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Popularizing the ‘ambahan’

Move over, haiku, tanka, and the sonnet—the ambahan is here to stay.

“Ambahan: A Love Story Poems” by Quintin Jose V. Pastrana, a 2021 release of the Far Eastern University, is no ordinary poetry collection. It stands out because the author, an entrepreneur engaged in renewable energy, literacy, and financial investment for start-ups, and with degrees in both business and creative writing, has written 102 poems in the traditional poetic form of the Hanunuo Mangyan, one of several indigenous groups living on the island of Mindoro.

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Dr. Nestor T. Castro, cultural anthropologist from the University of the Philippines notes in his introduction that the Hanunuo Mangyan are distinct because they have maintained their prehispanic syllabic writing, which is also very different from other syllabic writings like the Tagalog baybayin which is written in script. The Surat Mangyan has angular characters.

But it is the poetic form ambahan which truly sets the Hanunuo Mangyan apart. The verses were originally carved on bamboo stalks or culms or wooden containers for passersby to read and appreciate, with no genuine need to establish authorship. Ambahan consists of seven syllables per line and has no prescribed length.

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Credit for bringing the ambahan to a public audience belongs to the late Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma, who married into and lived among the Hanunuo. He documented thousands of ambahan, helping to preserve this legacy.

With Pastrana’s book of love poems, the ambahan takes a leap from Mindoro to the modern world, with Pastrana proving that the form can be a vessel for modern thought and sensibility. With no specific rhyme or rhythm, the seven-syllable line is perfect, said Pastrana, as it is just as long as one’s breath, “like the speed of a human voice.” It allowed him to find a conversational voice while still honoring a tradition. He also found the form flexible enough to create a structure of seven lines to a stanza.

Pastrana was first drawn to the ambahan while at work on a book project with Lolita Delgado Fansler and the Mangyan Heritage Center; the award-winning “Bamboo Whispers” featured ambahan poetry in the original script, with translations in English, Filipino, Spanish. He was further steeped into it in the course of building a community library for the Hanunuo Mangyan. To him, there was no other way to write his poetry; this was the poetic voice he was in search of.

The poems are arranged in alphabetical order by title, “unshackling Love’s arc from a linear narrative into a kaleidoscope and mosaic,” all the better to capture the complexities of love. It begins with “Afterglow” and ends with “Zenith,” each one first in the original English text, then translated into lyrical Filipino by Danton Remoto, and transcribed in Surat Mangyan by the Pinagkausahan sa Hanunuo Daga Ginurang, the recognized council of Hanunuo Mangyan elders. Pastrana writes, “In love with the painted sky: fleeting, filtered—fog and time,” which Remoto translates as, “Umibig sa langit na/kinulay ng sandali/sinala ng hamog at panahon.”

A recurring motif in the book is the traditional symbol of the Hanunuo Mangyan, the pakudos, believed to drive away evil spirits because of its cross pattern—a design in most of its arts and crafts. The hues of blue on the cover represent the Mangyan and Filipino’s romance with the sea and the horizon.

What might today’s Hanunuo Mangyan think of a collection such as this? The themes are universal enough, topics that the indigenous group itself is confronted with—the personal, the social, the political. It will give them pride to have their ambahan “borrowed” in a sense, and held up as an example to be sustained. It’s also a reminder to the text-savvy generation of Mangyan about what’s worth valuing in their tradition.

This volume is much welcome, because it leads all of us to an ancient literary form we should be proud of. It shamefully reminds us again how little we know of the richness of our own local culture, nurtured as we are more on Western forms and traditions, thanks to colonization. May our teachers and their students find themselves engaged in the discovery of the ambahan.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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