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Dance production on the struggle for land, featuring works of imprisoned poets


MANILA — Starting in November, progressive cultural organization Sinagbayan restages its original production “Pitong Sundang: mga sayaw sa lupa at pakikibaka,” (Seven Bolos: Dances for land and the struggle) a dance theater production highlighting the long history of the peasants’ struggle for genuine land reform and agrarian revolution through the writings of respected progressive Filipino poets. Two of these poets are Ericson Acosta and Alan Jazmines, both currently jailed because of their political beliefs.

For one, the title Pitong Sundang is borrowed from jailed artist-poet Ercison Acosta’s collection of poetry of the same title. When Acosta was illegally arrested and detained in 2011, the military took his personal computer where his seventh poem (ikapitong sundang) is stored. Now, Acosta opens that seventh poem for anyone, or the public to write.

Sixty-four year old Jazmines, a consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in the peace process, is also a visual artist.

Metaphors that unsettle the nerves

Among Acosta’s poems included in the production are: Tala, Sipat and Gabud – in which he combines simple, everyday vocabulary of the ordinary people and metaphors that seeps through the nerves of the readers.

In tala (list), Acosta seems to give words to the indescribable, almost unspeakable sorrow, pain, anguish, fears and sacrifices of the oppressed- the hungry, the sleepless, the victims of human rights violations.

He starts with:
“Sablay sa baybay,
Inuukit natin ang pangalan
Ng mga inaalala at sadyang minamahal”

(Failing to spell,
We carve the names
Of those we remember and truly love)

Instantly, one senses mourning or the memory of it. Depending one’s perspective, knowing Acosta’s political standpoint, these first lines makes one think of the martyred men and women who fought for a cause – killed or abducted and remain missing.

Their names are carved on anything we choose, according to Acosta- on a wooden cane for instance, or on a clay pot.

And then he says further:

“Sablay sa baybay, totoo,
subalit salatin at silang-sila rin
ang sawing salaysayin
sa siwang ng mga titik na ito—
sumasaludsod sa kalyo at kuko
gaya ng kaliskis, palikpik at hasang.
Silang-sila nga ang mga ito:
silang ulila;
silang tulala;
silang balisa at di makatulog;
silang habang nahihimbing ay kinitil;
silang ibinuwal pagkat pukaw na
at sa iba’y nanggigising”

(We may have misspelled their names, it’s true,
But touch them and they are indeed
The same fallen stories
Seeping through these verses-
Piercing thick skin and nails
Like scales, fins and gills.
They are exactly these:
The orphaned:
The ones staring at empty spaces:
The anxious and sleepless:
Them who were killed while at sleep:
And those who were murdered because they have awakened
And awakening the still asleep)

And he reveals the stories. He reveals the how and whys, the answers begging to be heard or seen or sensed – on the ongoing state of unrest and state terrorism toward a rather dramatic end. That end, we shall witness in the dance production.

In Gabud (Grindstone), Acosta lets us in deeper into his political and ideological standpoint. He uses clear images that transport his readers to a particular milieu- the countryside. He makes us witness a ritual- where the peasants, workers, youth and other awakened masses gather because they cannot take it anymore so he begins-

Matapos maghawa’t mangahoy maghapon,
Tayo ay nangagtitipon,
Upang hasain ang ating mga sundang

Sa labi ng gabi sa malumot na burol
Sa tabi ng bukal ng talangka at kuhol
Tayo ay nangagtitipon
Upang hasain an gating mga sundang

(After a day of clearing and gathering wood,
We are all gathered
To sharpen our bolos

In the remains of the night on a mossy hill
Beside a spring of crabs and snails
We are all gathered
To sharpen our bolos)

This describes the people’s seething anger. They are getting ready, preparing for war. Throughout the poem, images of coming together toward the dawn of reckoning, strengthening ranks to face a decisive battle. What makes this poem effective is the clear melding of literal images and metaphors, the way Acosta does in most of his poems.

And because this is a poem of gathering for war, the sharpening of bolos does not stop, all through the night, if they must. Definitely so, because they are already aware of the oppression, injustice, hunger and killings of their ranks so they continue the gathering and sharpening of their weapons.

And in the last verses of the poem, Acosta no longer restrains, he no longer keeps something for himself. He generously lets it all out-

Hanggang sa kaya na ng ating mga talim
Na ang hangin ay paduguin,
Tayo ay nangagtitipon
Upang hasain ang ating mga sundang

Hanggang mangusap ang isa sa ating mga anak-

Ang hubad at pinaka-aba sa apo ng ilaya:
Ang pinakaubuhin, tuod at utal
Na tagapagmana
Ng malawak na kawalan
At lahat ng pagkakasala

“Bukas,” wika niya,
“Kung ilan tayo sa ating balak ngayon,
S’ya ring dami ng tarak sa leeg ng panginoon”

(Until our weapons are able
To make the wind bleed,
We are all gathered to sharpen our bolos

Until one of our children speak-

The naked and poorest grandchild of the mountains
The weak in lungs, the stiff and the stutterer
Of immense nothingness
And of all sins

“Tomorrow,” she says,
“The multitude that we gather tonight,
Is the same multitude of weapons that would stab the neck of the lords”)

Small and big prisons may no longer be different

For his part, Jazmines shares the direct yet visually-rich “maliit at malaking piitan” (small and big prison) which tells about a prisoner describing his situation inside his cell. The same prisoner though, who has experienced torture and all forms of repression inside the prison cell warns us, who are not imprisoned: if we don’t fight and stand against state terrorism, this seemingly free, big outside world we live in will be full of small prisons.

Like the Acosta and Jazmines, many among the farmers and their allies are being tortured, abducted, illegally detained or summarily executed because they are fighting to liberate themselves and the oppressed.

Jazmines opens his poem with:

“Ibang-iba pa sa unang tingin,
ang mundo riyan sa labas,
sa mundo rito sa loob,
na binabakuran
ng suson-susong matataas na pader,
rehas na bakal,
alambreng tinik,
mababangis na bantay,
patung-patong na pagbabawal
at paghihigpit,
upang ang lahat ay nakakahon
sa itinakdang lugar,
at walang mangyayaring,
anumang mapanyayanig.”

(It may seem very different,
at first glance,?
the world out there,?
with the world here inside,
walled in with rows of tall walls,
prison bars,
barbed wires,
cruel guards,
layers of prohibitions
and strictness,
so that everyone is boxed in
in a small pre-determined space,
so that nothing could be done
to shake its foundations)

With these lines, we instantly envision the cold concrete walls, the cramped, walled-in spaces, the absence of any iota of freedom for those who are like him- imprisoned.

“… napakasikip,
itong ilang metro-kwadrado
na pwede naming ikutin,
at bilang ang oras,
para sa bawat galaw.
tuwi-tuwina’y kailangang makita ka,
at malaman ang iyong ginagawa,
panay ang silip at halungkat
at baka mayroon kang anumang tinatago”

(it is so cramped,
this few-square meters that
we can move around in,
and time is limited,
for every moment?
they must see you,
count us,
to know what is happening,
always looking and searching
that you might be hiding something.)

We are let in, transported inside the very corners, inside the very few-square meters he is confined in, with other prisoners. Abruptly one is compelled to feel his ordeal, to yearn to take him and the others out of there.

As we empathize, he reminds us that the world he moves in appears different only at first glance. In fact, he reminds us, with a hint of sarcasm, in case we forget, that:

“ngunit kung dito’y
ang maliit na pasista ay di pa rin kuntento
sa pagpipinid
sa maliit na mundo rito,
sa kanyang sagradong kamao,
dyan ay may mas masahol pang malaking pasistang
di kuntento sa hawak nya,
sa madulas pang malaking mundo riyan.”

(but if the little fascist here is still not content
in manipulating
the small world here,
with his sacred fist,
out there,
lives a far worse big fascist
who is still not content
in how he controls the still fluid,
big world out there)

He does not seem to envy us who are free after all. In fact, he encourages us to fight that big fascist in this outside world because:

“ibayong higit sa tau-tauhan lang
na maliit na pasista rito,
kailangan ng malaking pasista riyan,
na magpalaki pa nang magpalaki,
mangamkam pa nang mangamkam,
mangontrol nang mangontrol
at magparami ng mga tagapamayapa,
at ng mga ipinapasok sa maliit na piitan,
sa dami at dalas ng inyong angal
na gumuguho sa kanyang mundo”

(more than a puppet
the little fascist here,
the big fascist out there
needs to become bigger and bigger,
to plunder more and more,
to control and control further,
and multiply those tasked to keep the order
and those they send to the small prison here,
because of your many and frequent protests
that brings down his world)

Finally, the poet ends his poem with powerful lines using literal objects, subjects and shapes and putting just the right amount of metaphors where necessary, and ultimately hitting the nail right on the head:

“kailangang iangal ng iangal,
yanigin ng yanigin ang mga mundong piitan,
maliit at malaki.
tibagin ang mga pader,
rehas na bakal,
alambreng tinik
na humahati sa malaking piitan
at mapatalsik ang mga pasistang naghahari-harian
sa piitang maliit at malaki.”

sa patuloy lamang na pagdami
ng mga maliliit na piitan
ang malaking mundo riyan,
ay magiging walang iba,
kundi kulumpon na lamang
ng maliliit na piitan”

(we need to protest more and more,
shake the foundations of the world’s prisons,
small and big.
bring down the walls,
the prison bars,
the barbed wires
that separate the big prison
and oust the fascists who act like kings,
in prisons small and big

with the continuing increase of small prisons,
that big world out there,
will become nothing
but a world
of small prisons)

For this restaging of the dance production, Acosta’s poetry alongside Jazmines’ and other poets’ serve as the narrative that weaves the very long journey of the Filipino peasantry amid feudal bondage, imperialist dictates, bureaucrat-capitalism and their ever-strengthening resolve for liberation through agrarian revolution.

Pitong Sundang will open at the University of the Philippines-Diliman on November 29 and 30 and at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines on December 6 and 7. It will also be toured nationwide.(

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  1. […] By TERENCE KRISHNA V. LOPEZ MANILA — Starting in November, progressive cultural organization Sinagbayan restages its original production “Pitong Sundang: mga sayaw sa lupa at pakikibaka,” (Seven Bolos: Dances for land and the struggle) a dance theater production highlighting the long history of the peasants’ struggle for genuine land reform and agrarian revolution through […] Read more… […]

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