Monday, November 04, 2013

ModPo 2013 #58 Heteroglossia and a Long, Long Train of Voices: On Silliman's "BART"

Image of musicians at the Metro by

The link to text of Ron Silliman's BART is here.
There's something about trains that makes them a metaphor for modern humanity. There's Jack Kerouac's "October In The Railroad Earth" and Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." And on the personal sphere, I've written several poems set in train stations or in trains.

Here's one:

Sad Song at The MRT Station

Suspend the speed at which people walk,
watch them float on the concrete,
watch the drops of rain slant in the air.
Listen to the first tinny note
of the electric guitar.
It seems as if it is coming from nowhere.
A woman's voice blends with the guitar.
It's a song from five decades ago
filling the space, her voice is so close.
It comes back to you,
your grandfather singing the song,
"Kailangan kita" to your grandmother
who waves away his earnestness.
Your remember his eyes
bright with tears that will not fall,
his wavering voice.
You think he was alone at that moment.
But he wasn't. He is here, now, with you.

Come to think of it, I should have cut off that last line. But I digress. My point is: trains and train stations are living veins of the city. If you want a look at a cross section of society, you just need to ride a train. In Manila, sadly, we don't have a very organized public transport system. We do have trains but they are far too few and leave too many gaps in our city uncovered. We don't have proper bus stops and jeepneys (a leftover from World War 2, a common mode of transport, and a national symbol too) have a tendency to load and unload just about anywhere (that's a metaphor about the Philippines there).

Two years ago, when I was living a city away from my place of work, I was taking the train to and from work almost every day. That was quite an experience. I was too used to order that I quailed at trying to push my way into a car. Apparently, it was normal to do it then. Now, I hear, it's no longer the mode. Lines have been enforced (finally!). It's easy to be in a crush of people when one rides a train. I had some very Pound-like moments when I imagined each soul riding the endless lines of cars, each different but lit by some kind of energy that was invisible. It's true that a train has a tendency, too, to separate each commuter into separate spheres, each lost in a personal bubble of music or reverie. It's not a place to commune. It's a place to be separate and in transit.

I notice in my poem that people (and rain) become only the background to a memory playing out, prompted by the blind musicians who haunt the train stations with their tin cans waiting for coins from commuters.

In Silliman's project, he boldly writes as he commutes, a feat in itself. I've never written while riding a train. It's just impossible, at least in Manila. It's hard enough to carry myself and my purse through the crowds...what a luxury to have elbow room to write!

I compare this to Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia and the chorus. By capturing "voices" including the speaker's, power structures and the marginalized are equally captured by the text, immortalized alongside the power holders and the protagonists to be recognized by future readers who can go beyond the "obvious" narrative and re-construct the voices of the "side" characters and the powerless. Any text, actually, can be turned on its head when read this way.

Silliman as Language poet in BART goes out of his way to capture this heteroglossia as it is, not bothering to coat it with narrative. It couldn't get any more raw as material, capturing even the speaker's commentaries and physical labor and discomforts. How objective could anybody be? Silliman's poem reminds the reader that the writer is a witness. He cannot completely strip away the fact that he is writing from a perspective...but he reminds us, too, that he is flawed. As was stated in the "generalizations" on Language poets: they aim to separate authorship from authority. There is no better poem than this to demonstrate the frailty of the author.

Also, in this poem one finds that language is in transit just as the poem itself is a machine, a machine made out of words. Meaning is as transitory as people going in and out of cars. One is left with text. A long, long train of text that points to the surface of things, reflecting back only the reader puts (or is willing to put) in.

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