Online Journal 4: Analysis of Acosta’s ‘Walang Kalabaw sa Cubao’ and Santos’
‘The God We Worship Live Next Door’.

A head with two pairs of eyes, a set of eyebrows, lips, a nose, and two ears on the side of the head. Long haired, short haired, bald. A torso with a chest, as well as a chamber to store and digest food. Four limbs: two on the upper part of the body, two on the lower part. Five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot. Different skin colors, different eye colors, different moles on different parts of the body. Besides that, there are several organs and systems in the body itself. May or may not have every part of the body. The supposed “smartest race on Earth”. Humans. We may come in different shapes and sizes and features that would differ from person to person, but we know who or what we are.

Until we don’t.

Our appearances follow a same framework, yet for some reason we still vastly differ not just in appearances, but the way we speak, act, and think. Some of us do not have the best features or might even lack a body part or two, but they could be the sweetest and dearest people to exist on this planet. Meanwhile, some of us have the faces and the voices of an angel, but their minds and hearts side with the more Eldritch horror-like appearances of biblically accurate angels. It’s a hard pill to swallow for everyone but in truth humans can be much more vile than any other fictional monster that could exist. We can’t exactly blame them, either, as different environments nurture different people. In Ericson Acosta’s poem “Walang Kalabaw sa Cubao” and Bienvenido Santos’ “The Gods We Worship Live Next Door”, it shows us a not-so-pleasant look on humans that’s disguised in layers of figurative speech that tie together quite nicely and fit the central metaphor for each poem.

The Flitting Flies of “Walang Kalabaw sa Cubao”

Are there carabaos in Cubao? Ericson Acosta’s poem “Walang Kalabaw sa Cubao” answers this question by giving us a taste of the streets and atmosphere of Cubao, Quezon City throughout the poem, but especially in its first two stanzas. From the places referenced like the intersection of Aurora Avenue and EDSA up to the image of a seemingly lively Ali Mall and Fiesta Carnival, the poem gives off a vibe of the once-was that was in Cubao, as these landmarks aren’t the ones people would talk about nowadays.

Other than these types of imagery, Acosta also gives us several figurative language that would come across as contrasting and quite ironical in a sense that the concepts and ideas wouldn’t just serve as individual metaphors but would also work well when put beside the other verses. This is especially prevalent during the latter half of the poem when Acosta shows us an antithesis by presenting an imagery of the divine through its use of religion (Catholicism in this case) then consecutively showing an image of the corrupt which came in the form of cussing out someone the readers will never know of.

With all of these symbolisms, sceneries, and images, it begs the question: Are there actually carabaos in Cubao? Obviously, there are none. However, Cubao is the carabao. In the fifth stanza lies the carabao, one of the poem’s two central metaphors, with flies — the other central metaphor — leeching off this massive animal. The carabao sees everything, but it can’t do anything about the flies that prey upon it. Applying the analogy on real life, the poem is essentially conveying the message that the floating entity or haven that is Cubao cannot do anything about the supposed “flies” that thrive on its suffering. But who are the flies? The flies represent the concept of “rugby boys” in the Philippines — kids of poverty who have lost their way due to their circumstances that they are definitely not at fault for. The poem itself doesn’t just revolve around the carabao but these people as well: from their questionable lifestyle like having rugby, gin tonic, and jacking off as breakfast, lunch, and dinner respectively; up to the fact that their life feels so broken, flitting, and lost that you cannot sense any hope from the lines of the poem — the way it was written felt so cynical. And like how the holy imagery of chanting saints contrast the profane dialogue presented by the lines “‘tang ‘na kang hayop na hindot ka,” the flow of the poem quickly shatters whatever purity there is inside of these children due to what sort of environment they’re brought into: toxic, lifeless, uncertain, corrupt. And whatever they do or wherever they go, they will always be treated the same: subhuman, more like animals, and are shunned in society.

This poem presents a few of humanity’s greatest flaws: its hypocrisy and indifference. In society’s unfair and prejudicial minds, these kids on the slums are leeches, flies, downright parasites in their eyes. In Filipino terms, “mga palaboy, pulubi, walang kwenta, mga pasakit sa lipunan (loiterers, beggars, useless [people], a burden to society).” They will choose to shove belief systems like laws and religion to these people without thinking of the consequences and situations that people are facing. The steps to actively prevent them from letting themselves screw their lives up, however, have been so lacking that in the end can we even blame them for being born in such an unlucky circumstance? No matter how much society says what is right and wrong, it will all be futile if they did not listen nor bat an eye to the people whose lives have always been a cry of help. It’s just a sign for us, the people who have the privilege to be better, to do better and take active steps to make them realize that it’s never too late for these flies to turn into human once more.

The Malevolent Gods in “The Gods We Worship Live Next Door”

On the other hand, Bienvenido Santos’ poem “The Gods We Worship Next Door” tackles another quite hideous side of humans. Unlike Acosta’s poem, however, it’s on the other side of the spectrum in terms of the socioeconomic status of the people involved.

The poem is quite short, only having two stanzas, yet it still has a message to convey behind its layers of words. This poem also relies on imagery but instead of describing the atmosphere of a place (like Acosta’s), it gave an emphasis on its central metaphor: gods. Instead of the deities read in mythology or the gods worshipped by non-Abrahamic religions, the “gods” presented here are ones you can touch or reach, as implied by the phrase “live next door”, along with how these gods are described.

They’re brown
and how easily they catch cold sneezing
too late into their sleeves and brandishing
their arms in air.

These gods represent the upper class — a group of people that one can reach since they are humans, yet untouchable to several factors that aren’t tangible like money, power, and status. Furthermore, it is also implied that they are also Filipinos due to two factors: (1) the context of the poem, as this was written by the Filipino writer Bienvenido Santos; and (2) the more obvious reason, which is their brown-colored skin.

In Jerrold Tarog’s 2015 film “Heneral Luna”, General Luna once said, “May mas malaki tayong kalaban sa mga Amerikano–ang ating sarili.” (We have a bigger enemy than the Americans — ourselves.) Sure enough, this is especially true in the context of this poem. These so-called “gods” are not the ones recognized for their kindness and benevolence. No, these are the ones who are merciless and ruthless even towards their own countrymen. A simple three-word phrase would prove this: Fear grips us. As this poem was told in the first person point of view, this line (most specifically, the complete version of this in the poem) heavily implies that these “ gods” do something horrible to them every time they are upset with the persona (or personas) in the poem. And just like Acosta’s contrasting imagery on the pure and the corrupt, it also occurs here as the line following “Fear grips us when they frown
as they walk past our grim deformities” is suddenly put in contrast with the line “dragging with them the secret scent of love”. The concept of fearing these gods also work in contrast with the first half in the title, “The gods we worship”.

Meanwhile, the second stanza discusses more about what happens to these gods, as the persona did say quite enough for us to get an image on what’s happening to them. Since they’re not actually gods and are mortals, they die. However, since they come from the upper class and they have money, status, and power, they do not die without having a so-called legacy. They die in the most beautiful and dramatic way they could, with their opulent caskets and even having names for streets based on them. To add a cherry on top, the persona(s)’s struggles don’t end with the death of these gods, as another part of their legacy, their children, perpetuate this cycle of misery and would be called “junior gods” by the last verse of the poem.

Like Acosta’s poem, this piece also exposes some of humanity’s greatest flaws that never seemed to have been solved ever since the dawn of time, and that would be inequality. If someone reads this poem and has a gist of what Marxism is they would see the concept of class struggle even after reading only the first half of the poem due to how well the figurative language blends with the message of the piece. What’s more is that the setting, experiences, and struggles aren’t fictional — it’s real. Especially at this day and age, when information regarding the struggles of the poor are out in the open due to how accessible news is in the advent of the internet, more and more people are knowing about how much the upper class has been abusing the lower class. The final nail is the setting, which makes the piece even more relevant than it already is, even if the poem has been written more than a decade ago. From the issues regarding IPs losing their land up to the constant fight for regularization of workers, the exploitation done by the upper class has been here for months, years, and even decades now. The system is unjust, and we need to find a way to win this battle of equal rights.

Of Flies, Gods, and The Power of Choice: How It All Ties Together

In hindsight, both poems don’t have the exact same concept, yet two thoughts come into mind that ties them together: humans, and reality. These poems present societal issues, Filipino societal issues to be exact, in a way that it shows the reader these difficult situations through empathy. With its vivid imagery and colorful presentation of environments, both pieces paint a picture — an ugly picture at that — of Philippine society and humanity’s flaws in general.

It’s also interesting to note that these poems contrast each other in a way that they are two sides of the same coin. It’s fascinating to see that even though these poems are made by different authors, connections could still be made in terms of perspective and the circumstances raised in both of these poems. For one, these gods from Santos’ poem could be the ones who are also turning a blind eye in Acosta’s, and at the same time, the subtle yet awful cries for help in Acosta’s piece could also be the ones that the persona(s) felt in Santos’. The fact that both pieces take place in the society we live in just drives both points across as well. These pieces, along with the countless other literature hiding in various parts of the world, help form a bigger picture of what’s happening to humanity and at the same time amplifies the voices that are desperate to be heard.

With all these in mind, an important question has been formed: what do we do about these realities presented in the two pieces?

Generally speaking, there are two main functions of art: art for art’s sake, and art as a social movement. Both of these poems fall under the second category, as both of these pieces deliver a clear message of showing its readers the harsh reality of Philippine society, as well as how much humans could destroy themselves and other people. The purpose of both of these poems aren’t just for its readers to know what’s happening in the streets but also to do something about what’s happening in the streets. Progress isn’t made with knowledge alone, instead it is made through application of the knowledge acquired from different types of media, as well as our own environment.

Overall, Acosta’s and Santos’ poems shed light on matters that keep coming back in different forms. Both also shed light on how much we, as a race, belittle or fear ourselves much more than any other species in the world. The thing is, however, we are humans; we are not flies nor gods, and we can think for ourselves. We are in this gray area of being significant enough to know that our actions matter in this planet, yet insignificant enough to make a vast change in the grander scheme of things called the universe. Being a human also means that we have a certain ability that could turn things around when it matters the most — choice. Whoever the gods are in Santos’ poem could choose to act malevolent for the rest of their life, or they could choose to hear out these people who have been crying for all their lives. In turn, whenever the time comes and the system chooses to be better, the flies in Acosta’s poem have a choice on whether they want to be stuck in a rut forever or they could choose to live a better life for themselves and live out the dreams that only existed inside their heads. Finally, it also implies that we, who are presumably stuck in the middle area of society, could choose to be indifferent when talking about the world’s injustices, or we could choose to do our best by doing something — anything — just to make the world a better place. Regardless of where we’ve all been, how we look like, and what our interests are, one thing’s for sure: we are all humans, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to turn into the things we fear the most.

filtered out word vomits