Peace Corps Writers
Review
First Silence

You can buy
First Silence by writing Pacific Enterprize Institute,
     P.O. Box 1907
     Fond du Lac, WI 54935

First Silence
by Edgar Henry Koch (Philippines 1996–98),
illustrations by Bernardo Quizon Hermoso,
Pacific Enterprize Institute, $15.95
86 pages
1999

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo, (Nigeria, 1965–66)

LIKE MANY OF US, Edgar Henry Koch was inspired to write about his experiences as a PCV. The vision that comes to us when contrasting cultures unfolds a world of extremes: the chasm between rich and poor, the exploited and exploiter. We also fall in love with the people who face obstacles in life that would demoralize many of us back in the U.S.
     We find this vision difficult to express — the proverbial “culture shock” — when we return to the states. So we write about “it”: the complicated range of emotions springing from the joy of being among the people and the sadness of watching helplessly as these people suffer.
     Koch has many powerful ideas, and his best poems take us into that other world. With echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, Koch’s “Rondeau” begins: “Accept this poem, sweet Annabel, / Song of songs to beauty. I tell / You that I sing with deep respect, / And, in return, do not expect / Like notes or lines from you as well.” In “The Awakening” Koch writes, “They say an apparition is reserved / For saints. No so! You come to me as light, / Seemingly a cloud which swirls suspended.” Throughout this collection, the reader finds many such inspired expressions, most of them disciplined by Shakespearean sonnet form.
     My disappointment in this collection is Koch’s overuse of poetic techniques, especially alliteration. For example, in “Ode to Love Lost” he writes “. . . Words / Written as these work well to whisk away / My pain.” Instead of elevating us into the world of lyric, the devices call attention to the reality of a self-conscious poet. Another example, in an otherwise fine poem, “Lolo,” Koch’s technique diverts our attention to the style rather than the person in the poem: “Father Filipino, sporting his frayed / New York baseball cap, boards the battered bus / Brought to his stop by a strident whistle.” By drawing attention to methods and techniques, the poet lessens the impact of Father Filipino’s dream. He does this in too many of his poems that might, otherwise, take us on that magical journey of the spirit.
     At his best Koch combines style and theme with everyday life to leave us with a rhythmic sense of Filipino daily life. In my favorite poem from this collection, “Philippine Symphony,” the day opens with the “Bold baton of dawn.” Then “The throats of a thousand roosters project / Day’s theme.” The tempo for the day’s activities are set by a “Chorus of dogs [that] bark like brass.” Children’s play is the “rhapsody / Of youth.” And in the evening the “Passion of this piece [Filipino Symphony]. Karaoke . . .” which strains “to set firm and final / Harmony.” When all is finished all sounds end without applause. “Simply silence. For / When the day is over, it is all over.” This poem explains all we need to know about living: life is the music in this world. We are the orchestra. There is no audience, thus no one to applaud.
     Many of Koch’s poems support his claim in the Prologue that he is a Romanticist. However, as we progress through the collection, we discover many revelations anchored firmly in Realism. Koch pulls no veils over the inhumanity of people. In “The Photograph” he describes “Two children, threadbare under scorching skies.” They are beggars, with sticks and stones for toys. Their malnutrition shows in their “rusting hair.” They cling to each other and to their mother and pose for a photograph. In “The Sacrifice,” an alcoholic father forces his daughter to “work streets for pay.” She is beaten nearly to death, and now her “stare is sterile.” Even when she smiles, her face seems “thoughtless like / Dumb steel which slashed your skull and brain.”
     Accompanying the poems are bright watercolor paintings by an excellent Filipino artist, Bernardo Cuizon Hermoso. They fit naturally into the flow of the poems.
     After a long career in teaching, Koch went to the Philippines to teach. I would argue that he has found his place as a poet, and I look forward to another collection.
Tony Zurlo is a poet/writer living in Arlington, TX. He has written books about China and Japan, and his newest book, The People of West Africa, will be published by Lucent Press in 2001.
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