The Coffee Table

Dominador I. Ilio
    Analysis on Selected Poems

Icarus in Catechism Class (1954)

Or make us angels all, with dirty feet,
Without wings, chanting the beatitudes
Without exultation nor thought, counting
The silver halos on the heads of saints,
And ignoring the pastels on the stunning
Stained glass windows.

                   This morning Daedelus

My father scraping the wax of last night’s
Spoke of escape from this dark labyrinth,
This walled-in wilderness where the black-
          birds twitter
Homilies from the pulpit.

          O I wait

The noon. Soon the minutes will glibly run
Into the decades full of women and sinners--
O hour of my death, O let the noon bell ring,
I want to go home I want to put on my wings.

Ilio’s poem situates Icarus, a character from a famous Greek mythology, in the Philippines during the time of the Spanish colonization. Icarus’ role here is that of a child learning catechism in a Spanish classroom. Ilio’s creative rewriting of the Greek character to fit this particular setting contributes to the message being conveyed in the piece – that the character of Icarus is an example of a child who wishes to be free from the obligation of studying, not because of a disinterest in learning, but because of the student’s environment itself that makes it uncomfortable for him to enjoy the process of learning. One may conclude that this student’s attitude towards class during the Spanish period is similar to that of Icarus’ attitude while he and his father were imprisoned in the labyrinth by King Minos – that perhaps, education for the student is like a labyrinth, and that the only escape from studying is by getting through the passageways wisely; but since it is quite impossible because of the standardization of education during that time, the child-speaker in the poem just simply dreams of escaping far, far away (O hour of my death, O let the noon bell ring / I want to go home I want to put on my wings). But to be more precise, education in the context of the poem need not be generalized for it has been specified that “Icarus” is in catechism class; and so, we move on to the why? of the child-speaker’s disinterest in learning catechism. Perhaps the reason behind this may be attributed to the classroom environment itself during the Spanish era. Not only was the Catholic faith being preached to the Filipino natives of that time, it was also being widely and strictly imposed in schools as part of its curriculum. If a student would not be able to answer correctly the teacher’s question, he or she would unfortunately have to take the whip. Because this was one of the school rules, the students have no choice but to diligently study their lessons before coming to class; however, there are some who had become too scared that they refuse to study, face the whip instead, or even stopped going to school. The “Icarus” in this poem feels the same way as his character in the myth can be reflected in the personality he has been rewritten with in this piece, because of the similarities when it comes to the theme of childhood freedom and escape from responsibilities.

Besides the rewriting of a character from a myth into a poem, metaphor is also a poetic device used by Ilio in this piece. This walled-in wilderness where the black / birds twitter / Homilies from the pulpit – the last line taken from this stanza is a huge clue-in to the image of a church as a walled-in wilderness (wilderness, perhaps because in the eyes of the child, he knows nothing much about the religious faith), and to the image of priests in black robes doing a sermon from the pulpit during mass. The first stanza is about the child-speaker describing himself and his classmates as children learning catechism because of adults who wish to see them grow religious and faithful to the Catholic dogma; and yet, while learning – Without exultation nor thought, counting / The silver halos on the heads of saints, / And ignoring the pastels on the stunning / Stained glass windows. – the children realize at the back of their minds that they are missing out on the things that they want to do as children, and not fulfilling a tedious, and strict responsibility. “Daedalus” is perhaps the child-speaker’s father, or some adult who gives him the chance to escape from learning. Or, it could be the child-speaker’s conscience making him realize his desire to play instead of studying, hence the child-speaker acting out on his own by dreaming of an escape by lunch time (O let the noon bell ring). The noon. Soon the minutes will glibly run / Into the decades full of women and sinners— - is perhaps two imageries symbolizing the people who only fulfill their dogmatic responsibilities, but once outside of the place of practice, they forget about the teachings and move on into fulfilling their personal desires, hence they become ‘sinners’ because of their indecisive commitments.

St. John In Chicago On Holy Saturday (1954)

It isn’t grand nor funny at all how he
Could steer his self among these bobbing
Like flotsam, in this tormented urban sea
Whose currents pause and whorl where traffic

Is it believable that in the dead
Of night he walked the whispering gloom of the
Deserted park, a hill where all have fled
But his Lord he heard speaking from a tree?

All along the choppy miles of the Loop
He treads his aches on uncomplaining
And whets his loneliness by peering on
Tall, enormous shop windows that mirror
Of merry Magdalenes hurrying by.

          And wonders
If alone he bears this world’s bereavement.

In the Catholic doctrine, there have been a handful of canonized men who bear the name of “John” – John … In this piece by Ilio that incorporates the said saint, I have narrowed down the possible St. Johns who Ilio may be possibly referring to, with regards to the context as conveyed by the poem – St. John the Evangelist, or St. John the Baptist. However, Ilio’s personal interpretation or the reader’s may be in opposition with my idea of a specific St. John as the saint in this poem can be written for a general purpose; perhaps, a man named “John” is labeled with the honorific of Saint. But then again, juxtaposing the style of conveying the message of this poem with my previous analysis of the style used by Ilio in Icarus In Catechism Class, I perceive that there is indeed a particular St. John who is being embodied in this piece. But before I explain the reasons why it could be either of the two Johns that I have just mentioned, I will first explain the presence of a saint named, John, in the state of Chicago on a Holy Saturday.

Chicago is a bustling city in the U.S. just like that of Philippines’ Metro Manila. The speaker in the poem, referring to a “he,” who is St. John, wonders in a rather serious tone “how he could steer his self among these bobbing heads” in the streets of Chicago “like a flotsam.” – How a man of faith manages to survive in such a place since the ideal location for someone like him to be in is somewhere that is peaceful and far from noise. Perhaps, the person who is describing the daily activities of this holy man is someone who has never before encountered such a person and is baffled by the existence of such. It might also add that the speaker is the type to believe that virtues and faith are impossible to achieve unless one is locked away in total isolation (like those of the monks in Tibet); hence, meeting “St. John” has made him skeptical. For example, in the first line of the poem, he says, “It isn’t grand nor funny how he could steer his self among these bobbing heads…”; and in the first line of the second stanza, he asks again, “Is it believable that in the dead of night he walked in the whispering gloom of the deserted park, a hill where all have fled but his Lord he heard speaking from a tree?” Such questions are not raised by those who live in a busy city and are caught up with their busy lives, or if not that, at least too indolent to show any interest in this kind of matter. The person who is then describing St. John must have taken time off his schedule just to do a careful examination on the mystery that surrounds this man of faith living in one of the most bustling city in the planet. How he may be so interested indeed is his personal affair, however in the third stanza, his attention for this certain man is again voiced out.

The ‘Loop,’ according to Wikipedia, is “the historic commercial center in downtown Chicago, a government seat of Chicago and Cook County.” It is in this particular place where the speaker observes a slight difference in his persevering attitude. The third stanza shows a spark of recognition of weariness and loneliness by the holy man. St. John realizes that he has become tired (perhaps because of preaching the Catholic faith in a liberated culture) of walking around as a form of his personal sacrifice. He feels lonely most likely because he is physically alone on this journey towards helping mankind to achieve salvation. And seeing the “merry Magdalenes” happy because of earthly and materialistic reasons makes St. John feel the temptation of becoming one with the people who find happiness in things other than spiritual accomplishments. The image of “merry Magdalenes” do not necessarily pertain to the female context only; rather, it focuses more on the attitude that the Biblical character had – Mary Magdalene was a sinner who was forgiven by the mercy of God through Jesus Christ, after confessing the sins that she has previously committed. Perhaps St. John, in Ilio’s poem, sees this trait in the people who enjoy the shops in Chicago – they can redeem themselves if and only if they confess their sins and repent wholeheartedly. Lastly, the message conveyed in the third stanza leads up to the last two verses of the poem which expresses the reason as to why St. John feels tired and lonely – it is because he feels as if he is the only one who actually cares about mankind and its spiritual faith within the bustling city of Chicago, in a sense that the world is bereaved of its salvation if mankind does not listen to the word of the Lord, and repent.           

Going back to the two Johns that I have just pointed out in my opinion, the saint could either be St. John the Evangelist because was one of the Twelve Disciples who continued to preach the teachings of Jesus Christ even after His death. On the other hand, the saint could also be St. John the Baptist who baptized Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, who could also have felt mankind’s worldliness through the people he had met and also those whom he had baptized as well.

Narcissus In Burnham Park One Summer Midnight (1954)

He had fled the glitter and plush of the
Where the hues were fustian and the walls
          of cards.
Down the hill as he ran, wine in the gutter
Raced with him, down down towards

The dark-green lake. Echoing sighs and
Bade him to the pines, tore at his clothes.
But bent he could not unbend, the flashing
Allured him and fell for his beauty and

Stripped Narcissus, no voice can reach him
No touch can move him from his liquid desire.
Love holds him cold. Echo is dead in his ears.

And each gray line adorning his dark brow
Becomes a virgin grace to reflect and admire.

Alas, to be defiled by his own tears.

Much like the incorporating of a mythical Greek character in a poem set in the Philippine context, this poem by Ilio employs Narcissus – the boy who fell in love with his own reflection on a pool of water, and died drowning in an attempt to get a closer look of the beautiful youth looking back at him – in the setting of a summer midnight at Burnham Park, a famous recreation spot in Baguio City. And similar to that of Ilio’s Icarus In Catechism Class, the personality of this mythical Greek character Narcissus is reflected in a different setting that helps contribute to the two major themes of the poem that I have concluded – a search for beauty in its highest possible form; and self-appreciation-turned-vanity.

The first stanza, as stated by the speaker, shows Narcissus in action as though he was searching for something better than the “glitter and plush of the hotel where the hues were fustian and the walls of cards.” He goes to the dark-green lake of Burnham Park similar with the Narcissus in the Greek myth. There, he sees a beautiful face staring back at him where he becomes ‘stripped’ off of his conscience and could not be stopped – no voice can reach him now – from admiring the handsome face he sees on the surface of the water. This is what the imagery of the next verse is trying to symbolize. The “liquid desire” pertains to something which is unstable like the properties of liquid and is only contained by the vanity of the one who blindly seeks the perfect beauty. The next line following this image contains an irony – Love holds him cold – and a personification – Echo is dead in his ears. It has been tested time and time again, not by science or by philosophy, but rather by those who have experienced it that love – when it takes over an individual – does not feel cold, but gives the one feeling it an overwhelming warmth instead. Putting this into context with Ilio’s Narcissus, it can be deduced that it isn’t exactly “love” that is holding him to admire, extremely and perhaps, unconsciously as well, the handsome reflection he sees on the lake’s surface. But rather, it is a high degree of infatuation, or a vain and blind search for the perfect beauty. Meanwhile, the personification connotes that since his conscience, as stated in the previous stanza, has been stripped off from him, the echo of the conscience can no longer be heard, or is as good as “dead in his ears.” The succeeding stanza – And each gray line adorning his dark brow / Becomes a virgin grace to reflect and admire – is yet another proof of Narcissus’ unhealthy admiration of himself, except this time, it is concretized in images instead of being an interpretation perceived subtly by the reader. The last line may ultimately point out the tragic ending of Narcissus in the Greek myth; this can be understood instantly by readers who are familiar with the story. But for those who aren’t, or are looking for another interpretation outside the context of the poem’s relationship with the myth, a likely interpretation of the last line could be that the image of Narcissus’ tears symbolizes a sudden realization that he can never have such beauty, being unaware that it is his own. But a question may arise, how did he have that sudden realization at the end of the poem when it has been stated previously that Narcissus has been “stripped” off of his conscience, and that “Echo is dead in his ears”? Well, a personal interpretation would be that the beginning of the last line – Alas, to be defiled by… - comes to me as an expression of a sudden turn of events. “Alas,” though not accompanied by an exclamation point as to emphasize the suddenness of a change, is still something I consider as a tone (including “to be defiled by…”) that indicates a twist at the end of Ilio’s Narcissus poem, and a change in Narcissus’ ‘narcisstic’ attitude.