When Gemino “Jimmy” H. Abad was named this year’s National Artist for Literature, social media erupted with interjections. Not just the celebratory “hurrah” but the triumphant “finally” and all its variations and permutations filled our newsfeeds. Because not only did we feel the recognition was richly deserved; it was also long overdue.
It is hard to equal Jimmy’s range of literary achievement. He has done poetry, fiction, personal essay, literary scholarship, criticism, anthologies, poetry writing handbook, and spoken word. His books “Getting Real: An Introduction to the Practice of Poetry,” “A Native Clearing,” “A Habit of Shores,” “Underground Spirit Volumes I and II,” and “The Achieve of, The Mastery Of Volumes I and II” (co-edited with Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta) have a special niche on my bedside table.
“Care of Light: New Poems and Found” is one of my all-time favorite poetry collections, and the poignant title poem, on how the persona turns on the lights every night in his aging professor’s empty cottage, and turns them off in the morning, scrupulously following her instructions, in effect becoming “her lampligher on her silent asteroid,” still brings a lump to my throat.
He amazes Shirley Lua of DLSU’s Literature Department for his “unshakable passion for poetry, and for his relentless efforts in advancing the cause of Philippine literature (especially his poetics and the thrilling discovery of obscure, wonderful Filipino poets which he included in his anthologies).” And yes, to be included in his anthologies is enough to make one feel a winner.
His passion for poetry is not only legendary but contagious, and anyone who has had the good fortune of being under his influence in their early years, either as student or reader, will never recover from the spell. Poet Ceres Y.C. Abanil knows this: she read “Forever Advent” as a college student and for months had tightened her belt so she could buy his book “Orion’s Belt and Other Writings,” go to the launch and ask for his autograph. She was irrevocably charmed: he told her in detail the origin of her name, which has been repeatedly mangled to her eternal discomfiture. The charm still works: on his National Artist award, Ceres says “While I have not written anything in ages, I rejoice in seeing the literary world overflowing with applause for one who is not only a giant in letters, but also one who is genuinely kind and good. The first is phenomenal, the latter is providential.”
Spend a couple of hours with Jimmy, and you’ll probably know the origin of your name, too, plus those of a plethora of other words, including “theory” (from the Greek word theōrein which means contemplation or speculation); and “translation” (from the Latin word transferre, meaning “to bring over” or “carry over.” And before you know it, your guided exploration into the origin of words leads you to some realization about writing: that it is an act of translation: “you ferry or bear across the river of words.”
If you’re still impervious to his charm, wait until you hear him recite poetry from memory, and you don’t have to wait for a special occasion for this, because he does it anywhere--on stage, during awards nights, poetry reading sessions, book launchings; in classrooms, to the delight of his lucky students; in writers workshops and conferences; and yes, even in a boat while waiting for dolphins to appear near Manjuyod Sandbar in Bais, Negros Oriental.
His memory has limits, though. You have deep dark secrets that you can’t tell anyone but you need to unburden or you’ll burst? Tell Jimmy, because he forgets them right away. He forgets important dates, including his and Mercy’s wedding anniversary. But in his inimitable way, he more than makes up for it, how else, but through his writing.
In his essay “How to Handle—A Wife,” an allusion to King Arthur’s question how do you handle a woman, he says:
“How then does Arthur’s simple ditty hold still through our ashfall of years? How, it asks still, handle a woman? Aye, but there’s no handling. The same woman becomes a wife, the same man a husband, and the years pass through them like the wind, at times cool and balmy, at other times a tropical depression, and the wine of bright passion grows stale, and the flowers of their illimitable bliss fall as humus to their thirsting root …
“’O western wind,’ cries the anonymous lover, ‘when wilt thou blow, that the small rain down can rain?’ I shall be the rain, and you shall spread the earth for me; you shall be the wind, and I shall be its invisible breath. You and I, for the time left to us, shall be our small earth’s halcyon weather.’”
Jimmy dispels the popular image of professor-poet as isolated and unreachable. He wants his text to be reader-friendly.
“My sole aim is, in Horace’s words, dulce et utile: in Matthew Arnold’s translation, ‘sweetness and light’; I would say, ‘revel and revelation.’ I want my reader to share in the delight with language.”
He teaches, yes, but the teaching goes beyond his lectures and speeches. With his prodigious works, he teaches us not just to be better writers, not just to be careful critical readers, but to be better persons. He teaches us what his poetic persona teaches in his deceptively simple “I Teach My Child”:
I teach my child
I begin with our words,
The simple words first
Friends and lovers of literature, the word of the lord.
[Susan S. Lara is an award-winning fictionist. She is the author of “Letting Go and Other Stories,” winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.]