‘What the shore looks like after hard rain’
Love, everyday life and selfhood in Ivy Alvarez’s Diaspora: Volume L. Review by Natalie Linh Bolderston.
Diaspora: Volume L Ivy Alvarez
Ivy Alvarez’s fifth collection, Diaspora: Volume L, is made up of beautiful vignettes with Filipino sayings at their cores, which portray charged moments in romantic relationships and everyday interactions with the world. Each title is an idiom, and acts as the linguistic scaffold around which a poem is deftly built. In this way, Alvarez is able to deconstruct and interrogate language and contextual meanings at a highly granular level, and craft a series of compelling re-interpretations. The brevity of each poem is perhaps a testament to Alvarez’s knack for delving straight to the core of a moment, whether domestic or public. Each vignette is a distillation – a quick, intense flash of experience.
One of Alvarez’s main preoccupations seems to be the grittier, more unwholesome aspects of love and intimacy. In the opening poem, ‘Labanán ng mga pusò’ (meaning ‘avoiding conversation between two lovers,’ or literally, ‘conflict of the hearts’) love is stripped down to violent, animalistic discord:
Cock-fighting rooster-comb reds, blood-filled retreating,
advance that’s tidal, conceding promises like plates,
Her choice of imagery makes the initial promise of explosive, epic confrontation retreat almost immediately back into the domestic, which amplifies the feeling of avoidance – things left unsaid. It is interesting that such conflict – chaotic, irreparable, at times brutal – is subversively presented within a compact sonnet, which could also refer to both lovers’ repression of their growing animosity. Rather than resolving, the sonnet fittingly withers into indifference and an inexpressible lack:
Yes, we once a cup and saucer. Now, paper plate disposable. Not rude,
just less notice, less words said, less eyes met, less and less.
Similarly, in ‘Labí ng aso’ (meaning ‘lady who eloped with a man and then returned to her parents,’ or literally, ‘leftover of the dog’), Alvarez explores the bloody vestiges of lost love. On returning to her parents, the speaker finds that
my father killed my dog and ate it
placed for me on a white plate
its black salty lips.
Lips can be a tender or sensual hallmark of love poetry. Here, they are a weapon made impotent; they become a symbol of sacrifice and surrender, of stunned silence – a reminder of all that has been lost.
‘Lamáng-kati’ (meaning ‘meat of butchered animals,’ or literally, ‘contents of low tide’), is a similarly bloody reverie about a meat market – with ‘aisles lined with heads, limbs: / a wedding I never knew’ – that wanders into romantic territory:
Let’s not make a hash of love –
that’s not how it ends,
what the shore looks like after hard rain,
the sea disgorging its contents.
After the unflinching, macabre imagery of the previous stanzas, this is a somewhat unexpected conclusion – a tender release. It is a plea for a reborn love, a love purged of its toxicity.
Another striking aspect of Diaspora is Alvarez’s reverence for everyday life. In ‘Lakad-susô’ (meaning ‘slowfoot,’ or literally, ‘snail pace’), the speaker steeps themselves in a languorous walk:
strolling without destination
afternoon burnt by midday sun
The caesural gaps seem to allow the speaker to drift in and out of consciousness, befitting a hot, soporific afternoon. The gaps perhaps also signal the empty, liberating spaces between scheduled activity, and the simple joy of lingering in the moment:
there’ll be another tomorrow tomorrow
for us mud-footed
The sparse detail again denotes a kind of freeing, unrushed aimlessness; there is time and space to revel in the speaker’s leisure, to absorb their connected but languid, fragmented units of thought. The lack of punctuation throughout is also apt. Like the speaker – at least for this interlude – the poem is not beholden to traditional syntactic structures.
In ‘Lumuluhà ng bato’ (meaning ‘to suffer much,’ or literally, ‘crying of stones’) Alvarez pays tribute to another everyday act – washing clothes in a river. In her description (‘the women fling wet clothes / as if to crush / their enemies’), the act of washing is imbued with heroism and defiant strength – the work is cathartic, warrior-like. At the end of the poem, this defiance becomes tenderness as the women carry their clothes home (‘and the women gather the beaten up / in their arms’).
Working with a care and tactility that is almost maternal, the evidence of the women’s labour is gathered lovingly. Throughout, this poetic vignette is well-complemented by its form. Like water, Alvarez’s lines trickle and dart unpredictably across the page.
The themes of identity and taking ownership of oneself are also strong presences in this collection. In ‘Lálabasán’ (meaning ‘ability or intelligence,’ or literally, ‘something will come out’) the speaker resists outside definition:
to be told
I am an adjective
does not make me
no matter how complimentary
or inflationary the adjective
While much of the collection explores the expansive possibilities of language, here the speaker pushes against its perhaps more malevolent, confining aspects – that is, our sometimes violent desire to name, over-simplify or define a person before we can accept them. The speaker’s body joins the fight against this, repelling attacks on their integrity:
beneath the skin
fluid will expel
the splinter out
protect the body
External definition and assigned characteristics are implicitly parasitic, uncomfortably intrusive – but the speaker’s self-preservation acts like a physical, automatic bodily defence. Thus, the speaker’s sense of identity remains whole: unbroken and un-invaded. The poem’s mostly short, clipped lines perhaps contribute to this sense of abrupt, biting resistance.
This self-preservation continues in ‘Ligong-pato’ (meaning ‘taking a bath without wetting the head,’ or literally, ‘duck bath’). The speaker’s defiance of submission – this time implicitly ritualistic or religious – is reiterated:
Let’s wade into shallow water […] Perhaps I am antiseptic, impulsive, incorruptible. Unbaptisable.
In this subversive baptism, the water seems to denote the resolute fluidity of the self rather than any kind of assimilation. The body is again resistant: unwilling to be cleansed of its own hungers and liberties.
Reading the collection feels like watching a camera panning across highly concentrated physical and emotional landscapes – an effect intensified by the accompanying line art and photographs featured throughout, which depict couples, children, market scenes, street scenes and more. In a way that is unique to her, Alvarez’s engagement with of idiomatic language creates a sequence of works that illuminate the beautiful – and at times disquieting – rhythms of living in the Philippines, and far beyond.