All that I love
I fold over once
And once again
And keep in a box
Or a slit in a hollow post
Or in my shoe.
All that I love?
Why, yes, but for the moment ---
And for all time, both.
Something that folds and keeps easy,
Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,
A roto picture of a young queen,
A blue Indian shawl, even
A money bill.
It’s utter sublimation
A feat, this heart’s control
Moment to moment
To scale all love down
To a cupped hand’s size,
Till seashells are broken pieces
From God’s own bright teeth.
And life and love are real
Things you can run and
Breathless hand over
To the merest child.
- Edith L. Tiempo
* * *
A first reading of Edith L. Tiempo’s signature poem is a tad confounding, for the first lady of Philippine poetry in English deploys the centripetal-centrifugal-centripetal (or inward-outward-inward) motion in expressing her profoundest thoughts and deepest feelings about love. The title itself, “Bonsai,” is a bit misleading, since nowhere else in the poem are there any further references to plant life or the ancient Japanese technique of cultivating miniature trees or shrubs through dwarfing by selective pruning. Some might even argue that “Origami” is the better title choice, for at least the persona’s act of folding objects is a bit analogous to the Japanese art of paper folding to make complicated shapes. But this reader will prove at the end of this essay that “Bonsai” is the most appropriate title for the poem, something that is not quite obvious to most people after their perfunctory appraisal of this often misread literary masterpiece.
However, despite the false lead, even a cursory perusal of the poem reveals to the sensitive and sensible reader that “Bonsai” is about love, if only because the four-letter word is mentioned in all four stanzas. In the first stanza, the persona declares that she folds everything that she loves and keeps them hidden in secret places: “a box,/ Or a slit in a hollow post,/ Or in my shoe.//” What then are the things she considers imperative enough to keep?
At first glance, the catalogue of her beloved objects in the second stanza appears to be disparate, unrelated, almost random, if not completely aleatory. But since a literary sorceress like Tiempo seldom commits mistakes in conjuring appropriate images, then there must a be reason for singling out these particular items and not others. The more important query therefore is this: What do “Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,/ A roto[i] picture of a young queen,/ A blue Indian shawl, even/ A money bill.//” share in common? Besides being foldable and thus easy to keep, they must symbolize for the loving female persona important individuals and incidents in her life. For as the semiotician Roland Barthes correctly observes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Every object touched by the loved being’s body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it.”[ii]
If we are to assume that the speaking voice of “Bonsai” closely resembles the poet’s own, then the first three objects must represent members of her immediate family: son Maldon; husband Edilberto (It is a well-known fact among writing fellows and panelists of the Silliman Writers’ Workshop that Edith fondly called the late fictionist and literary critic “Dad,” while being addressed by her husband as “Mom,” which is a common practice among Filipino couples.); and daughter Rowena (Unknown to many, the current Program Administrator of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a former winner of the Miss Negros Oriental beauty contest sometime in the 1970s, another indicator of the Filipino flavor of the poem, since the Philippines is a pageant-obsessed Third World country.).
The referents of the last two items are more covert and thereby more difficult to decipher. At best, we can only speculate on the persons and/or events that make the two things significant: blue Indian shawl (Edith’s engagement...
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