Poem number 134, better known by its first line “When,I,was,no,bigger,than,a,huge” was published as part of Jose Garcia Villa’s second anthology of poems (titled simply as) Volume Two in 1949. The unorthodox structure the poem shares with the rest of the entries in the collection, as well as the wide use of commas, mark Villa’s shift from the experimental-yet still familiar versification of the poetry in his first compilation Have Come, Am Here, to what could be seen as a Formalist experiment with the nature of the Word itself. It is because of this nonstandard use of punctuation that it is called a ‘Comma Poem’, but due to its subject matter it is also classified under Villa’s ‘Divine Poems’.
Structurally the poem is composed of four nonstandard-length ‘stanzas’ and a final separate line serving as a ‘statement’ or ‘conclusion’ to the thought of the persona. The enjambment used in the poem is such that, while ostensibly created from three sentences the reader is given an impression of a consciously-constructed piece, where each stanza begins with two bold and solid ‘lines’ followed by a ‘triangle’ crowned with a single-syllable word or a syllable, embodied with a ‘line’ that could range from two syllables to five syllables in length, and based with a line composed of three syllables, as evidenced below:
Stylistically the structure of each stanza recalls a border or demarcation, where the first two lines form a figurative ‘dam’, and the following three ‘lines’ might seem like a trickle that eventually widens into a torrent. Though what the exactly it is the dam is holding back or dividing could be subject to a myriad of interpretations (and a topic much more suited to scholars more erudite than this essay’s author), given the poem’s inclusion in the ‘Divine Poems’ a philosophical or metaphysical reading might be more appropriate—sacrilegious musings finally given light, or a divinely-inspired epiphany could be seen as valid.
The poem is classified as a ‘Comma Poem’ due to its use of placement of a comma after every word, most of the time without the space as expected in Prose. Paraphrasing Villa’s own words from the preface A Note on the Commas, the commas not only serve to regulate the poem’s verbal density and temporal movement, it also gives each word a fuller tonal value, allowing the more measured line movement. It also has the (possibly intended) consequence of altering the meaning of the poem when the commas are removed; as a demonstration of this (the Penguin Classics edition Doveglion: Collected Poems) a version without the commas (indeed, only three are present) immediately follows for the sake of comparison. Thus a truly diligent reader will have to read the poem unaltered, then with the punctuation ‘normalized’ to gain a better understanding of its theme and message.
The poem begins with the persona in the midst of reminiscing with “When,I,was,no,bigger,than,a,huge/Star,in,my,self,I,began,to,write.” If one is familiar with the way stellar bodies work, then it becomes apparent that the speaker is already of at least middling age, as stars actually grow larger (at the same time less brighter) as they grow. It could be compared to the point where a person is past their peak (physically or mentally) but not so much that their faculties become impaired with age, and at that point in one’s life where a person has enough life experience to be considered ‘wise’. The fact that the first line cuts at ‘huge’ (instead of the word that follows, ‘star’) seems to underscore this temporal waypoint and milestone, where the persona’s musings seem to turn towards how it defines its current existence, its ‘self’ (note how it is not myself, but ‘my’ and ‘self’). The persona then reveals exactly what it was internalizing: “My,/Theology,/Of,rose,and”. There’s an interesting interplay of words and references here, as one would expected philosophy (when one assumes that the persona is talking about what defines how it lives) to be a better choice; and yet with the image of the rose (which, while associated with many pagan goddesses is more recently linked to the Virgin Mary) a connection with the Divine is made.
This connection with the Divine is strengthened with the subsequent stanza’s initial two slines, recalling the image of Blake’s work (and incidentally concluding the first ‘sentence’ of the poem): “Tiger: till,I,burned,with,their/Pure,and,Rage. Then,was,I,Wrath”. The Tiger, despite being a creature of ‘fearful symmetry’ is sometimes interpreted to symbolize God, but not as the benevolent creator of late Christian traditions but more of a primal deity, mercurial in temperament and fiery when roused. Contrast this with the often peaceful Romantic imagery that is attached to the Rose, and you will find a conflicting milieu between these two forces, with each seemingly trying to gain ascendancy within the persona’s being (note how the second line cuts at the word Wrath). This constant state of opposition between Binaries is highlighted in the lines that follow (Ful/And,most,/Gentle: most,) and partway into the first part of the third ‘stanza’ (Dark,and,yet,most,Lit: in,me,an).
From this roiling conflict within the persona, however, an equilibrium of sorts finally emerges, or perhaps a paradigm-shifting revelation judging from the lines in the third ‘stanza’: “Eye,there,grew:springing,Vision,/Its,/Gold,and,/Its,wars. Then,”. It is an epiphany, yes, but of what? The lines that follow are shed more light on this: “I,knew,the,Lord,was,not,my,Creator!/–Not,He,the,Unbegotten—but,I,saw”. It is a strange reversal indeed, as this reads like an outright rejection of the Divine, despite the comparisons done in the preceding stanzas. After the internalization done in the previous stanzas, the conclusion is as baffling as it makes perfect sense: how indeed can someone of the right mind (and humor one would assume) accept a Divinity so different (see unbegotten, as God was not born like People are, but simply is) and despite purported benevolence has much violence done in its name (the Crusades in the middle ages, and the brutal subjugation of the native peoples of South America by the Spaniards spring to mind), as well as the ostentatious décor being flaunted by its practitioners (after seeing the amount of gold-plated icons in some of the large cathedrals, one would think it ironic that humility is supposed to be a virtue espoused by the Church).
With this virtual rejection of the Divine, the persona also reveals the other answer it has reached: that in the end, if one cannot count on God, then one will have to rely on one’s self. “The,/Creator,/Was,I—and,” seems like the persona’s Prideful ramblings, but in light of its view on the Divine, is a remarkably Humanistic conclusion, that only Man can truly solve Man’s problems. Although Humanity has more often than not exhibited the capacity to destroy and create problems, one must remember that Humanity can also create, and solve problems as well…And when one accepts (somehow) a reality where the Divine is distant and seemingly uncaring, then there really is no recourse but for Man (as a whole) to rely on its own judgment to see it through into the future, something succinctly encapsulated in the final line of the poem: “I,began,to,Die,and,I,began,to,Grow.” Despite having shades of the Biblical Resurrection, it seems to posit that, only when a Person has discarded obsolete notions (‘to Die’) will there be ample opportunity to rely on one’s own strengths to improve his or herself.
Thus the poem as a whole could be seen as a person’s rediscovery of their Self, after years or decades of being dissolute, and affirmation of the capabilities inherent in all of us, breaking through the dam built of self-doubt and entrenched dogma espoused by the society the person had grown up in, thoughts that initially trickled through cracks in the firmament, but eventually becoming a broad torrent of ideas—where Humanity CAN stand on its own two legs, without an omnipresent Divinity watching over our shoulders. It is a revelation that can be cathartic, to say the least.
Doveglion: Collected Poems, Jose Garcia Villa, edited by John Edwin Cohen and prefaced by Luis Francia. Penguin Classics 2008.
The Anchored Angel, Selected Writings by Jose Garcia Villa, edited by Eileen Tabios and prefaced by Jessica Hagedorn. Kaya 1999.