Rice & Rain, Romalyn Ante
V.Press, 2017 £6.50
A Feast for the Senses
This is a powerful debut that demonstrates a control of language and emotion typical of poets at more advanced stages in their careers. In her editorial blurb, Jane Commane says Ante’s poems are ‘a real feast for the senses.’ Indeed, by focusing on sensory details – from listening to the ‘rattle’ of ‘monsoon raindrops’ and the ‘tarri-tik’ of the ‘hornbill lizard’, to smelling a mother’s ‘tamarind-scented fingers’ – Ante’s work richly exploits sensory awareness of her homeland, The Philippines.
The poet emigrated at the age of sixteen – and in ‘Candlewax,’ the third poem in the set, she describes a childhood memory in which her brother smiles at her in his ‘glance-at-me’ way. This memory becomes ‘pressed’ in her mind ‘like our fingerprints’ in the ‘warm candlewax’ of the Todos Los Santos ceremony, a custom for remembering deceased relatives, during which she and her brother gathered ‘the soft drippings’ and ‘moulded the tallow / into tiny angels, tiny hearts’.
In later poems, these images gain greater poignancy with her brother’s advancing illness (‘I shouldn’t be like this, / salting my rice with tears’.
Though all the senses are used to evoke nostalgia, it’s taste that recurs most often (‘a certain sour-salt taste / I always long for’. In ‘My Town’ (the opening poem) the poet explores the way the Filipino diaspora, the ‘children’ of the ‘proud town’, even in their eating habits are at odds with the traditional culture and language they have left behind:
they’ll raise champagne glasses, carry crocodile-skin purses,
and, as they put olives into their mouths, they will pretend
to accidentally bite off their mother tongue.
Yet any leaving of a homeland also brings with it a feeling of loss – and foods from the birthland momentarily relocate it back within the body, the old self. Even the memory of ‘warm rain’ is described as ‘peck[ing] on our tongues’.
In the world of Rice & Rain, there is ‘no need for table / or chairs. No need for cutlery’ – just the objective correlative: food as symbol, nourishing the memory of a homeland.