Wednesday, May 20, 2009



KATA by James Maughn
(BlazeVOX Books, New York, 2008)


Kali’s Blade by Michelle Bautista
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2007)

On the Pivot Point Between Two Energies: James Maughn’s Kata & Michelle Bautista’s Kali’s Blade

I am reading two books of poetry: James Maughn’s KATA, and Michelle Bautista’s Kali’s Blade. Both books are based on their authors’ traditional martial art practice; for James, this is Okinawan Karate, and for Michelle, it is the Filipino art of Kali. Visually, KATA’s cover swirls with dancing, abstract strokes of grey; the cover of Kali’s Blade brims with color in the painting of a hand holding a blade. The former presents its poems as kata -- the forms, and their applications (bunkai); the language of the poems emerge out of the physical practice and in engagement with an other. The latter forms a contemplative pastiche of poems, prose, and even a play; its poetics and poems are porous, mythic (thus, often narrative), collaborative, at times almost painfully conscious of the social fabric within which the Kali artist moves. I find particularly interesting the manner and extent to which each poet moves between self and other, finding truth in immediate action and response, or in assuming a larger social and narrative role.

What is the line between being a writer and a martial artist, between the dancer and the dance? Between self and other, or community? Michelle says they are often interchangeable and integrated. What she does as a kali artist and poet are part of who she is. Kali, goddess of war and destruction. Kali, the martial art. Michelle’s book opens to an image of a carved wooden hilt, and a leaf-shaped blade. The objects of her art. She once gave a reading and performance for one of my classes at CAL. She brought her swords in surreptitiously, swathed in cloth, because one can’t simply walk through campus openly holding such implements. The students were quietly electrified by her discipline, intensity, and grace. When she began to move through her paces, those in the front row, closest to the swinging blade, held their ground (and probably their breaths); suddenly they were part of the performance. Their response: respect, alertness. They chose to trust.

“In my particular style of kali, one of the legends that has been passed down was about a blind woman who was influential to the style. So the artists in my particular style of kali emphasize touch over sight…” --Michelle Bautista

Reader response. To feel the movement of the line, where the words touch you. Learning how to respond. Making choices; using what the world gives you.

“ Each kata has its own unique rhythm, or cadence, and part of learning a kata is to learn to enter that cadence” -- James Maughn. How to translate action to language?

Kata. Practice. Patterns, movements, fragments, wholes -- as I see it from the perspective of an outsider. But upon opening a book, I enter the language, and respond.

Like a fist out of water


cage of swallow’s tails
a wake to catch
from ups
well to
sweep the scaffolding
until dust has windows
-- James Maughn

Responding to form -- a practice, replicated. The writer’s feeling out the word, the sound of the word, movement of body, of mind; one move emptying out; making room for the next. And life passes before you, around you, with you, as you disappear into form. Jim runs a poetry reading series called New Cadence. We come to listen. He has an energetic and alert manner of speaking that makes one feel he is about to pounce on an idea. And often, he does.

Listening. Storytelling. Myth. “An old woman sits at the palengke weaving banigs with care and skill…”
                  You can feel its words
From your hips and shoulders
down your spine                   you
will find them a body floats in
the wind                   and you will
deadly and swift
graceful and elegant
                  Retell the story The
sound of the stones echo
Remember your mother’s words
and resonate throughout the
valley                                 The story is an
extension of you
through the
                  This story was meant
for you
like the washing stones
                  They call it a woman’s
art sloughing away the layers
                  It is your story washing
them down to begin again.
--MB (excerpted from “A Woman’s Art”)

And the breath becomes long, longer. Soft. The poet’s body lengthens outward, to touch -- the whole story. Contracts, hardens, to a point of destruction, if necessary. Tools: blades, hands, feet, touch, eyes, proprioception, laughter (bombshells of language, explosions, aimed at the cannon, a form in itself).

“Poets always lie” Michelle writes. Speaking with many voices. Through many media of communication. Email, poems, voice, letters, blogs. So often, the Filipina voice wants to merge, kapwa. “Loosely translated into English, kapwa is to be like the other. But in the Filipino sensibility it is more than that -- here is a deeper sense that one is interconnected in inseparable ways.” Knows, in fact, we are already merged.

On the “pivot point” between two energies.
The gesture bears more potential
           for truth -- accuracy is important.
So the stiff edges of my palms soften
           for Kali because I come
to it as a dance.
--Eileen Tabios (excerpted from Kali’s Blade)

Fragments and wholes. Michelle: “Though the kali artist may start in a structured pattern they learn to let themselves go to the movement and allow their body to simply do.”

really no other way how to walk
when you know
you’ve been all wrong            doing it
the same

Reiterations. Becoming one, then spinning off. To combine and apply, to move thoroughly through the dance; pounce, when necessary / feint / faint / pivot. Turn like the tide, on a word.

how to walk to get on rhythm shadows            plunge the punch
to serve what words do
                                             quick circle
handle spells           aesthetic difficulty            faint at a clean dash
turn on turns
tide pulls toe to toe

a happy ground to seep you off of
                                                       a takedown
a shaft in re )course wrong doing it
staying in the skin            threadoff            circlewalk
-- JM (excerpt from II. Bunkai: Applications)

“Staying in the skin.” In form and in movement. Bodies of work -- in flux. Merging two ways, or more.


Jean Vengua's poetry and essays have appeared in numerous print and online journals and anthologies. With New Zealand poet, Mark Young, she has co-edited The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and the Hay(na)ku Anthology, Vol. II. Jean was the first winner of the Filamore Tabios Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize (2007). Her book, Prau, was published in 2007 by Meritage Press; her chapbook, The Aching Vicinities, was published by Otoliths (Australia) in 2006. She is currently near completion on her poetry manuscript, Corporeal. Her blog is

1 comment:

  1. Other views of KALI’S BLADE by Michelle Bautista are offered by Katherine Levy in GR #11 at

    and by Julie R. Enszer in GR #7 at

    and by William Allegrezza in GR #5 at