Avant-Garde Poetry in the Time of Crisis and Resistance: Ambil by E. San Juan Jr.

Reduced Dover AMBIL

If E. San Juan, Jr. has continued to write poetry on subjects that many would deem radical or even subversive, it is because the essential conditions of exploitation and oppression that he has written about in his younger years have remained basically unchanged up to the present. The world capitalist system continues to wreak havoc on the workers, peasants, and oppressed people around the world who suffer from rising levels of inequality, unemployment, and hunger.

Global capitalism condemns ever widening sections of humanity to poverty and misery even as the ruling classes who own the means of producing the material wealth of society become richer than ever. The unabated crisis of this system has meant the intensifying exploitation and plunder of Philippine cheap labor and natural resources by the monopoly capitalists and financial oligarchs living the life in the United States, European Union, and Japan, among others.

The dominant culture legitimizes and prettifies this unjust and ugly dispensation. Most art and literature, including poetry, consequently draw the people’s attention away from the fundamental problems confronting them through the proliferation of banal and sensational consumer spectacles. Anything else is deemed unmarketable.

But this has not kept E. San Juan, Jr. from continuing to challenge the dominant order and offering an alternative vision of the world through his writings. It is precisely this stamp that cemented San Juan’s standing as a writer of world-renown in the fields of literary criticism, cultural studies, and poetry. And it is precisely in this way that San Juan inscribes the new into the shell of the old rotting order.

Ambil: Mga Pagsubok, Pahiwatig & Interbensyon is only San Juan’s latest book of poetry in Filipino that serves as a means of social critique and the dreaming of a better world. It is a continuation of a long trajectory from Kung Ikaw ay Inaapi Bakit Hindi ka Magbalikwas (1984), which was published amidst the dark years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, up to his newer volumes of poetry such as Sapagkat Iniibig Kita (2004) and Kundiman sa Gita ng Karimlan (2014).

The poems in Ambil, however, do not only represent the contemporary realities of exploitation and resistance as content. San Juan’s method of representation — the poetic form itself — helps in illuminating these realities. Inspired by avant-garde movements from Dadaism, Surrealism, up to Conceptual Art, San Juan seeks, in his own words, “to provoke critical resistance to consumer culture and the narcotic spectacles saturating the corporate mass media and the public sphere.”

San Juan’s poems in the collection take on the form of distinctive variations of Ambil, a Filipino word which is defined as an “interpretation of a word, phrase or statement different from that originally intended; pet name; constant repetition of a word or expression for the pleasure of the sound or for its being a favorite expression.”

Avant-garde inspired

Taking its cue from its avant-garde conceptual art inspirations, Ambil goes beyond the traditional concern with traditional formal devices (like sound, rhyme, metaphor, irony, etc.) and instead trains its attention to making the circumstances of the poem’s conceptual construction more discernable to the reader.

The poem “Pagpapasubaling Di Mabali-Bali? Makabagong Litanya,” for example, repeats the term subalit (trans. however) to begin line after line in order to piece together a litany of facts that give witness to the seemingly never-ending list of human rights violations by the Philippine government:

Subalit kamakailan pinatay si Dionisio Garite kasunod ni
Romeo                                 Capalla sa Panay
Subalit walang imik ang military at rehimen sa karumal-dumal
na           krimeng nangyari
Subalit patuloy pa ang dasal at misa sa memorya ni Cory
Aquino’t              kamag-anak
Subalit wala pang hustisya ang 13 pinuksa nila sa Mendiola
noong Enero 22, 1987

San Juan adroitly places ironic details side by side in order to highlight the absurdity of a social order wherein fair trade advocates helping the poor are killed by state forces with impunity while the scions of the Aquino-Cojuangcos, a landlord clan responsible for the massacre of poor peasants calling for land reform are praised to high heaven.

Much of contemporary writing aims this interrogation of the text within the field of language, discourse, and the play of meanings divorced from any reference outside of the writing itself. San Juan, however, goes beyond textual surfaces and is much more interested in pointing the readers to the material realities referred to in the poems — that is, in situating them back to the real world.

The simple recombination of previously created texts instead of creating fresh material is another method culled by San Juan from the arsenal of avant-garde conceptual art. The ruling order, crumbling under the weight of its manifold contradictions, is a walking corpse that is mined for texts and other materials that can be used for the recreation of the new.

“Asignatura sa Mga Anarkista (Hinangong ambil mula kay Yoko Ono)” comes in the form of an instruction manual for the treatment of formalist literary texts and grammatical books. This text represents an interesting counterpoint to Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise where student radicals proposed criticizing conservative books as opposed to burning them:

C. Tipunin lahat ng librong nagkukunwaring siyang
pinakamabuting balarila o gramatika ng wika, pati
lahat ng mga arte poetika mula sa Vocabulario nina
Noceda at Sanlucar hanggang mga turo nina Lope K
Santos at Julian Cruz Balsameda, pati na lahat ng
tulang may tugma’t sukat ayon sa regla ng mga
awtoridad at premyadong pantas.

C1. Ilagay sa isang trak, dalhin sa Payatas, buhusan ng ilang
balde ng gasoline, at sunugin.

“Diskarteng Pag-urirat sa Cogito-Ergo-Sum ni Descartes” meanwhile plays on the famous dictum “I think, therefore I am” to playfully tease out how consciousness, in the last instance, cannot be the ultimate guarantee of being. Discourse as expressed in the poetic lines abruptly end when the persona runs out of breath. The material is primary over consciousness:

Tumutol ako’t nakibaka, samakatwid ako ay

Nakulam ako, samaktwid ako ay

Naghihingalo, samakatwid ako

Humingi ng saklolo, samaktwid

Wala nang hininga, sama ka

Production of the new

San Juan’s utilization of devices inspired by conceptual art is not mere artistic whim. This is not simply borne out of a desire to be fashionably novel but a serious attempt to represent contemporary realities of economic crisis and global disorder in new ways. The new here, following Fredric Jameson, “is not some unusual object, as in so many avant-garde conceptions of modernist innovation, but a whole new world of relationships . . . into which writer and reader alike must penetrate by means of daring exploration, and appropriation.”

This brings us to avant-garde conceptual art’s interrogation of the notion of authorship. While much of contemporary literary theory considers the author as a mere function of the structure of the text, San Juan hints as to how the text are not only the poet’s or the reader’s but are also shaped by the social and historical world in which he is situated.

In “Pinakahuling Paalam ng Koro ng mga Taga-Salin ng ‘El Ultimo Pensamiento’ ni Rizal,” for example, San Juan plays with varying Filipino translations of a line from Jose Rizal’s last poem before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities in 1896. Adios, queridos eres, morir es descansar is translated differently according to the standpoint, language, formal style of the purported translator from Andres Bonifacio, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Idelfonso Santos, Felix Razon, among others:

Mamatay ay siyang pagkagupiling!

Mamatay ay ganap na katahimikan.

Paalam na, giliw, at pamamahinga tadhana ng mamatay.

Adios, mga iniibig na nilalang, kamatayan ay pagpapahinga lamang.

Conceptual art construes the idea as the machine that generates art. San Juan takes off from this tenet but never fails to refer to the social basis of all consciousness. He engages in playful games of making the reader participate in the creation of meaning, but not as the end goal but rather as a step towards making more visible the social realities surrounding the reader.

“Transkripsyon ng Ilang Bytes ng Kompyuter ng NSA, Washington DC, USA” concretely illustrates the overwhelming scale of the online spying on the global population and the consequent massive violation of people’s rights to privacy perpetrated by the United States government through its National Security Agency’s Prism Program:

Makibaka ba, huwag matakot? Nilabasan ka ba? Kailan tayo
tutugpa? Sino iyang nakamaskara? Peks man? Sino ang
nagsuplong? Swak na swak ba? Dapat ba nating dalhin ang
kargada? Mabigat ba o magaan? Sino si Yolanda? Liku-liko…

San Juan’s poetry is often labeled as difficult, even incomprehensible to the common reader. His poetic writing’s affinity with the artistic avant-garde and references to other literary texts, philosophical ideas, events, and socio-historical conditions is often cited to prove this branding on his works. It is hence surprising how at the immediate level surprisingly lucid San Juan’s poems are. They are often mistaken as daunting only because they require the reader to think.

In the end, this is poetry that seeks to push the reader away from just submitting to the text uncritically and be disabused of the illusion of simply being a passive consumer of the poetic line. San Juan’s poetry shows us the way in how progressive writing must not only descend to what is already popular but also to endeavor in the popularization of the new. As the Guatemalan poet Otto Rene Castillo eloquently stated:

It’s beautiful to love the world
with the eyes
of those
to be born.


Bertolt Brecht, “The Popular and the Realistic,” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. J. Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 107-114.

Craig Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, eds. C. Dworkin and K. Goldsmith (Evanston and Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2010), p. xxiii-liv.

Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (London: Verso, 1998).

Otto Rene Castillo, “Before the Scales, Tomorrow,” Tomorrow Triumphant: Selected Poems of Otto Rene Castillo (San Francisco: Night Horn Books, 1984), p. 2.

Teresa Ebert, The Task of Cultural Critique (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).



  1. Was about to ask kung kelan na-publish yung libro, then found out na 2014 pala! In fairness kay San Juan a; more than pa his being prolific in his critical and creative production eh itong mismong potensyal ng ‘avant-garde’ sa mga gawa niya. Undoubtedly, isa siya sa mga dapat ine-emulate ng mga gumagawa ng tulang nakikisangkot, lalo na given yung debatable na pagiging unpalatable ng poetic productions mula sa Left, o mas specific siguro sa ND movement.

    1. E. San Juan, Jr. is indeed good. But so are many other poets affiliated with the Philippine Left. Uneven development dictates that there will always be better writings and those that need improvement. It will certainly be a big challenge. I am under the impression that the bigger problem is the absence of a significant audience that can help dynamically raise the standards of such writing in general (given the predominance of commodity spectacle/deteriorating schooling). I hence admire the way the Left has not only empowered the working masses it has reached and organized but moreover raised even their ‘literary’ capacities from the level of abject iliteracy.

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