Telemachy by R.A. Villanueva

It is sometimes only when we look back, that we see how strange a situation we were once in. In the mid-to-late 90s, within a few months, I was giving a talk and seminar at the World Bank in Washington then on the other side of the world, running a workshop on a beach with local fishermen in Cebu Province in the Philippines.

The common thread was social development; the Bank were interested in new ways to measure the effectiveness of aid interventions, whilst in the Philippines, working with the organisation the Philippine Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (PhilDHRRA), we were trying to strengthen local organisations entry into a global market created by the Washington consensus, the negative impact of which was being felt by small scale farmers and fishermen. I’m still not sure if either of these ‘interventions’ was the right thing. However, the experience of working in the Philippines for a short time, has never left me. The privilege of working with and befriending local people is probably the only way a foreign person is able to really see a country.

RAVillanueva (photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

I am reminded of this experience when reading RA Villanueva’s brilliant collection, Reliquaria that has a number of poems from his heritage in the Philippines. But the thoughts are not solely because of my personal experience, but more widely of the influence of the ‘foreign’ on traditional ways, in this case Catholicism, Spanish and American influence in the country. In Ron’s poem, Telemachy, the setting is partly in the Philippines, the birthplace of his father, “My father and his classmates/liked the air raid drills best… He imagined pilot/passing over the Philippine Sea,/scanning the open fields/for resistance”, but as the title suggests references Ancient Greek mythology of martyrdom, gladiatorial contests “Saint Telemachus/bleed for us/into the arena floor,/its crushed sand, its lions halved.” and other ‘pursuits’ of children (this time in China and the Kill Sparrow War begun in 1957), “Peking boys each morning/called to the nest-trees/with trumpets, their slingshots/aimed at the flocks,” all within the realm of family and religion.

Ron explains a little behind the poem and the collection as a whole. “There is broad and profound grace cast upon the poems by the Philippines and its traditions, but there’s also a want to leap and warp through histories and places plural. These aren’t simply postcards from SE Asia or quiet, descriptive studies of life around Manila; there are hauntings here of many kinds and many times—ghosts and spirits and legacies. “Telemachy” is, perhaps, an example of that. I was re-reading a translation of Homer’s Odyssey and I became preoccupied with Telemachus, his journey, his relationship to his father’s life and death, and the various valances of their names. There is—I hope—a searching across the sections of this poem (and, for sure, Reliquaria as a whole), a wandering through how boys and men, fathers and sons, faiths and doctrines touch each other. Sometimes with great violence; sometimes with great tenderness.”

R.A. Villanueva’s debut collection of poetry, Reliquaria (U. Nebraska Press, 2014), won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. New writing appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Prac Crit (UK), The Wolf (UK), and widely elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn and London.




Patron of the head
freed from the neck
the new year’s feasts
and burials,

martyr of good arms
casting their stones,

benefactor of scattered wheals
like lagoons along the thigh,

Saint Telemachus
bleed for us

into the arena floor,
its crushed sand, its lions halved.


After first communion I pose
by the sacristy, beneath a crucifix
of unfinished pine. I am wearing
a suit that rips at the armpits.

My father parts my hair to the left,
combs through with pomade,
presses down with his palms.


My father never heard
of the Kill Sparrow War
in his province–

Peking boys each morning
called to the nest-trees
with trumpets, their slingshots
aimed at the flocks,

red banners tied
to pots and spits. Knuckle-
bones into eggs, ladles
against prayer bells

and the birds

with nowhere to alight,
all falling from the sky
with little sound,

their hearts damp
fireworks going off
in their chests.


Thoughtful Telémakhos
knew nothing of scars

or the ramping boar, its tusk
caught in his father’s leg
above the knee just missing
the bone

What he knows
are tremors

His father’s arms
pressed into his
before the Test.

His father’s voice
a black ship
sealed with pitch.


My father and his classmates
liked the air raid drills best
and would cheer the sirens
while they marched single-file
beneath the school house

posts. He imagined pilots
passing over the Philippine Sea,
scanning the open fields
for resistance, checking masks
for leaks, unable to read him

there in the dirt, flicking
anthills with his fingers,
pulling up grass by its roots.


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