The Cinematic Heartbeat of Jim Pascual Agustin’s Wings of Smoke

First published in The Fil Am: A Magazine for Filipino Americans in New York.

The most striking aspect of Jim Pascual Agustin’s new book of poetry, Wings of Smoke, is its natural flair for vivid contrasts, with each line retaining its power as each poem rears and strikes repeatedly, until the final set of images are unleashed. This is especially true in the first section of the book. The mood of the poems change completely as they proceed, minute by minute (or season by season) into the book’s historical timeframe.

Agustin’s poetics in Wings of Smoke reminds me not so much of other poets but rather, of textual cinema, sculpted with precision to grind down the passage of time. The book is divided into four sections: stretching the fabric, shadows the shape of knives, wings of smoke and a blanket over each cage.

stretching the fabric

stretching the fabric is a struggle to recollect and reconnect, to recuperate the living parts of distant memories.

“Open Air Cinema in the Rain” calibrates the present, through the approximation of movement and emotion. The progression of the “I” as it moves from godly to all too human creates an almost painful conclusion: that all things eventually succumb to the darkness of evening. Agustin pointedly plays with light and darkness throughout his book, perhaps in an effort to situate his readers in the then and now while secretly removing the illusory boundary between the two.

I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘rhizomic’ visualization of networks within networks. The passage of time is but a cartography of human life, etched naturally upon the organic body and its immediate projection: physical possessions, the yard, the home, etc.

Even the long gone and distant can still become part of the recollection of the ‘I’ and consequently, the ‘mine.’ Born and Died, Lived is a spectacle of a poem, focusing on the (un)muting of a persona that existed within the faint boundaries of childhood. It’s easy to be lost in a spectacle: that is one of Agustin’s points.

“Bladed Spurs,another spectacle-cored piece, presents an almost displaced recollection of cockfighting — the voice trails off toward the end:

The rooster’s heart

against my hands,

the burning heat of its skin

beneath feathers

with a metallic shine.

It’s almost as if “Bladed Spurs” momentarily forgot its skeletal frame (violence) and decided to veer off before it was too late. While this peculiar vagueness in Agustin’s technique sometimes provides a less than satisfactory conclusion to certain pieces, what is lost is later recovered, again, by Agustin’s cinematic poetics. Whether it is satisfactory for all readers as they try to feel their way through the collection to obtain a stable pulse, remains to be seen.

shadows the shape of knives

shadow the shapes of knives hits the ground running with “Ghost Train, a cleverly disguised piece that positions the ghost (the lost person) as a breathing memory that wishes to return (home). A train is unstoppable — like most things in life. It is only in poetry that trains relinquish their monstrous power to the even more murderous power of ink and paper.

As I have observed earlier, Agustin has chosen light and darkness as the main principles of creation in Wings of Smoke. The book began with the poem “Open Air Cinema in the Rain” and as the poet crosses to “Bamboo” in section two, the mood begins to darken, while maintaining the necessary inconsistency in the visual depiction of light/darkness.

Consider the lines “They break into the light/to put out slender/spikes that turn vivid/green. One by one” and the logical final blow “I’ve dug them out/many times, tearing off/the roots of our own/plants in futility.”

The primordial network and the rhizomic mapping of society reconstitutes itself in Veins Cut Open, and quite openly, too: “The veins on maps are thinner/than threads. What courses/through yours runs in mine,” Agustin pumps fresh blood into the discourse of his poetry. He’s done with the recuperation of memory and Wings of Smoke begins its gradual turn toward the ugliness of the present — the ideological battleground where poetry is most effective.

There is an almost gleeful madness in the way “Veins Cut Open” ends: “A fire like this keeps burning/towards an end of the world/has seen too many times.” The fire figure is mythically associated with creation and the poem can go both ways: the duality of creation through destruction or the absolute inevitability of being destroyed. Either way, the voice becomes angry and almost manic — something that will surprise the reader after immersing in the gentle monotone of stretching the fabric.

wings of smoke

The third section, wings of smoke, gives this reader a sense of fragmentation, loss, of slowing down and at the same time, blinding flashes of urgency. While this is the general feel of the section, Agustin calmly sends shockwaves as the text lulls readers with slow-moving life and less than stellar imagery. A case in point would be “Inspired Weeping” and I quote: “faces in the crowd/like unwrung clothes in winter/strangers paid to mourn.”

In retrospect, the sudden loss of the cinematic pulse in the third section makes complete sense: for evening has already passed in shadows the shape of knives and the text is now gently moving in and out of consciousness in the blackness of midnight.

a blanket over each cage

The fourth section, a blanket over each cage, presents a completely revitalized sense of poetics (waking up in the morning!) with a distinct sound and cadence that crosses over from merely a hint of cinema to fiction crossed with poetry. “The Feather Could Be Yours Someday” creates an upheaval in the tonality of the book, bringing the clearest message that toes the line of morality — a undeniable sign of committed writing on the part of Agustin. The lines “these neighbors deal/in exotic birds. Clearly/a blanket over each cage/is not enough/to trick the senses.” exemplify the author’s contextualization of his work in the here and the now.

The poet then proceeds to amass concrete experiences and presents contrapuntal readings in a meta-fashion. “Yellowbilled Kite in the Rain” is an exercise in the depiction of a missing moment (disaster) as the kite misses its mark and the rattling effect on the spectator. To wit: claws already pulled tight/against its chest, it barely misses/a powerline as it aims for/a dripping branch./I check my mirror,/nothing…”

Paranoia, often hidden in most works of literature, is catapulted and rendered in the mechanistic world of “Armed Response.” This piece presents a more clipped verse structure (mono-robotic), peppered with the militaristic air of the day: humming, precision, red, eyes, high voltage, space, etc. “Armed Response” illustrates the indefatigable connection between technologies of control and the inability of man to match its own machines.

***

Overall, Agustin’s attempt to create solid groundwork in Wings of Smoke has succeeded owing to the number of perspectives employed in the text. And while the tight aesthetics are certainly there, one has to move beyond the perfectly cut lines and dive into the memories and the aura the collection invokes as a whole: light, darkness, the possibility of creation and the inevitability of rising in the midst of untampered violence.

One way or another, Wings of Smoke is every one of us in certain decades, years or weeks of our lives. And whether you like it or not, your cinematic heartbeat fades too, as darkness covers the land of the unfree.

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A heavily abridged and modified version of this review appears in The Fil Am: A Magazine for Filipino Americans in New York.

Link to this version can be found here: http://thefilam.net/archives/23295