by Ophelia A. Dimalanta
The last time Ma’am Ophie and I talked was on Oct. 26 when we met at her office at the old Center for Creative Writing and Studies. It was a meeting that was both fortunate and unfortunate: fortunate because it would turn out to be our last, and I would be able to hang on to the freshest memory of her last days, and unfortunate because regrettably on my part, she had been the one to force the meeting on me: she had long wanted to talk to me but I kept on deferring because of other deadlines, other pressing concerns. In fact, the meeting should have taken place a week earlier, except that I had failed to keep the appointment, so she reset it the next week. By then, I had no choice but to make up for my absence previously and come to the appointed time. The meeting was, in a manner of speaking, our swan song together as earthly friends; except that, as Neruda found out when he was a child, “swans don’t sing when they die.”
Ma’am Ophie had wanted to talk to me about the book we were doing together for a planned opera by UST in connection with its 400th anniversary next year: a musical on the life of Miguel de Benavides, the Dominican friar and Manila archbishop who established UST in the 17th century. With Dean Raul Sunico of the UST Conservatory, we had been commissioned by the UST Quadricentennial Programs Committee led by Fr. Isidro Abano, O.P. to cobble up an opera on the life and work of the UST founder. I had written the sequence by sequence treatment of the projected two-act play from which she built the book of the musical drama.
She had submitted the first draft of the book to the Rector who promptly read it and sent back his comments, among which was that he had found “discomforting” the beginning of the first act which tries to personify or embody the temptations that Benavides may have gone through as a young man. One of the personifications of the temptations is a character named Maria del Carne, literally Carnal Maria or Maria of the Flesh. The completely fictional –and therefore unhistorical—device was my making and it is there – Ma’am Ophie completely agreed – to somehow illustrate the temptations that any idealistic young person like the youthful Benavides undergoes as part of one’s s soul-searching, one’s search for one’s vocation and destiny in life. In Ophie’s lyrics, Maria del Carne sings: “I am your most basic desire, most biological and therefore most human. Our bodies attest to this. Our bodies are deities. Therefore, I sing the body electric, the body deified. Therefore, let us worship our bodies.”
In his comments on the draft of the opera, Father Rector said he was “afraid that the personification of Fray Benavides’ desires might hurt the sensibilities of some priests and even lay persons who revere the good Dominican priest.” Ma’am Ophie was clearly agonizing over the comment and asked me if we had to remove the episode on the temptress. But I told her, half jokingly, “Pero kailangan ng sex and violence and all the good things life is made of for the opera to be interesting. If it’s not sexy, it’s not Ophie! Besides, how could you kill off Maria del Carne eh ikaw ‘yun? You’re Carnal Mary!”
Of course, she protested. (“I’m not Carnal Mary, ano! I’m Carnal Ophelia!”) She had long blamed me for perpetuating what she called the popular fiction that her poetry is profane and its composer, necessarily a profaner and all-around harlot. I protest that! Just last night, National Artist F. Sionil Jose said that Ophie “wrote with her ovaries.” But admittedly that notoriety has some basis, especially when her erotic poetry is taken into account. Reportedly since I started spreading that lie around in the late 1980’s, it had stuck with her in the new millennium when she was already in her seventies. So that up to her death last week, she should have been the oldest living erotic poet in the world.
Which should lead us now to the matter of her real age. Last night top writers delivered their eulogies, and it might as well have been “Laglagan Night.” F. Sionil Jose said Ophie would not admit it but she belonged to his generation; they were contemporaries. Another National Artist, Bienvenido Lumbera, said Ophie was ahead of him by one year at the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. But however her denials and subterfuges, Ophie indeed looked young for her age (which was around 80!). She didn’t seem to have been prone to the wages of old age: a slipping memory, a loss of creativity, and a relaxation of vanity, especially the last. In fact, she kept her real age to herself, closely guarding it as if it were the mythical fountain of youth. As most in the know about Ophie here knows, her real age has been a matter of intense debate. It is without a doubt one of the key bones of contention in contemporary Philippine literature. With her passing, she somehow settles the debate: What her real age is, she takes with her to the grave.
Perhaps it should be that way. Why lose hair over Ophie’s grey hair? We should remember her as forever young in spirit, a woman ever ageless, ever green, the woman of her most famous poem, “Montage”—“a jewel durably ensphered in mist,/ Old gold etched in ever-emerging shades.”
Looking back now, I find the last time I met Ophie pregnant with premonitions that the end was near for her. During the meeting, I noticed a new painting hanging in her wall: the reproduction of Joey Velasco’s famous painting, “Hapag ng Pag-asa.” (It’s the mural of Jesus Christ breaking bread with street urchins.) When I saw the reproduction and expressed wonder why a religious image hanged in the office of a woman who wrote obscene poetry, Ophie recalled the visit of the painter, who had been brought to her office by UST’s resident doctor-artist, Doc Dan Lerma. Velasco, according to Lerma, had been a fan of Ophie and would like to pay her homage. Pleased and delighted, Ophie hung the painting in a very conspicuous part of her office, near one of the doors. When I saw it, I quickly remembered Joey and felt a pang of grief since I had known him, had been close to him somehow in my capacity as arts editor of the Inquirer, and he had died only last July because of a lingering ailment. Then I noticed another painting, A Kind of Burning, a visual depiction of the famous poem by Ophie by one of our CFAD professors. Although the poem is really a thinly veiled erotic poetry—it is really about love that burns forever because it is unconsummated—the image and the verses somehow exuded spiritual fire that afternoon I last met Ophie. Ophelia on fire—spiritually and supernaturally! That’ll be the day, I told myself.
Then another premonition. Ophie told me to fix the book of the Benavides opera—“Ikaw na lang magtuloy! Pagod na ako!” I didn’t take those words as tantamount to abandoning our collaboration, so while I agreed that I would try to refine the book, I told her that the opera severely lacks female singing parts; in fact, it lacks the most important component of a successful opera: the soprano’s aria. Forthwith I told her she should write arias for the only major female part in the opera—the Blessed Mother—whose name in the play is Santa Maria de Carrion, the Marian title in the hometown of Fray Benavides, who was born in 1550 at Carrion de los Condes in Palencia, Spain. Carrion means corpse, and it’s quite a gruesome thought that the Blessed Mother should sport a title referring to the dead. But since we Catholics had just celebrated All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the title may not be that gruesome, after all.
Anyway, I promised to draft the prose content of the proposed aria, which I would submit to her in two days. I was able to draft at least three arias, one of them with the Blessed Mother visiting the ailing Benavides and providing him comfort on his death-bed, and I submitted them to Ana, her secretary. I really don’t know if Ophie was able to take a look at them, much less start to write and transform my prosaic words into the sublime lyrics that was her legendary forte.
In hindsight, I realize that those Marian arias were really for Ophie’s. I had meant them to be her own signing part, her one moment to shine, her one sublime instance of poetry personified, her swan song. Looking back now, I realize she was really Santa Maria de Carrion, a woman of materiality whose grasp of the sheer corporeality of human nature makes her transform man’s base nature into something sublime, something spiritual. Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta was her own transcendent earth, herself the perfect embodiment of dirt uplifted, of flesh exalted. She was the personification of the Thomistic thesis—of grace building on nature.
Therefore, even if the Dominicans wouldn’t agree with this, Ophelia was, despite her occasionally scandalous poetry, a Catholic in real terms. She may not be a saint—none of us really are—but she was a true Thomasian in soul, mind and heart. She was her own Love Woman, as the title of one of her collections says. For most of us students whom she took under her maternal wings, she was the Madonna of Caritas, even if sometimes that caritas or love borders on Eros. Above all, she was loyal to UST as UST and the Domicans have been loyal to her.
However, I don’t want this eulogy to be a canonization: God knows Ophie is not the Immaculate Conception. But what I really want this is to be a form of thanksgiving. I share with everyone here who had been at one time or another a student of Ophie, or her co-educator and co-worker in the academe, or her colleague in the literary and media world, a feeling of gratitude for having known her, for having received the bountiful beneficence of her pedagogy, her beautiful works of literature, her infectious personality and her warm companionship.
Dear Ophie, we need you but it would be selfish for us to hold you back. Long ago you described poetry as “words in their most distilled form, insight at its purest.” In a way you hit the nail right in the head. We all long for purity so that our life is just a transit from the incidental to the fundamental, from the peripheral to the essential, You have sought that journey through poetry that moves and flows. Now you yourself have moved on, have flowed on. You, Ophie, have become your own best poetry. Farewell, dear teacher and mother, dear Love Woman and friend. I will dearly miss you.
(I post this out of sheer awe at the words and the woman who inspired them - Dexter)