The Catholic Angst in Eric Gamalinda’s Amigo Warfare
Angst, in a general sense, expresses a negative emotion, which is a state of being which is either caused by both internal and external factors that arrest the subject in a sudden vulnerability. It is in this state where comfort and relief are explicitly absent to highlight the sense of urgency along with other forms of fear such as loss, separation, alienation, isolation, etc. On the other hand, angst provides a sense of self-awareness, perhaps brought about by abrupt realizations about one’s life and status that highlights the weight of existence. It is in this condition that the relationship between the subject and his/her surroundings begin to emerge in one full sweep: an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and insecurities brought by mishandled ruminations.
Eric Gamalinda’s poems manifest a strong sense of melancholia and contained aggression brought by its title Amigo Warfare, which exhibits a cunning sensibility as the term was used during the 20th century during the Filipino-American War to euphemize the effects the war that was brought by the Americans. It is also in this sense, Gamalinda tries to reflect another form of war from within him as exhibited by his consistent aggression in words as he tries to exorcise his own demons to battle against the ideas which he has embraced throughout his life as a poet.
This intends to discuss the existential tendencies of Catholic writing where in this case, poetry from Eric Gamalinda’s collection entitled Amigo Warfare where existential angst is believed to be explicitly apparent in most of his poems written in this collection. The proposed outline would be to first analyze the selected poems and integrate the Catholic themes to present a closed-view of all the materials mentioned which goes in saying that this essay will investigate the inherent existential tendencies in Catholicism. Coming from Søren Kierkegaard’s Christian Existentialism and through Hans Urs von Balthasar where
Christian anxiety is catholic, because the baptized person who shares in the Redeemer’s anxiety no longer distinguishes his own penance from everyone else’s, no longer judges himself, no longer separates himself from the sin of all. He knows that a primordial tie binds him to all men. What he has received as his own talent and mission is, objectively speaking, for all. This is a “solidarity” (CA, 93) that participates in the specifically christological substitution communicated to the world in the Church. Catholic anxiety, understood in this sense, is the key to the meaning of the work as a whole (Tourenne 1994).
The relationship between the existential anxiety and Gamalinda’s poetry will be further discussed in a Catholic sense but provided with this introduction, it aims to set the atmosphere and layout the course of discussion as the analysis of poems begin.
Selected Poems in Amigo Warfare
The poem entitled DMZ is the laying-bare of Eric Gamalinda. From the start, he metaphorically draws the line where he throws out all of his regrets, asks forgiveness to everyone he has loved, the submission of himself and admission of defeat, the submission of the self towards the future, returning back the things that he used to claim to himself, hoping that the things he will let go of will provide a better chance and will do so once he leaves without them:
I surrender my history
and all memory, its ammunition.
The nameless claim me. Exiles
offer me a home. Who else sees me
as I truly am, just another vehicle
transporting so much fuel?
I light my anger like a pile of twigs.
I do this in the desert: it scares away
anything that will devour me.
I do this in the city, where the jackhammer
cracks the cranium of the earth, and nothing
can save me. I lose myself
among the restless immigrants,
their bodies still warm
from the lust and gunfire of slums. (11)
The second stanza manifests an extreme form of melancholia, which leans towards sadness on the brink of accepting his fate. The title DMZ means a demilitarized zone and he lets us in as readers to see him, in this point of no return where he has uttered these words to expose himself in using poetic language.
The first stanza indicates the wearing out of the self, turning the body into a “weight I am sick of carrying” that was thoroughly reinforced in the third stanza that the persona admits in a form of confession: that is submitting to the hardships of life where the body has taken its toll through time: an existential notion of wearing out of the person’s purpose in life that was generated through his formative years where purposes are eclipsed by purposelessness of whether by fulfilling the former purpose or not, everything still arrives at the same conclusion of death.
Towards the fourth stanza, the poem leads to an inevitable gathering of the universal, much so in speaking on the brink of death — the acceptance of it — brings everything back into place where it has become “a country without borders” whereas in being a poet causes him to be “Summoned to testify on everyone’s behalf,” to consolidate consciousness.
We are so many bodies, my friends.
We all move in the same direction.
As though someone had a plan. (12)
The entirety of the poem until its ending seems to mark the poet’s retirement from being a poet. The artist’s realization of depletion of himself rendering himself useless. The second line reinforces the tendency to move together as in moving “in the same direction” speaks of the inevitable death and this realization marks an anxiety that revels in acceptance and submission.
The poem, False Hopes, True North speaks of the world’s discontents and one could argue that this poem is the amalgamation of the world’s anxieties where “Summer ended / quickly, I wasted my time looking for / a job, the nation went to war, we lost / our romance with the world” and in these successions of statements holding the truth that what holds the world we live in today is mediated by the loss of affinity with the world. The human condition that Gamalinda presents here is the hindrance of exhaustion in the person, “we grow tired of resisting” and in this angst superimposed on a pessimistic perspective causes distrust on authorities “So pay no currency to the Pope, ignore / the Secretary of Defense” and in this state where the refusal of security (spiritual and state security, for that matter) awakens the individual about the illusion of security where being truly secure rests upon the recognition of this illusion. Even though, “Even suffering is illusion, in the equation / between grief and rescue the body / is the unknown factor x,” where the body as a corporeal entity is a variable upon which the individual may possibly fall to: grief or rescue. This is the conflict of the persona in this collection: the struggle between the recognition of the inherent cynicism of the human condition and how to rescue the self from it. Gamalinda writes towards the end of the poem:
Don’t change your mind
about the impossible: I believe
I am about to not wake up, and I no longer
wish to be in anyone else’s nightmare
but your own, where a curfew’s been enforced
on the planet, and bombs get smarter than
the president. Our bodies, near like this,
are so mystical no spook can decode
this fractal of grace, no senate undermine
this perfect flaw. For the moment let there be
no homeland, no jihad, no Jesus Christ,
no IMF. Let armies yield and frontiers
break away. I will dwell in your transparency.
You are young, you can still be saved. (13)
Dwelling in transparency means to defy the borders and approach a more universal perspective towards the issues concerning our humanity, renouncing state, institutional, and religious affiliations and what sets them together.
The poem Subtitles Off brings forth our rising indifference towards the world, “The world is as wide as a letterbox screen / You sit in the dark with the subtitles off” (30) approaching the world with such detachment such as the whole poem consisting much like a list of aphorisms designed like a poem and in this disconnection comes the coherence as a whole as “a holiday of the senses” where “(yearning) (desolation) (boredom) (religion)” (ibid.) exists side by side as a paradoxical union of things of the world.
The poem Self Portrait in Hell is perhaps one of the poems where existential angst is the most apparent. Exhibiting a sense of possessiveness and selfishness to preserve the self wherein walling up the personal spaces the persona inhabits. However, this sense of self-awareness is extended for a greater purpose by the line “Just like they do on my country.” Approaching each poem as a form of a narrative where we could assume that if each poem that is written in this collection to be sorted in a chronological order, a feeling of rising subversion is at play. Where from the first few poems exhibit a type of anxiety and dwindling acceptance of the impending death, here, exhaustion has drained from Gamalinda where “I will bear my anger in silence. / I will lay down my heart in flames. / I will burn the sign of the cross on my forehead. / I will wear my country’s desolation / as though it were tailor-made for me.” In these parts, there is a sense of rising nationalism and his refusal to be dominated by external forces. “Wearing the country’s desolation” entails the battle scars that reinforces the sense of selfhood to stand brought about by the first part of the poem by building a wall around his past where “In that walled-up space I will let everything grow in wild abandon. / Weeds, snakes, mushrooms, worms, bacteria, orchids, hornets, / dragonflies, cockroaches, mosquitoes, maggots, rats” which purges out all insecurities, and using it against those who stand before you.
This is a very cathartic writing where the angst is poured evenly throughout the page for “Only I will recall what they once stood for, / my anger, my cross, my heart of embers. / No one will ever recognize me.” and in this situation, Gamalinda frees himself from the weight of anxiety where acceptance always comes last as a form of freedom from existential angst.
The last poem to be analyzed, Burning the Body, after Tarkovsky alludes to Tarkovsky’s quote on the collection which speaks about the role of the art to prepare the person for death, which is the highly dominant theme of Gamalinda’s poems in this collection. However, Burning the Body resides in ambiguous poetic language. It is a celebration of the passing of time and recognizing its passing. Passing here carries two meanings where “the passing of time” occurs as an event, a kind of “taking place” and passing as an action, a movement to pass through and walk from one place to another. However the two meanings correlate to one another as the act consist of the event, “Our bodies are a sign that time once made / its home in us, we are connected to time / the way the earth wears the orbit of the moon, / and light is how time communicates,” which brings us once again towards the idea that our souls do not belong to our body, therefore, “You were never at home / in the body, it’s weighed with longing, / it needs too soon extinct” for we are alien to this body we inhabit and the body is in perpetual service to time. And in this continuous recognition of the passing of time reminds us that our time is also limited in such a way that we will all arrive at our passing.
The Existential Relationship between Gamalinda’s Poetry and Catholic Anxiety
The dominant theme present in the poems of Gamalinda is the persona’s acceptance of the impending death (if not in the personal level in terms of old age, there is a tension in his existence and the idea of death), however, as the title suggests, Amigo Warfare connotes a historical term that was used during the Filipino-American War but the subjects that were discussed in the poems, proves that it is beyond that historical basis that the title adheres to. It is also taken upon the poet’s “being a poet” wherein his accumulated experiences from the past, the subject he tackles, and as an artist himself, it is a fact that one lives with the so-called fundamental truths in one’s side. Romanticizing death, loss, isolation, philosophizing about the human existence, truth, beauty, and with these natural aspect of an artist, his heightened state of sensitivity is what essentially keeps him to be an artist and at the same time depletes him which goes in saying that the other signifying aspect of the title, Amigo Warfare can also be argued that it is Gamalinda’s attempt to not only purge his negative past experiences or subvert the past issue but also to find that peace in recognizing that his “ideological friends” as a poet to be ruled by these fundamental truths. Gamalinda’s deep philosophical allusions toward death, time, loss, acceptance, and faith not only elevates his poetry to the transcendental but the honesty of his craft is unmistakably apparent in presenting himself through his poetry such as in the poem, Self Portrait in Hell.
Nash Popovic argues that there is such a thing as “Existential Joy” which is rooted from existential anxiety “Similar ‘limited-situations’ may bring an unusual sense of joy, characterized by the sense of unity with the world before the person falls back into routine or succumb to difficulties” (33). Whereas in this “sense of unity” is seen from Gamalinda’s poems as the return to the source of all things which we could bring to the Catholic perspective: to die without uncertainty knowing that one will be with God, such as the soul which is “borrowed” (alluding to Gamalinda’s Burning the Body) to return to where we truly belong.
Michael Austin recalls Kierkegaard’s “stages on life’s way” (2) where he discusses the three stages of human life: the aesthetic stage, focusing towards man’s hedonistic impulses who freely acts on his desires; the ethical stage, which is the reduction of the ego where it “introduces sacrifice; the self I no longer at the center of everything…” (3); and the religious stage “where the individual finds true fulfillment, and becomes truly authentic” (ibid.). Among these three, we will give emphasis on the religious stage for it is what is apparent in Gamalinda’s poetry where forgiveness is at its most honest form. Austin states, “Here, one realizes that [h]e cannot always do the right thing. This is a fact of human nature that [h]e accepts. [H]e also receives forgiveness from God, which resolves her guilt and eradicates [his] despair” (ibid.). And this is where Gamalinda’s poem DMZ almost heads to, where he recognizes his shortcomings, unfulfilled promises, and regrets to free himself from these burdens and if I may stress out once again, it is almost confessional — a Catholic notion of cleansing the soul, in recognizing one’s fault, exposing them and turning away from it to transform the self and as per Kierkegaard, “The need for forgiveness is a sign that one loves God” (284).
Worldly anxiety has its basis in a person’s unwillingness to be content with being a human being and in his anxious craving for distinction by way of comparison. True, worry about making a living, or as it is more commonly put, worries about the necessities of life, is not exactly an invention of comparison. Nevertheless, should we not be able to learn a lot about this anxiety from the lilies and birds? If we cannot, without a smile, think of the lily’s desire to become a Crown Imperial then think of its dying on the way. Oh, let us bear in mind that it is rather something to weep over that we too become just as foolishly worried, yes, just as foolishly (Kierkegaard 145).
Such as in Kierkegaard’s Christian Existentialism, it relates to Catholic faith wherein approaching death, one should approach it not in a panic, nor in anxiety just as how Christ accepted his fate. There are chances where he could have escaped but faith stands strong wherein accepting death, also rules over death itself.
Eric Gamalinda’s poetry speaks of a general threat upon one’s existence and it is through his poetry that he releases this existential angst. However, in light of a Catholic reading of his poems, we see a parallel between the philosophical and theological such those same truths exist whether it is man-centric or God-centric. To clarify, the emergence of existential angst can also signify a spiritual need which is if seen empty, anxiety emerges. Nash Popovic elucidates on this idea of being and nothingness, “Nothingness could not have been even recognized without being, and being, existence itself, would have been motionless without nothingness. We can move only if there is nothing in front of us. By the same token, we can grow only if there is some emptiness within us” (34).
We can see that once existential angst begins to manifest, it is seen as a symptom of spiritual inadequacy where that emptiness is beginning to make itself seen, recognized, and felt. In the case of Eric Gamalinda, his writing serves as a form of catharsis which is contemplative in most parts carrying melancholia and great poetic experiences to compensate for that anxiety. However, one might object that the rise of existential angst is an indication of lack of faith which does not truly need to be so. Popovic stresses the link between anxiety and uncertainty, however, it is only on the existential basis that this is true. In spiritual growth, uncertainty is necessarily embraced, putting faith in God and going into accord with his will, therefore in exhibiting existential angst does not necessarily follow the diminishing of faith but only strives to strike a balance to our own spiritual needs.
Austin, Michael W. “Kierkegaard: Understanding the Christian Father of Existentialism.” Christian Research Journal 36.3 (2003): Web. 9 Mar. 2016.
Balthasar, Hans Urs Von. The Christian and Anxiety. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000.
Gamalinda, Eric. Amigo Warfare. Cincinnati, OH: Cherry Grove Collections, 2007.
Kierkegaard, Søren, and Charles E. Moore. Provocations: Spiritual Writings. Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation Inc., 2002.
Popovic, Nash. “Existential Anxiety and Existential Joy.” Practical Philosophy (2002): 32–39. Web. 9 Mar. 2016. <http://society-for-philosophy-in-practice.org/journal/pdf/5-2%2032%20Popovic%20-%20Anxiety.pdf>.