When ‘April is the cruelest month’

From womb to tomb, two separate months so intertwined—so uncanny it could not be coincidental

Maningning featured in the book by Ellen H. Palanca

Maningning, at 15, with her Chinese paintings (Photo by Edwin Tuyay)

Last year, I lost my husband Mario to COVID-19 on April 3, 42 minutes before Resurrection Sunday, and 12 days before our late daughter Maningning’s 49th birthday. He would have been 72. That Mario was born in 1949 and Maningning in 1972 made me pause, wondering about the numerology that bound them. And while Mario was born September 12, our daughter passed away September 29 in 2000. From womb to tomb, from birth to death, two separate months, April and September, are so intertwined. It was so uncanny that I thought it could not be coincidental. Trying to fathom what it could mean, I thought of Shakespeare’s Hamlet blurting out, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The 1948 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, T. S. Eliot, wrote in the opening lines of his 1922 masterpiece, The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” Eliot was said to have written the poem in the midst of chaos in his life, his sadness made worse by the world around him being so full of life with the advent of spring in his temperate land.

I could relate with Eliot, 100 years after he wrote that 500-line poem, April having taken away the love of my life, and April birthing my beloved first-born 50 years ago in Beijing, when leaves and flower buds were coaxed from their winter hibernation, bringing forth a spring floral explosion. I could see the irony 50 years apart.

Now, the first death anniversary of my beloved hubby and the 50th birthday of my equally loved daughter this April bring back memories. They are precious memories of the love and bond that the two of them had formed and nurtured through the years, which started when Mario teared up at the sight of the frail and tiny five-and-a-half-pound baby girl sucking her first drops of milk from her mother’s breast. It was love at first sight.

Mario doted on Maningning, and our second daughter Banaue, too, who came seven years later. When they developed colic and cried without let-up when they were babies, only Mario could pacify them and put them to sleep.

As a primary school student in China, she came home crying one day saying that she was taunted as an invader because the Philippines invaded the Spratlys

A precocious child, Maningning learned to speak before she could even walk, learning Filipino and English from Mario and me, and Chinese from her ayi or yaya. I read her the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and the three-volume Lord of the Rings, the first foreign books we received from an uncle in the US when China opened up after the 10-year Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1979. She developed an intense love of reading, and would later devour Chinese classical novels in the original Hanyu script like Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and world classics in English translations like Homer’s The Iliad, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and English originals like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities.

As a primary school student in China, she came home crying one day to say that she was taunted as an invader because, according to her classmates, the Philippines invaded the Spratlys, which they said belonged to China. Her father had to reassure her that historically, our country has always suffered from foreign invasion and has never invaded another. She cried another time when she wrote about a woman scavenger, and her teacher told her not to write of ugly things and instead focus on the beauty of socialism.

My kind and gentle daughter’s sensitivity would find an outlet in poetry. One of the poems which she originally wrote in Chinese and translated in English was about her and her father:

Father and I

The leaves are shaking,
“Look. It’s the wind!”
You said, “No, those are leaves.
Wind cannot be seen.”

Snowflakes whirl down
–An emblem of purity.
You said, “No, it’s deception.
It is here to cloak the filth.”

A lovely object
Took my fancy.
You said, “It’s useless.”

I haven’t walked too far,
But I am feeling tired.
Let me rest by the path for a while.

When the wind blows, I feel it.
When snow swirls down, I see it.
The lovely object I hold in my hand.

‘It does seem like Maningning was born with a map in her head. She knew what she had to do and where she had to go’

Karina Bolasco, who published Maningning’s trilingual book of poetry, Voice from the Underworld (Anvil, 2000, 2017; hardbound edition, 2002), said: “It does seem like Maningning was born with a map in her head. She knew what she had to do and where she had to go. It was a purposeful and thoughtful life she lived. And even after her death, her art continues to give life a methodical shape. So Maningning—the childlike girl who took to the swing in the courtyard to keep her sense of rhythm for her free verse.”

That swing in the courtyard in Beijing, wrote Maningning, started her “dream of becoming a poet and a painter one day.”

Maningning’s Soliloquy at CCP

On Maningning as a painter, journalist Barbara Mae Dacanay wrote: “Soliloquy, Miclat’s remarkable painting, is a black-and-white acrylic on 11 panels of four-by-eight feet plywood, done in 1994. The panoramic piece simulates endless, repetitive, and unbearable sea waves with cosmic energy, as if pulled up by the moon. Also, they are like serpentine flowers with voluptuous and restless petals that incessantly protrude and retract, that fiercely dart from light to dark.

Soliloquy has dwarfed all other black and white paintings ever done by Filipino artists who have explored the tension of yin and yang. Maningning has plumbed her underworld’s tension—as if she herself is her own painting.”

Dr. Ellen H. Palanca, former director of Chinese Studies Program of Ateneo de Manila University, featured Maningning in her coffee table book, Chinese Filipinos (2003), and wrote: “Maningning C. Miclat (1972-2000) was a rare Filipino. Although she was not of Chinese descent, she spoke and wrote Chinese perfectly. She wrote poetry in Chinese, Filipino, and English, and painted after the Chinese manner.”

Many notes, essays, and poems have been written about Maningning. But her father, beloved of Maningning, and who loved her to pieces, has the last say. Here are the excerpts from his essay in his book, Hundred Flowers, Hundred Philosophies, posthumously published last year with his book of poetry, Kailan Diwata at 70+ na Tula, and novel, 21 West 4th Street:

Maningning, Poet and Artist

Maningning Miclat was a poet of three languages, a prize-winning artist, a published essayist and a translator/interpreter. She was a teacher who could, despite the voguish American saying, “Those who can’t, teach.” She decided to pass on at age 28.

Maningning was born in Beijing and spent the first half of her life in China. She graduated from the Yumin Primary School and finished her junior high at the Beijing Normal University’s Pilot School. She excelled in both language and mathematics. She learned to paint the gentleman’s four paintings in xieyi style under Master Liu Fulin at age 10 and proceeded to develop her own gongbi style of painting. She wrote poetry and was included in a Beijing book of top international women poets in Chinese. Her first Chinese painting exhibition was held at the CCP [Cultural Center of the Philippines] in 1987 at age 15. It was in the same year that she launched her first book of Chinese poetry, Wode Shi (Manila: World News Publications).

Her first Chinese painting exhibition was held at the CCP in 1987 at age 15—the same year that she launched her first book of Chinese poetry

National Artist Napoleon Abueva with Maningning’s death mask

The second half of her life was spent in the Philippines. She had also toured both the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. She finished her high school at St. Theresa’s Quezon City under the personal auspices of Sr. Trinitas. She obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from UP Diliman, cum laude standing, under the tutelage of National Artist Abueva, Dean Nestor Vinluan and conceptual artist Roberto Chabet. She started painting in oil, pastel, lahar emulsion, and mixed media without necessarily abandoning her Chinese brush and ink. She won the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) grand prize in non-representational painting in 1992 for her 4 feet x 8 feet oil, Trouble in Paradise.

Maningning joined the UP Writers’ Workshop in 1990, where she won a Julie Lluch trophy as a top fellow writing in Filipino. She went through National Artist Virgilio S. Almario’s poetry workshop in Filipino, and later joined its graduates in the poets’ association called LIRA. She also was a fellow of the Silliman Writers’ Workshop for English poetry. She taught Mandarin for a time at the Ateneo de Manila University, and painting at the Far Eastern University. Her second book of poetry, Voice from the Underworld, was published by Anvil before her death in 2000.

Miclat family, from left, Mario, the author, Banaue and Maningning

Her essay, A Keeper of One’s Voice (in Beyond the Great Wall: A Family Journal, by Mario, Alma, Maningning, and Banaue Miclat, Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2006, first hardbound edition, 2007), may, perhaps, give us some inkling about her thinking process as an artist. And I quote:

I wrote and read a lot during the regular class hours, under the table. After class, I would go to the swing in our courtyard. That was how I kept my sense of rhythm for my free verses. And that was how I started to dream of becoming a poet and a painter one day.

After graduating from junior high school, which was right after the EDSA Revolution in the Philippines, my family came back to Manila. For a few months, I did not have a school. Then, the ICM sisters of St. Theresa’s took me in. I got a chance to be published in the student page of the World News, a broadsheet paper of the Chinese community in the Philippines…

I started to attend a poetry workshop in Filipino…I became their youngest member…I was speaking in Tagalog with a Beijing twang while growing up in China. Coming back to the Philippines, I tried to learn expressing myself in Filipino well…I found it most convenient to keep to the Balagtas tradition of rhyme and meter, especially the 12-syllable line. It somehow put my uncertainties into a structure bound by words…

Shi is “to be” in Chinese. Poems are written in English. Tula can only be Filipino.

In relation to her later poems on the Philippine centennial celebrations, she talked about how her collage project at the UP Diliman College of Fine Arts had influenced her poetry. For six months, she did her research on the Philippine Revolution of 1896.

On the one hand, she did her research as material for her poetry, not as an academic but, rather, as “an abstract artist who is looking for interesting images to incorporate in my collages.” She said, “Instead of colors, textures and images, I tried to juxtapose pieces of information based on my reading…I used my own sense of balance, rhythm and judgment, and came out with collages in the form of poetry.”

It was the time of the Cultural Revolution, and even in the city, toys were very limited

On the other hand, her paintings may be seen as poetic expressions on canvas. And what can the images probably say? Here is another indication we could gather from her essay:

The Cultural Revolution has affected many people in China. I remember during my pre-school days, grown-ups were sent to the countryside to “be reformed through manual labor.” In my case, it was my father himself who asked to be sent to a commune in Southern China…

It was the time of the Cultural Revolution, and even in the city, toys were very limited. The grown-ups wore only clothes in plain blue, white, gray or black. Children like us could wear not only lighter shades of the same colors but also some pink and red, too. We were happiest when we could draw with colored chalk. Their suggestions of a vibrant color excited us a lot…

One day as I roamed around our living quarters with my little friends, we passed by the clinic. We saw that the “barefoot” doctor was not in. Neither the door of the clinic nor of the pharmacy room was locked. We entered the medicine storeroom. Shelves of different sizes of glass bottles—bottles filled with syrup, different sizes of tablets and different shapes of capsules, all in rainbow colors. We were overjoyed! We found a huge sheet of paper and set it on the clinic floor. We started opening the bottles, putting all the tablets and capsules together. Oh, it was fun, really fun. To touch these shapes and all the colors in small shining capsules. Then one of us started to put these toys into her mouth and started to swallow them, many of them. She had to be rushed to the provincial hospital…We the children have since grown up. Yet we remember the past differently. Fragments of memories tiptoe into the vignettes of here and now. For all that we have heard and said, for all that we have done, for what we have become, we remain keepers of our own voice.

That was Mario Ignacio Miclat, UP dean and professor, multi-awarded writer, poet, and translator, but most of all, a devoted and loving father, writing about our daughter Maningning. Both of them not only excelled in what they did, but also led exemplary lives that touched the lives of many.

To honor and remember them, a mass officiated by the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Manila, Fr. Sid Marinay, will be held on April 8 at 4 pm. It will be streamed live on the Facebook page of the Arzobispado de Manila Chapel. Fr. Sid was Dean Miclat’s advisee for his doctoral dissertation at UP, which he passed with honors.

About author


Alma Cruz Miclat is a freelance writer and retired business executive. She is the president of the Maningning Miclat Art Foundation, Inc., and author of books Soul Searchers and Dreamers: Artists’ Profiles and Soul Searchers and Dreamers, Volume II, and co-author with Mario I. Miclat, Maningning Miclat and Banaue Miclat of Beyond the Great Wall: A Family Journal, a National Book Awardee for biography/autobiography in 2007.

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