Aria and Trumpet Flourish, Rodrigo Dela Peña, Jr.
Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2018. 76 pages
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
Of Gravity and Grace
Singapore was founded by Stamford Raffles as a colonial trading post of the British empire in 1819. It gained independence in 1963, and since then has been a center for trade, culture, and tourism, attracting an influx of migrant workers. Of its close to 6 million residents, around 40% are foreign nationals. Of the latter, there are over 160,000 Filipinos, about a fourth of them domestic workers and OFWs (Overseas Foreign Workers). There are also Filipino poets in Singapore, writing their dispatches from this prosperous island-nation located close to the tip of the Malay Peninsula and featuring prominently in the recent movie adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Poet Rodrigo Dela Peña, Jr. is a marketing and communications specialist who moved to Singapore for work in 2011. Already widely published in journals and magazines like Rattle, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Rambutan among others, his first full-length collection Aria and Trumpet Flourish was recently published by Math Paper Press (founded by Kenny Leck and Karen Wai in 2011 as a small independent press affiliated with their book shop BooksActually). Math Paper Press is dedicated to bringing new and emerging voices in Singaporean literature to a global audience, and also counts many of Singapore’s leading writers in its roster.
Dela Peña’s supple and formally satisfying debut collection abounds in musical motifs (he also sings with a choir at the Church of St. Mary of the Angels). He employs a variety of forms: abecedarians, ghazals, villanelles, epistolaries, prayers, zuihitsu. Most of the poems are written from the perspective of those like him who experience exile and displacement, whether by force or by choice— with distance creating both the fertile condition for producing art, as well as the sting that accompanies it:
I left home, returning from time to time,
the wayward son. When you barely spoke to me,
I felt invisible, written off and gone.
“Father, I’ve Come Back to How We Started”
In many ways, this is therefore a book of elegies: not only for the selves that are forced to come and go in a volatile world economy, but also for the poet’s father, who died of cancer in 2014. “We are an archipelago of grief,” he declares in one of the “In Case of Emergency” poems from section II. And,
~ “Father in the Hospital”
The poet boards a bus for the crowded capital hours after his father is cremated, and slips into a tender meditation on the body’s passage through time and space. He is more acutely attuned to every element in the world “soon to become/ detritus:”
with corn and sugarcane, crops on the verge
of harvest. In the far distance, brushstroke
outlines of the Sierra Madre, as though
the eye can only capture the faintest
hint of—what to call it: the divine? Ineffable
force of which we are only an echo….
In our late 21st century world choking with the surpluses of material desire, the larger the cities and the more elaborate the infrastructure, the more numerous the signs of how much has passed away. So, too, have the jungles, swamps, pepper and cane plantations receded in Singapore, where, according to local stories, the last wild tiger was caught and killed in the 1930s:
It was no accident. We got rid
of the old order, what we did not need…
“The Last Tiger of Singapore”
Dela Peña tends to these questions with commensurate gravity and grace. Scholar and author Jahan Ramazani writes in an essay called “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” that “[w]hether [they are] writing about the intimate deaths of family members and friends or the mass death of industrialized genocide and global war, poets have made of poetry a privileged space for mourning the dead, in resistance to the widespread suppression of grief and mourning in modern Western societies.”
Through each poem in Aria with Trumpet Flourish, Dela Peña arrives at the most apt description of the poet’s function in our time—which is also a description of the human condition:
This is my devotion: to account for the world’s bounty, its finite grace.
To exalt the flourishing it contains, to ache for what is taken away.
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com