Patria Rivera confronts her past in The Time Between. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Poet Patria Rivera explores her past with spiritual lens

By 
  • May 28, 2018

It started out in 2011 as a Lenten practice. 

Patria Rivera was reading a collection of works by T.S. Eliot when she discovered a poem called “Ash Wednesday.” The poem moves from a spiritual barrenness to hope for salvation. Eliot wrote the poem after his 1927 conversion from Unitarian to Anglican, but as Rivera read the piece over and over again, she was  confronted with memories of her own past.

The Time Between, Rivera’s fourth book of poetry, is the result of prayer and self-examination. The poems explore some of the darker times that shaped her life and looks at how they colour her consciousness even now. 

“We see the danger, the violence and instability in the communities around us,” said Rivera, the former editor of Catholic Missions In Canada magazine. “As human beings we need to look for and find a spiritual dimension in a world that seems bent on self-annihilation. Our faith informs us that there is hope for us still. When we go beyond ourselves and look into the other.”

Rivera, 69, said the writing process was very cathartic. With four grown daughters and one grandchild (and more on the way, she hopes), she is at a time in her life where she is taking stock of her past and asking herself, “Have I done enough in my life?”

“I didn’t mean it to be a dark book but I think the stories just came out from my readings and from my reflections,” said Rivera. “And I didn’t want to put in happy events just to console…. It was just to give a slice of life a day in the sun.”

Born in 1949, Rivera grew up in Philippines in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

“I had nightmares from that war, just listening to the stories around me from my parents’ friends, from our relatives,” said Rivera. “My parents never spoke about the war although my father was a guerrilla fighter…. I know they sought refuge in the mountains when the war was going on, so they went from one place to another to keep themselves safe. And I have these images of my mother fleeing from enemy fire, huddling with my older siblings at the time.”

Rivera had a faraway tone in her voice recalling what her early life looked like. The war had been over for many years but the nation’s collective memory was still fresh. She remembered war movies playing on television all the time. Children on her street played war games for fun. 

In the 1960s as a teenager, Rivera’s older brother served the American army as a medical doctor to the troops in Vietnam. At home, she was just starting her university career at University of the Philippines where she studied journalism. 

President Ferdinand Marcos ran a successful election campaign that capitalized on his heroism during the war. But as his presidency went on, Rivera said she and her friends began to see the first signs of his dictatorship. 

They protested in the streets. At first, she suppressed many of these memories of her youth, but now, she remembers vivid images of people running to get off the streets as snipers fired on the demonstrators. 

“There were Molotov cocktails (a glass bottle of flammable substances) being thrown at demonstrators. We were tear-gassed,” she said. “I think there were several issues we were fighting against — the Vietnam war, ousting Marcos, land reform, workers’ rights.”

Marcos’ regime was infamous for its corruption, extravagance and brutality. He was removed from power in 1986 after mounting public outrage that led to the first People Power Revolution

Rivera joined about two million Filipino citizens in a non-violent demonstration in the streets of Manila. 

“There were tanks but it was peaceful actually,” she said. “There was no gunfire.”

The year after, in 1987, Rivera, her husband Joe and their four daughters (ages six to 14 years old at the time) immigrated to Canada. 

“I’m digging deep into my roots as I wrote these poems,” she said. “The Time Between allows me to explore those questions that I have been keeping in my head. Why are we so violent to each other... the global military complex.” 

In a way, Rivera said this latest book revisits the themes of her first work poetry book, Puti/White. It was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2006. It also won the Filipino Global Literary Award for Poetry in 2007. 



WHERE TIME NO LONGER PASSES by Patria Rivera 

Lady of the hours where time no longer passes

Lady of paper figurines and marionettes

Lady of intimate glances

Lady of nightmares

Lady of jowls clambering in middle age

Lady of hollyhocks walking to the fields

Lady of the lost forever and before

Lady of here to there

Lady of little phrases

Lady of the absolute secret

              murmuring          detached

Lady of imaginary concerts

                 consecrating desire

Lady of the pipes who braids her hair

Lady of strange twitches in coarse uniform

Lady of the highway willing not to be afraid

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