Singing Beyond Melismatic Existential Questions: A Review of Marlon Hacla’s “Melismas” (translated by Kristine Ong Muslim)

Many friends and folks I have found kinship with have confided in me that they never imagined themselves beyond the age of eighteen, so once they reached that milestone, the path onward seemed totally nebulous. It’s hard to know what is on the other side. Maybe it’s because we all formed an intimate relationship with loss at an early age, losing classmates and friends before we finished high school. The summer I turned eighteen, I became hyper-aware of my own mortality, and consequently felt burdened by that awareness. I knew I was on borrowed time and I felt the urgency to use it wisely—or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I felt the imperative to use this time the “right” way or suffer the consequences for eternity. Unlike my peers, who at the time were worried about what to do with the rest of their lives (e.g. college, career, etc.), I fast-forwarded to agonizing over the afterlife.

Raised Catholic and an active member of my local church community, I was startled by my first formal religion class at the Jesuit university I attended as an undergraduate. The course, titled Sacred Scripture, forced me to reckon with the reality that, regardless of believer status, no one knew with certainty what, exactly, awaits us after death. Rather than participating in campus life or joining friends for foggy bonfires at Ocean Beach, I agonized over the limitlessness of eternity, wholly consumed by utter unknowability of something so permanent and inevitable.

The same questions that my teenage-self obsessed over are explored (much more artfully and resonantly) in Marlon Hacla’s Melismas, translated to English from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim and illustrated by Tilde Acuña. The poetic speaker articulates the same existential questions that I circled around as a teenager, with significantly more maturity and finesse in old age than I was capable of at eighteen (and even now at twenty-five). Whereas I was (and still am) brimming with restless anxiety and existential angst, the speaker in Melismas embodies a more sober tone, not romantic, or even necessarily regretful. Though still in existential anguish, the speaker commemorates the mundane aspects of earthly life and leans into the ambiguity of their fate. Hacla writes into the unknown, shining a light into the void to expose its vastness and to illuminate all the speaker does not and cannot ever know.

Melismas is a book-length poem, resembling epic poetry in some ways (e.g. length, cyclical structure), though without an obvious narrative thread or discrete beginning or end. Rather, each moment in the poem exists contemporaneously with the others as the poetic speaker (who, unlike an epic hero, is almost invisible in a way that allows the reader to enter the poem as themself) experiences them all at once, circling back to the same obsessions and ruminating on the senselessness of existence—it is as though this piece is written in a spiraling train of thought.

Many poets will attempt to engage readers by posing a question and temporarily withholding the answer, inviting readers to participate in the poem by reflecting on their own inquiries. However, by the final page of Melismas, the speaker’s questions are left open-ended. This feels true to the spirit of the poem: these things remain unknowable.

In the earlier pages, the speaker encourages the reader to ruminate on these existential questions by nestling them within shorter stanzas. These moments are usually surrounded by blank space, which allows for the reader to have more “breathing space”:

 

                  [E]ven if you leave behind a list of what has been accomplished
                  by your love, as long as we are left to rot,
                  remarkable light of our life, then what’s the use? (33)

 
 

Yet toward the end of the poem, the existential questions begin to crop up. They occur back-to-back within verses that extend over several pages, leaving little room for pause or reflection, urgent and unrelenting:

 

                      For what is this all for, if not to spread
                      love, for lubricating the lips that eulogize
                      the futures we have longed for? For peace
                      of mind, for clarity of purpose. For delaying
                      the festivities. For our small victories. (101)
 

                                                      [...] But, how would you go about
                      possessing me? How would you marry my indecision
                      with your confusion? If you were the moon and I
                      the earth, how do you propose we become one body and not be
                      destroyed? How would you distract me
                      the moment I realize that we are falling
                      in a well, that we are just flecks in the eye of hell,
                     that we are tumbling down a pit piled high with daggers, spears, cutlasses? (119)

 
 
Within only a few pages (the pages alternate between the original untranslated Filipino text and the English translations), there is a sharp turn in the speaker’s mood.  The first excerpt suggests acceptance, the speaker assigning meaning to their fleeting existence, whereas the second selection encapsulates the speaker’s spiral into doubt and dread, requiring distraction from their individual insignificance. These two disparate passages exemplify the speaker’s temperament, their mood vacillating between wistfulness and despondence.

Rather than undertaking the impossible task of addressing these unanswerable questions, the speaker is invested in reflecting on the concepts of transience and the ephemerality of earthly existence:
 
 

                                                                        [...] We become
                     the dirt encrusting all things, and like the world’s ill-use
                     of your short-lived existence, a voice instills in air its lone register,
                     calm like how the chirping song of a lost
                     bannatiran is calm, echoing way past the limits
                    of our discoveries, going over all possible paths I imagine you would have taken
                    if only you had suspected how the end was already taking us all to task. (25)
 
 
In this passage, the speaker identifies with the dirt, acknowledging with humility their insignificance. Like the echoes of the bannatiran are beyond the limits of our discoveries, the answers to questions such as “What’s the use?” (33) and “What is this all for?” (101) are outside the scope of attainable knowledge. This again signifies the speaker’s acceptance of uncertainty, though only to an extent. Still, despite the years, the speaker considers their past actions, anticipating the moment in which they will be held accountable. Furthermore, the use of the word “already” implies a predetermined fate, unavoidable regardless of the speaker’s awareness of their own march toward the inevitable, as though no alternate course of action could have led anywhere but here.

Hacla unabashedly embraces doom and gloom, and yet, this epic poem strikes a delicate balance between existential anguish and active acceptance. Hacla’s words rouse some innate anxiety within us and targets our most vulnerable selves, tender human beings subjected to the unsympathetic will of fate. Much of our incessant asking after the meaning of it all is redundant, leading us to run in circles like headless chickens: “As our voices wane / in the wilderness, time is already / mocking us” (89). And yet, the speaker in Melismas hones in on the minutiae of everyday life with reverent attention, documenting the small victories alongside the lowest of humanity. Though this work is a speck of dust in the grand cosmos, it is an invaluable offering to the universe in its audacious declaration of feelings experienced, a record of things impermanent.

 


Paula Mirando (she/her) is a queer Filipina American writer from the Bay Area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, and her writing has been supported by the Kearny Street Workshop Interdisciplinary Writers Lab, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, and Philippine American Writers and Artists. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories.