“And before I can put this all behind me”: Wanggo Gallaga’s “Remnants” contributes to HIV-AIDS Literature in the Philippines

Review by John Toledo

Last night, I received in my message box an e-mail from a guy named “wanggo.”

Inside was the free copy of his poetry collection, Remnants. I remembered e-mailing him a day ago about the possibility of reviewing his poems. I thought how nice he is to trust me in reading his exclusive collection in epub format (for he never sold it on print but on Flipreads, Amazon, Kobo, Apple iTunes, Google Play, and Barnes & Noble).

Check out Wanggo Gallaga's page https://wanggo.wordpress.com/i-just-want-to-tell-stories/
Check out Wanggo Gallaga’s page https://wanggo.wordpress.com/i-just-want-to-tell-stories/

Who is Wanggo Gallaga?

In December 2008, he was known as the guy who disclosed his HIV status to the public. He’s the son of director Peque Gallaga and he’s known as one of the revered and popular spoken word poets in today’s generation. He was a judge of the “Scarlet Letters from Baguio” which is AIDS Society of the Philippines’ HIV slam poetry competition in Mt. Cloud Bookshop, Baguio. He has written the films Sonata and T’yanak. His poems have been published in some of the prestigious publishers like Philippine Free Press, Panaroma, The Philippine Graphic, Anvil Press, and Dagda Publishing.

Wanggo experienced near death experiences with the virus twice (in 2008 and 2010). He shares in the “Introduction” that his poems are not explicitly about HIV, but “It’s about the living aspect of Person Living with HIV (PLHIV). It’s the questions that nobody asks in the forums. It’s the stuff that is only discussed with close friends and family, and sometimes, not even.”

Before reading his collection, I only knew Wanggo in a YouTube video. He was sharing his poetics in a forum about children’s poetry. I would never have thought this tall, dark, and handsome guy on the screen is definitely an expert in the craft of restraint. The poetry in Remnants range in what I would imagine to be his life’s work, which as he mentioned were compilations of his poems since 1999.

The collection opens with a mood of grief and distraught. Yet, as one submerges in the depth of words, there is a transition from darkness to light. It reminds me of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s Stages of Grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Meanwhile, in Wanggo’s style, the arrangement is divided into themes of pain, suffering, bargaining, hope, and acceptance as signified by each sections of his life, “Navigating Loss”, “Disillusionment”, “The Threshold”, “Delirious Script”, “Grace”, and “Remnants”. Wanggo’s poems considered as remnants or small quantities of his memories are magnanimous in vision as it approached and represented the microscopic and mundane experiences of a Person Living with HIV.

Take for instance the microscopic details of dried leaves in “Dry”,

Dried leaves
crackle as they break
underneath my left shoe
and the weight of my left leg.
All of nature is so brittle
when it is dry and bereft
of moisture.

It waits for rain;
all things wait for rain
to fall.

The rain resonates with what is not said. The dried leaves signify brittleness and how such dryness yearn for moisture, a certain kind of wetness that reveals aspirations, traumas, and anguish.

As I read through the collection, I never restrained from crying in moments where the bittersweet lyrical self speaks of a situation that near the comforts of our own beds. We become home in Wanggo’s unhomeliness. In “Shape”, for instance, the pain and struggle of the body to curve is make sense in the understanding of loss. In the twists and turns of his positions, we understand the shape of tension and the bitter reality that our bodies may also articulate our sense of loss,

It is in the curve of my back
when I lie in bed;
it is in the way my knees
meet my chest and how my hands
almost touch my feet
as I reach out for that end of me.
This twisted form that I make
as I try to sleep
has no resemblance
to anything in nature.

It is there in the tension in my spine.
It is there in the almost-breaking of it.
It is there in my open mouth
and the difficulty of my breathing.

It is there in how sleep evades me.

It is there.
Can you not see it?
Between the trembling
and the convulsions
and the loss of breath,
every night.

Every night, it is there,
these symptoms of loss.

This is the new shape
that you gave to me
on that night I never saw coming
and the words that were said
that shattered bone
and punctured hearts.

The architecture of our bodies
is drawn by what we choose
to define us.

(February, 2013)

Losing a person or being left behind is a universal experience that when captured in the voice of a poet is heard as a shout that shatters. Like any PLHIV, Wanggo also experienced the grief of loving or losing, while confronted by the complex battle of his body with the virus, especially with the fits of symptoms that has the possibility of worsening in the future. I have never read a poem yet, especially in Ladlad anthology, which captures this sharpness and twistedness of a conflicted body, the experience that only Wanggo can articulate.

There are lots of witty and metaphorical poems in Remnants that also caught my attention. In fact, the strength of the whole collection is not in how it showed a life of a PLHIV in poetry but in its craft of restraint, of wrapping through the seams and cloths of metaphor, his insights about love and loss.

In the case of “Humpty Dumpty”, he used the egg as metaphor to the what he called the “stupid” self when at the moment he fell,

And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…
Well they came to try and put him together again.
And boy did they come! They came in droves.
They came from places never heard or seen before.
They came from unexpected places.
Some were forgotten faces.

But they couldn’t. They didn’t know how.
Humpty wouldn’t let them in. Humpty wouldn’t let them close.
Humpty didn’t think his yoke was made of gold.
Humpty thought everything had to be bought and sold.
He didn’t know how to get the thing he needed most.

His fierce vigilant tones of the lyrical “I” is common in the collection. His sarcasm strikes as witty when he commented on the demise of Humpty Dumpty as a stupid egg, who “Had to fall and break wholly apart./ All because he didn’t know how to use his heart.” Was this the poet blaming himself? We can only surmise.

The poems in Remnants were strategically arranged to espouse a theme, some of which might have gone as far as 1999 when he was still a Literature student practicing his craft. The latter poems in the collection have transitioned to a certain kind of “Grace” and his acceptance of these in the case of the poem “Remnants”.

I believe that “The Garden” is one of his strongest poems in the batch. In “The Garden”, he recollects the mundane experience of nature. His concreteness is crisp that the message itself bleeds even in the first image of daybreak. He likens his awakening from grief to a lush garden and at this moment of illumination, he lets go of the burdens that comes with the weight of his identity,

Daybreak.
Enter the morning sun.
I opened my eyes and saw the garden.
This garden, I did not know was in my keeping,
had grown wild and verdurous.

All these wonders — blades of grass,
ferns, shrubs, bushes, flowers, trees –
turn their bodies towards the sun
in a graceful, poised arabesque.
Dancers celebrating the brilliance of life.

They did not just spring from the ground.
They live so that I can breathe,
so that I have something to see,
so that I have something to nurture,
and something to emulate.

This garden I must have tended
and then I must have forgotten
still yields a lush and verdant bounty
that knows no price and has a value
that is immeasurable.

This is why the morning has come,
this is why I wake and why I leave
the safe confines of my room.
This garden has taught me how to live:

To choose fertile ground,
to pull the weeds
from the earth by hand,
to take root,
and then be unafraid
to bask in the glory
of the sun.

(January, 2013)

This is more than revelation. It is joy that is found in nature, and might be at par with English and American Romantic poets who valued nature and the freedom of the individual. He is the Bard of the PLHIV. But more than that, he is the poet that speaks of hope and freedom. The weeds, roots, earth, and glories of the sun, reminds us not to be afraid. There is life even as an HIV-positive.

Definitely, Wanggo Gallaga is one of the new poets of this age to voice out the unbearable lightness of his once “heavy” being. He realizes in “Grace” that there is an end to darkness, distraught, quietness, fear, and resentment. All of these recollections of his “memories of being trapped there are nothing more than just memories. They become stories you tell and they no longer define you.”

Wanggo’s defiance with the conventions of HIV-AIDS poetry (as compared to the distraught poems of Rafael Campo, Thomas Dunn, and Mark Doty who used the material realities and experiences of AIDS patients as their subjects) proves that there is always a rainbow after the rain. Commonly, stereotypes of brokenness, hopelessness, and wasted-ness are attributed to PLHIV. Wanggo subverts the norm and creates a fresh autobiographical poem, which at one point is memoir and in another, a forgetting.

I quote Prof. J. Neil Garcia who once mentioned about the absence of HIV-AIDS as themes in Ladlad, “It would take individual efforts by Filipino gay writers (some of whom are HIV-positive, or “Pozzie Pinoys,” themselves) over the next few years to produce the Philippines’s own version of “AIDS literature,” which can only be formally and epistemologically different from what existed in the West when the then-lethal epidemic was in full swing.”1

Wanggo’s work is a beginning of that dream, of that version that can reclaim the Filipino experience of what it means to be HIV-AIDS stricken in our stigma-infested country, confronted by corruption, oppression, and discrimination.

I suggest first time readers of Remnants to explore and read the poems in its entirety. You might drown in the sea of his metaphors but let him lead you there, for these memories give that avenue of diving deeper into the heart of his soul.

There is hope for AIDS Literature in the Philippines. We need more poets like Wanggo. Remnants shows that PLHIVs recover from shock through acceptance, forgetting, wisdom, and strength.

Share his ideas not for the sake of Wanggo but for the sublime power of his words. This is the unbearable lightness of a struggling being. For the end of grief is acceptance, we might one day also say like Wanggo,

We leave remnants of things to be picked up in the future;
or we leave it there and never pick it up again.

We are not beholden to singular moments, or remnants
of the good old days.

1 Garcia, J. Neil. “Introduction: Saving the Best for Last.” The Best of Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing. J. Neil Garcia and Danton Remoto, eds. Mandaluyong: Anvil Publishing, 2014.

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