A Review of “Three Books,” by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles translated by Kristine Ong Muslim reviewed by Thomas Dorsett

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, Three Books, translated by Kristine Ong Muslim, Broken Sleep Books, 2020, ISBN-13: 978-1913642-15-0178 pages

Due to my connection with Philippine poetry, I was asked to review a collection by the Philippine poet, Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, entitled Three Books, (Broken Sleep Books, Cornwall/Wales, 2020). This bilingual edition (Tagalog-English; it includes English translations by Kristine Ong Muslim and illustrations by Erika M. Carreon).  I must say at the outset, however, that my connection to Philippine poetry rests solely on being mentored by José Garcia Villa in the late sixties and early seventies.

Villa was the dean of Philippine letters (in English) at that time, as was the case since about 1940. His collection of short stories, Footnote to Youth, published in 1933, was hailed by critics. His first collection of poems, Have Come, Am Here, published in 1942, was a literary sensation.  He was a seminal figure in the development of Philippine poetry and short stories in English.  In the words of Marianne Moore, “I believe that this poet has a very strong place in literature.”

Although he was the recipient of many awards and was nominated for a Nobel Prize by the Philippine government for many years in succession, I am not sure to what degree Moore’s assessment applies today, but he was undoubtedly a great poet and a wonderful teacher. He predicted that one day his work would be rediscovered. Fairly recently, Penguin Classics published his collected poems, Doveglion, in 2008, which undoubtedly helps in that endeavor.

An important factor to mention here, in consideration of the book I am about to review, is that Villa was the virtual inventor of the found poem, which he called Adaptions. Since Arguelles’ s opus contains found poems as well, I thought it might be helpful to contrast them with Villa’s Adaptions, an example of which follows:

                              Death of Apollinaire

                               His small room was                                
                           Full of shadows and
Shadowy figures: His face

                           Illuminated by linen                               
                       On the bed. A laureate 
Beauty! So radiant we thought

                           Of young Virgil: Death,                               
                       In Dante’s robe, pulling
Him, as children do, by the hand.

From the Journals of Jean Cocteau

Notice the masterful versification here. In this example as in others, prose has been transformed into poetic gold at the hands of a remarkable alchemist. 

We have a different type of found poem in Arguelles’s work. Villa’s system was locating an interesting passage, and subsequently versifying it, without much tinkering. Arguelles uses in every poem of the book a technique known as erasure. The Academy of American Poets defines erasure poetry as follows: “Erasure poetry, also known as blackout poetry, is a form of found poetry wherein a poet takes an existing text, and erases, blacks out, or otherwise obscures a large portion of the text, creating a whole new work from what remains.” Language isn’t primary in Three Books, neither is versification; the goal is often the creation of  images or metaphors to ponder over. 

It is difficult to assess the language quality here, since I can only follow them In the effective English translations provided by Kristine Ong Muslim.  What we have are prose poems.

The technique of erasure reminds me of gold mining, the attempt to extract gold from rocks. Once in a while you get a gem; at other times you simply get a smaller piece of rock. Erasure poetry is a very difficult technique to use exclusively.

The ‘three books’ consist of three previously published chapbook collections. Antares, Chi, and Mal. The first collection, Antares, was formed by the erasure of an internet movie database of sexually charged quotes from filmmakers. 

The title poem, Antares, follows in its entirety:

The body’s audience is not the gaze. 

Not exactly gold. Others are more precious, such as the quote from the director of the film, Brown Bunny, a film which, incidentally, was deemed by one critic to be the worst film ever screened at Cannes up until that time (2000):

An ending is lodged within love.
The culmination of love.
A love, true love everlasting.
The one becoming one with the one.
This is a landscape, foreboding.

The last line redeems this poem. It indicates, with the final word, that the fairy-tale ending, “And they lived happily ever after,” sometimes might end in disaster, its aftermath indicated, perhaps, by a blank page.

The second collection, Chi, I found to be the most interesting. It consists of the erasure of a memoir by a Philippine senator, Chiz Escudero.  One can infer from the poems, perhaps with no more authority than experts have in their interpretations of the enigmatic Mohenjo-daro seals, that the senator indeed had something interesting to say. 

Here is one of the poems erased from a chapter of the book:

I do not know why I like nothing.
How have I been convinced?
A nothing that takes wing or a nothing seized by those who have found traction.
Have faith in nothing, a dark and depressing place.
You cannot find meaning in a dictionary.
The past is long gone and the future—you seek out.
And I sought out even my face, the word, the stories.
Words that surpass mere utterance or speech.
I am alone, alone in joy or sorrow.
Nothing, nothing, nothing looms more profoundly than misery.
And, it’s wrong to claim there was nothing in it for me.
All is nothing—that is a certainty.

These seemingly desultory, disconnected lines add up to a powerful whole. It is my favorite poem of the collection. One is reminded of Stevens’s differentiation between “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

The last section consists of erasure of a book of Tagalog poetry, by the poet Riz Alma. (I wonder if the author of that collection enjoyed being erased? We poets get erased often enough). This section doesn’t work for me very well. Here is one of the better examples:


Because it is not
Because it is not becoming__

to celebrate and be terrified

one must be sick
to be cured

Arguelles’ book is interesting—in parts. And that is no mean achievement. The erasure technique can be too formulaic, however, as it is in the last section wherein the poet begins by using the first two words of each poem in the erased collection. The book contains surprises and bromides as well. Many of these erasures should not be erased. Arguelles deserves praise for the immense effort it must have taken to create these poems, some of which are impressive in their own right. Villa might well have liked some of these—at least the Villa in me does.

© Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles,  Kristine Ong Muslim, Erica M. Carreon, and Thomas Dorsett

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles is the author of twenty books of and about poetry, most recently Atra: Mga Tula 1999–2019 (Balangay Books, 2020) and Three Books (Broken Sleep Books UK, 2020), with translations by Kristine Ong Muslim and illustrations by Erika M. Carreon. His works and interests encompass books, conceptual writing, translation, film and video, installation, found objects, and text-based experimentation. His erasure projects continue to explore and expand on the concepts of, among others, time and memory, language and loss, identity and anonymity, and sex and intimacy. A recipient of multiple national awards—including the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and Maningning Miclat Poetry Award—and fellowships from the University of the Philippines National Writers’ Workshop and the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center National Workshop on Art and Cultural Criticism, Arguelles is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award. He works as a book editor and translator, and teaches literature and creative writing at the De La Salle University in Manila. His forthcoming books are Hollow and Asinkrono: Isang Nobela.

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and several other books of fiction and poetry. She is co-editor of the British Fantasy Award-winning People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! (2016) and Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021). Her translations include Marlon Hacla’s Melismas (Oomph Press, 2020), as well as Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), Twelve Clay Birds: Selected Poems (University of the Philippines Press, 2021), and Walang Halong Biro (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2018). Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Literary Hub, and World Literature Today. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.

Erika M. Carreon co-founded and co-edited Plural Online Journal. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from De La Salle University-Manila, where she taught with the Literature Department from 2010 to 2018. Her literary works have appeared in High Chair, Kritika Kultura, Philippines Free Press, and Anomaly. She provided artwork for Adam David’s zine, The Nature of Beasts vol. 1 and Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, 2020). With Neobie Gonzalez, Carreon launched the indie art page Occult’s Razor, and under Occult’s Razor, they produced their first project, A Descending Order of Mortal Significance, one of the best Filipino books of 2017 according to CNN Philippines. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

Examples of Thomas Dorsett‘s poetry have appeared in over 500 literary journals, including Confrontation, Southern Poetry Review, North Carolina Review, The Texas Review, Poem, and California Quarterly. He is the author of a number of collections as well. In addition to being a poet, a translator, and an essayist, he also has been a medical doctor for many years.

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