The Pendulum Stops


Umberto Eco is dead.

Just the other day while washing dishes, I remembered Casaubon and Belbo sitting in the pub and I wondered why Umberto Eco’s stories stick to my mind like they were real.

I still remember that Christmas vacation when I read ‘The Name of the Rose’ for the first time. It was such a delightful experience that from then on, every year, I undertook great pains to find a book of the same caliber to be my Christmas reading. Every year, nearing September or October, I google the phrase ‘books like the name of the rose’ and pick myself one title out of the many suggestions of other people who, unsurprisingly, have thought of the same question. And then I would wait patiently for Dec 25 to come so I can open the first page of that book. I never ask gifts of anyone, nor think about them at all. I only ask God to grant me a repeat of that original pleasure. Christmas-time has come to mean having an Umberto Eco-ish experience.

From Umberto Eco, I also learned the pleasure of making lists. Some days I open drawers at home just to see their random contents and to list them down. I have a notebook for various lists now: what things end up in a small round container, in an old cookie box, in a desk drawer, in the kitchen caddy, in my husband’s toolbox, in the bin by the door, what is that thick pile of paper called ‘junk mail’ actually composed of. He taught me to think minutely, and to be mindful of the random.

And then also, on certain midnights or in the wee hours, I am wishing I could go and walk through the empty city streets. Just this morning, I woke up before sunrise and pulled the drapes to find Jupiter alone in the cloud-infested sky. Everything was dark blue and black, and pinpricks of yellow light, and silence. I wanted to put on my shoes and walk about, but remembered that unlike Umberto Eco, I am a woman and there probably isn’t a more fool-hardy thing that I can do. I contented myself on staring at the quiet through the window, wishing for the time when I could be as free as that man to step outside and chase the memory of the day that is fading.

Now that man is gone. The nimble, sprightly mind whose ramblings my pathetic, feeble intellect could not half-understand. It’s just so sudden. For one mind to be so alive and prolific, his ideas giving birth to other ideas, and then to cease talking abruptly and forever.

Umberto Eco is unlike my other favorite authors who focus entirely on the human heart, on compassion and kindness. Many people think his books ugly or unreadable. He was an academic but he is vital to us, our generation and our art, because he tried to help us understand how we think, the process by which we accept concepts, invent stories, verify history, and name things. He held up a mirror to us, making us see that blind spot which we often miss even as we hold various mirrors to our faces: Steinbeck’s, Orwell’s, Faulkner’s, Kerouac’s, Achebe’s, etc etc. He crossed the divide. Rarely could a literary critic be an author himself. Rarely could a philosopher be a novelist.

There are some vain, misguided writers who label themselves ‘Intellectual’ (yes, they label their own selves, I have heard it). Funnily, they cannot even begin to approach the brain activity of a sleeping Umberto Eco –

who, sadly, now sleeps forever.

Except when we read him, in which case, the pendulum swings alive again. At least in our minds where he remains suspended in time.

Tasting God



She had just come from church, her fingers
numb with shock at the brittleness of God
and that disintegrating quality of His

that popped in her mouth, and her ten devilish
tongues were ravenous for bright scandal.
Outside Gloria’s Antiques where one

could trace the beginning of time, it called
to her: the odor of souls that never quite
made it to their graves, a scent fringed

with mothballs and 1950s pomade.
The doorway was curtained with capiz shells,
falling like rain about her shoulders,

drizzling white decibels. Inside,
her fingers strolled until they met the cold
snouts of piggy banks embossed with ‘Coke’

and broken teeth of old ladies’ shell combs.
Pocket knives, the slits of their eyes rusty
with dreams of wartime Leyte, refused

to open to her. But then between her thumb
and forefinger she felt beads with tiny faces–
of roses– the kind Father Francis placed

between her fingers. From somewhere
secret wafted the scent of mangoes, bleeding
their sunshine dry on summer doilies.

She felt laced veils billowing, eyelets
peering at her. Big discs with metal chains,
as silent as time. Then with a bump of her

arm, a music box sprung open to a song.
Coins tumbled from their tidy perches: loud,
silvery rings sounding, sounding at her feet.

She knelt on the ground, searching
with her hands, as above the ballerina
twirled. They were solid, heavy,

did not shatter in her palm.
She paused: it must be God.
She longed to put one on her tongue.

Jimmy saw it all on the CCTV.
Oy! he cried. She looked in his direction.
Her eyes, lantern-like.

© Cybonn Ang

This poem was first published in Summer/Fall 2015 issue of the Naugatuck River Review.

Art, Identity & Oblivion: My Reading Notes on Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions

Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions is a story about the struggle between identity and oblivion, and because sometimes oblivion is intentional, the active annihilation of an ego.  It is a novel about death and memory, which memories survive and why and how. There is something very homey in Paul Auster’s words. Something cozy in his sentences and paragraphs. They feel like old, warm clothing I can wear comfortably and walk around in. I can’t stop reading. Although it is not action-oriented, the book is a page-turner.  I like listening to the voice of the narrator. I have to catch the bus now and go home and cook dinner, but I don’t want to drop the book.


Quick Summary:

David Zimmer is a literature professor who is at the brink of losing his mind and his will to live after his wife and two sons die in a plane crash. He spends his days wasted on the couch. One night, something on TV unexpectedly makes him break out into a laugh — a real, sincere, mirthful, albeit coy laughter. It was a comedy sketch by an old silent films actor named Hector Mann. David finds a ray of hope in this unexpected delight that bubbles up in him.  Perhaps it is possible for him to live again. To fill in the empty hours, he embarks on a personal quest to find all the films of Hector Mann. It is a difficult thing to do as most of Mann’s work has been lost. The actor himself vanished without a trace in the 1920s. However, he discovers that an anonymous donor has been recently mailing some of the old films to one organization or another. David tracks these films from one museum to the next. His obsession finally leads him to write a book about Hector Mann’s life. Because nothing much had been written about the actor since his disappearance, David’s book becomes the pre-eminent source of information about Mann’s life and David himself a sort of go-to guy in matters relating to Hector Mann. Finally, David looks as if he can restart his life again. He signs a contract to translate Chateaubriand’s memoirs which he dives into with much relish. His quiet life and his precarious sanity, however, is interrupted by a letter from Hector Mann’s wife who says that Hector loves David’s biography so much and would David please come and visit Hector. David does not know if it is a cruel joke or a con job. From here on, the mystery that shrouded the disappearance of Hector Mann is unraveled, and with the revelations come explosive questions about art, memory, and the life of an artist.  

My Notes:

Page 38-39: “When every card in the deck is stacked against you, the only way to win a hand is to break the rules.”

“…[Hector Mann] spoke with a heavy Spanish accent, and the moment he opened his mouth on-screen, American audiences would reject him.”

The world is still like this, isn’t it? If you’re an immigrant and a job-seeker, employers still recoil at your accent over the phone. A friend, who is white and has a western name, once told me that headhunters are convivial with her until they hear her speak.

Page 39-40: On Mr. Nobody movie plot: “He has been murdered but no one has had the courtesy or the thoughtfulness to kill him.”

Page 49: Hector looks on with grim insouciance.  

Page 57: “…to inhabit those black, depersonalized interiors was to understand that the world was an illusion that had to be re-invented every day.”

Someday I shall be merely bones myself. In this café, in this world, people will go on moving, busy, preoccupied, with the energy and the anxiety and the enthusiasm and the absent-mindedness of living, and I will not be here to witness it. I will be away, tucked into the earth, quiet, mere bones.

It reminds me of Marcus Aurelius who wrote: “The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him every one will himself soon be dead also, and in course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched. Furthermore, even supposing that those who remember you were never to die at all, nor their memories to die either, yet what is that to you? Clearly, in your grave, nothing; and even in your lifetime, what is the good of praise unless maybe to subserve some lesser design? Surely, then, you are making an inopportune rejection of what Nature has given you today, if all your mind is set on what men will say of you tomorrow.” (Meditations)

Page 88-89: “…a plausible approach in 1920s America, but without the body to back up the hypothesis, the police investigation began to flounder.”

At page 90, I ask myself why I am so interested in this book, why I’m reading Paul Auster’s narration of a suicidal professor recounting the life of a fictional silent comedian. My answer is: it is pleasurable. At this point, I understand the narrator’s pleasure as well in diving into the life of Hector Mann to escape the grief of his own life – much like how we immerse ourselves inside the pages of a good mystery novel and forget the things that we must face.

Page 105: “You wrote an extraordinary book, Mr. Zimmer. No one is ever going to write better about those films. It’s the definitive work.”

NOTE, TECHNICAL: Part of the reason that the author included that long section about Hector Mann – the films, the actor, the analysis – is so that we would find it believable, acceptable that Alma Grund would go to him instead of film scholars.

NOTE, TECHNICAL: Asking myself questions that an author would probably face while writing a similar story: Should the main character be a film professor? Or a literature professor? He could not be a film professor, because then he would have known about Hector Mann earlier in his career, and the whole story would have to change – or bits of it in every place. I should remember this for when I need to decide questions like these myself. I should respect the basic parameters of the story. They may be basic, but they are there.

Page 108: Alma pulls out a gun and the narrator goes into a trance.

NOTE, TECHNICAL: The Alma Grund intro scene is a BIG scene. To make it big, the author had to drum up to that moment – hence the movie, the Korean restaurant, the rain, the dog, the accident, the lost keys. On one hand, it changes the pace of David’s narration, gives us a distraction, much like how a magician draws our attention to something else, before pulling a rabbit out of his hat; and on the other hand, he also priming up his character (giving him reason to feel tired, angry, frustrated) so that by the time Alma Grund comes, he is sufficiently wound up and uncooperative, making way for a natural complication. Without complication, the scene where Alma is introduced would be boring. Another reason for his uncooperativeness is Hector’s wife’s (Frieda Spelling) month-long silence. So David is now uncooperative, angry, and also mortally afraid because he needs to get on a plane. He is afraid to get on a plane not because he is afraid that he would die, but that he is going to live, that nothing will happen to him just as nothing happens to millions of other people who fly everyday, and therefore hammer into him the senselessness of his wife’s and sons’ deaths. So when he says, “It’s against my religion”, he is almost being truthful.

Page 208: “As far as I know, Hector is the first artist to make his work with the conscious, premeditated intuition of destroying it. There’s Kafka, of course, who told Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, but when it came to the decisive moment, Brod couldn’t go through with it. But Frieda will.”

Page 211: “No one makes pictures without wanting others to see them. It just isn’t done. What is the point of putting film in the camera, then?”

Alma reveals that Hector has been alive all this time. She relays Hector’s life story to David, a story she herself received from Hector. The actor had run away after a costly mistake of his caused the deaths of his fiance and lover. He vowed never to act again. He traveled around, doing some very odd jobs, until he met and married Frieda Spelling, a wealthy woman who encouraged him to make movies again. Husband and wife entered into a pact to make films but never show them to anyone. They would be pure artists, making films for the sake of making films, not for glory nor fame, not even for an audience. Alma takes David to a remote ranch where Hector and Frieda live, and where she herself grew up, being a daughter of Hector’s close friend and camera man. Her own mother was an actress who starred in the many secret films produced on the ranch. It seems that Hector now wants to opt out of his agreement with his wife. Something in him is fighting against this anonymity to which he had condemned himself. He wants to meet David and grant David access to his missing work and life story. Alma herself is writing a book about Hector’s life. She is the mysterious art donor who has been mailing Hector’s old movies to the various museums and libraries in order to keep the memory of him alive.

To confine art purely within the immediate world of the artist, to remove the possibility, the idea of audience, at once makes art pure and indulgent. Artists long for that freedom, like we long for death. This freedom aids in creation, in making certain that the voice that comes out is the artist’s alone, unsullied by the world. But after the work has been made, it is difficult for any artist to stay faithful to this oath to oblivion. There is always something in the artist that wants to survive. The work itself wants to survive, like a tiny flower breaking out of a crack in the pavement. And once born from its creator, who’s to say whether a work still belongs its creator, a part of his life which he could or could not compromise, and not something that is alive apart from himself?

But what is the significance of this handing down of stories? From one person to another and to another? (Hector to Alma, Alma to David the Narrator, David the Narrator to me [the reader], and me to my friend L. …which I actually did in Café X on Saturday. I transmitted the whole story to my friend L., just as Alma did to David.) Two people, trying to tell the story of Hector Mann, a man who would not tell his own story.

Page 227: “I liked being there and I liked sitting down at the long wooden table next to Alma and feeling her touch my arm in the same spot where Hector had touched me only a moment before. Two different gestures, two different memories – one on top of the other. My skin had become a palimpsest of fleeting sensations, and each layer bore the imprint of who I was.”

NOTE PAGE 302-303: (SPOILER ALERT! –> ) Hector dies and Frieda burns everything, even Hector’s old journals which had nothing to do with the movies, thereby erasing Hector himself. Hector had tried to erase himself but Frieda does a thoroughly better job, she extinguishes him.

Why would Frieda extinguish a man she loves? Because she identifies with her task, her work, just as every artist identifies with their work. And she must see it to completion. So while it was her love for Hector that made her convince him to do movies again, it is a love that she gives up in favor of her love for her work. The story talks about how and why and when we walk away from our art, or from the ones we love. Hector initially walked away from his art because he could not bear to be ‘free’ as an artist knowing that he caused someone’s death. When faced with his own death, he ratifies his love for his art. He chooses himself. But Frieda chooses her art. She walks away from Hector and commits herself to her own vision.

Alma, meanwhile, is someone who fights against the forgetting. She herself is incapable of annihilating anyone else (hence the gun incident), and that’s why she kills herself when she finds out that she had killed Frieda. Alma is killed by her own hand yes, but by the circumstances too – trying to push against someone who was trying to annihilate her and her work.  In a way, that is all she has ever learned at the ranch: erasing yourself when you can’t face your problem. They all ran away from their problems. It is not just an inheritance of stories but an inheritance of annihilation – the consequence of all those stories, and Alma’s immersion in them.

The strange thing is that in the end it is Hector Mann who wants to live, who could not go through with the idea of leaving no trace. It’s as if at the gates of death, he forgives his soul and accepts his penance of a lifetime of self-denial and abdication. There is always something in the artist that wants to survive. Even if the mind wants to put an end to the body (like in the case of so many writers and artists), the soul remains quite effervescent and above it all. It always strives to leave a trace, to leave an echo of its voice in the world. It reminds me of what Faulkner said: “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

Could this voice be David Zimmer as well? The one puny inexhaustible voice still telling and retelling the story, passing to us what has been passed on to him as well. We know that David Zimmer lived on after his experience. It’s as if the stories of other people’s deaths and encountering the frightening concept of oblivion gave him new energy to engage life.

After-thought: It is also telling that David Zimmer was translating the memoirs of Chateaubriand when he was called to the ranch by Hector. Chateaubriand, the man who lived many lives. I wonder what would have happened to David if Hector had not shown up and if he had continued on his translation work? Would he have emerged from his depression and isolation? Would Chateaubriand have given him a way back out into the world, like Ariadne’s thread out of the maze?  Or was it a close encounter with death and oblivion that David needed in order to shock his system into living again?

*Page numbers are from the Faber and Faber 2002 paperback edition.


Give Me Dostoevsky

Give me Dostoevsky and seven
thousand one hundred islands.
I would gladly strand myself in every one.
What’s a ship wrecked to an anchored soul?
My faith is a dried up mustard seed.
I do not understand anything.

I have tea to drink as much as I want.
I don’t have to write out the night
under the whip of the melting wax.
I have a good pair of pants and six more
washed and pressed. I never spilt
a bottle of ink and cursed my
carelessness, and counted how many
words would have been the equivalent.
My faith is a dried up mustard seed.
I do not understand anything.

I’ve never had the grave to my back,
the gun to my face, the undertakers nearby.
I have never been spared: I’ve never dared.
I’ve never lain in a room without heating. Never.

(Save through a very mild winter, lying blanketless.)
(And there were some summers without bread.)
(And once my big toe poked through a hole
in my shoe, and I was forbidden to play.)
(And I had one egg for lunch.)
I have never lain in a room without heating. Never.

Although I have my own suffering, and I walk
through St. Petersburg with him,
with bare hands warming in the pockets,
and the cold coming in through the high
hemline of my pants. And the ripples
of the Neva are like the wrinkles on my forehead.
The day comes they are frozen solid.

And I place my bets with my prayers
on the same altar. And I hide my face
from friends many times, and with my
hidden eyes glance at their naked hearts.
And I have often: counted money,
counted words. And though
on the balance sheet they sit and
cross out each other, there is no such
sheet in my head where they converge.
I do not understand anything.

I will go back to my home.
To the seven thousand one hundred islands.
Where I am wrecked and cannot swim.
My faith is a dried up mustard seed.
I do not understand anything.

© Cybonn Ang

The Punch

His head hit the pavement and he died.

He did not mean to, he said. He got angry.
There was too much force, too much energy –
he kept them like wild pets,
fed and quiet and away from the guests –
until they pounced out of his fists,
and the rest is now history.

His head hit the pavement and he died.

He is looking at seven years of jail,
maybe ten, if the judge thinks of that trouble
from three years ago as a sign
that his nature is to do it again and again.
He’s looking at 91 hundred days of therapy.

His head hit the pavement and he died.

He did it for the woman – she whose face
is now covered in Kohl – peering over
death, at how her own flammable nature
could turn a man into ash, still and
frightened at her power.

His head hit the pavement and he died.

The thing with death is that he never comes
to the same door again.
Once he touches a soul, it is gone.
He does not turn back with a wave
so that one could signal and say, Wait,

you got the wrong message.
And he could then apologize and lay
the soul back into place.

His head hit the pavement and he died.

Over and over, he relives that dawn
which truly was the dusk of his soul.
That road, that alley, that door,
from which night came out
without asking for pardon.

His head hit the pavement and he died.

But he is still alive, and in the next forty years
will live only one day, over and over.

© Cybonn Ang

Winter Solstice, 2013

The evening boulevard is slick from the rain.
One or two cars drive past, stirring
the water into a sea-spray.
On the side of the road, under streetlamps,
cabbies sit alone in their taxis waiting for fare.

Meanwhile, by the lavender bush, two lovers
whisper through paper cups,
kissing coffee under the moonlight.
He is cold and wears a beanie.
Her hand is deep in her jacket.
Beside them, the cafe folds to a close.

The newly arrived laugh and dance on the road–
taking photos, singing–
two plane rides away from home.
On a bench, a man sits
under the dome of an umbrella.
Still and content.

It will never be this night again, don’t you see?
Everything that is here, right now, will never be
all of them again.

© Cybonn Tan Ang


I slept with him.
His name was Vulcan.

He ate air and water.
He blew a fire through

the Sierra Corazon.

I awoke with my hair in his mouth.
His breath in my lungs.

His fingers full in my furnace.
Everywhere, the smell of fire.

For days, the lightning lived in my eyes –
my eyes blazed heavy and red.

My breasts beaconed
like twin Venuses.

I gazed on him
with all the melancholy of Moses.

But one day, he left.
Like all fires do.

A pinprick of cold white blue
fading in the changed, charcoaled wind.

Leaving the chair where he sat,
black-boned. The kettle, holed

and still on heat. The trees, the fence,
the yard, all charred.

The sheets on the line,
stained and crayoned with night.

Now all that I own is
red-orange memory.

I am black as deadwood.
I am all ember and ash.

No one can set me on fire.

© Cybonn Ang

First published in the Vine Leaves Literary Journal, January 2014.
Re-printed in the Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2014.

Revelry On A Mountainside

Ours is the world.
Standing here on the hilltop
we make our dances
on our own.
We’re free to revel,
to recount,
to sit and watch
the storms.
We’re free to point
and say, “hey, look!”
Free like children loosed
on non-earthly

Step after step
we climb,
and make our own home.
I look at the wonders
on my level
with binoculars
and hear you comment,
“We’ll fly much higher
than crows.”

© Cybonn Tan Ang
Published in the Philippine Graphic Magazine, 2 March 1998 and 6 April 1998.


red sea

i placed my foot on the shore, but the sea did not part for me.

the grey blue mass that was the sky, and the grey blue mass that was the sea, pressed against each other and the flesh of my skin was the dead arm of an oak, damp and soft and without sons.

i was never told that the sky was not above, and that the sea was not far, and that the wind was blue and was corpus and soul of them both.

and my head covered in black hair was so small and striking and i could not make a single rope out of my thoughts.

the fish are blue. and i don’t have gills. the herons are blue. and i don’t have wings. the mollusks are blue, swirled with Saturn. and i am the color of birch.

ravens, out of the circle of the sun’s eye, hovered with their curses again and again.

i lifted my arms to wade. my arms, against the corpulent wind. but the sea struck my legs. and i was forbidden to see the color of the ocean sand. but the sea turtles summoned their days.

The mountain is of the earth, but its head is in the sky. And its breath is blue. And its eye is white. And its eye is on the fringes of the sea. And the fringes of the sea look at my feet. And they disdain to part for me.

© Cybonn Tan Ang

First published in the Vine Leaves Literary Journal, January 2014.
Re-printed in the Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2014.

God, Give Us Some Water

God, give us some water,
if you please.
A raindrop
for each tongue.

All these artesian wells,
the cokes, the beers
that everyone sells,
have stuck to my throat
like rugby and caramel.

We have sat in this bar
for three nights,
my friend and I.
I know you want us
to stick out the tongue.

It feels a little crazy,
don’t you think?
A little too embarrassing.
A little too desperate.

God, just
give us some water.
A raindrop
for each mouth.
The beer is getting to me.
And I am dying of caramel.

© Cybonn Tan Ang
Published in the Philippine Graphic Magazine, 2 March 1998 and 6 April 1998.