Visual poetry: ‘Pictures as Poems and other (Re)visions’

Rina Angela Corpus
It is in these poems of his local travels that we find, side by side, the photographs taken by Kilates himself, another testament to his love affair with the visual

ART INSPIRES ART. The poetry of Marne Kilates in this book is a result of ekphrasis. Book cover photo courtesy of Rina Angela Corpus

MANILA, Philippines – What if pictures could wax poetic?

Perhaps Marne Kilates’ Pictures and Poems and other (Re)visions (UST Publishing, 2012) could show us how.

In his 4th poetry collection, Kilates teases our imagination with his longstanding dialogue with photographs and paintings, giving voice to a gamut of subjects and settings they enframe, allowing them to step out of the gallery frame and, perhaps, live yet another lyrical life through the interface of another medium. 

Like a printed avatar of his trim and stylish online poetry and visual art journal Electronic Monsoon Magazine (previously, The Poet’s Picturebook), this anthology sees Kilates marrying “his twin loves for visual and verb,” as the author’s description puts it. He often calls it ekphrastik poems, from the Greek term “ekphrasis,” which has come to mean the synergy of an art form inspired by another: a sculpture about a novel, a film showing architecture, or a poem about a painting. 

And while ekphrasis is governed by certain conventions, which Kilates mentions in one of his lectures, its method is also as old as art itself. For which artist has not been inspired to create art after encountering a picture, a sculpture, or some other creative work?

Take for one Zamboanguita, where Kilates meditates on the tranquil seascape photograph of Claro Cortes IV, where the seamless oneness of sky and sea bring him from quotidian thoughts to the sublime: When we were perhaps still / in the mind of God, a seed / Of quiet waiting to be uttered.

Or how, in Chinese Brushes by the same lensman, Kilates sees not the intricate carvings on the paintbrush handles, but Beards / Of one / Thousand / Philosophers / Meditating.

And since poetry is also history, he also comments on canonical, if controversial, masterworks, as in Juan Luna’s The Parisian Life which became the center of national discussion when it was purchased by the GSIS Museum years back. In the poem That Luna Woman, Kilates begins with epigraphs from 4 cultural critics — Alice Guillermo, John Silva, Luis Cabalquinto, Tito Valiente — who commented on the problematic, because exhorbitant, purchase of the infamous Luna piece.

Like a social verdict not fully resolved, Kilates asks us to ponder again the lives that move beyond the frame: What then will she remind us of? / The false serenity of a time gone past? / The uselessness of Beauty or Art? / The poverty of souls? / … The auction is open.

In A Short History of the Buaya, Kilates transforms Santiago Bose’s print entitled Inscription of a Talisman No. 42  into the evolutionary narrative of the Philippine crocodile as an erstwhile creature of the Pasig River, that later transformed into the “obese Fraile,” and then as media magnates, and finally as modern-day politicians as we now know them: Ah, like gods they walk among us still.

But we are also brought to the most familiar and least poetic of our everyday. In Poem Found in Phone, we read a simple ping-pong of text messages, nearly redolent of jejemon culture: did u c an angel? / stl luking / just saw 1 / any gud? 

While in Penshoppe Billboard, he writes an ode to a sleek summer print ad along EDSA that displayed Asian models fully tanned with blondied hair: Our tarp signs, and with them the happy illusions / With which we paint ourselves.

In Global Architecture, a series of 9 haikus, Kilates slyly remarks on the ironies of the country’s perceived economic development, with the increased phenomenon of high-rise sprawls and the agressive gentrification of our lands: A developer / Builds on Barrio Balagbag / And calls it Venice.

Besides noting the travesty behind the contemporary and the sleek, the poet is also a restless itinerant who longs to return to his locale and home. For one, he speaks profusely of the old religious ladies in his town in The Day of the Manangs. And consider in Garlic Stall the popular produce lined up on the road to Ilocos; the Ifugao bulul and the famed rice terraces in Pictures from Banawe; the gap-toothed Roman Morions of Lenten Marinduque in Morion; and the hut and tobacco blossoms in Light in Dintan, where: the fluttering eyelids of the wind / Becalmed among its branches, the noon / Lolling in a hammock, transfixed.  

Wondrous still is the local delicacy in Deep Purple, where he speaks of the lucious Bikol fruit baligang, black plums similar to the more popular duhat. Adding modern appeal to the poem was how the verses were shaped like two platters, reminiscent of how the townsfolk would usually shake the baligang, as he recounts, inside two concave soup dishes…bleeding blending them tender with grains of white rock salt white / sugar the scarlet juice flowing staining the smooth china…

It is in these poems of his local travels that we find, side by side, the photographs taken by Kilates himself, another testament to his love affair with the visual, which he developed as a boy from Albay who watched an older brother paint. In those days, he was equally awed by the shapely Mayon volcano, the local church architecture, and the picture books in the municipal library.

Other than his life as a poet, Kilates has also worked in advertising, and we can see this deft skill for image-making through the cover and book design handsomely done by him. 

And although he has never written in the vernacular, the Palanca and SEAWrite awardee has translated the poetry books of several Filipino poets, among them National Artist Virgilio Almario, Bienvenido Lumbera, and Jess Santiago. 

In this age of the hypermedia, it is refreshing to find a well-thought poetry anthology that allows one to experience a timeworn art technique that is surprisingly multi-disciplinary: the picture poem where the poet becomes both a painter of words and a wordsmith of visions. –

(Rina Angela Corpus is an assistant professor of Art Studies at the College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines. She survived Sandy while on special detail in New York in October 2012. She practices the healing arts of shibashi-chigong and Raja Yoga meditation. Her poems have been featured in Mad Swirl, Philippine Collegian, Philippines Free Press, and Tayo Literary Magazine.)

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