Through its brevity, Dead Serious is the kind of poetry collection that invites the reader to spend entire days in its pared-back text. It reminds the reader why so many of us choose poetry over fiction when given the choice. Because poetry is able to leave indelible prints on the mind and communicate earth-rumbling truths in just a few lines. That is exactly what Arguelles is able to accomplish through the brilliant translation from the original Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim.
A Questioning Stance
Deeply existential, each poem is a finely worked meditation of what it means to exist and what it means to fully face the at-times bleakness of our existence. The poem “A Thousand Hands” ends by saying, “Only the desire to be found / is what remains.” And in “Letter to a Stranger” he says, “every so often / I am no longer / a stranger.”
These are poems yearning to be heard and understood and despite the unknowability of the world from the speaker’s and reader’s perspective, this questioning stance immediately connects me with the author, intertwining the act of reading with the pure experience of living an average day. Later, he says, “it is sufficient / to know the rarity / of this world / and its unknowability.” Which is in part an answer, but also a negation. At once signaling personal success in finding solace while admitting exactly what we’re up against.
Arguelles’ “Ars Poetic” says, “There is no / future in a poem.” Few other collections could so radically force a rethinking of what exactly the purpose of poetry and writing is with only two lines. Yet in Dead Serious it feels as if I am challenged to rethink my world and my art on every single page, a monumental achievement that illustrates the robustness of these sparsely populated pages.
As the book sways toward its denouement, it features one of a series of beautiful poems all titled “I Carry a Book Under My Arm” one of which concludes by saying, “Words are delicate, the slightest / nudge sets them off to harbor a grudge.” The journey of these poems is not easily forgotten and necessitates revisiting to find the beauty and truth an initial reading might not realize. In an increasingly crowded poetry scene with too many voices begging for limited attention, Dead Serious is the type of elegiac, existential exploration I’m happy to hunker down with on any afternoon.
Dead Serious is published by De La Salle University Publishing House.