Reading through the poems in Prison and Beyond, one is apt to get habituated to the stark diction and militant tone of the prison poems, only to be jarred by the "poetic" manner of the pieces written between 1958 and 1961. Jose Ma. Sisonís first book of poems was published in 1962. Brothers introduced readers in the young poetís time to poem which, in the late years of the 1950s, dared to be (against the fashion of the times) political poetry. The poems were an attempt to break away from the aestheticist concerns of his contemporaries, but the poet had found it difficult at that stage to forge a style demanded by his subject matter and intentions. There simply were no models in the local tradition of Philippine writing in English he could go back to, except such discredited or unfashionable poets like R. Zulueta da Costa ("Like the Molave"), Aurelio Alvero ("1896"), or, at best, the expatriate Carlos Bulosan ("If You Want to Know What We Are").
In the waning years of the Cold War decade, Sison was courting critical doom by defying the reigning formalist dicta against "propaganda" in poetry. But the social realities in the poetís young manhood at the University of the Philippines could not be glossed over by the verbal witchery that elder poets and his peers cultivated in their verses. Glimpses of unjust structures, brutishness, corruption and callousness together presented a bleak landscape that the young poet hoped could be set aright. "Carnival" gave a tawdry microcosm of Philippine society as peopled by "bribeable bureaucrats," "politicians and professionals specialists," pedants, poets and "charity ladies." In "These Scavengers," children digging for food at garbage heaps occasioned an indictment of the hollowness of religious platitudes when not translated into deeds. Petit-bourgeois rebels who were too easily seduced by wealth and power inspired the poet with contempt, and he pictured them, as "trophies" to be displayed in the clubs of the rich and the powerful in "The Fish Stuffed." And "The Massacre," a poem commemorating the notorious Maliwalu massacre, sounded a call to vengeance that would bring to justice the perpetrators of a heinous crime against the peasants.
Although Sisonís subject matter and intentions in the above poems were a repudiation of much of the poetry his contemporaries were writing, he found himself caught up in the same intoxication with modernist poetry found among postwar exponents of elliptical syntax and highly personal, almost idiosyncratic diction, like Amado Unite, Oscar de Zuniga and Alejandrino G. Hufana. Those were literary times when existentialism was in flower and our writers in English, in a period of political reactions steered clear of what were thought to be "vulgarities" of social reality, and concentrated instead on the articulation of despair in a society where human venalities were more comfortingly explained away as inevitable ills in an absurd universe. As though to prove that his political views and insights were as valid material for poetry as anguish and loneliness, Sison adopted the "modernist" manner of the reigning models from Western poetry and of his contemporaries at U.P. The option had the effect of making his poems, as political utterance, accessible mainly to the elite circle of writers, teachers and students of literature in the Academe. Unfortunately, that audience had been tamed by Cold War propaganda emanating from the USIS into suspecting any contemporary literary work by a Filipino that smelled vaguely of "ideas" or, worse yet, "ideology." In such a setting, Sisonís art was boxed in by the paradox of affecting the manner of "artistic contemporaries even as he revolted against the intellectual vacuousness of their poetic output.
In 1971, Sison repudiated, "with the exception of five or six," his poems in Brothers. The occasion was the first national congress of PAKSA, a progressive writers organization. In a message, he made an act of self-criticism, saying that "the bulk of the poems, cannot pass the test of proletarian revolutionary criticism." He expressed the hope that "with this repudiation I shall be able to write better poems."
As early as 1968, Sison was on the way to writing what he regarded as "better" poems. "The Guerrilla Is Like a Poet" was unlike his earlier poems -- Sison had purged his lines of their former load of self-conscious imagery compounded of modifiers and syntactical constructions that all but choked out detail. The resulting transparency and impact of the poet's language was a relief from the intellectual coyness of the "arty" output of many of his contemporaries. The poem marked the beginning of Sison's break-away from the tradition of English writing to which his training as an English major had pegged his poetry.
Prison and Beyond shows Sison the poet crossing over to another tradition of writing in the Philippines, his theoretical and practical work in the national democratic movement having led him to the key question of committed writing in the beginning of the 1970s. "For Whom?" The question was originally posed by Mao Zedong in the context of writing for the Chinese Revolution when this was still seven years away from final victory. In the writing scene in the Philippines, Mao's question had cut through so much critical underbrush, opening up a path for young writers seeking participation in the struggle for social change. It became clear to these writers that it was their intended audience that would set the conditions for a meaningful encounter between text and reader. Their intended audience was the Filipino masses, and the masses could be reached only through any one of the vernacular languages. Some of those writing in English but could afford to choose, opted for Pilipino. Others who could not, faced the prospect of ceasing to write altogether.
But giving up writing was not the sole option available to nationalist poets and fictionists who could not handle Pilipino as a literary medium. Sison's example showed them the radical way. Indeed, English was a language that allowed the Filipino writer to reach only an elite readership. That readership, however, could be broadened provided one was willing to write against the grain of established tradition in pursuit of a higher, social good. Sison, as the poems written since "The Guerrilla Is Like a Poet," would attest, has cut out from his verse characteristics highly-prized by the critical orthodoxy in contemporary writing in English, such as "ambiguity," "paradox," "wit," etc. The pruning job has resulted often in the lucidity of direct speech which, theoretically at least, makes his poems accessible to a wider audience who could read in English, but lacks the specialized literary training that is a requisite for the appreciation of much of Filipino poetry in English.
The long poem "Fragments of a Nightmare" clarifies the contribution of Sison's example in Prison and Beyond to what, for want of a better term, might be called the "indigestion" of Philippine writing in English. The poem stands as the centerpiece of Sison's second book, a chronicle of the poet's arrest, interrogation, torture and detention that lacerates the imagination as no previous Filipino work of art has ever done. The hellish experience has been cast, in the form of an allegory about a man who has had to wrestle with demons, emerging from the test stronger, more resolute and indomitable. The result is a work unparalleled in the entire history of Philippine literature as a poetic rendering of a systematic and ruthless process of breaking a man down through extreme mental and physical torment.
A reading of "Fragments of a Nightmare" sears into the consciousness questions on human endurance. How much pain can the flesh absorb? How much anxiety can the spirit weather? What activates a victim's inner reserves and gives him power to prevail over his tormentors? Without the help of grand rhetorical artifices, the poem succeeds in galvanizing us against torture as a dastardly method of making a man betray his comrades and cause. The reader is aware that the speaking voice is that of Jose Ma. Sison, but he is confronted with self-denying understatement made possible by the use of a low-keyed allegory about a man who had had to wrestle with demons and survived without surrendering his faith. Ultimately, the poem goes beyond autobiography. By the force of Sison's allegorical method, the extreme test that the prisoner undergoes becomes the testing of every political prisoner who endures and survives because he has been buoyed up by solidarity with all men in struggle against injustice and repression.
In Prison and Beyond, Sison has
chosen to be evaluated outside of the tradition from which
he got his start as a poet. In crossing over to another
tradition, the poet has chosen to be judged alongside Jose
Rizal ("Mi Ultimo Adios"), Aurelio Tolentino
("Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas," the poem), Jose
Corazon de Jesus ("Sa Dakong Silangan") and Amado
V. Hernandez ("Bayang Malaya"). In that company,
Jose Ma. Sison is assured of a place of honor.