Re-cultured Lines

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, trans. Kristine Ong Muslim, Three Books

Broken Sleep Books, 178pp, £11.99, ISBN 978191913642150

reviewed by Liam Bishop

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books are poems derived from source ‘texts’ written and restructured as poems. Kristine Ong Muslim, the translator of Three Books, calls the poems works of ‘systematic erasure’, and while this might sound like an overly technological, even 'hip' way to describe his craft, Arguelles asks important questions about the overlooked tactile nature of the creative process. Take the first book, ‘Antares’, where Arguelles creates a series of short poems from user reviews of sex scenes found on the Internet Movie Database ( The following is based on the film Ai no Korida (In the Realm of the Senses, dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1976; I’ve added the Filipino translation as an indication of the book’s structure):

The body is an island. 



A vignette seeking solace.

An instrument of pain.

A dispatch.

Ang katawan ay isang pulo.



Ang dagling naghahanap sa iba ng isang bati.

Ang isang instrumento ng pasakit.

Ang isang sulat.

Oshima’s film is about a former prostitute who has an affair with the owner of the hotel in which she works; a film that features unsimulated sex scenes (like many of the films Arguelles samples), and a final scene of (simulated, I hope) genital mutilation. Kristine Ong Muslim calls the poem a ‘potent metaphor with an unwillingness to compromise’ and, certainly, the staccato nature of the lines implies a sense of non-compliance. Yet, the irony is that like the ‘user’ reviews of the sex scenes Arguelles might be considered a ‘user’ of found forms trying to make his material comply with the demands of his creative needs and desires, a composite of the director and the voyeur.

The collection’s immediate achievement, therefore, is that it concocts questions and images about the nature of creation and poetry in such a blatant way that it seems oblivious to any form of self-reference. Whether or not Arguelles intended to evoke Donne’s famous lines, it’s ironic that Donne was writing about how ‘his [God’s] hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’ The currency of ‘usership’ in ‘Antares’ becomes related to a sense of expansion, an act of seeking and finding, and the ‘potent metaphor’ Muslim talks about might actually be an omnipotent or omniscient one where Arguelles wants to create a wide open library like Donne.

‘Chi’ is the title of the second book, as Arguelles clarifies, ‘chi’ is a word that can mean ‘breath, air, energy, life force’, and even if that description might invite cynicism, as Arguelles erases the memoirs of Senator Chiz Escudero, we begin to see how ‘erasure’ creates an organic border between that which is missing and that which is not said (also featuring illustration from Erika M. Carreon). Ultimately, it is ‘air’ which gives life to poetry: words, when spoken, pass through the mouth via the shaping of air. This is from ‘Con’, which features an illustration of an ouroboros with a human head:

I feel miserable.

I do not know and am unsure whether or not I want clarity

and truth out of every experience.

For how long this will last, I do not know.

I am only after one thing, which is to go home, even when it rains.

Despite this, I have not accomplished anything important:

Have I really not done anything of note?

I did not shrink away from public scrutiny.

They are not stupid.

Escudero’s re-cultured lines are like a fragmented disposition on mood, feeling and personal history, and show how Arguelles both rejects and responds to the rhythms of the texts he is working with. With user reviews of sex scenes, Arguelles seems to be wondering about what he could restore from the spectacle, fantasy or not: here, Arguelles might also be asking about his contribution to the society in which he works. The mundanity of the lines might have been inspired by Pessoa; a poet who was found rather than finding, and where The Book of Disquiet might have been the result of an absurd fragmentation of Pessoa’s persona (written by his nom de plume, Bernando Soares), Arguelles sees the poet in everybody and everywhere. Even when the allusive nature of the lines play on a sense of occlusion or self-discovery, the final statement — ‘they are not stupid’ — is like a realisation, a humorously vicarious address to the reader by the poet that this is not a game of hide and seek, and the reader is not the one doing the finding.

By the time we come to ‘Mal’, the third book, created by erasing the work of poet Rio Alma’s Kung Bakit Kailangn ang Himala (‘Why a Miracle is Necessary’), Arguelles is returning to the body, the form. Is he finding himself?

Who is the brains

Where is the heart-bearing womb

How can the bowels be extended 

What is a beast

Never mind being replaceable

Never mind being worked out

Never mind

Invented out of need

more likely invented

inventing should be done continuously 

according to need

Coming to the end, I have an image of Arguelles as one of those curious viewers of the sex scenes in the films of Lars von Trier, or Gaspar Noé, fast-forwarding to the bits he wants to see, prying and absorbed in his act of seeking. This would, however, cut it as too lonely a prophecy. Instead, there is a more wholesome picture of the poet; even if they cannot ‘find’ or create ‘realistic images’ themselves, it can be a pleasant, infantile even, way to see creativity as a place for trying at ‘reality’, ‘invented out of need/more likely invented.’ At least there can be some fun in the finding.

Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds. He writes criticism, fiction and essays, and also interviews authors on the podcast he hosts, the Rippling Pages.