Monday, April 17, 2023

Practice Notes: Letters of Credit, by Steven M. Richman

He looks deeply into the mirror of his children
but cannot see himself, though he knows he is there,
somewhere in the depths. They speak to him
with the greatest politeness, and if there is affection,
he feels it as the slightest warm breeze in summer,
a hot dying breath of presence, not of comfort.

He works their love like his job, studying precedent
and applying law to fact, to derive a holding, a balance
of truth, justice and equity, completely anomalous
in the calculus of emotion
. Still there is a sense of obligation,
like throwing coins into the tollbooth--regardless of whether
they hit, or bounce off the rim, and roll away, the debt is paid.

They are gone, glimpsed through materializing letters
on the instant messaging boards of computer screens,
or in the electronic conversions of voices to ear, heard
like the ocean in shell: false, imitative, distant and faint,
or like letters of credit, carrying his value into the void
of commerce, of life, to distant lands he will never see. 

from Law and Poetry: Promises from the Preamble, (2021) ed. Kristen David Adams, p. 35.

Depicted here is a parent who sees his or her children like a letter of credit, a vehicle through which he or she pays a debt to its recipient. Here, parental love is phrased as duty rather than emotion, and the relationship between parent and children, characterized by an awkwardness unmediated by affection.

Stanza two suggests that they are obliged, as a debtor might be obliged to pay their children. Stanza 3 suggests that the children then become the vehicles through which the parent's value is exchanged (as in commerce)  in their own lives. One might also read Stanza 3 as suggesting the children/letters of credit are sent out by the parent into the world as payment to an unknown creditor. But who is this unknown creditor? What obliges us to pay this creditor by losing ourselves, emptying "our value" into the children we then send them? And what do we get in exchange?  The character that the persona describes is alienated, not only from his children's affections, but from his or her work/labor. And in this character's world, all that a self amounts to, it seems, is his or her use value. 

In a world where individuals are viewed/self-view themselves in terms of their use-value, the inevitable result is alienation, isolation. In such a world, love can only register as a steep, unmitigated loss. 

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Practice notes: translating "Gahasa," by Ruth Elynia Mabanglo


by Ruth Elynia Mabanglo

“I was embarrassed. I found the talk completely offensive. It’s something that was thrust upon me, not for something voluntarily entered into. It was offensive and degrading.” - Anita Hill

Words raped me

Over and over,

Over and over.

Until my spirit tore into shreds.

My memory, big-bellied,

Bearing curses and slurs.

My heart, bruised,

My flesh, battered.

             I complained to the dark,

A reproach that wounded the wind’s caress.

I sued the wall,

Trembling voice, rippling terror.

Opinions raped me

Over and over,

Over and over.

Until what’s human perished.

The belly, inflated

With the scourge of voices.

The skull, fractured

From the public flogging.

               I complained to the law,

It noted my looks, drew attention to my physique.

I filed my suit at city hall,

was studied, scolded, for my name, my sex.

The decision raped me,


Just once.

Reducing all hope to rubble. 

Translating Ruth Elynia Mabanglo's poem, "Gahasa" (1992) into English made me think about how different discourse communities talk about rape. Mabanglo's poem, which references, in its epigraph, the controversy involving American lawyer Anita Hill (who had testified that a nominee to the US Supreme Court had sexually harassed her while she was employed as his assistant), describes the far-reaching effect of unwanted sexual contact from the vantage point of victims. They suffer, not just from the original violation of their human dignity and agency, but from being the object of rumors and public criticism, and from being treated harshly rather than sympathetically, by a justice system that is more concerned about treating the perpetrators "justly" rather than securing the justice the victims seek. 

In a recent decision (People vs. Agao, G.R. No. 248049 [2023]), the Supreme Court insisted on defining consummated rape in terms of the penetration of sexual organs--a stance that Associate Justice Marvic Leonen has correctly described as favorable to the perpetrators (its primary aim being to distinguish consummated rape from attempted rape, which carries a lower penalty). But  to a victim, rape is rape. "To further discuss which part of her vagina was violated serves no other purpose than as a platform to determine how this Court can lessen her rapist's punishment," Leonen wrote in his dissent.

The majority decision took pains to note that it was constrained to talk about rape in anatomical terms because that was how current black letter law defined the crime. But, this is a conservative stance, one that fails to properly acknowledge other judicial interpretations of rape that exist and define the crime in more progressive terms--that is, under terms that consider the crime from the vantage point of the victim. 

In People v. Quintos (G.R. No. 199402 [2014]), the Supreme Court had already ruled that "A person commits rape when he sexually assaults another who does not consent or is incapable of giving consent to a sexual act."  People v. Quintos interprets black letter law in a manner that allows the Philippine State to comply with its obligation under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), particularly the obligation to "modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women" (CEDAW art. 2(f)). 

Just as the Court had previously issued the interpretation that there can be no such thing as frustrated rape (People v. Orita, 88724 [1990]), it could have ruled that there is no such thing as attempted rape--especially since rape has been reclassified by legislature as a crime against persons (instead of a crime against honor) and--following the Philippines' ratification of, and assumption of obligations under CEDAW--the Court itself had already declared the lack of consent of a sexual act as the main element of rape. It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court has taken a step back in People v. Agao.


Translating "Gahasa" also made me realize something about the decision I made years ago to study and practice law. What attracted me to the law was its rational, orderly language, which I mistook for wisdom. If I learned its language, I might have a better hold on my emotions, and all of life's disorderly bits. Perhaps the law's language could help me (not only vindicate, but)  transcend the personal injuries and hurts one (or one's client) has sustained as a result of (what one considered) injustice. 

I realize now that I was mistaken. The law speaks the way it does to preserve order. Whether or not you will be hurt further by it (its logic, its reasonableness, its imposition of order) depends on which side of that order you inhabit. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

University of East Anglia (virtually) in May

 Maybe I'm taking this archival bit way too seriously. Maybe not.

I need all the help I can get. 

Monday, April 3, 2023


In the United States, April is National Poetry Month. Some poets outside the United States celebrate it too, writing a poem a day until the end of the month. It's a great way for friends-in-poetry to get together, hunker down and write poems together. It's also a good way to jumpstart a daily practice of writing (may-be-poems). 

This year, I've decided to join the rest as a way of finishing the creative component of the dissertation. I've come up with a list of subjects that would fit into my project: fifteen items on a "conceptual list"; twenty on a "places" list.  The first list contains bar and non-bar subjects that students are required to take in law school. The second list contains places associated with legal enforcement and adjudication. 

Everyday, I go through a bunch of poems that are about any of the following:

- lawyers and judges
- non-lawyers' encounter with the legal system
- historical trials
- prison
- legal concepts
- the application of legal metaphors to non-legal subjects (mostly, romantic love).

By "going through" a bunch of poems, I mean encoding each of what I read in a computer file. I find the process to be a bit like throwing a line with a bait into the ocean.  Once something bites, I begin writing.

My goal is to write a minimum of 14 lines--without necessarily having the 14 lines develop into a sonnet--daily. I try to keep in mind that the language of law as I know it fails--as all language fails. And so when I write "about" the law in poetic form, I think about what it is that legal language fails to say, and then attempt to say that as directly and precisely as one can do through a poem. Poems, too, can't say everything. So it helps to clarify my intentions and make it just this, at the moment.

Thus far, I've been able to write two out of three days in April. Today's work begins with the line, "Comes now the time to say things plainly." If the diction sounds archaic--well, it is meant to be so. They're words some attorneys use to begin their pleadings ("Comes now the plaintiff unto this Honorable Court."). This poem fulfills the requirement that I come up with a poem that on a procedural law concept. In this case, the concept is that of a "real party in interest." I suppose it is more accurate to say that the poem plays off  the concept. It isn't really about the concept as much as it uses it to talk about how the law operates. Or at least that's what I intend it to do. One can hope.

The other April poem was about law school welcome rites. 

Considering that I'm also doing quite a bit of archival research, I'm happy. 

Friday, March 31, 2023

Into the archive

Yesterday, I began in earnest what I've been struggling to get myself to do since December. I actually sat down and checked a card catalogue--yes, a card catalogue--detailing the poem titles of 49 books. When my friend--the librarian--had suggested I simply go through his library's poem-title index (discontinued in 2009), I wasn't too excited; can you actually tell what a poem is from its title? 

By the time I finished going through the available catalogue (the rest of the entries had been encoded, but the machine on which the file was encoded had been 'retired'), I realized that there's a lot you can tell from going through a book's poem titles. For example, you can tell which books were compilations of occasional poems, and those whose energies were propelled by certain concerns that required? captivated? obsessed? their writers. In the latter case, even the titles tended to be specific (and memorable) rather than generic, indicating a particular stance and point of view. Certainly not the usual. 

For somebody writing about my topic (and trying to do this by reflecting on how my topic has been reflected in poetic writing), reading the titles was surprisingly inspiring. Just the thought of having to go through thousands of books made me dread the work. In my mind, I imagined going through all the poems, book by book. But going through a small box, title by title? That seemed doable. And when I went through a card, the title of the poem performed like a koan. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Flower fairies, evidence of


X Ways of Speaking about Silence



"Everyone is driven by the urge to 'say something'...We are oppressed by silence. We feel that to be silent before a wrongdoing is to be an accomplice to it, and that to be silent before the obscure is to be overwhelmed by it."

        - Resil Mojares, on "Writing a column" in House of Memory  (1997, p.7-8), Anvil Publishing.

"...the problem of speechlessness, which is a state without agency... that we feel impressed upon by things but unable to push back at them."

        - Mark Doty on The Art of Description: World into Word (2010), Graywolf Press. 

"Everytime my country
breaks into a war of words,
I make sure I break out

the heavy artillery
of my silence. "

        -Allen Samsuya, "34" (2022).