Poet: Jim Pascual Agustin
Publisher: Deep South
Jim Pascual Agustin’s Bloodred Dragonflies.
A Poetry Review
by Sihle Ntuli
The manifestation of this particular New & Selected collection of poetry, in English and Versions from the Filipino, as it’s subtitled, should be considered a gift to South African literature, especially considering the author’s extensive published output in the Philippines and elsewhere. In the past twenty years, while living in South Africa, Jim Pascual Agustin has consistently delivered individual brilliance with poems that have, on numerous occasions, gone on to be shortlisted for the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Prize.
Published by Makhanda publisher Deep South, Bloodred Dragonflies is the debut book of poems by Agustin, published in South Africa. The historical and autobiographical prose afterword, “Various Histories,” is a great addition to this work. It contextualises the collection, and, in particular, gives a first-hand account of the political atmosphere of dictators and the wars in Agustin’s native Philippines, as well as providing the reasons for the poet’s decision to move to South Africa.
The “Notes” section also allows for a greater grasp of the work. For instance, in the opening poem, “After the First Monsoon Rain,” we are met with a young boy playfully running through puddles,
He runs in zigzags to his friends,
making sure to hit every puddle
with every leap. The louder
the splash, the better.
(“After the First Monsoon Rain” 11)
By way of the notes, we are given context in that “Habagat” (Southwest monsoon) and “Amihan” (Northeast monsoon) used to be a time when young children could enjoy themselves. Climate change has since escalated the intensity of the weather to a point where a glorious experience has been relegated to the periphery. The region now faces “deluge and destruction” because of them.
The work of Agustin is notable for its intense imagery. He is economical with words, never going past that which is necessary for a fulfilling experience. A number of poems are written in traditional linear style, most of which are in free verse. Agustin is not overly concerned with poetic forms. Instead, he is driven by a desire to weave intricate lines that echo long after the last word.
Yet my body knows
the moment of rising
that goes with dawns
past and newly breaking.
(“I Don’t Ever Wish to Get Used to This” 17)
This retrospective book of poems seeks to relive and reimagine the speaker’s past with a dense and vivid effect. The first portion of the collection is delicate and gentle with a number of references to animals and nature. One of the most compelling things about Agustin’s work is its composition. The titles tend to be metaphoric while the body of the poems are not too tightly compressed. There is room for interpretation within their confines.
In the poem that gives the collection its title, the speaker recounts a traumatic situation of displacement in which the government destroyed his family home, reconstructing the site to the point of it becoming unrecognisable.
It isn’t possible to find the old house
where you taught me how to take
my very first steps, Mother.
The government didn’t just tear down
its foundations. They buried it
under twenty feet of soil.
The line “We shook our heads at your tombstone” in this same poem is haunting for its sense of unfulfilled justice. We are given the full context to the poem in “Various Histories,” where the Marcos decision to build a highway named after the dictator in the late 70’s deeply impacted Agustin’s family. Both “Dragonflies” and “Face in the Tar” are inspired by this event.
One cannot help but draw comparisons between the situation that Agustin describes and the South African Group Areas Act of 1950. There are common shared traits, for instance, of occupied land being unfairly seized by governments for their own gain. Reading about these atrocities in a context that is not South African is compelling.
The dictator himself could make people
disappear from their homes and be found
floating down a river, their heads
athrob with crabs.
If you questioned any of them
your face would be melted into tar
to patch up the highway
that bore his name.
(“Face in the Tar” 27)
The residue of war and legacy of dictators are a major part of this work. Many of the poems in the second part of the collection are focused on the aftereffects of the declaration of martial law. “Martial Law Blackout Games” deals with the speaker’s childhood in the nucleus of a tense political atmosphere and “Citizens Military Training” explores his adolescence of compulsory military training.
Another key component of this collection is the speaker’s relationship with his family amid the ongoing political turmoil.
The last words i heard from you
were not words at all
the chemicals in your body
were clawing at your veins
invisible knives were stabbing you,
or merciless angels were forcing
the sharp ends of feathers
into your yellowing back.
(“My Father Leaving” 48)
The speaker’s relationship with his family is one that undergoes many interesting twists and turns. Particularly striking are the poems dealing with physical and mental health. The poem “Consuelo Garcia, Please Stop” appears to be about his mother’s mental health condition, possibly Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The third part of the book has many familial gems, including “Hands Over Face” and “Letter Never Written by My Father”.
The final portion begins with “Chameleon Birth,” a lucid and detailed look into the miracle of a living organism coming into being. The speaker uses masterful and precise language, and rich images to describe the birth of a chameleon. In his poems, we are given access to the poet’s experience of South Africa, which is difficult in parts. In “Various Histories,” the speaker references the xenophobic sentiments he encounters. He experiences anti-Chinese remarks, despite explaining the distance between China and the Philippines.
The speaker is not immune to the realities of a country dealing with crime and its own legacy of a lack of proper governance and leadership. In the poem “Subway, Rondebosch,” a woman warns the speaker, “If they ask for money just walk on”. The ending of this poem is both stirring and striking:
They had heard the woman.
Their lips were heavy with words
unuttered. They wore jackets.
In my mind
was being drawn.
I turned around.
(“Subway, Rondebosch” 74)
Bloodred Dragonflies is essentially a compilation of poems rather than a collection. One should acknowledge the autobiographical capabilities of poets and their ability to relive, remember, and re-invent.
There is an observant quality to the poems of Jim Pascual Agustin. Whether writing about various insects or family life or the downtrodden, the poet’s power is in his descriptive ability. Bloodred Dragonflies is a book that documents not only the breaking down but also the rebuilding of a life that can change for better, or worse, in an instant.