The Domestic and the Unfamiliar in Nick Joaquin’s “Six P.M.”

Six P.M.

Nick Joaquin

Trouvere at night, grammarian in the morning,
ruefully architecting syllables—
but in the afternoon my ivory tower falls.
I take a place in the bus among people returning
to love (domesticated) and the smell of onions burning
and women reaping the washlines as the Angelus tolls.

But I—where am I bound?
My garden, my four walls
and you project strange shores upon my yearning:
Atlantis? the Caribbeans? Or Cathay?
Conductor, do I get off at Sinai?
Apocalypse awaits me: urgent my sorrow
towards the undiscovered world that I
roam warm responding flesh for a while shall borrow:
conquistador tonight, clockpuncher tomorrow.

I stumbled upon Nick Joaquin’s poem in an unlikely place, in a barbershop in Katipunan as my husband was getting a haircut. I was reading the Lifestyle section of a newspaper, and on an artsy Freeway t-shirt that’s all the rage these days is inscribed this little-known but beguiling poem that seems as out of character for Joaquin the short-story writer to have written as the place where I had found the poem.

“Six PM” will easily resonate with everyone who clocks in day in, day out at the office bundy machine. Like most everyone, the speaker/poet has a day job; he is a “grammarian,” an “exalted” term to substitute for being an English teacher perhaps. But the unromantic imagery of clocking in runs smack with the romantic word “trouvere”, which calls up images of bards and jongleurs of yore, with the insistent rhythm of poetry that can only be concocted in some “ivory tower” where the speaker/poet, shut off for a time from the tawdry business of living, feels at home in. But in the afternoon, he must come to abandon the tower, descend, and rejoin humanity below, by taking a seat in a bus that takes him home, along with everyone else, to his family and to his “domesticated” love, as some more domestic images, olfactory, visual and aural—the smell of cooking, women gathering the wash, the angelus tolling the time and calling on the prayerful–complete the snapshot, as it were.

But the journey home takes a long time and the speaker takes a “detour” to symbolic and memoried places (But I–Where am I bound?/… Atlantis, the Caribbeans, or Cathay?//) They not only evoke the legendary and the distant but also the unfamiliar, the undiscovered territories that needed “conquering” because unknown. In the latter part of the second stanza, the images cease being domestic: “strange shores”, “Apocalypse”, “conquistador” connote energy, activity, desire. He entertains the thought being in these active, historical, even Biblical places, even addressing a “you,” maybe an ostensible lover, serving as the simulacrum of an intense, if unfulfilled because unfamiliar, desire:

Apocalypse awaits me: urgent my sorrow

towards the undiscovered world that I

roam warm responding flesh for a while shall borrow:

But the dream vanishes as soon as the bus makes its stop: quite unwillingly he lifts himself up, and abandoning the dream, must begin again. In the morning, he must rise, trudge back to the office, and punch the clock, announcing his arrival. In the last line, by recuperating the ridiculous tandem of “conquistador/clock-puncher” (which might be extended to real vs unreal, realized vs unrealized binaries) the speaker/poet is forever yoked to the irreconcilability of these two terms, unknown and unfulfilled desire for “warm responding flesh” forgotten.


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