My very first exposure to Cornelio F. Faigao was through the poem "The Brown Child" in the pages of an old copy of the Buyawang Ani (Golden Harvest), souvenir publication of the 1968 Banton Golden Jubilee celebrations. That was in the early 1980's when I was yet in the elementary grades. Although serious literature like a poem was definitely hard stuff for a mere grade school boy to understand and grasp its meaning then, that initial encounter nevertheless, made quite an impression on me. For after all, Faigao or Tang Cone, as he was called by his kasimanwas, is one of those personages that Bantoanons look up to with that homegrown sense of pride and honor. Unconsciously perhaps, but I think that was the time when Cornelio F. Faigao did take roots in my young mind then.
Many years on, I was in Calbayog City in Western Samar as a college student when my discovery of another poem by Faigao in Philippine literature textbook cum anthology by Richard V. Croghan, a Jesuit, came to me as serendipity's delightful reward. You know that it's not even the book we were using in our literature class at that time. In Croghan's short introduction of the poet, however, he claimed that Faigao was born in Cebu. Just a minor slip in his scholarship perhaps, but a mistake just the same that, pardon me for my local bias, or pride of place if you may, caused a sore, somehow, to my ethnic sensibility.
My research later on, led me to other authors like Valeros and Gruenberg in their book Filipino Writers in English that gave some interesting data about Faigao and his literary career; Abad and Manlapaz that included at least six of Faigao's poems in their award-winning Man of Earth Anthology. The latter has also in it Night in a Small Town given earlier by Croghan, and likewise much later by del Castillo and Medina, Jr. in the book Philippine Literature From Ancient Times to the Present.
First published in the Philippine Magazine in 1935 and the most anthologized of the poet's works, it was considered as one of Faigao's best poems. Here it is:
NIGHT IN A SMALL TOWN
Here only the thin wind
The deep silence mars;
Here, night seems always
Spread thick with stars.
I muse by my window,
And a child am I
Beneath roof of nipa,
Beneath palm of sky.
The dark roofs are coffins
'Neath heaven's blue bowl;
The winds fling back dirges
And the late dogs howl.
The treetops aquiver
Spell mystery, fear;
Above them is splendor
And beauty austere.
O night for the going
Of me on the tide.
With beauty above me
And death by my side!
The pleasure that literature offers, it was said, could either be one of recognition or of discovery. Or as T.S. Eliot has put it, There is always in literature the communication of some new experience or some understanding of the familiar. Reading Night in a Small Town many times for the first time, what came to me at once was the shock of recognition so as to speak. Evoking in me a bolt of intimate feelings about the typical night I have grown familiar with Bantoanon prior to the coming of electricity in the island: the gab-ing maruyom or the tungang-gab-i of my childhood days that conjures up fearful and gloomy images as it were. Straining my mind for some very particular experience, what rushed foremost to my recollection rather was a Bantoanon song by Cleto Forjes sung by my folks in Togbongan:
Sa kakayhasanan ikaw it bitoon
Iwag it ak puso sa gab-ing maruyom;
Tala kang marilag nak sa kaaganhon,
Imaw it nag pukaw sa ak katuyugon
And Ildefonso Flores Musico's famous tulbar or composition in verse sung to a traditional or popular tune, Ciribiribi:
Indi ka ak malimtan,
Ikaw yang it ak rumrum
Sa gab-ing maruyom …
Faigao's night, I realized then has actually its parallels in Bantoanon folk poetry. And it would appear that the night image like Faigao's was the favorite image of our old Bantoanon bards. Apostrophizing a real or imagined lady-love, the night symbol was usually employed, maybe to highlight the sense that the woman, object of the poet's affection, is the resplendent star that inspires or guides the dejected lover amid sadness and melancholy, apt to be described as darkness or gloom.
Although Faigao departed from the usual love subject of both Forjes and Musico, it would not be without reason to conclude, going by the so-called cultural imperative in understanding and appreciating poetry, that the gab-ing maruyom of the folk poets was the same reality and experience that gave Faigao the material and the impulse that eventually shaped the linguistic consciousness of the poem, the poet himself a Bantoanon well-versed with his native aesthetics. Understandably, as Cirilio F. Bautista has noted, a writer being a product of culture, carries with his being all the cultural notes of his existence. Seen as a precondition for the concretization of his creative vision, those cultural notes, be it environmental or authorial, social or linguistic, are indubitably given tangible form and consequent expression in a poet's or writer's struggle with his art. It is here that Faigao's upbringing in his Bantoanon geographical, cultural and linguistic milieu, would come to the fore as a necessary pre-requisite in the decodement and full appreciation of his poetic works.
"Night in Small Town" is, by all means, autobiographical, the small town referred to in the title being the rather sleepy Banton of his boyhood and struggling years. Belonging to the poet's earlier corpus and written presumably somewhere else, Faigao's inspiration might have come from a recollection of his island-home and that in a fit of homesickness maybe, have summoned in him the remembrance of a particular event from his childhood memories, and thus came the eventual shaping or configuration of that memory and its concomitant feelings by the agency of words and images that we call a poem. As Horacio de le Costa would maintain, The gift of the poet and writers in general, lies in the ability to identify and isolate what is memorable in his own experience, and that it is the writer's craft or art to communicate it fully and forcibly in words.
Memories recollected in tranquility as Wordsworth would have it speaking of poems, Faigao begins his recollection presenting the poem's setting using the word here in immediate reference to the small town in the title, to introduce the first two couplets, that is to mean Banton (or maybe Banton's place in his memories); then follows the picture of the child/poet musing by the window of their nipa home one dark starry night. But more than just to impart a vivid impression of a particular night scene, Faigao actually dramatizes the unfolding of an inner struggle that is brewing in the child's heart and mind, divining the meaning of the scene that is before him. Employing contrasting and parallel images that heightens as they go, he thus brings us to the child's conflict, the boy feels fear and mystery all around him yet above the seemingly gloomy atmosphere, the poet in his soul sees and delectates in the splendid if unadorned beauty the night sky has to offer; and then to the denouement wherein the boy was somehow able to synthesize his ambivalent feelings. The inevitable has come and he has to proceed where he ought to and just endure the struggle, his ultimate conflict, that of his being torn between beauty and death, himself. The poet did not tell us whether the boy did actually go but, I think, the inevitability of his going, duty-bound perhaps, is what makes his dilemma the harder, and hence the surge of powerful emotions.
Meanwhile, the word tide in the last stanza could mean the sea or shore. In Banton, it was the usual task of children then to take to the shores to gather shellfishes for the family's sustenance, the panihi or panuyo if done by torchlight at night, rituals, that is, depending on the flow of tides. The word could also mean an opportunity that one has to grab lest he miss the chance altogether and regret it afterwards. Used as a verb, it would mean to surmount or endure a difficulty. Aptly
enough, the night image, the favorite image in Bantoanon folk poetry, Faigao used to symbolize the fears, uncertainties and the vicissitudes of life and living that confronted him in his small town. The poem could also be considered an extended metaphor of Faigao's early dreams to be a poet and writer, apparently a choice he made finally not without much hardships and struggles.
Night in a Small Town, to say the least, have all the qualities of fine lyricism. From the way the stimulus was set to the gradual development of emotion and to its resolution in the concluding stanza, certainly follows the classical turn. There is the emotional unity and fullness of utterance that makes it very successful. Meaning-wise, Faigao in the poem reiterates his unbending trust and faith in the Bantoanon/Filipino native capacity to transcend trials and difficulties by way of sheer guts and daring, not to mention ability. These Faigao himself embodied in his poems as his life.
Cornelio F. Faigao was born on March 1908 in Banton (Jones), Romblon, to Rufo Faigao and Bonifacia Festin, of humble means but both belong nevertheless to two of the town's most respected families, his father, having at one time served as Banton's presidente municipal. As a young boy, Faigao was quiet, preferring to stay home given to much reading. It was said that at a young age of twelve, he could already read stories in Spanish, English, and the vernacular. And as if to be a sign of his future vocation, accounts had it that at a very tender age and not yet in a school, he would make marks and write phrases all over the inside walls of their house until his pencil gave out.
Faigao first studied at the then Jones Elementary School in Banton and graduated as valedictorian; then at the Romblon High School in Romblon, Romblon where he started writing verse and being at the editorial staff of the school paper, as salutatorian in 1925. After which he enrolled at the University of the Philippines (UP) supporting himself through college, his parents being poor. At the U.P., he once again showed his old literary bent becoming a frequent contributor to the Philippine Collegian.
After earning his BSE degree in 1931. He taught at the Cebu Provincial High School and then at the Southern Institute, both in Cebu City where he came to live in 1929. He also taught at the Visayan Institute (now the University of the Visayas) while studying law at the same school in the evenings. Faigao passed the bar in 1939. From the University of San Carlos (USC), he earned an MA in English in 1951. And teaching at the same university, he rose from the ranks to become the head of its English Department. Aside from teaching and writing, he also served as an editor and columnist of various Cebu newspapers. His verse column Canto Voice, which ran from 1942 to 1957 in the Pioneer Press, is now collected in one unpublished volume of the same title.
Faigao launched his literary career in 1926. Many of his works appeared in the pages of prestigious and reputable literary magazines like the Philippine Magazine, Philippine Free Press, Sunday Times Tribune, Herald Midweek, and the Evening News Saturday. A prolific poet, Faigao has three published volumes of poetry to his name. His first, The Song of Hos-Katting (after Longfellow's the Song of Hiawatha) came off the press in 1936, the title being derived from the Hare-Hawes Cutting Bill of 1933 that purported to grant independence to the Philippines at a definite date but was rejected by the Filipinos in a national plebiscite. It was a satiric work consisting of 4,000 lines in 181 pages, considered at that time to be the longest poem in English by a Filipino. In 1946, he celebrated Philippine Independence by another book of poems, The Song of Freedom Commemoration Ode, his third, came out in 1948 in connection with the formal inauguration of the University of San Carlos.
In addition, Faigao has unpublished collections of poems now kept at the Cebuano Studies Center at the University of San Carlos. These are The Corn Leaves and Other Poems (1934); Inday and Other Cebu Poems (1939); Let A Rose Tumble Down, a poem in 10 pages which was his entry to the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Contest. He did not win a prize in the said contest. But in 1951, Faigao's The Brown Child was the top prize in a nationwide poetry contest held in connection with the Golden Jubilee of the Philippine Educational System.