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A poetic history of home

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 08, 2024 5:00 am

Say Basey and whoever’s familiar with cultural maps will identify it as a small town on the southeast coast of Samar that produces gorgeous mats. An hour’s drive from the point where San Juanico Bridge starts to cross the strait to Leyte, it is also known to foreign spelunkers for its Sohoton Cave.

Premier poet-in-English Dinah Roma left this hometown at the age of four. She acknowledges that she bore no distinct memory of the place. But when super typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan devastated Tacloban and surrounding areas in 2013, “the ruins brought on by Yolanda kindled an instinctual connection to it that was undeniable, inescapable. The emotion startled me into an awareness of how the locale has long remained an imagined space for me, something my writing has circumscribed into words.”

Dinah Roma

As circumstances would have it, a timely grant from the National Book Development Board provided the impetus for her to work on an uncommon manuscript. With the eventual collaboration of Eastern Visayas State University in commemoration of Yolanda’s 10th anniversary, Dinah Roma’s book was published by Katig Writers Network, Inc. early this year.

Weaving Basey: A Poetic History of Home, maps out six sections of essays and an epilogue, with four poems interspersed between some chapters.

John Iremil Teodoro offers a foretaste: “This work explores the intricate tapestry of local history…, while also delving into the ineffable quality of memory that shapes our lives. Poets often write about the ordinary and the absences, using them as metonyms for the abundant journeys in life.”

Most of the essays chart a deeply personal landscape that weaves through history, folklore, and revived memories. The most interesting section for this reader is titled “Bridging Chronicles: Three Historical Vignettes.” We learn that Basey isn’t only identified with mats and caves, but serves rich narratives sprouting from the common geographical denominator of water.

The author employs the word “vignettes” to apply to the tapestry of narratives as “a ‘vine’ arising from a main branch in how the stories came to me and expanded over time.”

Over centuries, these involve “the Moro raids in Samar, the pulahanes, and the Balangiga conflict (that) all arose from childhood memories.”

Breathtaking view inside the Sohoton Cave and Natural Bridge.

Basey was where the American soldiers were first headquartered at the start of the 20th century, near Sohoton Cave, which the pulahanes (“those wearing red”) of Samar, among the rest of the Visayas, turned into a bastion after reviving syncretic local beliefs as an armed religious movement preceding the Philippine Revolution. 

Roma writes: “(T)he Balangiga conflict is seen as an iconic representation of the Samareños’ ingenious spirit for warfare when pushed to defend themselves from subjugation. No one can deny their native will.”

The revolutionaries chose Sept. 28 for their attack “with the belief that they would receive divine aid from Archangel St. Michael.”

The few American survivors of the “Balangiga massacre” slogged through the Sohoton River to get back to their garrison in Basey. Similarly, only the surrounding caves gave some respite for the insurrectos from the “howling wilderness” that followed.

St. Michael Archangel Church Basey Samar

“When Yolanda battered Basey on Nov. 8, 2013, the survivors took refuge in the St. Michael The Archangel Parish Church. This colonial structure stands on a hill in the middle of the town, with near to 300 bodies found strewn throughout the area.”

This is history told another way. “It is my writing that has made Basey visible to me. Its geography is what serves as the landscape of my words.”

Roma’s poem “Basey, 300” transcends a chronology of devastation with echoes of intimacy:

“How can a small town be so alive/ with the dead? … The saint’s robe aflame/ against the earth’s spectrum. The deep caves/ where soldiers once hid and died,/ their bones risen as stalagmites,/ the fear in their hearts chilling the rocks./ The weaver’s magic shrouded by reeds./ … Who is to say/ who remains to tally the dead, to declare/ the loss. Call it memory. Call it roots./ The relentless sea. Whoever stands in its way./ Three hundred or so strewn about,/ three hundred beyond naming.// And how my mother, long gone,/ kept warning me against another visit/ to home.

Local weavers in Basey preserve tradition with their intricate craftsmanship and artistry.

“There’s nothing there./ Nothing there at all.”

From the concluding essay titled “Metaphors of Weaving,” Roma threads through powerful reverberation: “We are held together by the caring hands that weave us into harmony and steadfastness. As the women weavers of Basey have long taught many of us who appreciate their craftsmanship, the long hours and discipline are anchors to a life. It is the belief that out of each work arises a familiar beauty.

“We cannot allow the tradition to fray at its edges.”

Indeed, how the poetic imagination can retrieve, recreate, and remember a homeland.