The Enigmatic Poetess

It was a sacrilege, the neighbors cried,
The way she shattered every mullioned pane
To let a firebrand in. They tried in vain
To understand how one so carved from pride
And glassed in dream could have flung aside
Her graven days, or why she dared profane
The bread and wine of life for one insane
Moment with him. The scandal never died.

But no one guessed that loveliness would claim
Her soul’s cathedral burned by his desires,
Or that he left her aureoled in flame…
And seeing nothing but her blackened spires,
The town condemned this girl who loved too well
And found her heaven in the depths of hell.

Ever since I discovered this poem by Angela Manalang-Gloria, first published in The Philippines Herald Mid-Week Magazine in 1935, I’ve been deeply intrigued by how a woman poet of that generation – still new to the English language, presumably confined by the strict rules of behavior and morality of that era – could write such impassioned words about forbidden love. Was she writing from experience? Did the poem shock her readers?

 Angela Manalang-Gloria

Angela Manalang-Gloria

The title, “Soledad,” triggered more curiosity. Who was she? And who was the firebrand? Is Soledad an actual person or a metaphor for heartbreak?

The poem spoke to me then as it does every time I read it. There’s something intensely magnetic about such phrases as “shattered every mullioned pane, “her soul’s cathedral burned by his desires,” “aureoled in flame.” I’m sure everyone who has loved passionately and allowed firebrands into their lives understand how remarkably apt the phrase “found her heaven in the depths of hell” is.

When I first read the poem, Mrs. Gloria was still alive, still managing her abaca business in Albay where she grew up. I had dreams of meeting her and having a conversation that, in my imagination, would encompass not just her poetry but, more importantly, her life story. My fascination with “Soledad” was enhanced by a parallel discovery that happened around the same time I read the poem in the early 1980s.

I had just done an interview with the widow of Jose Corazon de Jesus, the foremost Tagalog poet of the same era that Mrs. Gloria’s poetry was first noticed. Huseng Batute, as he was popularly known, had left his marriage at one point and eloped with a woman who he immortalized in his poems as “Bituin.” It was the biggest scandal in Manila at that time: the literary superstar sailing to Hong Kong with a young girl from a prominent Sta. Ana family was, quite naturally, fodder for headlines. Was she the Soledad of Angela Manalang-Gloria’s seminal poem? I was particularly curious because “Bituin” turned out to be someone I knew very well.

I never managed to meet Mrs. Gloria. When she passed away in 1995, I had already moved to the U.S., and probing the whys and wherefores of poetry was furthest from my mind.

It was only when someone sent me a copy of Edna Zapanta Manlapaz’s book, Angela Manalang Gloria: A Literary Biography, that I got to know more about the poetess who moved me. Her life in a nutshell: she was the eldest daughter in a well-to-do family who had a rice mill in Tabaco, Albay; she was shy, moody and reclusive even as a young girl – more interested in books and writing than going to parties; she graduated summa cum laude from the University of the Philippines (UP) in 1929 (one of the first women who earned that distinction) with a philosophy degree; she married Celedonio Gloria, who was editor of UP’s student paper, The Philippine Collegian, when she was literary editor; she was one of the original members of the newly formed UP Writer’s Club, a distinguished group of writers in English that included such literary luminaries as Jose Garcia Villa (with whom Angela Manalang had a lifelong rivalry), Federico Mangahas, Arturo Rotor and Salvador P. Lopez.

 Edna Zapanta Manlapaz book on Angela Manalang-Gloria

Edna Zapanta Manlapaz book on Angela Manalang-Gloria

Mrs. Gloria’s most prolific period, when she wrote most of her distinguished poetry was also her most precarious, health-wise. She had a relapse of her tuberculosis, an incurable illness then, and had to spend most of her time in bed for three years. Were it not for her husband’s solicitous care -- a diet consisting of gallons of milk, 100 eggs a week and calcium injections; bed rest, and her writing poetry, she wouldn’t have survived the ordeal, as she would later reveal.

Angela and Celedonio would have three children, the youngest (and only girl) was born posthumously in 1945, a few months after Celedonio was killed by the Japanese. From then on, Mrs. Gloria focused her attention on the family business, to the detriment of her poetry. Resettling in Albay after her husband’s death, she became a shrewd businesswoman, known for her frugality and her reclusiveness.

Her poems, however, have been immortalized not just in the mass-market magazines and literary journals, which regularly published them, but also in textbooks and in the consciousness of literary scholars who consider Angela Manalang-Gloria as one of the stars in Philippine literature.

But who was Soledad? Mrs. Gloria later identified her as Soledad “Choleng” Lacson, her best friend in UP (and the older sister of legendary Manila mayor Arsenio Lacson). Choleng had a big crush on their Spanish professor, the poet Manuel Bernabe. “She adored Bernabe – just something intellectual, nothing more,” Mrs. Gloria confided. But Soledad’s mother was sufficiently alarmed at the infatuation that she pulled the young girl out of school and brought her home to the province.

In 1995, on the same year that Mrs. Gloria died, Soledad Lacson-Locsin passed away. Sadly, it was just a few months before the publication of her obra maestra, the translations of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo from the original Spanish to English. Mrs. Locsin’s are now considered among the best translations of the two novels.

It’s nice to imagine the two friends, both literary stars, meeting again in heaven.

From “Slant,” Filipinas Magazine, April 2008.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino