An Eye on the Eight-ball
Sid Gómez Hildawa's poems move deftly and create new spaces in their wake
By Toh Hsien Min
Recently I've become fascinated by the game of pool. I suppose it's quite in the normal scheme of things for something to take a greater hold of my imagination the less time I have for it, but I've been snatching odd hours from better pursuits to lean over the baize and listen to the satisfying click of phenolic resin on phenolic resin. As any pool player knows, the real challenge in pool is the movement of the cueball. George Fels, author of How Would You Play This? and some of the most literary columns on the subject, sums up the problem best: "The mere pocketing of a ball isn't that hard; in fact, it's relatively simple. What drives many, many players to distraction is the unpredictability of the cueball's path of travel...the game of billiards requires you to drive a ball someplace; pool, in any form, mostly asks you to stop a ball someplace." In distilled form, the sport is all a bunch of lines and angles, and so along the way I picked up a theory that artists and architects would be some of the most natural pool players around. I can't say this is borne out by statistical evidence, but I guess that means I'll have to play with even more of such opponents.
Which leads me to wonder how good a pool player Sid Gomez Hildawa might be. Coming from the country of Efran Reyes, and being both a practising architect and a visual artist, he's probably odds on to play a decent game. Unfortunately, when I met him in Manila in January, it was seven in the morning before a full work day, and there wasn't time to find out, but there was time for him to pass me a copy of his recently published collection of poetry, Regarding Space, and if there is any link between aesthetics and pool ability then the poetry may provide the best clue as to how good a pool player he might be.
This is because Sid Gomez Hildawa's poetry is all about angles and lines, perspectives and trajectories, and the application of just enough force to make the cueball stop in the right place. It is well-designed and fluid poetry that owes much to his first profession as an architect. Although Hildawa is now the director of visual, literary and media arts at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila, he still practises architecture in his spare time, and his professional eye comes through overtly in his poetry. Visiting Havana, he notes:
just as, visiting Pagsanjan and seeing where Republican troops re-entered the city in World War II, he has to stop to measure the dimensions of the gateway and the house.
Yet, conveying a sense of Regarding Space requires more even than just to say that the architectural instinct is part of Hildawa's descriptive or narrative toolbox. It is the sinew and skeleton of his poetry. "What I want to remember, / I build", he writes in 'Building to Remember', and the process of building a giant statue in that poem, "stone by stone", finds its parallel in the building of the poem. It is a poem whose links are at the same time tenuous, authoritative and elusive, and there can be no doubt that is by design, the way the camera tricks in 'Frame' pull the reader into the middle of an urgency he may not completely understand, through to the zooming out of an airplane taking off, which shows how space and vision and even metaphysics interact:
While the "territory / plotted by sound" that is Hildawa's poetry often makes these intersections, and the whole collection draws its structure from it, the collection is also a muscular one. This is poetry expressed into space, and if Hildawa suggests that it "won't take up much room", the observation is nonetheless that, unlike most poetry, it does, not only at the insistence of that poem but also in the abundance of his expression. Occasionally it crosses over into fat, as with a few poems, such as 'Reading Cars', a poem that should work but doesn't, because of the use of listing. In 'God Explains Space To His Angels', the reader pauses on reading the second sentence to ask: If angels don't know what space and time is, why would they define an inch and years as we do? When the poem then tries to tell us, "Space is the disposable / furniture of a mind / enmeshed in its own / metaphors, brandishing / meter stick under / our immeasurable sky", it doesn't work, because of it has overreached into a combination of bathos and effeteness. Nevertheless, it is important for Hildawa to keep exploring space from all angles, because space is what defines where we are and who we are, as in the title poem 'Regarding Space', where the narrator admits his inability to "stay put".
Most of the time, one doesn't mind, because Hildawa's peregrinations draw observations, and one thing that he is exceptionally skilled at drawing glowing, precise insights. I've written elsewhere on the breathtaking ending of 'Collapsing Space', but in this collection have found many more (to borrow the pool analogy again) double-bank Englished potting. "You walk out in particles, / leaving granulated good-byes like very fine sand" in 'In Absentia' is the extension of the beginning of the possibility of loss in 'Discotheque': "We're dancing to celebrate / the distance between us, without which / we cannot move". The following lines in 'Other Worlds', on seeing mirrors on opposite walls, starts almost by inviting a blasé response and before feeding the wordplay that reveals the mirroring effect:
Here it's the last sentence that completes the passage, introducing the negation of the idea, the mirror-image, in 'not one / of us', to truly disconcert the reader.
Sometimes Hildawa achieves this forced double-take effect through structural play, as when he describes "how little space / you'll actually need to be / in this room with me", or better yet, throws in the lovely ambiguity of "I could not tell / by your listless / staring into space / if you were still / with me", which doesn't require the clarification "if we / were still together". Lines such as these are practical demonstrations of the translation of space into time, but what must be a source of disappointment is the observation that for all his architectural instincts Hildawa does not maximise the poetic form in which he operates. For all of Hildawa's authoritative voice, the line breaks in much of his work in this volume tend to show neither pattern nor coherence.
One can see what's intended with the syllabics and the line-breaking in the same way one can see the pool-player's intention to pot the last solid without setting up his opponent for a crack at the 8-ball. In a similar frame, one rather wishes he had not put in the last poem, 'Why architect is poet is painter (but not automatically)'. One understands it from all the foregoing poetry, and doesn't need it explained again, and awkwardly; so as it is it's a bit like potting the black and the cueball together. Hildawa doesn't yet have the killer instinct for finishing a book, or even a poem, but the run of the poetry is exhilarating:
If Hildawa learns to eliminate some of the flaws in his game, he will surely take his place among the handful of poets from Southeast Asia who deserve to be read around the world.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006