[Review] Misreading Usual Catachresis: Charlie Samuya Veric’s Histories

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

Charlie Samuya Veric, Histories, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015. 109 pgs.

Histories

In Charlie Veric’s collection Histories catastrophe is what makes a poem:

How to Read a Poem

A student misreads
a poem about losing love
to be about love between a mermaid and a fisherman.
I do not know how it comes to a young man,
learning to read between the lines.
How a poem about love lost could mean
other than its disappearance.

And I recall reading Weldon Kees
who leapt to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge:
“I watch the snow, feel for the heartbeat that is not there.”

When a student misreads a poem,
does he not leap from a bridge with golden gates?
Feel for water that is not there, and, in its stead,
a mermaid and a fisherman come into being,
dreaming of love? There is

no other answer. For a poem to be, it must
be misread, beautifully.

For Veric, misreading is the event of reading. There is something almost emancipatory in this thesis, reminiscent of the Barthesian thesis on the death of the author that gives the reader utmost power over text.

Unlike Roland Barthes’, however, Veric’s thesis is paradoxic, for while it is for emancipation, there is also a resistance against itself: there must be a misreading that is beautiful, critical points which rest on the lawful. Ironically, then, reading (or, the reading) forebodes. Such is a tension.

From the book’s critical instruction on how to read a poem (which ironically implies certain pedagogical locations of power), let this essay then offer a possible misreading, whose locus may or may not be beside the point of the collection, but which one also hopes to be beautiful.

Histories, a book in five parts, attempts to peruse the landscape of Philippine writing, for a catastrophe, it is claimed, has befallen it: “Today, writers at universities do ‘research’ on poverty alleviation by writing a poem; they prevent the next ecological disaster by having a reading.” It is from this catastrophe that Veric, in the introduction “Let the Missing be the Poetics,” declares: “I am not your usual poet.” Anointing himself as an “anti-professional poet,” Veric claims to refuse the conception of writing as “a day job for professional poets at the university, their productivity measured not unlike a factory worker or call centre agent.” It is here that Veric cites Walter Benjamin, as if to articulate a resi/stance:

Walter Benjamin speaks of such aesthetic autonomy. No work of art, he writes, presupposes human attention: “No poem is meant for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.” For Benjamin, art is private, one that begets autonomy.

[…]

Benjamin is right in this sense: no poem is meant for the reader in that the poem writes itself into existence. Seen this way, poetic writing is a world-making activity in which individual freedom and aesthetic autonomy become the defining experiences. As such, poetry is unique because it allows one to leave a rote life behind, to be alive in an untimely moment, to live, as it were, in poetic time. Poetry therefore generates an alternate space where the humdrum is held, even if briefly, at bay.

I write, therefore, I am freed from rote life.

Such writing that refuses the catastrophic landscape of contemporary literary is articulated in what Veric names “vernacular poetics,” by which he means “poetry that highlights the common, the ordinary.” Histories, then, as borne from this poetics, “treasures the authentic and immediate, what sings: the democratic and free in unlikely places.”

So much for pretense, however. For just as how the word anti-Oedipal[i]—the name by which Veric identifies himself—is also derivative of the Oedipal, Histories does not fare too far from the enterprise which it claims to resist. For in the event of a catastrophic thunderstorm, the Not Usual Poet recourses to expected gesture—to poeticise:

Looking Out the Window During a Thunderstorm in Late Spring

I praise their love, those girls
standing in line before the show
in boots and umbrellas, each
as lovely as the other, the wind
blowing, I not knowing whether
the rain is shaking the trees
or the trees, the rain—
and the girls, unflinching,
knowing what they want:
for the doors to open,
the music to begin.

In the “untimely moment,” Veric’s “poetic time,” the outside is subjected to a gaze, transforming it catachrestically (pace metaphorically), to violently render the inside:

Lines Composed While Biking to the House of Grandparents, Long Gone

On the road
there’s airiness, fire
in the gut that burns
like a comet on a late
October night.

But it’s not dark yet.

Sunset and the kids
are out of school, walking home
with hoops in their hands.

White egrets dip their feet
in newly plowed earth
after the rain

Nothing has changed
in this place, my hometown,
though I’ve been to cities
far and hard.

I’m still that boy
looking for love.

Catachresis, meaning misuse, and referring to the far-reaching attempt to let a dramatised moment instantiate a sentiment: for although the penultimate couplet is perhaps to be an unexpected affective punctuation of the poem, the syntax does not puncture and thus does not break the lyrical tone assumed in the entirety. What then differs and defers, what is differed and deferred? If anything, there is only a nostalgic sigh, which has been present as early as the title in “Long Gone”.

Of such a nostalgic sigh, I do not have an inherent qualm, for sentimentality has its roots with the lyric tradition long and deep. However, after naming oneself the Not Usual Poet, there is an emergency to interrogate the suspecting impotency of calling forth the promised “untimely,” the “poetic” in the poem. For Veric’s text seems to bank on nostalgic thoughts, but its voice is impotent in singing such longing:

To Van

There were the words I wrote to you:

I will be there to root for you,
There to hold you and keep you,
There to be with you all the way.

I imagine you reading them now, your face
in the dim light of the computer. Was I true?

Which is why and how the catachrestic takes place: the sentimental tenor is forced into the otherwise harmless vehicle:

Manille

Still, like the things of this earth
on a warm evening. Yet it’s not summer.

Mid-February. But the air already thick.

The idea of you. Bacharach playing,
a swig of Manille in a chilled cup,
“a drink to cleanse the palate.”
The ache. And to think

I haven’t loved yet.

The penultimate jars catachrestically—for as if the enjambment of the last sentence is not precarious enough, the final sentiment had to be articulated as a line-stanza. The drama is melodramatised, as if it had to be melodramatised.

But what for? For the book also claims to resist sentimentality: in “Vita Nova,” the lone poem in the coda of Histories, Veric concludes by refusing usual conceptions—”The say he’s lonely. Why can’t they say he’s free?,” echoing the aspired autonomy of the beginning of the collection. But after thirty-four poems between the introduction and the coda, the refusal of loneliness—instead of discretely transforming such loneliness over the course of the collection—comes across as an anticipatory, if not defensive, disavowal of the sentimentality evident in Histories.

Of course, one can recourse to reading this as performativity in Veric’s text, i.e., to say that the earlier melodrama was mere feigning, and it is the sudden refusal to melodrama that is the melodrama. The question, however, must be insisted upon: what for? I deem this critical, especially since Histories seems to bask unapologetically in suddenly refused loneliness. And assuming it is indeed a performative of feigned-only-to-be-refused melodrama, what does it offer? A “more capacious readership, one that frees itself from the physics of geography as much as from the metaphysics of belonging”?

The probability of Veric’s Histories is indeterminate, which is the point of performativity: ruse is evasive. However, to write the Philippine, to write in the Philippines, is to write and be materially implicated. For in a context where catastrophe has become the everyday, to write is an exercise of power that one has the necessary resources to undertake and can perform despite and against the daily traffic. As an exercise of power, then, to ask the what-for of a writing, is critical for sifting through the violent enterprise.

This should all be evident enough. The present Philippines is catastrophic as it is, and I deem contemporary Philippine literature to not have much to offer in these times. Thus, if one is to aspire, overtly and loudly, to cleave the Usual Poetry by being the Not Usual Poet, one then must do, be; otherwise, it becomes a mere exclamation for another label, a signal for yet another catastrophe that is also a capitalistic venture.[ii]

A usual day in contemporary Philippine literary history, perhaps; but then, does the Philippine, in these times, need to be given this usual, yet again.

I can only hope for this, perhaps misreading, to be, for now, beautiful enough.

Notes:

[i] Veric roots this being “non-Oedipal” in having never attended any writing workshops, and thus having “no literary father to murder, even if [he] wanted one.”

[ii] Renowned Filipino poet Krip Yuson notes that Histories sold out its first two print runs in the same year of its release.

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Christian BenitezChristian Benitez teaches Filipino literature, rhetoric, and criticism at the Ateneo de Manila University, where he finished his AB-MA degree in Filipino Literature. The locus of criticism and poetics is time, as tropically articulated in mythology and history. Hailed as the Poet of the Year 2018 by the Commission on the Filipino Language, his works have been published in SOFTBLOW, High Chair, Diagram, and Kritika Kultura, among other places. He is currently a member of the Film Desk of Young Critics Circle. 

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