Coming out, Coming home

R. Joseph Dazo

Jessrel Escaran Gilbuena, Lugas sa Balas (Bathalad Sugbo Inc., 2017)

It was the first time in Philippine Literature in Cebuano to give birth to a collection of eco-queer poetry Lugas sa Balas (Grain of Sand) out of sea foams and waving waves in 2017. The book has forty-five poems written by Jessrel E. Gilbuena. The collection divided into three parts, namely, Balay (House), Ubos sa Adlaw (Under the Sun), Kang (For). The poems are mostly set in the Bantayan, one of the islands of Cebu. Januar Yap, who wrote the book’s introduction, mentioned the origin of the name of the island, which is taken from the tower by the sea. During the colonial period, the Spaniards stay in the tower to bantay (watch over) the possible attacks of the pirates. Yap also discussed the collections’ passing of time and moments like the sands in a sand clock. Each grain of sand is a moment passing by, but this collection is more than moments which pass by as if these were slipping through our sea-soaked pruney fingers. It is love letters to an island in forty-five bottles which tells us about yearning, tenderness, queerness, love, and warmth. When this book ‘came out’ in a bar — usually dominated by straight men — it brought readers to their own homes, where they continue to watch themselves over, and to continue that bantay in their own version of the island of Bantayan.

Women are Homes

In the homes found in the poems of Gilbuena, there is an absence or invisibility of a father. In the Balay, mothers and grandmothers are mentioned affectionately and lovingly in the poems of remembering and nostalgia. Not to mention, the poem Binugha, which refer to wood used in cooking, brought us to a place in our home where we usually see women, the kitchen. Even in pagsawop sa adlaw (sunset), as the persona comes back home, they are welcomed by a woman, which is their mother. Although in the poem Tupi (Haircut), the persona recalls about the time his grandfather cut his long hair when he was young. The nostalgia from the poem is found in the images such as the scissors and razor, which are thought to be sharp, strong, and aggressive, are described like a woman: akong nalilian ang iyang gamit pangtupi;/nagbiste og abog ang gunting,/nagtapis na’g taya ang labaha (i peeked at the things he used for cutting hair;/ scissors dressed in dust,/ straight razor wrapped with rust). The poems explore memory, nostalgia, longing of not only the persona’s home but what makes it a home — women.

The Island is Gay

Kadlawon and Pagsidlak open this section with the usual happenings in our lives with the use of images and colors that can be observed in an island. The poet’s tours did not bring us to witness the marvelous white sands in the beach or its shades of blue, but brought us to what we usually ignore, little details that makes the island and island: fish vendors and their over-familiarity of their catch, goats running through the verdant grass by the hill, or even little crabs under the hollows of rocks. The works in this section are very elemental too. Images which relate to earth, fire and heat, wind, water and air — all these deliver the readers sentimental experiences. This keenness to details are only seen from the eyes that experienced homesickness. Gilbuena admitted that most of these works were written while he was off the island, and this led him to write a suite of dark poems of temporariness, destruction, and oblivion which he has seen in the island where he was born and raised.

Even in a small island where most of the poems are set there are several themes which are covered. Short poems in the collection such as Pasalamat (Gratitude) speak so much about life:

Segun sa among batang silingan:
Kon wala pa miabot si Yolanda
Dili unta ko katilaw og kurn bip

According to our young neighbor:
If Yolanda did not come
I will not be able to taste corned beef

The collection is a gesture of saying that even small island has its own big queer life. Like Louise Glück, who saw marvelous things in the villages, Gilbuena with his gay-gaze saw something in his island too. As tourists and visitors in one of the famous islands in the Visayas because of its beautiful beaches and marine life, we can only see the surface and skin of the place. Gilbuena’s collection proved to us that he has seen what others haven’t, and he has felt what others haven’t. What is perceived is always personal, and what is personal and home for us is always creative.

For Love

The second part of the collection titled Bayot ang Isla (The Island is Gay) becomes a transition to the third and last part. This part is like love letters on heartbreaks, shortlived love, and failed romance from a bayot in an island. Here, poems are dedicated to men hidden with the initial letter of their name. In the tradition of poetry writing in Cebuano-Binisaya, there is an invisibility of queer poems. Gilbuena placed himself in a spot where exploring the topic which have been ignored, dismissed, and thought of as taboo. This is an act of resistance to what early Cebuano literary journals considered immoral. The first poem Ang usa ka gabii mubo ra tingali alang sa usa ka gugma (One night may be short for love) explores sadness measured with distance: Isla sa Bantayan ug siyudad sa Sugbo: 136 kilometros (Bantayan and Cebu City: 136 kilometers). Even if most of the poems talk about bittersweet farewell and separation of the gay persona’s love for other men, it also explores how a gay person loves his mother, his friend, and most of all, himself.

R. Joseph Dazo teaches literature and creative writing to senior high school students at a public school in the City of Naga. He is the author of the gay short fiction collection in Binisaya, Ubang Gabii sa Mango Avenue (Kasingkasing Press, 2019), and co-editor of an anthology of queer literature in Binisaya, Libulan Binisayang Antolohiya sa Katitikang Queer (Cratos, 2018). His works appeared in Bisaya, Words Without Borders, The New Reader Magazine, and others. He is the founding editor of Katitikan: Literary Journal of the Philippine South (https://katitikan.com).

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