothing but the beginning of terror/which we are still just able to endure/and we are so awed/because it serenely disdains to annihilate us./Every angel is terrifying."

And the angel of Joel Toledo's poetry is there, walking through the night of ambuscades, of terrors lying in wait, in the black, craggy landscape of a fallen world. It is a world that's ever ready to inflict loss, pain, death and awesome violence at any moment.

The angel that walks through the lines and spaces of Toledo's poetry is an angel of innocence, it is a angel-child who catches starlight in his wings, who seeks to explain the rhyme and reason for the violence, frailty and death it encounters in the world's darkness.

The results of that meeting between an angel of sublime innocence and luminosity, and the bloody, carnivorous, bone-crushing destruction that stalks the world's night are precisely the quiet, unassuming gems of language and breath that we recognize as poems.

And in at least some passages, Toledo conjures up some of the familiar feeling-tones that rise, darkly, from Rilke's work.

"And let me tell you now
why wings and doors and flowers really open, why
this wall, once non-negotiable, had let you in.
It is because all things want to open, that often
all you need do is ask. So that when, desperate
and despairing, you had said please, the hard heart
of the stone melted quickly, without much enchantment,
naturally generous, simply pleased."

("Open Sesame")

In those passages, Toledo's angel tells us that the unyielding violence we encounter in the world arises not from some natural order; we are told, quite contrarily, that it is nature's tendency to open up to and embrace us.

Perhaps, it is we who close up, who construct battlements, divide, conquer and play our petty politics, who prefer exploitation over nature's generosity.

Old wounds

Soon enough, the angel of innocence gives way to a child, a victim of an abusive childhood, a childhood that's been irrevocably marked by loss. It is a childhood that embraces deep night and cool starlight, the sillhouettes of trees, in the face of traumatic abuse.

"Exact is not the word; the hurting is felt
in many places.

"Consider the stars and their distant stabilities.
We had made sense of their positions
long before science understood
their symmetry, long before the world
was round.

"... The SkyLab fell in 1979,
wounding the world somewhere far
from what is significant: wood
and its natural hardness, the difficult carvings,
the impressions, welts on skin.
A father testing the firmness of a branch.

"... Orion’s belt, remote and unused.
Why not something more solid? A buckle
glinting in the half-dark, its erratic arc
slicing the atmosphere, the orbit of pain,
all the aching stretches of the universe,
and the child’s body yielding
upon impact."

("We Have Such Solid Measures for Pain")

Many other painful things happen to the child. The death of a grandmother, the helplessness against abuse, producing in the child simultaneous feelings of rage, insignificance and futility. This is detailed in luminous intensity by Toledo's poem, "The Wild":

"What little I know of luminosity, I learned
from this: a cheerless child weaving into the night,
negotiating the paths of ghosts. He is ten,
his frail hands clutching small darknesses.

"He doesn’t understand fear.
The fireflies have drawn him out, the evening
a terrible creature of jewels and gems. The house retreats
farther and farther back: broken, tamed."

And eventually the grown man who had been this child comes full circle, must inevitably face his child-self, the old angers, the woundedness:

"... he knows such wildness cannot be held.
I find him a short walk from the house,
caught in the tangle of night.
He is stabbing into the darkness, raging.

"And if I come closer, I will hear his heart pounding
fiercely, keeping wild rhythms, child breaking
into light: but listen, we must let go of these things.
I keep back and let the child be--broken, tamed."


 "Chiaroscuro" is more than just an exercise of facing one's demons. Let's not forget that what  raises Toledo's work above mere ranting and catharsis is his devoted pursuit of creating art out of the spaces (literal or metaphysical; unconscious or uncomtemplated) we pass by without notice, and secrets most of us would rather not face.

For Toledo, it is not enough to slay the dragon, not enough to know it is there. Rather, we must arrive at an understanding of its deeper nature: as a creature of mythical, terrible beauty that teaches us not only courage but awakens us to our own sense of purpose, allowing us to find our place in the scheme of things.

The craftsmanship that Toledo puts in his work is quite easily overwhelmed by the tonal power of his poems--read his poems aloud to feel the intensity . We won't go into detail but let it suffice to say that even the most casual reader (who reads the poems aloud) will sense the seamless marriage of sound and sense, feeling and insight.  

Toledo's best poems offer us several things: 1) an opportunity to sense the undercurrents of our daily lives even in the most mundane settings (the backyard, a rocking chair, cabinets as mentioned in "Monotone" and "This Dark House"); 2) a proper sense of the value of nostalgia, which is fast-disappearing as we keep Internet Time in cyberspace; and 3) a hovering sense of the fragility and temporariness of our peace, the sense that somewhere below the surface lies violence and death--not to panic us but to give us a larger perspective.

After all, it is in this world that we must live, a world that is filled with loss, frustration and destruction--but that doesn't mean that along the way we should stop enjoying our dessert of cool strawberies and cream, sunlight filtered through the leaves outside our window, or recalling the dance of fireflies in a long past evening in childhood.

Throughout "Chiaroscuro" we encounter a darkness that, we find out soon enough, does not obscure. Rather, it is a welcoming dark that promises revelation and nostalgia becomes the energy that propels us in the present.

In the same way that the child in Toledo's poems finds a worldless hope, and the capacity to dream in silence,  to catch anchorage in the smallest of lights, we are also invited to find our own places of light and shadow.

For in those places, even when we least expect it, we can become truly alive to the terrible beauty of existence, and realize that art does not simply convey or tell about a life experience--it is an experience in itself, and quite rewarding.