Creative Subversion

The t-shirt passed the scrutiny of the guards in the detention center because they thought Karl Marx was Santa Claus. (Photo courtesy of Gemma Nemenzo)

The t-shirt passed the scrutiny of the guards in the detention center because they thought Karl Marx was Santa Claus. (Photo courtesy of Gemma Nemenzo)

It was a time for courage and heroism. It was also a time of grief, anxiety, fear.

Forty two years ago this week, Proclamation 1081 imposing martial law in the entire country was declared by President Ferdinand Marcos on September 23, 1972 (later on, he let it be known that the order was actually signed on September 21). With the stroke of the presidential pen, the country's historical course was altered irrevocably.

The political opposition was silenced, its leaders and followers filled the military jails or went underground. Marcos leaned solely on the hopelessly unprepared armed forces to implement his orders, and, without training on the duties and responsibilities of political governance, drunk with the unexpected largesse of near-absolute power, the military wreaked havoc on the lives of many citizens. Thus the narratives on martial law that dominate to this day are about the abuses, the tortures, the “salvagings” and the imprisonments.

There is no single story to martial law in the Philippines, however. Just like there are as many personal narratives to the EDSA People Power Revolt of 1986 as there were participants, the full story of martial law for future historians to dissect and judge will be incomplete without the narratives of “the other side” – those who benefited from it and who are now trying to whitewash that period's dark side by diminishing its impact on those who suffered.

Official martial law – which lasted nine years, from 1972 to 1981 – totally upended my life. It brought me up close and personal with prisons, brutal killings and betrayals. I witnessed the evils unleashed by unbridled power and cowardice that masqueraded as patriotism. I learned valuable survival skills and wiliness – dodging surveillance, hiding fugitives, passing notes secretly while maintaining an inscrutable and charming facade that masked the terror that gnawed at my insides. Most of all, I acquired an appreciation of the innate goodness of strangers – from the notorious carnapper detained in Camp Crame with my brother who promised us a new car when he got out because our Volkswagen Beetle was about to conk out, to some military men who risked their positions to help (often surreptitiously), in whatever small way they could, those who were at the bottom of the wheel.

It was a time for meeting kindred spirits in the unlikeliest of places and situations. It was also a time for looking deep inside oneself and finding out what's there, be it bravery or cowardice. Most of all, for the writers and artists who fought the regime, it was a time for creative subversion.

One unforgettable example was the poem below that imaginatively cloaked the common protest slogan of those days through references to Greek mythology (put together the first letters of each line). That the poem came out in a Marcos-controlled publication at the height of martial law added to its brilliance and mystique (I remember the secret excitement it elicited as copies spread like wildfire. One can just imagine the grief the editor went through when the poem's real intent was discovered).

Prometheus Unbound

I shall never exchange my fetters for slavish servility.
’Tis better to be chained to the rock than be bound to the service of Zeus.

--Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of the just?

Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Emancipation’s breath,
Reeks of death, death, death.

Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind, and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of the grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.

Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.

When the poem came out, no one knew who wrote it. It was only after the ouster of Marcos in 1986 when ace journalist/author/scriptwriter/poet Jose F. Lacaba admitted publicly that he was its author. Here's what he wrote in a blog where he said that “Prometheus Unbound” was actually the last poem he wrote in English:

“... I would find myself writing another poem in English a few years later, when martial law was already in force and I was a fugitive. Written under a pseudonym, the poem somehow got published in the mainstream media, despite the rigid press censorship. It was entitled “Prometheus Unbound,” and it looked harmless enough, since it sounded Greek to the authorities. But word soon got around that there was something about the poem that was subversive, and the magazine carrying the poem was pulled out of the newsstands by military troops.

“When the centurions finally caught me two years after the declaration of martial law, and in the course of the physical torture that I was subjected to, one of my interrogators said: “You’re the one who wrote that poem in that magazine.” I was flattered that a constabulary colonel was literate enough to have heard about my poem, but he was making a statement, not asking a question, so I did not bother to confirm or deny his allegation. It was only after the fall of Marcos, after the people-power uprising of 1986, that I finally publicly admitted to being the perpetrator of the controversial poem.

“Today, whatever standing I may have as a poet in the Philippines will probably be based on my Tagalog poems. But I will also probably be remembered, or remain notorious, for my last poem in English.

“Still, “Prometheus Unbound” is not entirely in English. It’s an acrostic poem, and the first letters of the lines, if read downwards, spell out a Tagalog slogan popular among demonstrators before martial law: MARCOS HITLER DIKTADOR TUTA (Marcos Hitler, Dictator, Running Dog).” 

Martial law is remembered differently by each Filipino who lived through it. Cliche as this may be, I will always remember it as both the best of times and the worst of times.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino