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Is this dystopia?

It was an uncomfortable, oppressive feeling waking up this week to a world that seemed to be best described as dystopian—a term I previously imagined merely relegated to literature classes when my students needed to describe a genre relating to a dismal, dark world fraught with great suffering, fear, injustice, and dehumanized lives. It was accepted as an imagined world in the distant future. Lamentably, the future has come.For how best to respond to a world threatened by an unseen menace of a virus we now all recognize for its crowns, captured in a “beauty shot” by artists Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make the image grab public attention? Countries closing borders in a seemingly futile attempt at control. The lines of coffins and mourners shown from Italy. The panic and pressure for scientists to discover the best cocktail of medicines for a cure. The names of the many among us, some eerily familiar, falling victim to COVID-19. Our own nation looking for decisive leadership in these uncertain times as politicians distribute goods emblazoned with their names—often tastelessly larger than the principal donors—and as displaced workers worry about their family’s next meals…

Why, it does sound like the meme that former dean of St. Scholastica’s College Mariasun Azcuna posted: “Kinda feeling like the Earth just sent us to all our rooms to think about what we’ve done.” Yes, like sent to a corner to face the wall.

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But I cannot be in such despair, because I turn hopeful and confident not only at the thought that this too shall pass, but also with the glimmers of hope I see around me, thanks to social media connectivity. Like many of my friends who have similarly found themselves busier with the luxury of lockdown time, I dare not waste it. So I have to draw the line so that requests to be part of a poetry or an uplifting quote exchange are not a priority for me now, as I want these days to be different from normal times when meetings and social obligations tyrannized me.

April, I have almost forgotten, is National Literature Month for the country. It seemed a lifetime ago—although in truth only last year—when we would begin the month along with National Artist Virgilio Almario to pay tribute to Francisco Balagtas for his April 2 birthday in Orion, Bataan. This year’s reminder comes from Naga City and the Savage Mind indie bookshop owned and managed by the highly talented Kristian Sendon Cordero of Ateneo de Naga University Press (ANUP). They are celebrating by partnering with Nueca, a local digital platform in Naga, to give out 100 free books from ANUP’s commendable minibiographies of prominent Bikolanos: linguist and propagandist Jose Ma. Panganiban; hero of the Philippine revolution Simeón A. Ola; and the first martial law detainee to die in prison, Liliosa Rapi Hilao.

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The month was ushered in by an impressive video clip, “Himati,” a Bikol word for deeper listening and feeling. Two Bikol talents are featured, actor Jaime Fabregas reading Luis G. Dato’s (1906-1985) poem, “Day on the Farm.” The moving short poem ends with, “Come with me, love, you are too old for crying,/ The church bells ring and I hear drops of rain.” Dato, a native of Baao, Camarines Sur, was one of the first Filipinos to write and publish in English, yet how little we know of him. The reading is a beautiful example for classroom sessions on poetry.

Also a pleasant discovery on Facebook was actress and singer-composer Timmy Cruz inspired to sing her own compositions in keeping with this period of “soulitude,” as she calls it. One begins with “Hinihilom/Nililinis/Nilulunasan/Pinagagaling tayo ng Panginoon.” Another one reminds us all, “We are all part of the family tree, one voice, one heart, one family…”

I knew National Artist Almario would have Balagtas in mind, and this was confirmed by a poem, “Sa Pagtula,” he wrote in anticipation of the poet laureate’s April 2 birthday. It is on the craft of writing poetry today, what the times call for:

Nais kong timbangin, lalo na’t madilim, ng aking haraya

Ang usig ng budhi, tawag ng panahon, o tibok damdamin

Kung mangailangan ng malansang isda o berdeng palaka.

At ihahabol ko: kahit na nga dagá, putî man o itim,

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Ngunit walang tákot sa bantay na pusa.Literature and meaningful words are welcome balms for this dark period in our lives.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is a member of the Eggie Apostol‍ Foundation.

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TAGS: Alissa Eckert, COVID-19, Dan Higgins, dystopia
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