The Coffee Table

Carlos Bulosan
    Analysis on Selected Poems

If You Want To Know What We Are (1940)

If you want to know what we are who inhabit
forest, mountain and rivershore, who harness
beast, living steel, martial music (that classless
language of the heart), who celebrate labor,
wisdom of the mind, peace of the blood;

If you want to know what we are who become
animate at the rain’s metallic ring, the stone’s
accumulated strength, who tremble in the wind’s
blossoming (that enervates the earth’s potentialities),
who stir just as flowers unfold to the sun;

If you want to know we are who grow
powerful and deathless in countless counterparts,
each part pregnant with hope, each hope supreme,
each supremacy classless, each classlessness
nourished by unlimited splendor of comradeship;

We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities,
in skies and seas and river, in lands everywhere;
our numbers increase as the wide world revolves
and increases arrogance, hunger, disease and death.

We are the men and women reading books, searching
in the pages of history for the lost word, the key
to the mystery of living peace, imperishable joy;
we are factory hands field hands mill hands everywhere,
molding creating building structures, forging ahead,

Reaching for the future, nourished in the heart;
we are doctors scientists chemists discovering
eliminating disease and hunger and antagonisms;
we are soldiers navy-men citizens guarding
the imperishable will of man to live in grandeur.

We are the living dream of dead men everywhere,
the unquenchable truth that class memories create
to stagger the infamous world with prophecies
of unlimited happiness—a deathless humanity;
we are the living and the dead men everywhere. . .


If you want to know what we are, observe
the bloody club smashing heads, the bayonet
penetrating hollowed breasts, giving no mery;
watch the bullet crashing upon armorless citizens;
look at the tear gas choking the weakened lungs.

If you want to know what we are, see the lynch
trees blossoming, the hysterical mob rioting;
remember the prisoner beaten by detectives to confess
a crime he did not commit because he was honest,
and who stood alone before a rabid jury of ten men,

And who was sentenced to hang by a judge
whose bourgeois arrogance betrayed the office
he claimed his own; name the marked man,
the violator of secrets; observe the banker,
the gangster, the mobster who kill and go free:

We are the sufferers who suffer for natural love
of man for man, who commemorate the humanities
of every man; we are the toilers who toil
to make the starved earth a place of abundance,
who transform abundance into deathless fragrance.

We are the desires of anonymous men everywhere,
who impregnate the wide earth’s lustrous wealth
with gleaming florescence; we are the new thoughts
and the new foundations, the new verdure of the mind;
we are the new hope new joy new life everywhere.

We are the vision and the star, the quietus of pain;
we are the terminals of inquisition, the hiatuses
of a new crusade; we are the subterranean subways
of suffering; we are the will of dignities;
we arre the living testament of a flowering race.

If you want to know what we are--


Out of the three poems that I’ve read of Bulosan’s, I’d have to personally say that this piece, in particular, is what would probably best describe his sentiments toward the struggles he had faced while living in America in the 1940s. Claiming in the most powerful line in the poem, WE ARE THE REVOLUTION, Bulosan does not only appeal to the Filipino connotation of a revolt for freedom; rather, he, or the speaker, declares that they are the change that has come against those oppressors and racial discriminators. The preceding stanzas before the speaker’s final cry in the end builds up the tension as he enumerates his answer to the title question of the poem. In a way, the final line serves as the summary answer to all the things that the speaker used to describe the people of the revolution. These people are those of the working class who had been treated poorly in terms of human equality.

For A Child Dying In A Tenement (1942)

How hard it is to see you go,
to watch the shame of starvation in your face.

Dear child, you are among the first to know
the terror of plenty, the crime of innocence,
the anguish of poverty . . .
        I guess I know
the cold of winter, the despair of being poor,
the terror of loneliness and of not having fun.

I guess I know the perplexed look in your face,
the unanswered question, the wordless answer
all the faces that could not stand pain.

Fear is dying. Now try to sleep off
the agony of hunger, the lion in the hollowed breast,
the spreading fire snapping the walls of the lung.
You are among the first to go. Now try to sleep.
And now goodbye till we meet again.

A closer and more critical look in the poem will reveal that the speaker is not just an observer narrating the slow death of the child. Rather, he is one with the child in a sense that the speaker is perhaps a companion, and that he sympathizes with the fate the child had to live and die with. The last stanza suggests that as the speaker watches the dying child, knowing that there is nothing that could be done anymore since he himself is helpless, he comforts him at least to ease the transition. The speaker opts to use “try to sleep,” as words of pity which can mean “sleep now, rest now, and wake up later,” or sleep as in slip silently into death. Afterwards, he reassures the child that whatever the circumstance be after the child wakes up, they will both meet again – although it might be quite some time later since “the lion in the hollowed breast, the spreading fire snapping the walls of the lung,” are strong metaphors that illustrate in the reader’s head the will of the speaker to keep on surviving is still there and alive.   

Landscape With Figures (1942)

Homeward again under foreign stars,
history was a strange gush of wind from memory
that came to echo waterfalls of those years:
home to find the place lost among
galaxies of signs. The hills were gone. The river
trail was forgotten . . . Trying to remember meadowlark
and those who perished in the vanishing land
(bones in the earth where our parents died poor),
the journey fell into heavy tides of flowing
scorn that echoed and reechoed time there.

The sun was most unkind to the place:
history: names of men: patterns of life:
all that the distant floodtide heaved and moved,
breaking familiar names that immortal tongues
clipped for the heart to cry, “Home is a foreign address,
every step toward it is a step toward three hundred years
of exile from the truth . . .”
        It was not homeward
to the first known land, nor escape
to white sea sprays blossoming on inland shore,
nor love leaping the boundaries naked in the soul,
but a vast heritage of war and destruction breaking
too soon for the living and willing to die.

Life is a foreign language. Every man mispronounced it . . .

The feelings and thoughts encapsulated in this piece would probably be similar to the ones that Bulosan would’ve felt had he come home to the Philippines from America. However, since he was unfortunately unable to do so, he had probably made up a persona who is an embodiment of him yet is lucky enough to go back to his home country. The speaker in the poem after years of being away, comes home greeted by a surprised change in the places he once knew. These changes can pertain to economical and technical progress that did not please the speaker. Towards the end of the poem, he reflects how man “mispronounces life as a foreign language” in a sense that we don’t understand it well enough that there are times when we think what we are doing is a change for good, but rather is actually otherwise. This is evident in the setting that the poem is written in; the landscape that the speaker once called his home has changed, and deep inside, he knows that it is all bound to destruction someday.