[Review] Witnesses to Haiyan: Tim Tomlinson’s Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse

{Written by Jennifer Mackenzie, this review is part of Issue 40 (June/July 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Tim Tomlinson, Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, Finishing Line Press, 2015.

YolandaIn November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, known locally in the Philippines as Yolanda, wreaked horrific destruction upon the city of Tacloban. Established in 1770 and considered to be in “a well-sheltered location,” Tacloban had been hit twice before, in 1897 and 1912. Tim Tomlinson’s Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse—a collaborative project whose complexity belies the simplicity of a chapbook—is a small but significant memorial to the courage, and often dexterity, of those who survived and those who did not.

Amitav Ghosh, in his highly regarded book, The Great Derangement, looks at how the effects of climate change have led in recent years to the increasing intensity of storms and to the widening of their possible locations. He looks particularly at Asia, with its large populations of often impoverished people living in coastal areas, its vulnerability to climatic events and its dubious colonial history of sites being developed as centres of trade without proper reconnaissance. Ghosh makes two observations particularly relevant to Yolanda: the resistance to evacuation tied to the imagined security of “home” and the incomprehension of an alternative, and the recognition which comes with an event of climactic force, as all of what has been previously known is destroyed, as the future is perceived in the eye of the storm. In relation to these points, Ghosh writes that “The experience of New Orleans in the days before Hurricane Katrina … or the city of Tacloban before Haiyan” demonstrates that “large numbers of people will stay behind” and that “very few polities … are capable of implementing, or even contemplating, a managed retreat from vulnerable locations” and that “to leave places that are linked to our memories and attachments, to abandon the homes that have given our lives roots, stability and meaning, is nothing short of unthinkable.” Tomlinson’s Yolanda is a testimony to both recognition and resistance.

The twenty-three poems which comprise Yolanda present the testimony of a number of people of differing ages and backgrounds about the advent of the typhoon and the tsunami which followed. The production of the chapbook, as Tomlinson states in the acknowledgements, involved a significant number of people who provided logistical support, established protocols, made and transcribed field recordings and took photographs. Many of these tasks, including translation from the Tagalog, were performed by Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, without whom “the work could not have been done.”

It seems fitting that out of this density of field reporting and the intensity of responses to death and the loss of home, the poems themselves express direct testimony in simply structured, effective verse, which as Tomlinson stated to me in private communication involved “lifting snippets and episodes and breaking them into discrete, and in some cases, recurring units.” The first poem in the selection, Fishes Jumping on the Stones (Narra Serdina, 73, Barangay 69, Nov 8, 2013), sets up, in Ghosh’s terms, both resistance and recognition, with its stark imagery leading to the powerful last line:

I was born here. I gave birth here.
I prayed the rosary in the morning,
and my niece told me, “Mama, look, the water backed up far away.”

“You’re a liar,” I told her. “Let me see.”

And I saw
the fishes jumping on the stones.
I told her the water will be big.

I went home and the water came with me.

The Storm (Father Hector, San Jose, Nov 8, 2013) introduces the chill of testimony, and a certain ambiguity into the narrative, as this is the first of three testimonies by the speaker:

The water came
the strong winds howling, shaking the whole place,
white mist like needles piercing through my skin.
I’m going to die in this place.

Later our neighbours came
scampering, climbing shouting panicking.
This is okay, this is good-
there’s somebody to tell my relatives

I died this way.

This urge to offer testimony, the apprehension of disaster, is seen very clearly in Evidence (Dulz Cuna, San Jose, Nov 8, 2013) where the house became “a virtual washing machine,” with the “downstairs flooded to the ceiling”:

clutching my daughter, rosary beads—
and a cell phone. I told my daughter
I better take pictures, you know—
of the room … they find our bodies
drowned like rats at least the cell phone—
would show how we died waterlogged

In the deluge that followed, objects became wedged together in often singular and bizarre ways. Take for example Evacuation and Return (Pelegrina Egana, 55, Barangay 69, Nov 8–10, 2013), in which the speaker narrates the difficulty in evacuating home:

that night a vehicle urged everyone to evacuate
mother had difficulty walking so we didn’t go

mother kept saying let’s stay here nothing will happen
early in the morning, half of our house was gone …

so we ran dragging our mother up
on the mountain there wasn’t any roofs or wood flying around …

We make a home out of the wood,
sleeping under there on leaves.

Mother died after two months, scared.

The barge is still on our house.

This poem becomes even more poignant when we read the testimony in The Barge (Seraphim Pedrosa, 76 years old, Barangay 69, Nov 9, 2013):

we were asleep
around six in the morning
something flew by and hit one of my windows
someone said, “tatay, water”
the next thing the water
was at waist level

we saw the barge
as well as the darkening of the world
my house was nothing
the barge was on top of our house
and the houses were gone
my house it was nothing anymore
a little portion of a steel bar

the barge
right there in the centre
the centre of the barge
the barge was the one that destroyed our home
until now it’s there like an exhibit
the floor of my house
is still there.

In The Wall (Julito Sanchez, 48, Laborer, Antbong, Nov 8, 2013), the inherent psychological and physical difficulty of leaving home is clearly expressed in the following detail, itself a moment of recognition:

My wife was panicky, urging me to transfer to a safer place.
I told her, no we’re staying here. The walls on this side are stronger. …

And then the wall started to move.

In The People Started Walking (Beatrice Zabala, 16, Palo, Nov 8, 2013), the narrator on leaving home confronts the horror of what has occurred in Yolanda’s aftermath. All that can be seen in the world is debris, and all that can be felt is hunger:

slowly we were trudging on debris woods
with nails broken glass steel aluminium roofs
everything sharp and we were barefoot …

blank wet sobbing crying hungry
and unsure of the days to come

Personal loss, the loss of identity through loss of personal objects from the workings of both nature and man is highlighted in the third testimony of Dulz Cuna, Lost (Dulz Cuna, Artist, San Jose, Nov 10, 2013):

my books, oh my god, my paintings—
all waterlogged, the ones here lost
but what was really lost, I was looted—
all my precious treasures, materials
everything was taken, even my clothes—
my mother’s treasures, porcelain
from around the world, it was scary—
traumatic, my records, my music

A disturbing dystopian vision can be seen in Looting 11 (Laura Agosto, Widow, San Jose, Nov 9–12, 2013), as people loot food in order to survive:

“Can we get a sack of rice?” And he replied,
“Oh yes, just ask the owner.” He pointed
to the owner, just a dead body there.
The debris and the roofs were already
going down, and underneath were candies,
biscuits, peanuts, can goods, spaghetti …

The death of many is sensitively portrayed in if the Dead Were Ours (Archie Zabala, Artist, 40, Palo, Nov 9–11, 2013). The poem recalls Dinah Roma’s loving tribute to the victims of Haiyan, The First Four: “They are not seen as bodies. They are not seen. Strewn all over the roads, they are not seen. They have come from everywhere. They have come from nowhere. They are the muted testimonies to the living. To be walked over, prayed over, blessed over.”

As a poet and prose writer, Tim Tomlinson has an acute sense of character and place, and is particularly skilful in portraying voices that are manifestly not his own, skills that come to the fore in his presentation of witnesses to an historic tragedy. In Yolanda, through the testimony of those who suffered, the seemingly simple structure of poems written in the first person, concentrate and amplify a major trauma, and appear as a small gift to Tacloban and its citizens.


Jennifer MackenzieJennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about the Asian region. Her most recent publication is Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012) and she has presented her work at a number of festivals and conferences, including the Ubud, Irrawaddy and Makassar festivals. In 2015, she had a residency at Seoul Artspace Yeonhui, and currently she is working on a poetic exegesis of the life and work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and also a collection of essays, Writing the Continent.

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