As a librarian, when I’m asked for a recommended read by someone thirsty for tales, I instinctively direct them to the fiction stacks. I forget how poems, too, can be rich with narrative. Barbara Jane Reyes’ Diwata teems with stories. Exploring subjects like the creation of human life on earth, the phenomena of thunder and lightning, the violence that war and occupation inflict on women, and the complexity of the sea’s color, Diwata contains so much imagination and vision it’s hard to believe it’s just eighty-two pages long.
Reyes, a poet born in Manila, Philippines and currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, takes the title of her book from a word in Tagalog. The back of the book defines diwata as “a term for a mythical being who resides in nature, and whom human communities must acknowledge, respect, and appease in order to live harmoniously in this world.” Diwatas make numerous appearances in Reyes’ poems, in some cases as the narrator, in others, as one situated in a temporally or spatially remote place, or one residing close by, implored by the poet to speak. In “Crossing,” a diwata visits a hunter in her sleep and helps her to cross a bridge between herself and her ancestors.
Among the themes that run through this book are the complications of human intimacy. The title of the first poem, “A Genesis of We, Cleaved,” uses a word that has two opposite meanings: to come together and to separate. Reyes writes in cleverly lyrical language in “Eve’s Aubade”: “Here I shall weave a selvedge of we.” In fiber art, a selvedge is an edge that keeps a work from fraying. This implies a woven-togetherness between the speaker and the beloved. And yet, a selvedge also suggests an edge, a deliberate marking off of where one ends and another begins.
The poems in Diwata are written in a range of forms, with some longer pieces like “The Fire, Around Which We All Gather” exploring a prose poem structure, and others, like “Polyglot Incantation,” juxtaposing lines in Tagalog, Spanish, and English. “The Villagers Sing of the Woman Who Becomes a Wave Who Becomes the Water Who Becomes the Wind” cleverly employs a braided pantoum pattern, mimicking the shapeshifting of the poem’s subject.
Reyes ends her collection with a stark and striking short poem, “Aswang,” presumably in the voice of a diwata. The speaker names herself “the bad daughter, the freedom fighter, the shaper of death masks,” and in the last line, says, “Upend me, bend my body, cleave me beyond function. Blame me.” Here, we are confronted as humans who all too often use myths to perpetuate violence. We are left with a voice that insists against the misuses of mythology, a voice that will haunt us. This is an outsider voice of a deity misunderstood, a woman misunderstood, whose stories we must try harder to hear.