Written by Rodrigo Dela Peña, Jr.
Dated 10 Aug 2016

The title of Eric Tinsay Valles’ first book, A World in Transit, encapsulates the collection’s main trajectory: how we journey through different landscapes, and in the process, arrive at insights about the way we live in an increasingly mobile and globalised milieu. A diverse range of characters populate his poems, the entire collection itself an eclectic smorgasbord of topics that catch the poet’s fancy.

It is instructive to examine a representative poem to illustrate what Edwin Thumboo sees as “a lively window on life in emerging, changing Asia” (A World in Transit, blurb). The title poem, which acts as a prologue, dramatises a scene at the airport, the liminal space of arrivals and departures:

Blaring boarding calls
Suspend Tagalog in mid-sentence
More deafening are stifled sobs
Of maids, singers and poets crafting
Monologues to hear babies through college
From Singapore, Madrid or Daly City.

The stanzas that follow paint a chaotic, almost circus-like atmosphere:

Plum-fleshed mouths quaver
As they imagine little ones scalded
By fever with them absent in their telenovela.
Chestnut eyes wink at counter buzzards
For extra luggage space; goodbyes
Yelped via mobile text on travelators.

Heroes march to colonise ex-colonial masters:

Chuck mango peels to the bin;
Lug sacks bursting with denials;
Dream of a dizzyingly-lit house, all-night singing;
Dread straining sun-kissed throat
At table with a boss spouting gibberish.

Bar singers in tube tops,
Sundown skins shunned by Malate,
Croon the blues in a gilded cage.
Poets wrestle with identity and the bottle,
Flush native idioms with vomit [ . . . ]

The poem is quoted at length to reflect Valles’ typical style, which attempts to encompass and embody the vibrance of a hectic world. The lines above “capture snatches of home in exile, which is a theme and trope that can be applied to the human condition” (A World in Transit, preface). We feel the sense of displacement experienced by vagabond individuals portrayed in the poem.

However, the poet has the propensity to adorn lines heavily with adjectives, which tend to weigh down the poem and sometimes, even results in faulty diction. For instance, the poem above ends with: “Tug homeward with each air ticket / Paid for with absent-minded sweat.” One does wonder how sweat can be absent-minded, even if it is a gesture of metaphorising.

Valles’ penchant for footnotes is also worth highlighting, as many of his poems are studded with these references. On one hand, they provide context that might otherwise escape a reader, translating a foreign word or providing necessary information for one to fully understand a poem.

On the other, there is such an abundance of footnotes explaining too much when an endnote (instead of an intrusive footnote) or even none at all would have sufficed. For instance, do we really need to be told that Tagalog, in the very first footnote of the book, is “the dominant language of the Philippines”? Other footnotes tell us where the poems have been recited or anthologised. Unwittingly, the excessive use of footnotes strikes a pedantic tone and even becomes a marker for subaltern otherness.

Valles’ second book, After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins, explores a world devastated by calamity and accidents, contemplating the aftermath of loss and—if one is lucky enough to be alive—survival. The riot in Little India, supertyphoon Haiyan, the 2002 Bali bombings—Valles trains his poetic gaze on these occasions of turmoil. Following a terrorist attack, the poet addresses a maple tree: “Your shade is lush and ample; / Blossom-laden branches / Quiver from the blast” (“Tweets from Boston I”).

Indeed, Valles makes it clear in the Preface what his intentions are, what questions he attempts to answer: “How does one pick up the pieces from the resulting brutality and destruction? How does one carry on?” His work, then, tries to “achieve some dialogue about the bloodcurdlingly real in poetic narratives about violence and trauma”. Ultimately, in the process of retelling, his goal, “far from cowing us” is to “inspire some hope”.

Lim Siew Yea notes that this second collection “reveals Eric Valles as poet with the nose of an investigative archaeologist, as exemplified by his penchant and courage for mining the dark corner of psychological wastelands” (Dirges, blurb). The poet’s unapologetic and insistent engagement with current events and historical vignettes marks his significance in a poetic landscape that is often marked by navel gazing, which is to say, verses that look inward, beguiled by the multifaceted I.

At his best, when he reins in descriptive excess and practices linguistic subtlety, he paints a tender picture of the way we live now, such as in “Independence Day in Hong Lim Park” where he depicts his Filipino compatriots:

They are not acacias
Whose roots spread to overrun
And choke pavements.
What they long for
Is to wed with air,
To embrace the state of song.

Works cited

Valles, Eric Tinsay. A World in Transit. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011.

Valles, Eric Tinsay. After the Fall: dirges among ruins. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014.