Book Review: Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes

Barbara Jane Reyes
BOA Editions
Paperback, $16.00
ISBN 9781934414378
Published September, 2010

A Diwata, in Philippine culture, is a guardian spirit of nature similar to a nymph or elf who resides in large trees and is capable of delivering both fortune and misfortune. They are called upon ritually to bring a fruitful harvest, health, and wealth, but will cause harm to those who disrespect or cause harm to the natural world. Barbara Jane Reyes, in her new collection, Diwata, adds that Diwata (seemingly a singular spirit in the book, though culturally there are many Diwatas) is the sister of Thunder and Lightning: “And their sister, the strange diwata whose light remains contained. Witness she is, and weaver. If she would only speak, then she would tell you – these stories I give you, I swear they are the truth.”

Starting with a monologue of longing from Eve, Reyes weaves seamlessly the creation myths of the Book of Genesis and of the Tagalog people of the Philippines, along with the bloody history of colonization in the Philippines and her grandfather’s role during World War II. We are offered Reyes’ own version of oral history, the history of her split heritage, the story of survival, and myths of Reyes’ own creation that add an additional emotional truth despite their deliberate inaccuracy. We leave this book both shellshocked and empowered, reborn and rib-torn.

While these poems are capable of standing alone with their musical incantations (“We bring her tobacco when she calls shrill bird trill carried upon air as though her voice were a body’s warm rib cage we could wrap our arms round tight.”), they work collectively as one long narrative that uses traditional Filipino poetic devices, including call and response, repetition, and songlike refrains. The long humming lines matched with short pulse lines (“Here I shall weave a selvedge of we.”) hypnotize us like a fire on an otherwise black night.

It is easy to get engulfed in these flames and feel wrapped in a timeline that will never reach us, something mythological in itself, a time when the Diwata was a goddess, and with good timing Reyes pulls us in with quick references to Marlboros or a “tattooed daughter.” The poem, “How I no longer believe in Pious Women,” a sort of backwards prayer for “glittery G-stringed putas” and the “craving for stiletto-heeled patent leather, perfume of tiger lilies and tobacco, swigs from the whiskey bottle” comes towards the end of the collection to ground us and remind us that the detriment done to Filipinas is still pungent, but so is the strength they found as they chopped off their hair and went to war for their land and freedom. At the end of this poem, though, Reyes catches herself in lament and before getting back to the story of Creation (of humanity, of the modern Filipina, of “Barbara, que barbaridad”), she offers an apology only to herself: “Oh, but how I have strayed. From my story, how I have strayed.” She then, on beat, gets back to the task at hand.

Being a person with embarrassingly limited knowledge of Philippine history, be it mythological, oral, or strictly factual, I find it hard to determine the line between history and Reyes’ fictionalizations, an issue about which Reyes herself notes reservations on her blog. By the end of the book, however, I still understand more than I did and am eager to learn more. I am left with something more important than fact, an uncomfortable feeling of disquietude and a firm understanding that Barbara Jane Reyes is a compelling poet and storyteller.

Filed under: Book Review, Prose