Tagay! on Romalyn Ante’s ‘Antiemetic for Homesickness’

Romalyn Ante was born in Lipa Batangas, in the Philippines, in 1989. For much of her childhood her parents were absent as migrant workers and the family moved to the UK in the mid-2000s where her mother was a nurse in the NHS. Ante herself now also works as a registered nurse and psychotherapist. As a result, this debut collection has multiple perspectives running through it: the child grappling with the parents’ absence, the mother’s exile, the daughter’s later emigration and a broader, political sense of the plight of migrant workers. The economic driving force behind such movements of people is recorded in ‘Mateo’, responding to the Gospel of Matthew’s observation about birds neither sowing nor reaping with this downright response: “But birds have no bills”. So, in poem after poem, the need for money, for a roof, livestock, fruit trees, medical treatment, even for grave plots back home is made evident.

Antiemetic for Homesickness also consequently has two prime locations: the UK appears as snow-bound streets, red buses, the day to day labour of nursing grateful (and often less than grateful) patients, casual racism. But it is the home country that predominates in vivid images of its landscape, people, culture, folk tales, food and frequent fragments of its Tagalog language (there is a glossary of sorts, but I found many phrases not included). So the promise implied by the title poem – a cure for homesickness – is willed, even a delusion, but a necessary one adopted for self-preservation. It’s a great poem. Opening with “A day will come when you won’t miss / the country na nagluwal sa ‘yo” (lit. who gave birth to you), it also closes in the same mood: “You will learn to heal the wounds / of [patients’] lives and the wounds of yours”. But the central stanzas are densely populated by memories of home, the airport goodbyes, the tapes recorded by left-behind children, the recalled intimacies of the left-behind husband, the gatherings and food of the distant place. The antiemetic is proving less than effective.

This is the material for all Ante’s poems here. ‘The Making of a Smuggler’ opens with “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us” – lines that recall Moniza Alvi’s, ‘The country at my shoulder’ from 1993. Despite Ante’s personal experiences, these poems often speak in this plural pronoun (a sense of solidarity in experiences shared plus a pained awareness of the plight of unnumbered, unknown migrant workers). The ‘smuggling’ image also suggests an illicit action, a coming under suspicion in the destination country. What is being smuggled across borders under the insensitive noses of its guardians are memories, places: “He can’t cup his ear // with my palm and hear the surfs / of Siargao beach”. If these are thoughts on arrival then ‘Notes inside a Balikbayan Box’ evoke the on-going sense of loss, distance, almost bereavement accumulating through years of working abroad. Such boxes – Ante’s notes explain – are used by Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) and filled with small gifts to be eventually sent back home, a kind of ‘repatriate box’.

Accordingly, the poem takes the form of a note – “Dear son” – partly accompanying objects such as shoes, video tapes, E45 cream, incontinence pads, perfume but, just as important, offering life-advice and apologies:

I owe you for every Simbang Gabi and PTA meeting

I could not attend. I promise I’ll be there for Christmas.

I know I’ve been saying this for a decade now.

Romalyn Ante

Scattered throughout the collection are short extracts intended to reflect cassette tape recordings – sent in the reverse direction to the Balikbayan Box – by a child to her distant mother. The risks of attempting such a child’s perspective are many and Ante keeps these little more than fragmentary utterances, not authentically child-like. These were some of the less successful moments in the collection, many others of which also arose from such formal experiments. Ante tries out the forms of a drug protocol, a questionnaire, a concrete poem, centred, right or left justified verse, prose passages, assemblages of fragments, typographical variants. Such moments presumably constitute the “dazzling formal dexterity” alluded to in the jacket blurb, but you’d not read Ante for this but for the poems’ “emotional resonance”, also referred to in the blurb.

Siargao Beach

The plurality of her subjects also gives rise to poems in several voices. ‘Tagay!’ portrays the migrant workers’ embattled situation and their making the best of it through the communal drinking of Lambanog (distilled palm liquor) – the title is something akin to ‘Cheers!’ Each speaker toasts the others present, going on to imagine their personal homecoming: welcoming smiles at Arrivals, the bringing home of Cadbury’s chocolate, the heat of Manila, home-cooked food at last, story-telling, marital sex. Many of the speakers cannot keep their work out of the moment: “Tomorrow we’ll be changing bed covers, / soaking dentures, creaming cracked heels”… but for the moment, “Tagay!” Something similar is attempted in ‘Group Portrait at the Stopover’, in which migrant workers are briefly thrown together at an airport, in 5 short sections swapping gifts and stories of their labours and abuse, preferring not to think “of the next generation that will meet at this gate, / the same old stories that will hum out of younger mouths”.

‘Group Portrait..’ is one of Ante’s poems that explicitly addresses the long-standing global reality of migrant labour and ‘Invisible Women’ does the same. These are the women, world over, who are seldom given credit or even attention, yet are “goddesses of caring and tending”. Ante’s mother is one of them, a woman who “walks to work when the sky is black / and comes out from work when the sky is black” (the studied repetitions here more effective than many other formal innovations). The deification of such women is part of Ante’s point. The costs of such migration are repeatedly made clear in this book, but the admiration for those who leave home to earn money for the benefit of those left at home is also clear. These invisible women (and as often men) are heroic in their determination, their sacrifices and their hard work.

A poem that returns the reader to the individual is ‘Ode to a Pot Noodle’. Owing something to Neruda’s Odas elementales (1954), the narrator is taking a short break from “fast-paced” hospital duties – a Pot Noodle is all there is time for. In the daze of night and fatigue, images arise (of course) of her distant home, her grandfather, of Philippine food and conversations that, in the time it takes to boil a kettle, vanish as quickly. She addresses those distant people: “this should have been an ode to you. / Forgive me, forgive me”. But the Ode has already been written in the course of Antiemetic for Homesickness. The collection is a testament to the presence of the absent, the persistence of memory, the heroism and suffering of those who we hold at arms’ length, invisible but without whom our modern society – our NHS – would fail to function. In the time of Covid – and after it too – Romalyn Ante’s book is reminding us of debts and inequalities too long unacknowledged.

11 thoughts on “Tagay! on Romalyn Ante’s ‘Antiemetic for Homesickness’

  1. Nice review. I adore her ‘Tape Recordings for Mama’ sequence and find it particularly strong. I heard from one of her readings that she wrote the sequence not only from a child’s perspective but also from the perspective of a child who eventually grows old (by the end of the book the left behind was about to attend prom). It strongly reflects the fact that OFW parents never get to return home.

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    • Thanks Amy for reading and commenting. There has been a lot of discussion related to this post about RA’s book. Shows that it is reaching a lot of people (the book I mean). I wonder if he tape recording poems would have more impact if brought together into a sequence – which is perhaps how they were written. Alternatively, the disrupted presentation probably reflects something of the OFW experience as you say. I’m certainly keen to see where this poet goes next.

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  2. Mm, not sure if they are ‘formal experiments’. I see them more as formal play. The line break, restricted and jagged rhythm in Mateo foreshadow the familial relationship fractured by distance and time. I thought the way she used sonnet in Nature Morte Aux Tulipes was clever too, the compacted rhyme scheme mirrors the dead body of the OWF worker stuffed in a freezer. Also, how she bent ghazal in Repairing English is so acute.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to comment – you’ve made me go back to those more experimental forms. Without doubt, Romalyn does them well – she is a talented writer – but I guess I was suggesting that the heart of the book is elsewhere. i suspect this is partly a response to so many other debut collections which are filled with this sort of experiment and I suspect then arise from tasks set in classes or mentoring projects. All worthwhile, but whether they should go into a collection is another matter. But RA is better than all this without doubt.

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  3. In terms of forms, I think the uyayi and tagay are quite impressive. She has sonnet and ghazal too but the invented and found forms from her nurse work and migrant background feel more suited than the use of usual English poetic forms. It actually solidifies the theme of the book, if you ask me.

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    • Hi Jane – I agree the whole collection is impressive formally – i think I was suggesting that formal experiment was not really what made the book so vital. There’s certainly no sense that she is trapped in anything formally ‘English’. The willingness to experiment is important – but I felt RA’s were less successful than, say, Sarah Howe’s in ‘Loop of Jade’ from 2015.

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  4. I adore both Howe and Ante. I think they are very different, and it is hard to compare the styles of 2 very different poets with two very different books.

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