Friday, August 31, 2007



The Gods We Worship Live Next Door by Bino Realuyo
(University of Utah Press, 2006)

This is a long overdue review of Bino Realuyo’s poetry book which received the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. I’ll confess that the delayed writing of this review doesn’t have to do with my not having time to read the book, nor does it owe its delay to hormonal interferences (I was pregnant when I read the book). My difficulty lay in how my every attempt to write a review failed to capture what this book meant to me. This is an attempt to give the reader an impression of the book.

Divided into six parts, Diaspora: Five Million, Spain (1565-1898), U.S.A.(1898-1946), Japan (World War II:1942-1946), Witness, and The Gods we Worship Live Next Door (A Poem in Eleven Parts), Bino Realuyo traces the history of a people.

Diaspora opens with a poem entitled "Filipineza." This poem sets the mood of the entire collection and tells the reader that this is more than pretty poetry, while more than a political statement.

Bino writes:
If I became the brown woman mistaken
for a shadow, please tell your people I’m a tree.
Or its curling root above ground, like fingers without a rag,

Without the buckets of thirst to wipe clean your mirrorlike floors.

This opening to a poem that speaks of how Filipino women are often pushed into servitude because of economics moves the reader not only because of the emotion it awakens but also because it speaks of a sad truth.
My whole country cleans houses for food, so that

the cleaning ends with the mothers, and the daughters
will have someone clean for them, and never leave
my country to spend years of conversations with dirt.

These lines remind the reader of how the country’s number one export product is human labor, and how a great percentage of the Gross National Product proceeds from the remittances of women who have left behind homes and families in order to provide their children and loved ones with a better future.

Diaspora tells of the tragedy of separation imposed by economic need. It travels from Singapore, to Amsterdam, to Dubai, and in doing so, reminds the reader that these are the places where the reader can find the majority of domestic workers. Here, Bino writes about Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan, two women whose names have become symbols of unspoken tragedies and casualties. These poems are a reminder to the reader not to forget and not to overlook their suffering, and the reality of injustice towards women.

In the sections Spain, U.S.A., and Japan, the poet traces foreign occupation of the Philippines. I found the section on Japan particularly interesting.

The poet begins with these lines from "Pantoum: The Comfort Woman":
Moonsoon country, so expectedly, wind uproots memory.
Rain is the voice of a storyteller, one without pause
Like my nightly return to the hundred days of bulb light
And curtains, laughter and weight of soldiers outside, lined up

These lines ache with the pain of recollection:
I never told you, my dear, that every night, I leave my hands beside you
To carry the rest back to the cruelty of their smell, of their mornings:
Nine months of war in this hut, my body as food, my life as nothing.

They speak of a historical event and how it ravaged the lives of so many young Filipina women. I had to reflect on the contrast between those times and now. Then, they used to say: “Hide your women, the Japanese are coming.” These days, the cry seems to be otherwise, as the poet writes in "Japayuki":
Everybody was talking about it. All young women went there,
Sing, dance, they would do all that: “O genki desu ka?”

The Japan section ends with a poem written in memory of Bino Realuyo’s father who was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Entitled, "From a Filipino Death March Survivor Whose World War II Benefits Were Rescinded by the U.S. Congress in 1946", the poem tells a numbered story that heightens its impact on the reader.

In particular when the poet writes:
19.46. . .
20.06. Sixty years. I couldn’t wait anymore.

Witness, which is the fifth section of this collection, references news events and the daily lives of Filipinos. It focuses on the struggle of the common man to survive in a land whose economy has been plundered over and over again.

The sixth and last section entitled, The Gods We Worship Live Next Door is a poem in eleven parts that tells the story of the war in the southern islands of Mindanao. I found myself on the edge of tears reading this poem. I think it is impossible to fully grasp the horror of war, the killing of the innocents and the abuse of power until we are confronted with it.

In this last section, the poet brings this reality close to the reader. He gives faces to the victims of the war in the South of the Philippines. We see a mother, her unborn child, her six children, her husband, her body, her home, her struggle to survive, to save her children, and we see her helplessness in the face of bullets.

Reading this poem as a mother, I cannot help feeling this mother’s pain, I cannot ignore her fear, and I cannot ignore her loss and her grief.

Here is an excerpt from the poem:

The children began to cry, all six of them. They pushed each other to
               hide inside her dress. Always this sense of knowing where to turn;
               the sun’s familiarity with the mountain from which it rises, a
               mother’s sudden remembrance of the thirteen years spent raising
               her children.

Don’t touch them!

One by one, she felt her children’s heads inside her dress. She held her
               stomach, as if by doing so she was keeping the unborn.

But that day, nothing was going to be kept.

We are not what you think. We are not communists! My husband is
               not a communist!

You muslims have always been communists! That was the last time she
               heard them speak. From then on, it was all her:

Don’t take my children, please I beg you. Let them go. They’re too

No two hands can forever hold each other.

And then the poet writes:
Once in uniform, a solder never remembers the meaning of a
               mother’s cry.

The Gods We Worship Lives Next Door, is more than just a prize-winning poem collection. It is a reminder to the reader that we cannot ignore injustice and violence. War and the abuse of power are inexcusable because those who lose the most are innocent.


Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a writer, a mom, and a volunteer for Stichting Bayanihan (a support center for Filipinas in The Netherlands). Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications both in the Philippines as well as abroad. She is a regular columnist for The Sword Review, an editor and columnist for Haruah—a magazine of Inspiration, and a columnist for Munting Nayon (a newspaper for the Philippine-Dutch community). She is currently working on a number of projects, including a poetic memoir—excerpts of which are included in Route’s Skin Byteback Book, the Chickflicks Ezine, and in a book to be released by OMF Lit Philippines. She also blogs intermittently at


At 11:49 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor in GR #5 at:


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