Thursday, April 14, 2011

Candles by Danton Remoto

(In which an old adage is unquestionably applicable.)


In the height of the conflict between the state and the church in the Philippines, Filipinos tend to reevaluate their foundation of beliefs and its limitations. The thematic structure of Danton Remoto’s Candles was vast enough to stretch from the moral to the religious obligation of people. Its structure was all at once informative, inspirational and speculative.

Candles melt
the hard darkness
inside the church.
Smoke thinner
than thread quivers
to the Mother of Perpetual Help.
Candles are symbolic of the religious piety of the Filipinos. They were of various significances – from shedding light to contrast darkness, to a manifestation of glory and an offering of prayers and wishes. The religious local color suggested by the images of the Mother of Perpetual Help was symbolic of the Spanish heritage and its deep place in the culture of the Filipinos. The image painted by the first stanza was clear and sure to reach the conscious recollection of any one from our Oriental archipelago. The smoke created by numerous candles in the church asking for the benevolence of the Holy Mother whose assistance runs from eternity unto eternity was part of any churchgoer’s memory. It was vivid enough to provide an image of candles burning as well as people kneeling and murmurs of ardent prayers in the air.

May the Holy Mother Smell
a father's shirt
beaded with debts,
lines skull-deep
on a mother's forehead,
children with violated dreams---
Remoto’s sensitivity to details and simplicity of poetic structure was manifested and actually highlighted by the poem’s second stanza. Here he presents a family in dire need of help. And it is of no question that the help they need was the one to pull them out from the impoverished state they are currently in. It is a desperate and moving image – parents so helpless and children even more so. The inspirational factor was drawn to the family’s strong sense of religion and faith. But there is where the speculation also comes in. The personification of the wooden image of the Mother of Perpetual Help as shown by the hope that she smells the heavy scent of labor in the father’s shirt and see the deep furrows in the mother’s forehead was somehow blasphemous. It was as if the tone was somewhere between authentic hope and mockery. It is no longer new that the religious piety of Filipinos and their strong inclination to leave things to the hands of the Almighty or to the intermediary characters as identified by the long chronicles of the Catholic religion was one source of criticism for our people.

The tears
of a country
that seems to have run
out of candles to burn.
In the second stanza, Remoto started with a picture of a family in dire need of sacred assistance. In the final stanza he painted an even bigger picture of a nation relying on the power of the mediation of the Holy Mother of Perpetual Help. By zooming out, he showed the vast impact of religion to the lives of Filipinos. By saying that people seem to run out of candles to light for the purpose of offering so their prayers would be heard, the poem somehow shows that the general population was in a state of destitution to actually resort to divine providence. Here, not only was the people’s religious orientation brought into light, but also the role of the government in addressing the needs of its people. The poem was perhaps supposed to be a call for actions both on the side of the poor parents and of the government – a call for more diligence and hard work for the former and a higher sense of responsibility for the latter. Faith in one’s religion was deeply ingrained to be challenged. And there’s nothing wrong with keeping the faith. But faith without action is meaningless.