Have you ever tried to dissect a poem and work out where the magic is hidden? Tried to find which words or phrases leave that imprint that you can feel for days afterwards but can never quite place? I do this frequently and never more so than after reading a poem by one of my all-time favourite poets, Jim Pascual Agustin.
Jim is a conjurer, a magician of sorts. He squeezes every last drop from each word he chooses and makes them work together in ways that continually amaze me. His writing is as accessible and as personal as Kooser’s, yet with an edge that taps deep into your psyche, guaranteeing it will stay with you long after you’ve closed your book or turned off your tablet.
I was lucky enough to discover and fall in love with Jim’s writing in a quaint little Goodreads group right at the moment I was about to give up writing poetry. Jim’s poetry inspired me to want to keep writing in the hope that I could one day give a reader the same WOW! that Jim gave me. Way back then we struck up a friendship that has survived the passage of years, the separation of oceans and the demands of daily life.
It’s been a little while since my last featured poet post – I still haven’t figured out a way to quit my day job and write full time – but I know this next post will more than make up for the delay. When I contacted Jim to ask if he’d consider appearing as a guest on my blog, I had no idea how much effort he would put into his responses. I hope you will be blown away like I was. Without further ado, please enjoy:
The Scar Examined at Midnight
tell me about that. that scar.
it is a burn. something has grown
over it that mimics skin.
my memory goes blurry
when you smoke.
i know you need to, but please don’t.
or i won’t tell you the story.
it is not a burn.
more like a reminder.
like some people stick notes
so as not to forget
something they must take
i threw my arms around this woman
who wanted to leap into the fire.
but it was too late.
we held each other too late.
tell me about that.
yes, tell me about that.
Probably first published elsewhere since I did submit it years ago but never got a response. I do know it came out in my book Alien to Any Skin (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, Manila 2011).
Name: Jim Pascual Agustin
Bio: Jim Pascual Agustin writes and translates in Filipino and English. He grew up in the Philippines and moved to Cape Town in 1994. His poetry has appeared in Rhino, World Literature Today and Modern Poetry in Translation among others. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila published his recent titles: in 2011, Baha-bahagdang Karupukan and Alien to Any Skin; in 2013, Kalmot ng Pusa sa Tagiliran and Sound Before Water; and in 2015, A Thousand Eyes. USTPH will release his first short story collection in 2016. He won the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award 3rd Prize in 2014 and 2015.
He is deeply angered by the extrajudicial killings (EJK) taking place in his country of birth, the Philippines. These human rights violations are encouraged and rewarded by the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. Jim hopes that if you like his writing at all you would find time to get informed and maybe campaign against these murders of thousands of people.
Date of Birth
On the scorching final day of March
1969, multiple copies of a government document
were made to mark the birth of a child
just in time for afternoon siesta.
Though it bore his name,
chosen for him without asking
his consent, and the time
and date of his arrival, his weight,
the document said little else. Leaving him
to one day wonder whose hands
had pulled him out of his mother’s
flesh. Was that person careful
not to hurt him as she forced
open the child’s fists while counting
his fingers and toes? Did she listen
with her good ear as he took
his first breaths, listened as air
explored his lungs for the first time?
Was it a slow and intimate moment
or was the operating room
quickly wiped up and prepared
for the arrival of another child
before he could even test the limits
of his throat? Did she return
to see if he’d survived
his first hours? Or did she rush
home to her own?
Years later he would carry
a certified copy of that piece
of paper to prove his existence
to officials. But he himself
has no memory of being fished
out of a sea of watery darkness
to be held up in the humming
Place of Birth or Where I Now Find My Feet?
They keep asking him
“Where?” in many and repetitive
ways. As if plotting the locations
he has been, the places he’s visited
or lived in, the very room
that his body occupies
would help in any way
in mapping where his mind flies.
So he says “Manila”
or “Cape Town,” just to be quick.
Or “Delhi,” to sound exotic
and “Kuala Lumpur,” with a purr
to play with their ears like a cat would.
But really he knows that however much
he loves or loathes these places,
this very planet, they have no boundaries,
no cage that would keep
his mind from escaping, or so
he likes to believe.
I have met them, so many
my memory falters. I ate them
like corn on a cob, tearing off
ear by ear, chewing the juice
out of those yellow skins,
taking them all in.
I can only rattle off names
and pretend they’ve possessed
my whole body, taken hold
of my hand as I write
even the shortest shopping list.
But no. They come and go.
For now these ones are here,
not exactly occupying thrones,
but breathing down my neck
even when I cannot see
or feel them: John Berger,
Bienvenido Lumbera, Danton Remoto,
Mahmoud Darwish, Lualhati Bautista,
Edgardo M. Reyes, Raymond Carver,
Benilda S. Santos, Marjorie Evasco,
Luisa Igloria, Pablo Neruda,
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Jose Rizal,
Ben Okri, John Pilger, Jeanette Winterson,
Bertolt Brecht, Craig Raine,
Robert Frost, Franz Kafka, Gabriel
Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar,
Aimé Césaire, Basho, Shuntaro Tanikawa,
Patti Smith, Adam Zagajewski,
Bjork (yes, the Icelandic musician!),
Rainer Maria Rilke, Anne Sexton,
the brothers Lacaba: Emmanuel and Jose.
Then the late British poet Elizabeth Bartlett,
who became a friend in letters
that crossed seas and seasons, the one
who wrote when no one was reading.
Inspiration for the Poem “The Scar Examined at Midnight”
I noticed a burn mark
on a high school friend
who said he did it to himself.
That memory stayed with me
for many years and one day
I thought of turning it
into a scene, as if in a play,
where nearly everything
is only partly lit, including
the minds of the characters.
They had to be people
from Raymond Carver.
But not really. I hadn’t read him
when I saw my friend’s scar.
Never told anyone how I burned
my own arm to see how it felt.
Techniques, Ideas, Thoughts During Writing
None. Because I cannot read notes
on a page. The lines make me dizzy.
I’ve tried and lost my way
keeping tune. Often I struggle
not doodling wobbly circles
where the spaces lie.
Self-taught, more or less,
feeling the keys and hoping
my ears don’t betray me.
Sometimes I need someone else
to tell me how lost I am, knowing
no one else can find me
unless I let them in. No,
I’m just playing with you.
It’s all out there to see, just can’t
tell you how or where.