Rarely do we meet a short story in verse, one of the least attempted among literary genres. It’s kind of like a sphinx or a griffin or our own tikbalang, a crusader creature that makes the most of both sides in its singularly unique way, not entirely here or there, this or that.
This is what Michellan Sarile-Alagao is trying with Black, published by 8Letters Bookstore & Publishing.
With its 66 thin pages with 13 separately titled parts of an extended poem with a central premise, it impresses with its intricate narrative structured like a chain of motley verses in an intriguing investigation.
In an informative blurb from the back cover, DLSU Professor Emeritus of Literature, Dr. Marjorie Evasco, writes:
“Michellan Sarile-Alagao’s training in criminology and literature is evident in the narrator of the verse novel Black, who is engaged by scion L. of the characters involved in the death of the 68-year-old family patriarch. The spinner-investigator hired by Alagao begins with the judgment that the rich brazenly lie through their teeth, and knows that lies can be built into a story anyone would believe. This narrator-protagonist doesn’t just show us the five different types of questions (and their limits) to get to the truth. Introductory figure of this family – “scenographer, assistant storyteller” – the narrator also delivers a satirical social criticism of the country’s oligarchy – old rich families who act as if they were outlawed, and who would do anything, even murder, to maintain their wealth and power among their fellows.
The mystery behind the murder is at the heart of the story. For a novel in verse is a story – here of a family relationship called not so much to serve Hercule Poirot whose clever deductions ultimately point to the butler, or in this case the butler, but to find the central story. It can be invented, as long as it is being said publicly by the collective voice of the family.
However, this is not the only configuration that the poet must invent or solve. Technically, what distinguishes the verse novel from prose or a short story? What is it that delimits the lines of a stanza other than as arbitrarily cut fragments of what might otherwise be read as simple sentences?
These are the challenges and the risks that the poet takes, other than the need to be cunning to reveal the imagination, to unravel the discoveries in the exhibition.
First, she inserts fragments that also define the character “I”.
“My rich old grandmother said / women don’t need education. / They just need to be pretty. // Then she would turn off my alarm clock / so that I miss school. / But I was not pretty. / So I studied a lot of things. Especially death.
Then she leaves the other characters with their individual voices, like the girl (unica hija): “The men in this family are weak / overshadowed / by the dynamism of our women. / But I guess they are strong, / able / to support all of us.
Typographic quirks are enlisted in the form of graphic lines of worms, producing words as an image pattern, as when L. and the I-persona ascend “past / closed rooms / and up the stairs” in reverse diagonal fashion , that is, from the lowest line up. The visual trick is repeated when L. describes how the hysterical butler picked him up and ran down the same stairs to find the body.
Some of the titled parts (like “Interlude 1” and “Grandson”) are typographically presented as incessant prose, not even as a prose poem, but in straight paragraphs without any slant for line breaks, and unmistakably read as tests.
In his turn during the interrogation, the grandson presents a multi-player video game.
Sci-fi films (plus musical epics) are served in “Interlude Two” – a walkthrough on interrogation tactics that begins with: “There are five types of questions: forced-choice, open-ended, multiple, main and specific. -firm.”
She’s a fascinating voice, although you can’t be sure who exactly it is that sounds almost disembodied and yet shows everyone, maybe even the professional interviewer herself, with a tutorial. masterful.
A children’s story is told in poem form, by the victim himself, and given to his granddaughter hours before he is murdered.
The speculative version of the mayordoma mentions a tikbalang as part of the mythical history of the family, in fact the fortuitous source of its wealth. With its staggered lines like broken streams of consciousness and memory, it illuminates the division of classes with a lesson from the Master: that the rich are traditional but not superstitious; “They have faith / of some sort. // Anyone else / offends them.
The patterns of speech, idiolects and inflections are suitably varied.
And the house brings its own voice, for the shorter part called “The Whispering House”: “Once, late at night / I told L. that his house / Whispered.” / ‘What does she say?’ / He asked. / Different things. // But above all // she is crying.
Then there are the successive takes of a social columnist on an eventologist nicknamed the Enchantress.
When the penultimate part, titled “Ending”, returns to the voice of the investigative narrator, a summary is expected. A stanza says:
“Should I have told L. the truth?” / Some people want change / some don’t. / All those who are old / are not frozen / Some want to re-tune their world / transform suffering into a symphony / futility into praise.
The mystery remains. Is the cosplay puzzle supposed to stay airtight? Do we decipher the heroglyphs by reading between the lines of the fantasy come true, or vice versa? Or is the ploy simply meant to elevate the reader to a level of intrigue that fits the usual perception of poetry as a hard nut to crack?
For what it’s worth, I say the Whispering House did it.
Sarile-Alagao is a book editor, freelance writer and educator. She has been a member of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop as well as the IYAS La Salle National Writers Workshop. She has completed her BSc. in Criminology and Psychology from London Metropolitan University and his MA in Creative Writing from De La Salle University in Manila. She is the author of two previous collections of poetry: After the Sunstone (2016) and Maps of Tenderness (a chapbook, 2018).