Lugar Lang | In Memoriam: Cirilo F. Bautista (1941-2018)

LAST April 23, I received information through a group chat that National Artist for Literature Cirilo Bautista, our friend, was “slipping away” at the Philippine Heart Center; that his wife Rose Marie had signed the “Do Not Resuscitate” form and would like his friends to come and say goodbye, to help him “have a smooth passage.” We admired the faith and strength of Rose Marie, but still kept on hoping that Cirilo might hang on. Some writers were indeed able to visit him, while others could only be with Cirilo through their prayers and memories of him.I began saying goodbye by reading his last book of poetry, Things Happen. Poems 2012 published by the University of Santo Tomas in 2015. I was very glad to have been able to attend the book launch and see not only Cirilo, but other writer-friends whom I have not seen much since I moved to Davao City. Even then, I thought the book was his way of leavetaking, even as it came in the heels of his being bestowed the highest literary award in the country. But I am not that close to him to make assumptions like that. Only as a reader, I wondered why many of the poems were intimations of mortality and regret.

Ars longa, vita brevis was a principle he often repeated in class. Poet-critic Luna Sicat-Cleto described it as “Parang paraluman ito ng kanyang kumbiksiyon sa pagsulat”; it seemed to be his muse. Because life is short, he made sure that his art or his writing would outlive him. With an outstanding oeuvre in various genres (essay, fiction, poetry, criticism) and in both Filipino and English, Cirilo can rest assured that he will live on. But more than that, we are assured that while he lived, he continually tried to fight against the brevity of life through language. In his own words, language was “An internal struggle, an inner struggle, to find himself, in a world that tries to taste, that tries to take this self away from yourself, from what you’re really supposed to be.” Thus, anyone who follows his writing will find pleasure in examining how his writing has evolved through this constant struggle.

On the day he died, tributes from writers poured in Facebook. Historian-playwright Vic Torres shared that when he was deciding to leave UST and join De La Salle University, he had sought Cirilo for advice. Cirilo’s told him, “Huwag ka lang makipag-away,” and it surely worked for Vic. I admit that I myself did not have the benefit of this advice in my seven years teaching in De La Salle University. Sadly, Cirilo and I did not ‘fight’ on the same side at that time. But all the academic politics was thrown out when I became a writer. Cirilo always had a soft spot for writers, whom he mentored generously.

One of the early gifts he gave to me at that time was to publish a poem of mine in the Panorama Sunday magazine of the Manila Bulletin, of which he was literary editor. For most young writers, that is all it takes to encourage us to keep trying. So I dropped out of the PhD Literature program of DLSU and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, in a wrong academic career move, but is still the best change of direction I’ve ever made in my life. In the MFA program, I was fortunate to be in Cirilo’s Poetry class. There I met a very different teacher. He was nurturing and kind, even as he was strict with poetic conventions and technique. It was through Cirilo that I learned to treat poetry not as a precious gift but as a thing that required work through language, not emotion.

That’s why I was (pleasantly) surprised to read his new poems in the book Things Happen. Critics lauded the collection as a departure from his old philosophizing voice towards a more vulnerable lyric voice. Sicat-Cleto describes it, “Mula sa seryoso at pamimilosopiya, siya ngayo’y nakikipag-usap na sa tao, dahil ipinakita na rin niyang siya’y tao lamang.”

In the title poem, “Things Happen,” which serves as an epilogue to the collection, Cirilo writes in the voice of a dead man, as in Robert Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral”: “The dead man sees the world/ for what it is…” and declares, “Life made me a drifter/ and the cleverness I have is no measure / of my true worth,” adding, “I had but one regret—being thrown into / misery.”

It is, of course, a fallacy to mistake the persona for the poet himself, but when he writes, “I may be / a loss to someone or not at all, it matters / little now when I crave for nothing, not even // immortality which, they say, is the end / of freedom,” I want to assure him that indeed he is a loss to many of us, in more ways than one. I want to be able to tell him that a beacon has gone out in his passing, and that I wish he could assure us that this final goodbye has, in fact, freed him, as it will free us when it is our turn.

In another poem, he writes, “You just can’t go / like that. You have to deserve to die.” And just like that, our beloved poet Cirilo F. Bautista went. Thank you for everything.

Necrological services will be held on May 10, 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Cultural Center of the Philippines followed by a state funeral at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Follow or message me on Twitter @jhoannalynncruz

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