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Skin Voices Faces: The Poetry Of Danton Remoto

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by Arnel Banaga Salgado

Like many other contemporary poets, Danton Remoto is trying to establish his own place on the history of Philippine contemporary literature. Although his poetry reflects his youthful idealism, nationalism and his struggle against loneliness, still his poems possess a resounding resonance and exceptional nuance which move the spirit and the soul of the readers. It is necessary to note that he produced all poems in this collection when he was still on his early twenties . The way Remoto presented a simple idea and his mastery in capturing the imagination by presenting a striking imagery is exceptional. No other poets can duplicate his mastery in weaving verses.

In the poem Antipolo Vender (Skin, Voices, Faces, Anvil, 1991, p.4) he said:

A gaslamp throws
of the face
of the pregnant vender.

Remoto's use of powerful imagery brings a new experience to the readers. His language is very simple to comprehend and the idea he wants to convey can easily be understood upon reading the first line of his poem. The word gaslamp indicates loneliness and desolation. In the context of Danton Remoto's poetry, no other word aside from the gaslamp can capture his inner desolation or perhaps his longing to experience the life of a pregnant woman whom he described in the poem. It is necessary therefore to consider the personal; experience of the poet when he attempts to understand his poetry. Like on fourth and fifth stanzas of the same poem, he said:

Her half frozen blood
as the hills hug
their knees

In the dark shiver of sleep.

The word dark of the last line complemented the second word of the first line - gaslamp. We can notice the cold atmosphere and the lonely environment of the pregnant woman. Perhaps in some instances, Danton Remoto experienced the same thing, or sometimes he has a deep longing to experience what he described in Antipolo Vender. The knowledge of Jungian or Freudian psychology is necessary to discover the event which drives the poet to write such poetry. Sometimes, we can discover that a poet's inner sufferings can help him weave a perfect poem like Edgar Allan Poe's Annabelle Lee .

It is noticeable that the poet often used the contrasting words, light and darkness to distinguish his happiness and loneliness, or in some instances hopelessness like in his poem CANDLES (p.21). He said:

Candles melt
the hard darkness
inside the church (first stanza)

This is my country,
that seems to have run
out of candles to burn (last stanza)

His used of simple language perfected his poetry. As Housman said, "…good poetry…is made out of ordinary words." The simplicity on the language structure of his poetry helped him in intensifying the idea he wanted to convey especially when he tackled about the Filipino religiosity or fanaticism in entrusting their fate always to God. The condition of his country (as we can see on the poem above) seems hopeless because of her corrupt officials. We can discover the nationalistic view of the poet here. Perhaps he was just influenced by the activism of the writers and poets when he was writing this poem or if not, his poetry can be considered as good for nothing, like the poetry of Amado Hernandez and Pete Lacaba . The use of emotion or sentimentalism can hinder the message of the poem because good poetry does not only communicate, but it must have top express the capability of the poet to abstract his inner experience and transform this experience into creative work of art. Obviously, Danton Remoto attempted to bring out one (good poem) - but he failed because of the excessive trace of sentimentalism and emotion on almost all the 88 poems he included in this collection. According to McLeish, "A poem does not mean / but be" . It is clear therefore that a poem is intended merely to present what is but not what is not . Sometimes, a poet produces a simple verse and he may call it a poem that is inspired, therefore it cannot be changed. A true artist is open, thus every time, he sees some faults in his poetry, he must be ready to edit it like what happened to the ten Filipino poets who were included on the latest book of Ricardo de Ungria, A PASSIONATE PATIENCE. Before perfection came, a poem is butchered to ensure that every word carries meaning. I believe that the poetry of Danton Remoto will eventually evolve into a good work of art without faults in language and emotion, but so long that emotion is attached in writing his poetry, a poem that is introduced cannot be considered a good opus. Like in the poem, Waking from a dream to sadness (p.12), he said:

From the dream of sadness.
there, the skin
stretches into walls
The drawbridge of the tongue

His metaphor is very difficult to transcribe in an ordinary language. Although the poem cannot be considered faultless because when he tries to understand what does it imply (the poem I mean) by studying the whole poem, we are led to nowhere. In the last line of the first stanza, he said: as I slip indicates movement from reality to fantasy. Sometimes it is good to do so, but when a poet wanted only to express loneliness, it is not necessary to slip from reality into fantasy. This process contradicts reality in human events. We can notice as well that he utilized different modes to capture the events he wanted to convey, so this shift of idea and style established his inauthenticity as a real poet, but I believe - Danton Remoto has still the capability to improve. Nevertheless, I like most of his poems.

The genius of Danton Remoto is waiting to be awakened. His tiyanaks,  like what Rio Alma emphasized is trying to be freed from his imagination, and his place in the contemporary Philippine Literature is waiting to be reached. Surely, he is ranked equal to the well known poets of his time, like Federico Licsi Espinosa Jr. who was recently placed inside the lunatic asylum, or Noel de Vera who produced a book on a very young age at 24, and other contemporary Filipino poets and fictionists. What is needed now is an intelligent reader of their works that can only be produced when there is a good Literature instructor to teach and encourage them to read the Pilipino writers.

  • Nuance in poetry does not only give meaning to the poem, but it gives rhythm and brings beauty to the sound of the word which a poet chose to describe his idea or experience. In the case of Danton Remoto, the nuance lies in the unity of the words and role it holds to describe the mode of the whole poem. Thus, nuance does not only limit its use on lyric poetry.
  • In October 1992 issue of Sunday Inquirer Magazine,an article about Pilipino writers (including Danton Remoto) was published, describing their possible immortality as writers (On the Heels of the Immortals).
  • It is noted that edgar Allan Poe was inspired to write more poetry when he was depressed and drank.
  • As quoted by Mrs. Sandra Reyes Arroyo on Understanding Poetry, Pintig Diwa, Especial Diwa,1995-1996, p.57
  • Sentimentalism is described as a stock of emotional expression which corresponds to poetic diction.
  • As quoted by Edwin Benjamin on his book, The Province of Poetry, Americasn Book Co,., USA, c1996, p.126.
  • The poem cannot only be used to clarify something or much worst to serve as a personal catharsis to bring back the memories into a good for nothing work of art. The atmosphere of childhood longing and loneliness is plenty. We can find almost on all the poems of Remoto in his collection.
  • The idea of concreteness in poetry comes here. Every word counts and all the unnecessary word must be deleted or else a poem can become an overdecorated poem like a purple prose in a novel.


Almario, Virgilio, Ang Makata sa Panahon ng Makina, UP press, QC, 1972
Arroyo, Zandra, Understanding Poetry, Pintig Diwa, St. Scholastica's College, Manila Philippines 1996
Benjamin, Edwin, The Province of Poetry, American Book Company, USA 1966
Cruz, Isagani, Beyond Futility, new Day Publishers, QC Philippines, 1984
Hall, Donald, the Pleasure of Poetry, Harper and Row Publishers, USA 1971
Lopez, Salvador, Literature and Society, A.S.Florentino Pub., Manila, Philippines, 1967
Remoto, Danton, Skin, Voices, Faces, Anvil Publishing Co., Inc.
Ungria de, Ricardo, A Passionate patience, Anvil Publishing Co., Inc. Manila, Philippines, 1995

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Copyright ©2023 by Arnel Bañaga Salgado, PsyD, EdD, DSc
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