ISSUE NO. 1
March 15, 2006[N.B. You can scroll down for all articles or click on highlighted names or titles to go directly to referenced article.]CONTENTS:
EDITOR'S INTRODUCTIONFrom Eileen TabiosNEW REVIEWS
Ernesto Priego reviews HOLIDAY IN TIKRIT
by Keith Tuma and jUStin!katKO
Barry Schwabsky reviews GODLIKE
by Richard Hell
Thomas Fink reviews BIRD & FOREST
by Brent Cunningham
Heather Nagami reviews UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS
by Shin Yu Pai
Mary Jo Malo reviews IMPROVISATIONS
by Vernon Frazer
Leny M. Strobel reviews ALCHEMIES OF DISTANCE
by Carolina Sinavaina-Gabbard
Yvonne Hortillo reviews THE FIRST HAY(NA)KU ANTHOLOGY
, Eds. Jean Vengua & Mark Young
Fionna Doney Simmonds reviews A SOLITARY PINE TREE IN SUSSEX
by Tim Beech
Jennifer Bartlett reviews LIKE THE WIND LOVES A WINDOW
by Andrea Baker
Abigail Licad reviews PINOY POETICS: A COLLECTION OF AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL WRITINGS ON FILIPINO AND FILIPINO-AMERICAN POETICS,
Ed. Nick Carbo
Sueyeun Juliette Lee reviews RED JUICE
by Hoa Nguyen
Jesse Glass reviews 4 videos by Ralph Lichtensteiger: “Homing Crows” Ishikawa Jozan; “Sudden Shower” Ishikawa Jozan; “Dancing Ears” Ned Rorem; and “Trace of the Formless” Plotinus.
Tom Beckett reviews 3 books by Linh Dinh: FAKE HOUSE, AMERICAN TATTS
and BORDERLESS BODIES
Bill Marsh reviews BABELLEBAB
by Heriberto Yepez
Corinne Robins reviews MORAINE
by Joanna Fuhrman
Yvonne Hortillo reviews KATIPUNERA AND OTHER POEMS
by Elsa Martinez Coscolluela
Laurel Johnson reviews THE OBEDIENT DOOR
by Sean Finney
Barry Dordick reviews AFTER TAXES
by Thomas Fink
Eileen Tabios reviews TRANSITORY
by Jane Augustine
Rochita Loenen Ruiz reviews TRILL AND MORDENT
by Luisa A. Igloria
Cati Porter reviews WINTERGREEN
by Charles Bennett
Michael A. Wells reviews ATLAS
by Katrina Vandenberg
William Allegrezza reviews SKINNY EIGHTH AVENUE
by Stephen Paul Miller
Ann E. Michael reviews SNAKESKIN STILETTOS
by Moyra Donaldson
Ann E. Michael reviews OPEN FIRE
by Aaren Yeatts Perry FEATURED POETS
Guillermo Juan Parra presents Martha Kornblith
kari edwards presents Rob Halpern
Eileen Tabios presents Carl GottesmanFROM OFFLINE TO ONLINE: REPRINTED REVIEWS
Rusty Morrison reviews THE AREA OF SOUND CALLED THE SUBTONE
by Noah Eli Gordon
Steffi Drewes reviews THE BABIES
by Sabrina Orah Mark
Laura Stamps reviews MEMPHIS JACK
by Harvey Goldner
Steve Potter reviews TREMBLE & SHINE
by Todd Colby
Steve Potter reviews CONCRETE MOVIES
by Nico Vassilakis
Allen Gaborro reviews 60 lv bo(e)mbs
by Paolo Javier
Anna Eyre reviews VERSO
by Pattie McCarthy
Yvonne Hortillo reviews MUSEUM OF ABSENCES
by Luis H. Francia
Allen Gaborro reviews A BOOK OF HER OWN: Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan
by Leny Mendoza Strobel
Laurel Johnson reviews KIOT: SELECTED EARLY POEMS 1963-1977
by Charles Potts
FROM THE EDITOR
GALATEA RESURRECTS (GR)
synthesizes some thoughts as regards poetry, the internet, poetry publishing, and cultural activism. My intentions certainly need not be of concern to readers who may go directly to each review. But if you are interested in the background to originating this new journal, read on...
First, simply, I'd love for poetry to receive more attention within our culture. I hope GR
helps facilitate such increased attention.
Second, I was interested in GR
being specifically an online publication because online readership is often higher than for many poetry print publications. Relatedly, I wanted to add to the internet data base as regards poetry, given the widespread use of the internet for researching a variety of topics. Moreover, GR's
addition to e-data would be accessible long after each issue's release date (I still get queries involving articles that were published in the internet many years ago). Thus, in addition to new reviews, GR
is open to publishing commentary previously published in a print publication but unavailable within the internet.
Thirdly, poetry publishing offers a history -- an honorable history -- of poets finding the cheapest ways to publish poems and other poetry-related materials as poetry is rarely financially viable. I am particularly tickled by the example today of, amidst 21st century technology, a stapled, xeroxed publication called MIRAGE #4 (PERIODICAL)
co-edited by Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy and often hand-distributed within the Bay Area, CA. In such manner, I consider GR
to be my version of an e-xerox or e-mimeo project. Blogger (at least for now) doesn't charge fees (except for its advanced versions) which no doubt relates to why it's become a popular vehicle among contemporary poets. GR
is situated within that tradition that, e-wise, also manifests itself in poetry publishers' increasing use of print-on-demand technology as well as various Blogger-hosted magazines. For the former, a favorite example is The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel
, a poetry anthology co-edited by Molly Arden and Reb Livingston; this book, published by self-described "housewives", is not reviewed in this issue but I consider it one of the most effective examples of an anthology successfully manifesting its expressed premise. For examples of Blogged journals, visit Duplications
(Ed. Jonathan Mayhew) and LuzMag
(Ed. Lars Palm). This aspect also relates to the "Do-It-Yourself" approach fabulously explored at Shanna Compton's DIY Pub Web Ring
Fourthly, as regards cultural activism, I go back to the nature of the internet. My intent with GR
is partly inspired by the existence of BagongPinay.com
founded by Perla Daly and others. These Filipinas founded the site to offset how internet searches for "Filipina" usually comes up with negative myths, mail order bride sites which may be unsafe, porn sites, among other things. Similarly, I and other Filipina poets and scholars recently set up -- via Blogger -- Your Filipina Pen Pal
to disrupt internet search results for various phrases related to Filipinas and/or pen pals. In this sense, I consider that boosting data content gratis for profit-making corporations is an acceptable price for longer-term benefits: in GR
's case, more attention to poetry in all its forms, schools, approaches and other variety. GR
, therefore, while presenting mostly poetry reviews, is not just about offering a space for boosting sales of reviewed publications (not that there's anything wrong with that result either, of course!).
It's a premise, however, that also makes slippery the way in which I, as Editor, assess the "quality" of submitted reviews. For instance, I passed on one submission (not through the fault of the reviewer's critical or writing ability but because the reviewer was pressed for time to address the book more comprehensively) and confess that I've been considering whether I made a mistake. While the review text was really bare, it did accomplish presenting the existence of a (probably wonderful) book of poems involving horses. Did I miss an opportunity here to place GR
within some internet search that would make an equestrian read a book of poems s/he might not otherwise know? I don't know. (I hope that reviewer gets some more free time in the future and we can revisit this issue.)
With its desire to enhance poetry discourse, GR
also is open to relatively new critics as well as experienced reviewers whose CVs include such established publications as The Boston Review, Artforum
, university press-published critical texts and so on. Basically, I don't want to pre-judge who is a "good" reader of poetry (particularly when I feel a poem can -- not always -- but can be read legitimately in parts). I am grateful to long-time critics who've volunteered their effort with this project, and I hope that this project also will encourage others to engage in more poetry (discourse) in the future.HOUSEKEEPING DETAILS:
The deadline for submitting reviews for the next issue is May 5, 2006. You can review books you own or ask for review copies sent to us. GR
also is open to all styles of reviewing. I accept all forms, though would suggest generally that it's a good idea to provide excerpts of poems to exemplify reviewers' assessments. For more information, go to Galatea's Purse here
Finally, I am very grateful to all the participants. I honestly would have been happy to get just five reviews, thinking that such would suffice to put out a "publication." This issue inaugurates itself with 25 new reviews of 27 poetry publications and a poetry video, e-reprints of ten reviews previously published in print publications, and a section of three featured poets partly chosen by two guest editors. The gratifying response suggests this venture is a good idea, notwithstanding its sloppy birth during one of my bouts of insomnia -- or a better idea than I even anticipated.
Well then: Let's see! And party!Eileen Tabios
St. Helena, CA
March 15, 2006
HOLIDAY IN TIKRIT by KEITH TUMA and JUSTIN!KATKO
ERNESTO PRIEGO reviewsHoliday in Tikrit, by Keith Tuma & jUStin!katKO(Critical Documents, Oxford, Ohio: 2005)
Also published as an uncensored html version in eratio #6. Holiday in Tikrit
, by Keith Tuma & jUStin!katKO, makes things happen. There is an uncanny, abject drive behind this long epic poem: it is as if it were powered by an electric current beyond human control. It works like a dangerous scientific experiment: the signatures behind this piece of work become a collective transfigured in the plural personal noun “we”, making it personal and impersonal at the same time, strange and empathetic in a single stroke.
The small-format chapbook, with a cover photograph of a U.S. soldier [we find out in the inside cover] making a high dive into one of Saddam Hussein’s pools as a Fourth of July celebration, can be described as an artifact, a metaphoric time-bomb if you will. The HTML version indicates Holiday in Tikrit
was written “after Bern Porter
”, the scientist involved in the development of the atomic bomb later turned artist and poet, but the paper version also includes “after Antonin Artaud/ After François Villon
”. A triad of very evocative names, acknowledged as spectral engines propelling this Enola Gay of a poem, a howl
for the George W. Bush America, a big, sound, emphatic “fuck you” to the world in the age of post-late capitalism.
The chapbook, as an object, is stranger, more difficult, than the Internet edition, where the poem becomes more “readable” in a traditional sense. As printed matter, both typographic design and the photographs included help give the poem a subversive aura, a more “punk” attitude, where the D.I.Y feel of the edition adds up to a possible intertextuality with the Holiday in Cambodia
of the Dead Kennedys. As read on paper, Holiday in Tikrit
seems more evidently political, but the self-censorship black bars covering unwanted words and phrases [put there “in deference to the many fine institutions, financial or otherwise, whose monologues blow the long winds of our global theatrics”] make it be something else
, almost a different poem, if by poem we not only understand the words –as type- composing it, but the whole process and result of that complex textual circuitry. Because it’s not only the several “fucks” that have been censored, but words like “downloaded”, fact that only comes to light if one compares both versions. The chapbook version of this Holiday
in global war-zone is then a continuation of the eratio Holiday
, a sort of side-project, a post [but also intra and meta] institutional, public variation of the same theme where what is deleted is still there, as a black block: the celebration of negation; its affirmation as the becoming-meaningful of the denied word.
Differences between the printed and the HTML versions aside, Holiday in Tikrit
appears before us unexpectedly, without warning, yelling with silent pain, maybe not unlike the muted loudness coming out of the image of one naked Vietnamese girl. The poem is structured mainly in quartets that are suddenly but fluently broken by a single line. This pattern is used throughout the poem until the final movement, in which all the tension [a very high electric tension, one could say] explodes into a downslide of words, an apparently unstoppable current of words that become known references that become something else. The poem opens:after the acting up and backing off and the brushing up on
the calling for and calming down and the carrying off
after the clamming up and the chipping in and the coming across
after the coming up against and the counting on and the crossing out
there was nothing left to do but to tell them all to fuck off
A similar pattern will be sampled and remixed all throughout the poem, anaphorically repeating first words of every line [in the quote, the preposition “after”; in later stanzas, the personal pronoun “we”] and using phrasal and two-word verbs in gerund-form as nouns, preceded by the definite article “the”. The obsessive-obsessed usage of the preposition [as the particle that gives special –i.e, metaphoric and idiomatic, signification to a verb] builds the ground for the forceful, reinforcing, long closing off stanza, as well as of those in the middle of the poem, where verbs will defy referentiality to become something else, both political and aesthetic, getting shape from semantic metaphors but also from a very dense, marked alliteration:we incited the soundtrack to explode in the alleys
we witnessed the street rending open before us
we beefed up and charged in and set it on fire
we chained ourselves to train-tracks in protest of commerce
The poem evolves, grows, warms up globally. The poem becomes, through a repetitive rhythm, a march of death, not with the grave seriousness of the passing trains one could listen in Paul Celan’s poetry, but, in this case, with the smile that becomes a sad grin, the revelation of the ridicule through very subtle irony.
Postmodern in the most positive of senses, Holiday in Tikrit
reconciles the poetic and the political from the standpoint of a very acute consciousness of our inability to interfere, to intercede, to interact with and against the situation of the world. There is a sadness here, but also a cynicism, maybe the secret wish for a poetic revolution that would finally pay respect to the likes of Villon and Artaud, that would at last make of poetry a thing that happens, a ticking time-bomb that would not kill but wake from slumber. The poem, then, grows, out of the page, out of its framed stanzas, and by now, towards the end, it has become a nuclear mushroom of phrases, beautiful in its ominous, yet horrifying nature:fuck us for not being Villon Artaud or Porter
fuck us for a buck and a half if you're lucky
fuck us for being Bubba's liberal rejects not abject enough
fuck us for pawning our dictionaries to rent a cheap hookah
fuck us for seeking safe harbor in fricative mouthwash babble
and fuck you motherless turds for bothering to read this
fuck you fuck you fuck it fuck them fuck us fuck it all
Probably the most used transitive verb in the English language, with a multitude of meanings depending on the preposition used after it, “fuck” is the sign of an emotion, the simplest, yet more complex, reaction to the state of the world after
all we have done. But Holiday in Tikrit
is more than a big “fuck you”: it wails like an alarm call, a machinery of loaded words, mainly verbs of action, inserting itself in our skin like the sharp spears of an expanding bullet we never saw coming towards us.
*****Ernesto Priego was born in Mexico City. He holds a BA in English Literature from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and an MA in Cultural Studies from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. He is a teacher, essayist and poet.
GODLIKE by RICHARD HELL
BARRY SCHWABSKY reviews Godlike by Richard Hell (Akashic Books, 2005)
“In the future,” one reads early on in Godlike
, “all poetry will be translation”—a line that, itself, sounds suspiciously like a translation or at least a quotation of or allusion to a text that already exists somewhere (though perhaps not in the work of Mallarmé, whom Hell’s narrator has just been discussing). Even this fact of having a narrator—something that in most writers’ hands is just a blandly self-evident fact of conventional technique—turns out to be something like a fact of translation: Narrator and author paraphrase or reinterpret each other between the lines. This “novel”—Richard Hell’s second, following Go Now
, 1996, and the 2001 collection of prose pieces and poetry, Hot and Cold
—is hardly written the way a novelist would write it. It is altogether a poet’s work.
What a poet’s novel needn’t be, thankfully, is “well-written.” Nothing here of that neurotic polishing of sentences into bland smoothness that characterizes most of what the publishing industry calls “literary fiction.” This prose, like poetry, moves at the speed of thought and just as awkwardly. Its jangly, nervous, unpredictable music, slipping abruptly between the first person of memoir and a storyteller’s more distanced third person, is thrillingly thin-skinned. Anyone who ever doubted that Hell could achieve with words along something as compelling as what he’s done with words and music together (Blank Generation
, 1977; Destiny Street
, 1982; Dim Stars
, 1992; Time
, 2002; Spurts
, 2005) will have to think again.
To put it bluntly, Hell has translated the story—maybe it would be better to say, the legend—of Paul Verlaine’s affair with Arthur Rimbaud starting in 1871 into the idiom of scuzzy Manhattan in 1971. The 16-year-old provincial hothead—here called Randall Terence Wode, familiarly “T.”—who arrives in the big city knowing that “to give offense was his mission, his meaning” inevitably recalls the Richard Meyers, as he still called himself then, who turned up in New York at about the same age a few years earlier. But as much as the author of Godlike
might have been tempted to see his younger self in the teenaged poet invading the metropolis, he gives the story’s telling (and the reader’s empathy) over to the older married poet, Paul Vaughan, the perplexed witness of this manipulative and unkempt meteor.
“I may be in the loony bin but I am not an unreliable narrator,” Paul insists. His seemingly self-contradictory statement is worth taking seriously. For one thing, the book doesn’t have enough plot to make any tricky narrative devices necessary. The book is compulsively readable but what moves it forward is the urgency of rumination on a series of encounters, most notably of course the fateful one between T. and Paul but not only that one: Figures emerge out of the background and then disappear, their advent being without particular narrative consequence yet of enigmatic spiritual significance. In fact, the question of whether a life-transforming encounter really has any upshot is one that lurks behind the entire book. That eventually T. will have to get bored with Paul, and Paul will shoot his young lover, is a result, not so much of Hell’s formal decision to echo the Rimbaud/Verlaine story, as of internal necessity the lovers have to short-circuit a self-contained dyad that can only keep leaking away emotion as it feeds only on itself. Boredom, in so many words, though articulated with such insistence as to feel deeply sexy.
Yet always there is the possibility that this monotony will flare up with some illumination. “Most of the time we are only a little alive, like a book in an obscure language,” T. tells Paul.” To love someone is to translate them and thereby kindle their life again for a while. Which must be why, as Paul declares, no longer couching his recognition as a prediction for the future but as a present fact, “All poetry is translation!” And Hell has practiced what Paul preaches. When T. tells his anomic friend Catherine that she looks like she’s been out in the sun, “you could almost be someone else, the way your face is like switched on so the…freckles are highlighted,” and she responds, “I am
someone else,” the reader must know that Rimbaud’s famous words are being filtered through hers, and hers through his. Likewise, when Paul’s buddy Ted shows him a new poem he’s written, one instantly recognizes it as a transposition of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” as if the fictional poet were unknowingly translating an American poem into another American poem. The whole novel is a tissue of citations, renderings, transpositions, versions. Every life is woven from bits of lives that were lived before. Does this make them less real, or does their reality consist just in this?
*****Barry Schwabsky is an American poet and art critic living in London. His most recent publication is the chapbook
Tephra, from Black Square Editions.
BIRD & FOREST by BRENT CUNNINGHAM
THOMAS FINK reviews: Bird & Forest by Brent Cunningham(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005)
The first two-thirds of Brent Cunningham’s debut volume Bird & Forest
are occupied by two long, ambitious sequences, the prose-poem “The Orations of Trillius Patronius” and the book’s title-text (including prose-poetry and verse). Cunningham’s unindented paragraphs tend to be short--generally two or three sentences of short and medium length. The single line of white space between paragraphs can be said to function like a stanza/strophe break in poetry or, when successive paragraphs are very brief, like an unenjambed line break. Although I will focus entirely on these two pieces, I should note that the last third of the book includes such successful prose-poems as “The Jellyfish,” “The Future,” and “The Cake,” as well as the concluding single-strophe poem, “The Troubling Volume.”
“The Orations of Trillius Patronius” presents a classical Roman orator who never existed and who sometimes miraculously quotes non-Roman modern writers. If such oratory, at different times, is supposed to dispense philosophical wisdom, call for ethical conduct, including sacrifice during crises, condemn current social tendencies, and present a self (whether through confession or self-justification) to promote virtue, argue for a political position, or gain, regain, or consolidate power, Cunningham brings conflicting aspects of these aims into play in nearly all of the twelve “Orations.” Bakhtinian heteroglossia, including a bevy of double-voiced discourses, results.
Trillius Patronius can trill patronizingly, sing sincerity and authenticity like Columbia critic Lionel Trilling, and (ironically or shrilly) remind his auditors of his and their own patronage. Is he just like a duplicitous DC politician? Unlike them, he can never sustain self-serving rhetoric for long, often moving to a meta-rhetorical gesture: “There is no surprise left in these words. You know the conventions will speak first, and my opinions in the anterior. Furthermore you know I also know these limitations. We know as much as the other knows, which makes it all shameful” (31).
But Cunningham’s juxtapositions of moods and rhetorical elements do keep “surprise. . . in these words.”
Part of the delight in reading Trillius’ meta-statements is to imagine a Bush or Cheney suddenly ignoring the teleprompter, reaching into the unconscious, and attaining such reckless candor. Also, whereas politicians generally expose their shortcomings to maximize voter sympathy, indicate humility, and stress their positive transformations, Trillius in the “Tenth Oration” does none of this:My friends, I can hear you whispering. In the halls of this building, buying your steaming piles of beef, I can hear rumors as if they were my own conscience.
Let’s therefore speak directly and plainly, O my community. I will confess to everything tonight, for I have nothing against facing myself.
As you say, I am a hard goat of a man, as tight and unnatural as an apple core. My speeches have never taken anyone by the hand. Especially, they have never invited the stranger to sit by their fire, but are pleased to stand above the audience in robes of impenetrable charm.
Would it kill me to simply say: I have never understood others, my father was in management, and it is 5:15 in the evening? (28)
The “as if” in the second sentence involves a teasing ambiguity: does Trillius take the audience’s “rumors” as proof of his own guilt, or is he complaining about their unwarranted affront to his sensitivity? “An apple core,” though “tight,” is not “unnatural”; the simile tells us nothing about the speaker’s psychic “core.” Trillius’ language may be relatively “direct and plain” enough, but he simultaneously flaunts and criticizes his “speeches’” “impenetrable charm.” If politicians deprecate their own speaking ability to suggest their possession of virtues that are more important for governing, Trillius emphasizes, as no one hoping to overcome disapproval would, his inability to empathize with his fellow citizens, his “solitude” (to the extent that he might dream “of being the village idiot”), and a “self-absorption” and “arrogance” that, evidently, persists. His “father” being “in management” seems an odd excuse for his apartness, especially when a politico could put a positive spin on inheritance of management abilities.
To counterbalance his weaknesses, Trillius offers no redemptive program—only maxims, when, at the end, he mentions “the poet Nicolai Umperto, . . . who did not fear the incoherent as I do,”
but “cherished the glint of the ocean as much as the wine in his glass”
and “used to say of language that there was finally not much to it” (29).
Appreciation of tiniest manifestations of beauty and skepticism about language’s communicative power are valid concepts for an orator to support, but here, the concepts are an after-thought. This confessional oration scores him no points with the audience of “dear friends, malicious enemies, and fellow senators” (12),
except for the possible “charm” of elusiveness. Perhaps he uses the backdrop of an audience to soothe himself with complex layers of self-justification, including the final aesthetic “program.”
Various passages in the prose-poem suggest Trillius trying to achieve goals different from mere self-acceptance. In some, venting of a general loathing for humanity seems the aim. Trillius in “First Oration” first accords his audience conventional respect, but soon, “my friends” and “noble listeners” give way to the attitude expressed in the speech’s linguistically plural, rhyming subtitle, “Buenas Nochas, Roaches”: “I have already answered the most despicable of my accusers”; “But it is late, and I must take my leave of you narcissists, bad businessmen, and unsavory actresses-lovers” (11).
In “Sixth Oration,” the coda represents cynicism about human relationships’ ethical possibilities: “And so, let me conclude by saying that no person loves except in exchange for love. . . . What do we have, my friends, except the question: Who stood to gain?” (21-22).
Nevertheless, Trillius, who frequently refers to military dangers facing his nation but continually defers consideration of them, is occasionally depicted as suspending exigencies of personal gain, self-absorption, and misanthropy enough to speculate on possibilities of sustaining democracy, a theme currently of great import in the U.S. In “Fourth Oration (On Democracy),” an aura of fatalism, mixed with cynicism and bloviated overgeneralization, impedes his attempt “to reason together” with his listeners about this issue, yet the melioristic dream remains. For him, “immortality is the great obsession of democracy,”
because “it knows very well how things can turn out”
and “knows you”—the “citizens”—“are the most compromised and calculating of beings” (17),
susceptible to tyranny’s lures. Admitting that many social matters were solved by superstitious procedures before democracy’s advent, Trillius tacitly acknowledges rationality as a very imperfect improvement: Before our empire was founded, decisions were being made using the lightning, swords, and birds of the natural surroundings. A rock was wrapped in a cloth, and hurled into the canyon.
Things are different now. But how are they different? We find that the rock is now covered with mirrors.
My friends, the individual falls with her country. Isn’t it true that she can see power falling alongside her, in its most murderous and noble intentions, and meanwhile cannot see herself fall?
Democracy only pities itself. . . .
Today democracy bleeds, cries, and expands itself. Every day of its young life it declares itself more scientific than the last, its instruments the very genetic instruments it so deplores.
Nevertheless the ballots are distributed. Calm, in a gentle rain of numbers, pervades the voting area. . . .
And so we find, shall we say, that a system without flaws is not a system. The mind can see democracy lying to itself. And it can feel the feelings of pleasure and superiority. (17-18)
The trope of the “rock . . . covered with mirrors”
suggests that people’s narcissism can dilute or even smother democracy, but, along with the repeated personification of the concept, it also reflects the speaker’s strange way of splitting a political idea from its origin in human minds. How could a conceptual “rock” exist outside its representability in terms of human interactions? Only individuals with democratic ideals could be “obsessed” with the “immortality” of democratic praxis.
And yet, the personification raises the idea that human beings can design a version of democracy that serves relatively few and oppresses many. In mentioning “our empire,” Trillius reminds us that Rome’s prosperity was based on conquest and enslavement; U.S. democracy’s economic success can be tied, not only to slavery and patriarchal domination, but to imperialist practices. Thus, democracy’s self-expansion through war and commerce is not always a good thing, or not entirely so; its “scientific. . . instruments” may serve domination. As in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, the “calm” of “voting” masks how “democracy” can be “lying to itself.” However, included in Trillius’ discourse is the possibility of “the mind” uncovering this lie and, rather than feeling “pleasure and superiority,” combating the tendency and working out some of the “system’s” “flaws” by expanding access to its benefits. Realization of “pure,” limitless, “flawless” democracy seems impossible to conceive, but Trillius’ rhetoric here provides a choice of whether to embrace fatalism and cynical individualism or to try to make democratic collectivity steadily more inclusive.
The acute self-awareness characterizing “The Orations of Trillius Patronius” is given even greater play in “Bird & Forest,” since the latter text is nine pages (or 1 ½ times) longer. The title-text begins with “Truth is the Flaw,” an enigmatic, four-couplet lyric about a warning bell “daily rung by idiotes” and featuring mangled spelling and syntax. This concentration on the interplay of accuracy and error is followed by “Preface to the Bird & Forest,” which establishes, in a deadpan tone, a fundamental dramatic situation, the image that mysteriously came to obsess the speaker in the midst of a boring day:We presume there is something to understand. If we understand it, we say, we will be satisfied.
The date was November 24, 2001. A warm, bright day. Seeing how everyone is asked to do something, I was doing something. Around me, rows of people walked through a massive, windowless building, without air or light, between displays of books. It was difficult to stay awake.
During the early afternoon, there appeared to me the image of a bird approaching a forest, then flying into it. In front of and behind the bird, a crooked, faint, illuminated shaft marked the path of its flight.
Later, I determined there were three components to this image: the forest, the bird, and the route of its movement.
What was there to understand about this image? Wasn’t it like every other one to appear in the history of images? Nevertheless I remembered it.
At least a month passed. Time was moving along. I had drawn a few pictures of birds flying through trees. If there was something to understand, I was happier not to perform that task. (38)
“November 24, 2001,” which might be the day that Cunningham began the poem, was a little over two months after 9/11; it was also the day that “two fast-moving coronal mass ejections (CMEs) struck Earth’s magnetic field” and spawned “Northern Lights” in the U.S. and “Southern Lights” “in New Zealand and Australia (http://www.spaceweather.com /aurora/gallery_24 nov01.html
). In addition, a tornado killed people and destroyed homes in Mississippi and Alabama on that day (http://www.tornadoproject.com/past/pastts01.htm
). Indeed, the image of the bird’s flight could be interpreted either as an occasion for the aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty or a violent act or an existential gesture or many other things. The desire “not to perform [the] task” of understanding—which does not stop Cunningham from producing an eighteen-section text with such blatantly hermeneutic (Wallace Stevens-influenced?) section-titles as “Principle of the Forest,” “Principle of the Bird,” “Notes on the Two Principles,” “Part 2: The Exact, Exact Bird,” “5 Maxims of the Bird & Forest” (And Forest),” “5 Axioms of the Bird & Forest,” and “Footnote to the Abdication”—may be rooted in the sense that our presumption that “there is something to understand” is fatuous, because severe overdetermination attends every conversion of image into trope or image into narrative frame: “The bird is everything! The forest is everything! Your [feeling] is what is nothing! Your [religion] is what is nothing!. . . Your theory [itself] is nothing of itself!” (58).
When the image is a depiction of an action, overdetermination also haunts the tracing of that action to a motive. The situation’s instability is underscored by the fact that three successive sections, each termed “Description,” displace some of the particulars of the opening narrative with a different setting, the most extreme being “a ditch” in which the speaker awakens (42). Obsession, of course, is not going to be deterred by awareness that interpretive action is futile: “In its cruelty the mind demands two contradictory things: to hear itself and to escape itself” (50).
“Abdication,” in fact, uses an elaborately formal set of assertions to parody the supposition that one can achieve total detachment from one’s vital concerns, and especially from the will to interpretation: “I abdicate my bird, my forest,/ my right to speak of it/ my right to know it is mine/ my right to be known by it/ and to see its implications” (64).
Instead of “abdication,” and alongside allegory about the orphaning of the signifier from the signified and about a tortured, self-conscious inability to shake free of nostalgia for stable symbolic meaning, in “Bird & Forest,” conjectural play with multiple narrative/interpretive possibilities (that one knows are fictions) permits some investigation of the complexities of desire, will, and response to environmental conditions. “Principle of the Forest” begins: “The forest has no principle to begin with. If we decide to have our bird stand for human speech, the forest will grow an auditory canal, a middle ear, a cochlea. If we prefer our bird to be the soul, the forest will leaden and concretize itself” (43).
“Bird & Forest” features relatively few images of war or violence, often juxtaposed with very different images or abstractions, but, because the date of “November 24, 2001” appears near the beginning, and because the notion of haunting is central to the work, a reader would naturally consider these passages in the context of 9/11: “Meanwhile the government defends itself” (47); “It was blood and phlegm that came from that dilapidation, more than their economy, contained in their actual bleeding and being put into actual vehicles, at all hours” (52-53). In a single section, a few paragraphs apart but separated by a meditation on artistic production and language, are a passage that could refer to the terrorists’ suicidal collision with the Twin Towers (and new suicide bombers ready to take their place) and one that strengthens the tropological link between bird and airplane: “In short, I understood: the bird had died in its flight, while another had taken its place. . . . My bird, my forest. How they sickened and excited me. Then a new set of concerns came along, new technologies, a new lease on life. Metal sides, rubber wheels, metal feathers, glass windows, bridges, roads, floats, tunnels. The flyer entered a forest mechanical” (54). Even if the bird’s death could mean the inability to hold a precise image in mind for long and “new technologies” could indicate a positive force, not a reference to WMDs, it is difficult not to think of the lethal airplanes as a referent for “metal feathers.” Also, “bridges, roads,” and “tunnels” are obvious targets for a terrorist attack. Direct reference to 9/11, again, interspersed with different concepts and images, occurs in the text’s very last section, “Epilogue to the Bird & Forest”:A wife leaves her husband. A plane flies into a building. A belief enters a state of doubt. A person tries to know something. A person climbs from a ditch. An empire invades its ruins. A madness goes through a sphere of order. An order goes through a sphere of madness. A husband leaves his wife. A woman finds herself in a forest of phalluses. A person is lost. A person sees glimpses of light. Images fly through images. A creature flies through the woods.
We are taught: experience, then emotion, then thought. But what do we practice?
The day was July 28, 2003. A warm, bright day. (67)
The text’s “action” announces its enclosure within a less than two year interval, a time of war, beginning and ending, ironically, with “a warm, bright day.” In the first two of the simple, declarative sentences in the long paragraph above, a jarring juxtaposition of domestic departure and terrorist arrival sets a tone for disjunction that also invites the making of connections. One “belief” entering “doubt” is the illusion of U.S. invulnerability. “Bird”-citizens have entered a “forest” of insecurity; this is reinforced by the interchangeability of directions of change in the binary “madness/order.” Alluding to the Beckettian place from which, in one version, the speaker first saw the bird’s flight, “the ditch” may signify not only paralyzing doubt from which someone strives to “climb” but also Ground Zero’s ditch, once the destruction was cleared away. The strange reference to “empire” and “ruins” is multiply legible: the U.S. administration plunders (capitalizes on) 9/11’s devastation to justify an imperialist project (beyond legitimately fighting terrorism); it seeks to make persuasive media “images fly through images.” Islamic fundamentalist leaders, whose patriarchal ideology puts women “in a forest of phalluses,” ransacks the fact of many Moslems’ economic “ruins” to expand their antidemocratic “empire.” The arrow from “experience” to “emotion” to “thought” may be logical, but Cunningham’s speaker is right to wonder “what. . . we practice,” because “Bird & Forest,” like the book in general, continually questions bases for articulating what constitutes “experience,” “thought,” and their complex interplay.
*****Thomas Fink, Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, is the author of two books of criticism, including
A DIFFERENT SENSE OF POWER (2001), and three books of poetry, most recently
AFTER TAXES (Marsh Hawk, 2004). His work has appeared in
JACKET, VERSE, TALISMAN, CHICAGO REVIEW, DENVER QUARTERLY, x-Stream, MORIA, MILK, AUGHT, OCTOPUS, CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE, AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, and numerous other journals and ezines. Fink's paintings hang in various collections.
UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS by SHIN YU PAI
HEATHER NAGAMI reviews Unnecessary Roughness by Shin Yu Pai(xPress(ed), 2005, available through lulu.com)
Playful, technical, deadpan, grave, precise, dynamic, daring—these are all words that came to my mind while reading Shin Yu Pai’s chapbook, Unnecessary Roughness
. From playground dodgeball to bodybuilding, Unnecessary Roughness
is a unique exploration of how physical activities shape our roles in society, our senses of self, and our sexualities. A skilled poet and visual artist, Shin Yu Pai utilizes her creative faculties to their fullest.
What struck me in the opening pages of Unnecessary Roughness
was Pai’s recognition of the book’s physicality—its own identity as a work on paper—not just ideas, but a self-conscious visual creation. The first two pages offer diagrams of two familiar sites: four square and dodge ball. Each is partially a diagram (four squares, a circle), and partially a written poem. The former conjures feelings of both familiarity and disorientation (i.e. “Yes, I remember this,” and “What, I’m in a poem?”) with the added benefit of Pai’s embellishments, which include two concentric circles in the dodge ball diagram, instead of just one, eerily resembling a bull’s-eye. The latter, the words on the diagram, are an interesting mix of familiar playground put-downs (e.g. “scaredycat” and “baby”) and the more obviously consequential “fag” and “pussy” (7). These are mappings of hierarchies, the origin of names, and the nature of childhood socialization.
Pai commands great precision over her words and also her word processing software. In “square it up,” words and phrases trickle down the page diagonally, backward, and forward, resembling trails where a child might have run during a four square game. As a four square alumnus myself, this all looked too familiar, until I read the text, “bobbling,” “chicken feet,” and “serving bitch,” which I only later found (through some research on Google) to actually be technical Four Square terminology (6). Did Pai remember these terms from grammar school? Or is she, too, a Google researcher? I had to wonder. However, no matter how she might answer, this alien language pointed to a community that was more complex and intricate than I knew. This feeling resonated with Pai’s remapping of my own childhood memories.
While Pai uses her word processor’s palette freely, she also demonstrates the limitations of such a palette. Exclamation marks separate the vertical lanes in a swimming pool diagram in the poem, “wet area.” Judging by the imprecise spacing, I do not think that Pai used tabs; so I imagined her typing something like this: exclamation point, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, exclamation point, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, two-character word, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, exclamation point. This is a hands-on, laborious piece that speaks to the boundaries created within a societal system that stunts and discourages personal growth and creativity.
In Unnecessary Roughness
, Shin Yu Pai exposes the grim realities that await us under the guise of children’s games and sports. The three poems I have discussed represent only a small portion of what I found in this truly unique chapbook. Pai uses a full and diverse range of poetic devices that, along with the integrated visuals, demonstrates her devotion to the arts. This is the first piece I’ve read by Pai, and I’m hooked.
*****Heather Nagami's first book,
Hostile, was published by Chax Press in 2005. Heather earned her B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing at U.C. Santa Cruz and an M.F.A. at University of Arizona, where she also taught poetry and edited Sonora Review. Her work has appeared in
Antennae, Rattle, Shifter, and
Xcp (Cross-Cultural Poetics). Along with her fiancé, Bryan, Heather runs overhere press, a small press that published chapbooks by people of color and other underrepresented voices.
IMPROVISATIONS by VERNON FRAZER
MARY JO MALO reviews IMPROVISATIONS by Vernon Frazer(Beneath the Underground Press, 2005)SAY WHAT
I've encountered many poetics pedagogues, but the bottom line is always subjective. We enjoy what moves us, not what we think should move us. Vernon Frazer’s IMPROVISATIONS
is my new outlaw book of poetry. It violates every misconception of what poetry and language are -- a deluge of sound and fury, signifying nothing. IMPROVISATIONS
, as a narrative of self, other, and being, seems to be meant more for reading than hearing. If you're familiar with his voice, however, you can hear him reading it to you. But, in which order, and with whom? That is the point. Is he speaking in an unknown language, using words that we only thought we understood? I get caught up in his gentle grip, questioning everything, loving the ambiguity and the absurdity.
Phenomenology, epistemology, and the post-modern view of language and self, permeate much of the work of poet Vernon Frazer. Deconstruction of language itself, for the purpose of enabling communication between the poet and audience, only seems oxymoronic.
Projective verse and philosophy of language are a natural fit, and when Frazer so utterly and fearlessly puts forth, he is a forerunner, not of any particular post-modern literature, but as an example of how he, individually, approaches the quagmire of "meaning" in a poetic form. His essence and existence continually outrun one another for primacy. His projective verse subverts my attempt to create any meaning. Follow his flow to the end and see the state of communication, not a state of the union. Has language become a forerunner of meaning? Which style, which medium, font, form or technology is relevant?
What Frazer seems to have discovered for himself is that language whether spoken as spontaneous prosody, or its polar opposite, usually fails as transitive communication. Frazer holds interesting and provocative words as shades of color. What does color mean? His life experience has been deeply contemplated. When he begins to paint with his words, like say Jackson Pollock, he runs ahead of himself, or is that alongside himself? Words are subliminally brought forth from the living museum of his own unique mind. So which comes first? What is essence or existence? Is there potential wholeness of being? Are there any categories, or even relevant questions? Does the manifestation of any collection of words and images have to mean anything at all to anyone? What is the point of communication through art? Is a human being anything other than an instrument of expression? Expression of what?
Even seeing his glossolalia is to grasp the moebius of communication. And then, I'm rendered nearly speechless, an effect of reading aloud his many words: I fade into a numb silence. He understands the futility of most of what passes for talking and writing. The body, the tongue as instruments? The point of poetry? The point of speaking? The point of communication? Everything and nothing.
Spontaneous, obviously. Simultaneity, hoped for. Subcutaneous, definitely.
For me life as art (or art as life, life as life, or art as art) is the body expressing a mind full of words and images, provided by others and projected back into the world of others, each of whom has a mind full of other words and images. Connections are rare and transitory. We behold individual bodies, but we refuse to accept that individual minds are entangled in those individual bodies. We hope we can communicate ideas as if they could transubstantiate into water, earth, air and fire. It only seems that words can take us out of our bodies, into an imagined place of collective understanding. When words become as substantial as the body from which they're uttered, well then, I might believe anything is possible. Strange though, words do sustain me from time to time, almost as if they are bread and roses.
For me, Frazer's work is the improvisation of his life. Many poets are afraid to improvise, afraid to reveal themselves to themselves, let alone to the world. Many poets simply dabble. I feel that in the short span of one's existence, one doesn't have time to dabble.
Vernon Frazer has published eight books of poetry and three books of fiction. His most recent works are the long poems Avenue Noir
, the now-completed work which he introduced in his 2001 reading at the Poetry Project.
*****Mary Jo Malo describes herself as a continuing undergrad in the School of Hard Knocks. Her C.V. is that she was born in 1949; in and out of foster homes for 18 years; newly separated from husband of nearly 40 years; proud mother of seven; extensive researcher of world religions and philosophy. She worked as a sales, marketing and advertising coordinator for a manufacturer of large electrical power apparatus. In 1993 she was disabled in an auto accident in the Rocky Mts. of Colorado. Never fully recovered and forced into early retirement, she’s had an abundance of time to pursue her favorites, poetry and philosophy, cosmology and evolution. These days as novice to modern and post-modern poetry, she’s been delighted to discover the Beat and post-Beat writers, among many others. While hoping she has miles to go in her adventure,and appreciating every poet and critic who takes time to talk with her as she seeks to better express her own voice, Mary Jo Malo finds now herself in good company. She is also the host and moderator of Company of Poets, a poetics mailing list/discussion group.
ALCHEMIES OF DISTANCE by CAROLINE SINAVAIANA-GABBARD
LENY MENDOZA STROBEL reviews ALCHEMIES OF DISTANCE by Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard(Honolulu,Hawaii: Subpress/Tinfish / Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, 2001)
It was in the midst of big sky, open space, and the dead of winter in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that I first became aware that I am an Island Girl. In that place the dark mood and unknown fear that enveloped me was inexplicable. How can this natural beauty be emotionally devastating?
Looking at a map years later, I stare at the small space that My Islands inhabit compared to the size of the North American continent. The Islands are shaped like a gura in a kali pose or perhaps even a dancer in mid-air as she jumps over clapping bamboos. Did I really come from one of those 7,100 islands?
As a child, I wasn’t taught to think of myself as living on an island. Words like “archipelago,” “islands,” didn’t mean much to a child whose perception of the sky is as limitless as her imagination. As I lay on my back watching the clouds, I made up stories while the clouds shift-shaped in slow motion. In that stillness, I felt the Earth move and melted into the mystery of it all.
As an adult hearing words like “island fever,” the apologetic tone of folks who said they are “from the Islands,” and the patronizing gaze of the one who exclaimed: I just love the Philippine Islands!
didn’t make sense to me until I sat in the shadow of the Grand Tetons wondering why I missed My Islands.Alchemies of Distance
by Samoan American poet Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard, came to me as a gift at a time when I was reflecting on the awareness of distances, accidents of geography, and the latitudes and longitudes of emotions as they are stretched by the postcolonial experience.
Poetry as Oxygen.
Gabbard is also an Island Girl who traverses maps and terrains of all kinds. Through Poetry she discovers the alchemical consequences of distances traveled: islands to continent, past into present into a possible future. She writes of the “moving line of poetry” which captures the voices, the breaths, songs that are capable of compensating for the losses under colonialism. Poetry as a lifeline. Plus “Polynesian navigator DNA genes plus a few stray from the European side.” Colonialism and its partner, patriarchy, is the ocean on which her lifeboat must remain stable and safe. Poetry keeps her from falling off the boat.“…distances -- of the space, time, or heart – can be transformed by poetry (via the breath) into deeper proximities, other ways of being connected” (12).
I am interested in these “other ways of being connected” and I find affirmation in Gabbard’s acknowledgement that in spite of her literary/academic credentials her first mentors remain her parents and the talk story traditions of the Samoan culture. Samoan epistomelogy crisscrosses with her inspiration from other favorite poets like Charles Olson, T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, Seymour Glass plus lessons from Tibetan Buddhism -- all demonstrate the possibility of a writer’s life for colored girls (18).
The first four poems in this section give soft glimpses into an Island girl’s life: In “Granny,” her Samoan Granny who married an American sailor raises three kids by herself without a widow’s pension from the US Navy because he had a wife and kids in Oklahoma. But we all turned out okay anyway, Granny, thanks to you and the good man you raised up as a son and the woman he married (34).
Island Girl grows up: In paradise rejected (35),
she rejects her white, middle class, suburban existence when she realizes that the real action is /just across beale street from the colored folks’ houses/where zora neale might have consorted w/high john de conquer & john henry/where I needed to be (36).
In the next poem, untitled
(37), her sorrow is palpable as the mossy boulders of marriage threaten to keep her boat from moving on; she does anyway with a cloud trail, a banyan and sage for road signs. She discovers the Buddhist principle of No Expectations in pilgrim’s progress (38)
Farewell, Expectations and False Hope!
on second thought, don’t fare well. fare badly. fall
& break your wily neck.
maybe i’ll be someone else entire/& entire?
whose exact nature eludes; some hybrid beast?…
Perhaps it is the familiarity of these themes in my own life that makes me admire Gabbard’s poems. As a postcolonial subject, I know the unmooring that begins in the psyche much earlier than the actual geographic displacement from island to continent, from a bland suburban existence to impossible dreams of return. Distances that elude firm grasp of the hope of a lasting embrace. I need not belabor the colonial history of My Islands here; suffice it to say that we share a map of the evening sky with other Pacific Islander navigators.Malaga
All of the poems, but one, in this section were all written in Samoa during the late 1980s and early 90s. Many of the poems reference indigenous Samoan figures including the invocation of the powers of Nafanua, the warrior goddess and heroine in Samoan legend and Tina/Mother in Sa Nafanua (43)
your heart moves our blood
your hand steers our boat
and plants us like seeds in the new
land/sing for us Tina.
The Samoan word for family ghosts is aitu; in Filipino the word for ancestral spirits is anitu/o. In the poem, Afiafi
(47) and then, only aitu afoot now
their favorite hour & mine
for marginal beings to patrol our borders,
leaving all others to cluster
indoors, to pray/to wash/to feed
& beckon us hurry into lamplight.
…reminds me of the stories I heard in childhood about anitos and other ghosts trawling at dusk for children who refuse to come in from an afternoon of play. I am the little girl of six folding to sit at grandpa’s legs for evening prayer in ianeta’s dance (49).
Even War news (50) travels to the remote Samoan island and disturbs a congress of chickens and a brown hen teaching wee chicks the art of pecking coconuts from the half-shell…LAST NIGHT, AN AMERICAN WARSHIP SHOT DOWN
A PASSENGER AIRLINER OVER THE PERSIAN GULF.
290 PEOPLE DEAD. PRESIDENT REAGAN DECLINES TO COMMENT, VICE
PRESIDENT BUSH DECLINES TO ISSUE APOLOGY.
As if needing reprieve from the news of war, may your sleep be blessed (52)
is a prayer for her warrior sisters* and married to the moment (54)
values the need to surrender to the moment.
According to theories of travel**, traveling can either be playful and unplayful depending on the direction of one’s travel. North to South is playful. South to North is unplayful. In an/other way, however, Gabbard invokes a sense of rootedness that allows her to travel in a Buddhist-sort of manner of no expectations -- in which case, playful or not, travel just is. Nonetheless, such non-expectation is often what opens up the world to us, including the unexplored realm of Memory: of names, places, and events that are rooted in the Land. Island. Island of Lamentations.Tagi
/Lamentmaybe you died of disgust, uncle/
the sight of all this expensively-crafted trash:
decorator throw pillows in slick island motifs/
the colors of vomit.(60)
The poems in this section are elegies for the psychic and physical destruction visited upon the land and its peoples: clumps of pathos/fake tapa & Hawaiian deities air-brushed on tanks & tees (59); the tyrant’s hand imprinted there/on your dagger & gown (61); suicide at 20 (63).
Yet, the poet does not surrender easily; she raises a fist of protest in rewriting the “star strangled banner” in the most recently-written (presidents’ day 2001) poem in the book, on form & content, or: slouching toward texas (65).o say can you see that the
ramparts we watch are so
the blood of children/their
small offshore fingers weaving
color in the garment factories
w/ the blood of our own
children in lockup/in the
hood/or on the corner/ in
o say can you see
the bright dance of Kali
in the dawn’s early light?Alchemies of Distance
wouldn’t be the gift that it is if it had ended on Lament. Indeed, it ends with Reunion -- four poems celebrating other indigenous peoples: Maori, Haitians and Cubans, Hawaiians. Felicity. Endurance. Survival. Hope. For seven generations and more.
Nowadays I can sit on the slope of a mountain in Aspen enjoying the wild columbine and visit with my mother in the Islands all in the same moment. Wittgenstein’s lesson on epochal change calls for this return to alchemy where we let go of the mind’s language games -- thinking, understanding, perceiving, and other mental processes -- so that we may recover and renew the inner life that calls to us via ritual. Poetry as a Ritual of traveling across and through perceived borders could indeed be the lifeline for an Island Girl like me.
----* This poem is dedicated to “Ria and the African-German sisterhood”
** See Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception,” in
Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color (pp.390-402) (Aunt Lute Books, 1990).
*****Leny Mendoza Strobel is Assistant Professor of American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University. She is the author of
Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans (2001, Giraffe Books) and
A Book of Her Own: Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan (2005, Tiboli Press). Her scholarly work and creative nonfiction essays appear in various books, academic journals, and online ezines. She welcomes comments here: email@example.com.
THE FIRST HAY(NA)KU ANTHOLOGY, Ed. by JEAN VENGUA & MARK YOUNG
YVONNE HORTILLO reviews THE FIRST HAY(NA)KU ANTHOLOGY, Edited by Jean Vengua and Mark Young(Meritage Press, 2005)Spaces and the things they occupy:
Reading "The First Hay(na)ku Anthology"
Sometimes when there's so much going on in one's mind, there is a tendency to be brief and curt but well-meaning in one's speech. You
should get together.
fall in love.
(Tom Beckett, "Dear Reader,")
Being succinct takes courage -- one's skill in communication is tested by conveying entire messages and landmark life stories in ten nanoseconds or less. This skill is handy in busy offices, big cities and harvest season. One has to be skilled in counting time and picking details. my mother tells
because i'm not
she can hide
i can't i
try but i
watching me story
(Nicholas Downing, "because")
All great stories are the result of great obssessions -- like the form hay(na)ku by Eileen Tabios. To celebrate the 2003 Philippine Independence Day, she decided to use a passing fixation on counting and her recent reading of Jack Kerouac's opinion on American haiku to invent the Pinoy Haiku. She announced it on her Winepoetics blog and many poets responded.
Fellow poet Vince Gotera wanted to bring out that a Filipina had invented the "one-two-three" word tercet form; he suggested that instead of alluding to the haiku, the form be renamed to reference the very Filipino expression, "hay, naku" used to convey elation, dismay, and other contexts. Tabios agreed.
The form has attracted poets around the world, with the majority of contributors to The First Hay(na)ku Anthology
being non-Filipino. In any event, all use the form to grasp that elusive entity called Poetry. Nothing
Love isn't math.
(Dan Waber, untitled)
*****Yvonne Hortillo is an editorial assistant for
The Associated Press. She has never owned a business card in her life. She has crossed the Chicago River countless times, and is fated to cross it untold times more. She adores truth in all forms.
LIKE THE WIND LOVES A WINDOW by ANDREA BAKER
JENNIFER BARTLETT reviews like the wind loves a window by Andrea Baker(Slope Editions, 2005)
Andrea Baker is shopping around for a new reading style. This would be a mistake. When some people hear Baker read, I suppose they might worry that her voice is too quiet. One must focus carefully in order to grasp her intonations. Yet, the way Baker reads her poems is completely keeping with the spirit in which the work was written: a sparse, lyrical dreamstate.
While Baker’s poems do have a narrative, as with all excellent poetry, it’s not one that comes easily. The language is not only quiet, but insists that the reader/listener be quiet enough to assign meaning to it. Baker’s “topics” -- a term I use very loosely here – are ones which effect readers at one time or another: the ideas of various kinds of love, loss, and home. To these things, Baker lends her particular voice.
What works best in Baker’s poems is a heightened sense of imagery. Sometimes, as with “House,” which is partially composed of drawings, the imagery is quiet literal. Other times, it is Baker’s finely tuned sense of seeing: she sees a “historical blue/machine gun sky,” “a human head composed of leaves,” and “a rabid cat ran from a rabid dog, laughing.” While Baker does, at times, rely on the surreal, she is not trapped in “hipness” of it. Her images, while odd, are in no way oblique; we can see them, and perhaps we have.
From a personal standpoint, I relate to Baker’s ambivalence regarding marriage and motherhood. The poet has a desire to buy the artichoke because she wants “that type of intimacy.” Her “house” is one that is warm and safe, but like all ours, is not without complications. It is a place where “the center room was surrounded/by other rooms/so it had nowhere to go.” An exact, literal description of Baker’s apartment, but also a seemingly good metaphor for the comfortable, but oft trapped feeling that we refer to as family. Something to which, “the surrender is immeasurable.” She has a desire to expand the definition of motherhood, and to question it.
In the current poetic climate where lyrical is a four letter word, Baker dares to be just that. I find that many of the new generation of poets, and their publishers, often veer away from any true lyricism in their work at the risk of being labeled sentimental. Baker takes such a risk.
*****Jennifer Bartlett’s work has appeared in
How2, Ratapallax, smallspiralnotebook, and
First Intensity. She is a 2005 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She is co-editor of Saint Elizabeth Street. Her first collection of poetry,
Derivative of the Moving Image, is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press.
A SOLITARY PINE TREE IN SUSSEX by TIM BEECH
FIONNA DONEY SIMMONDS reviews A Solitary Pine Tree in Sussex by Tim Beech(Pighog, 2005. PO Box 145, Brighton, BN1 6YU, UK)
Skating warily between the often conflicting religious feelings of modern society, A Solitary Pine Tree in Sussex
links spirituality with nature as Tim Beech searches, ponders and questions their relationship in his poetry. Breathing life into poetry resonant with meaning, he gently questions what is important to us in this day and age.
By disguising spirituality as nature, Beech has mastered a method of subtly raising awareness about our modern beliefs. In "The Praise Singer," a humble holly bush becomes a religious symbol. Emphasizing the battle between nature and machinery the poem illuminates the struggle religion has had to adjust itself, to redefine its message as the world has progressed and other concerns have vied for equal or greater importance: Dark leaves glazed with sweat and difficult,
Berries the hard-won blood of forgiveness
Pointing towards grace or the idea of grace.
Memory, part-recovered, part-revealed
Of forged iron, wood and the struggle for meaning.
The line, "Of forged iron, wood and the struggle for meaning" suggests a period of industry, factories and blinding consumerism, while "Dark leaves glazed with sweat and difficult, / Berries the hard-won blood of forgiveness" offers one explanation as to the jaded nature of people towards a sense of absolution. "Berries" is a clever suggestion of ‘buries’ and turns the line from berries emphasising the colour of blood/wine and symbolising Christ’s Last Supper to aurally burying the words of forgiveness for which Christ sacrificed himself for humanity. The final lines "From the black-rainbow reflection of sump oil / To dead leaves at the foot of the holly / Shaping precisely the edge-tool of words." lead us back to the image of the Praise Singer, the Prophet or Priest whose struggle to remind us of our need for redemption and duty of Christian Charity falls upon deaf ears, like the leaves of the holly bush that bloom then fade to become dust beneath our feet. It is a simple analogy but one that reveals deeper meaning the more it is discussed.
Beech exposes human frailty in his clever sonnet sequence entitled "Winter" that uses a rigid eight and six line form to great effect. Moving through the seasons from October to March, the months of darkness are evocatively portrayed: The world grows cold; a stark and bitter place
Devoid of feeling. The vixen on the road
Turns quietly away. Her time has gone.
Along the lane the owl, death’s pretty face,
begins to hunt. Her talons fix my soul;
This man who fears to walk the night along.
- I – October
The animals are at home in the night, at home in the darkness that makes them rely on instinct and higher senses. We are afraid of our intuition, we are afraid of the dark because we question what is out there. The vixen "Turns quietly away", she feels the world has become too cold a place for her and so we are left with the owl, "death’s pretty face," who haunts us and feasts on our corpse-like bodies that no longer live with the vitality of a spiritual life to enflame the soul and make the world a warmer place for the vixen to live in. Humanity’s preoccupation with the self is continued in December when the poet immerses himself in Nature’s bounty to praise the beauty and magic of Christmas Day, until: The moment passes; carried through the air
The noise of traffic on the nearby road
Dissolves the magic, turns the world once more
To Mammon and to plunder; greed and gold.
Was it the breeze, no louder than a sigh
That made me think I heard a baby cry?
- III – December
The final lines mourn for us, they mourn the spiritual death we suffer and the vapid consumerism we have tried to replace the void with. Beech’s mastery of poetic technique is apparent throughout this collection. He uses form sensitively and playfully -- often to devastating effect. Take his cunning twist on courtroom-style judgement in "The Prophet," as Beech questions the sentence upon a crow of execution by stoning: Curious, I sought to know the offence.
Was it, I asked, that he had picked an eye
From a lamb not yet dead or plucked the tasty
Strings of gut through a blood raw back-end?
It was neither; for such are not accounted crimes,
They are the ways of crows and crows must eat.
The shocking answer becomes one of Society’s guilt and embarrassment: The lone voice crying in the wilderness,
The shrieking, screaming madman on the street
Who dares to stand alone before the mob
And level-eyed berate them for their lies:
The "errant" crow may represent an Apostle; "They beat his brains to pulp before my eyes", suggesting the public stoning of the Christian martyr Stephen. On a more modern level, the crow may represent the Christians that stand in the middle of busy shopping thoroughfares on Saturday mornings proclaiming the word of God until their voices are hoarse; hostile glares and jeers bouncing off their divine armour.
There is not room to discuss the remainder of the collection in as much depth as I would like to. They touch on his life as an Estate Worker, and on his memories. They are as deep and thoughtful as I found his spiritual poetry to be, although the abyss that separates them makes it a little hard to appreciate his more conventional subjects. I must confess to not liking this collection upon my first reading, but the more I read it, the more I respond. His poetry is pure art: clever, precise and beautiful. You read A Solitary Pine Tree in Sussex
with excitement and pleasure enhanced by the beautiful imagery and lines it contains.
*****Passionately committed to poetry and raising its profile, Fionna Doney Simmonds is the Poetry Editor for
Moondance.org and has had reviews published at
Moondance.org, parametermagazine.org.uk, as well as in the journals
Reader's Review. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
PINOY POETICS Ed. by NICK CARBO
ABIGAIL LICAD reviews Pinoy Poetics, A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics Edited by Nick Carbo(Meritage Press, 2004)
In the introduction to Pinoy Poetics
, editor Nick Carbó observes that “When one sees himself/herself in a respected work of literature, it is a powerful and validating moment.” Given the paradox between the few and sporadic appearances of Filipino authors in mainstream U.S. publications on the one hand, and the far-reaching and enduring interlock of Philippine history with American history on the other, where then do Filipino poets turn for inspiration in the paucity of such powerful and validating moments? In many ways, the essays in Pinoy Poetics
provide different approaches to this question, and yield illuminating and often surprising insights on Filipino experience.
For those seeking an introduction to Filipino literature, the anthology serves as a good starting point from which to discover writers across the diaspora past and present and further explore the themes that animate and haunt the effort to deliver onto the printed page the variegated experiences of Filipinos. The reader, for example, learns about the formation of a Filipino-American writing movement through Oscar Peñaranda’s account of the initial endeavors by Mango generation, Flips
, and Liwanag
writers in “The Filipino American Sensibility in Literature.” Alfred A. Yuson in “Taking the Litmus Test” surveys the developments arising from up-and-coming poets in the Philippines. Eileen R. Tabios in “A Poetics of “Everything, Everything, Everything
”” provides a peek into the current Filipino-American activist scene and the written collaborations taking place among Filipino poets across the Pacific.
While these essays establish the existence of a rich Filipino literary heritage, the process of self-identifying as a Filipino poet remains on occasion a process fraught with ambivalence. In discussing its initial strangeness, Patrick Pardo in “On Being a Filipino Poet” says: “I never wore my ethnicity on my sleeve… being a Filipino American is to be aware of my cultural determinants and at the same time know that I am not beholden to them.” Catalina Cariaga in “A Poetics of E Pluribus Karaoke (Out of Many, Minus One)”
admits that thinking of herself as a regional poet “sidesteps [her] having to explain [her] parents’ immigration to the United States, the history of U.S. and Philippine relations, and the development of discourse on diasporic writers and writings, Asian American literature… etc.” She goes on to express a frustration common among cultural minority writers: In my first year of graduate work, I felt I was constantly in the position of having to explicate my work, and give historical, cultural and social context and commentary to each piece I offered in workshop. I noticed my white colleagues did not have to do this – because their social/cultural context was not only assumed, but a given.
Interestingly, Alfred A. Yuson attributes what he views as the greater maturity and depth of writing from U.S.-based poets to the difficulties of “rootlessness,” an aspect of which is described above. However, the reader remains ill-equipped to judge Yuson’s statement as the anthology is disappointingly tilted toward Filipino-American writers, with only six of the forty contributors being based in the Philippines. And while almost all of the writers have had the experience of either growing up or living in the Philippines, the question of promoting a uniquely Filipino expression takes a more complicated turn when use of the English language is taken into consideration. Lani T. Montreal in “Poetry and Bonesetting” stands out as the only writer in the anthology to claim Tagalog as her language of choice while at the other end of the spectrum, Ricardo M. de Ungria in “An English Apart” makes the rather discomfiting claim that Tagalog “has not yet proven its worth… as a literary language.” Claiming that “[w]riting well in English is [his] best revenge against English,” De Ungria searches the various polemics that surround the English debate: But why do I want to take revenge at the English language?
… Because it taught me, among other things, to think poorly of my native language and exclude this from the discourse of my deepest needs and joys and aspirations? … Because it foisted upon me a rich heritage of writing that I could never be a part of nor even closely relate to…? Because it left me inside a wonderful labyrinth of a symbolic world whose exquisite emblems and implements only heighten my sense of helplessness and futility at being understood…? Because it has opened me up to a fascinating world where I am condemned forever to live as a stranger?
While it remains to be seen whether the creation of a decolonized literature must necessarily occur through a non-English language, several poets offer hope in building a unique expression through subversive uses of English. Kristin Naca in “The Cult of Language in Pinoy Poetry” bends English to Tagalog intonations and rhythms. Other poets such as Paolo Javier in “Marginalia” reject the use of narrative form to undermine any totalizing effects of the English language. He explains: “… narrative reflected (for me) how colonialism spread through English as the tool for communication.” Leny Mendoza Strobel in “A New Twist on Decolonization: Eileen Tabios’ Poetry” discusses the poet’s use of abstraction, surrealism, and collaging of “”found words” from other texts” to deflect the reader’s reliance upon narrative and authorial intent, thereby insisting that she engage with the poem not just through language but through the totality of her frameworks and histories. Luis H. Francia in “Meditation #1 & 2” suggests the inevitable re-appropriation of the English language by those writing from the margins:I, ravisher, thief of language’s virtue, denier of its chastity yet stalwart defender of its inviolability. I need to be faithful to my infidelities. Count on me then to betray you. In the morning I expect to be bemedalled. In the morning I expect to be shot.
Whatever the outcome will be for the negotiations and efforts described in the anthology, whether Filipino literature will move from remotest peripheries and transform mainstream literature, whether writers will continually find new ways to reconcile their conflicting estrangements from both Filipino and American forms, the reader will surely derive a current grasp of Filipino poetry from this collection.
Even the most desultory reading of the anthology will certainly come to remark upon the range and originality of the forty essays. Contributors consist of writers across all walks of life, as varied as ex-Communist Party member and anti-Marcus dictatorship protest poet Clarita Roja (Mila D. Aguilar, “The Poetics of Clarita Roja”), National Endowment for the Arts recipient Rick Barot (“The Nightingale and the Grackles”), assistant professor Oliver de la Paz (My Unwritten Book: A Poem Disguised as a Narrative on Process, But Not Cleverly Disguised”), acupuncturist and herbalist Rene J. Navarro (“After the Shih Hua: Poetics”), and hip-hop enthusiast Patrick Rosal (“A Pinoy Needle in a B-Boy Groove: Notes on Poetry and Cross-Genre Influence in the Generation of Hip-Hop”). The anthology contains ample examples of the poets’ work, biographical information, and a selected bibliography which serve as useful springboards for further study or research.
The only way I found the anthology wanting was through the additional explanatory force that visual aids would have provided. For example, Timothy Yu’s brilliant essay “Asian/American Modernisms: José Garcia Villa’s Transnational Politics,” which explores the ideological and political tensions surrounding Garcia Villa’s problematic inclusion into the modernist and/or Asian-American canon/s, leaves the reader’s curiosity hanging over the repeatedly referenced photograph taken in 1948 of the Filipino poet alongside other literary luminaries such as W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tennesee Williams. The photograph in its metaphoric significance would have spoken to the condition of many Filipino poets writing today whose great potential withstand the threat of being silenced by orientalist determinations that beset the publishing industry. It would have also been nice to see stills from video creations described in Eric Gamalinda’s “Language, Light, and the Language of Light” or photographs from productions mentioned in Remé-Antonia Grefalda’s “Lyricism and Poetic Vision in Playwriting.”
These are admittedly frivolous asides, however, and one can’t really complain about not having more than enough of a stimulating read in Pinoy Poetics
. Carbó chooses wisely in arranging the essays in alphabetical order of authors’ names, resisting the imposition of thematic or geographical groupings and allowing the essays speak for themselves. The result showcases a breadth of talent and promise rather than endorsing any unifying aesthetic, echoing more loudly the cries against Filipino invisibility expressed by Carbó in the introduction.
Sadly, Carbó’s sentiments in the introduction are nothing new and have been expressed by many other cultural minority writers before him. While momentous and hope-inspiring, the publication of Pinoy Poetics
slides into a kind of second-place finish, not because of the achievement it reflects, but because its very appearance lags behind the relatively established critical acceptance of the postcolonial and ethnic studies movements, chasing still after repeated exclusions by contemporary anthologies of “world poetry.” Carbó painfully details in the introduction what increasingly appears to be the undeniably systematized invisibility of Filipino literature. The historical timeline provided after the introduction, a CV of sorts outlining the basics of Filipino history and accompanying literary accomplishments, further serves in its very usefulness as a stark reminder of pervasive ignorance. Perhaps aware of the irony resulting from the need to yet again reformulate sentiments first said some forty years ago, and the impinging awareness that this by now should hardly bear repeating, Carbó takes up an arch tone: Can we fairly asset that the problem of invisibility lies not on the Filipinos but in the Americans who continually refuse to even look in our direction? Undoubtedly there are many readers out there who innocently believe that this essay is another manifestation of a minority group’s paranoid reaction against a supposedly oppressive white dominant majority.
Carbó’s use of the word “paranoid” likely anticipates the view that Filipino writers should take solace in the publication of several other cultural minority writers, as though this signified the end of certain prejudices and were the exact same thing as partaking of their success. But doing do would only repeat the same homogenizing transgression inflicted upon Filipino culture. How indeed very sad that after all the historical and literary triumphs that should have secured mainstream exposure at the very least, Filipino writers are still hard at work in asserting the very legitimacy of their expression.
It comes as no surprise that amid the cries of cultural invisibility and historical amnesia, the theme of recognition – its elusive and hidden faces, its tangled processes, its narrow paths and its enemies – emerges as the anthology’s overarching preoccupation. Whether private or public, treated as catalyst or objective in the creation of poetry, the difficulties and joys attending recognition largely shapes Filipino poetics in the anthology. That there are Filipinos who embark on poetic careers at all and persist amid invisibility becomes something of an heroic accomplishment considering the tiring impositions of a Western publishing apparatus which largely subscribes to exoticizing assumptions, as described by Joel B. Tan in “Brown Faggot Poet: Notes on Zip File Poetry, Cultural Nomadism, and the Politics of Publishing.” Before the decision to embark on a poetic career or even to write the very first poem, many poets recall feeling immediately stymied by having “few sources to reference from.” It is rare that poets in the anthology speak of having had the kind of seamless instant of validation described by Mike Maniquiz in “The Essence of Us” when reading José Garcia Villa as a college freshman in the Philippines (“I’d like to say there was illumination, as if someone broke all the windows in my mind and let the light flood in… a moment of clarity.”). More common was the experience of having had lukewarm reactions to available role models, mostly Asian American writers, whose voices did not quite resonate fully with the experiences of aspiring Filipino poets. This reality, coupled with the legacy of assimilation after the Philippines’ repeated colonizations by Spain and the U.S., opened Filipino poets to diverse influences, but also had the counterproductive effect of appending them to scattered cultural movements, thereby erasing the very uniqueness and autonomy they strive for. Carbó captures the difficulty in seeking literary predecessors from other movements in saying simply: “They did not embody the culture I carried in my blood.”
In the absence of direct references, many of the writers look to the past, to different historical, familial, and cultural origins to connect with the culture they carry in their blood. Vince Gotera in “Love and War, Contrapuntal: A Self-Interview” expounds upon the crucial, “experiential moment” of a poem-in-progress, the horror of war in his poem “Guard Duty,” by tracing its appearances through several generations of U.S. military service in his family. Bino A. Realuyo in “Dear Warrior” sees his efforts as a continuation of his war hero father’s ideals, as “a daily task of accomplishing missions, dreams, moments to capture...” Eugene Gloria in “On Memoir and Poetry” juxtaposes stories of his parents’ ritual outings in the Philippines with his own visits to the homeland in search of emotional truths behind his inherited sense of nostalgia.
Many who find their poetic beginnings in the confluence of American and Filipino histories also discover that this confluence informs the relationship between content and style in their writing. Moved by the Vietnam War’s effects on her family, Cristina Querrer in “Volcanic Laughter, Pacific Words” realizes upon beginning poetry: “…to my amazement, my writing shared a tone similar to other Filipino writers from all over the world.” Joseph O. Legaspi in “Boys in Skirts and Other Subjects that Matter” evokes the storytelling of his elders by writing in narrative free verse because “[p]resenting the basic nature and beauty of a foreign culture to the Western world is an effective way of immersion into the larger society.” In deliberate and aggressive contrast, Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes in “The Building of the “Anthropologic”” discusses how the openly political intent of her work to reveal shameful moments in American history resists narrative forms and translations to better engage an unsettled reader into a confrontation with their own assumptions. In re-writing history, in tracing Filipino participation in America’s past, and in insisting upon a continuity between the past and the present moment, these writers forward promote a sense of cultural agency capable of changing society at large.
Some of the most enjoyable essays to read in the anthology come from poets who root their work within indigenous Filipino structures and sources. These works aim to fill in gaps in the current cultural awareness of Filipino traditions and histories, and effect a collective self-examination. Jean Vengua in “Abilidad and Flux: Notes on a Filipino American Poetics” figures the impulse to write poetry as “messages from the dead”:What do I, as a Filipino-American, bring with me into this life? I think I bring the dead, especially where old family, historical and political issues are unresolved and have been suppressed. In this sense, I draw from the traditions of the babaylan or catalonan, someone who mediates between the spirit world and the material world.
J. Neil C. Garcia in “Of Legends and Poetry” re-writes childhood legends and folktales in verse form and in doing so, re-examines Filipino values:What fascinates me about the idea of retelling legends, indeed of any story already well-known (whose truth otherwise lies beyond question), is that it lays bare elements in the narrative that had been smoothed over, elided, in their traditional tellings… in retelling the many tales I’d heard as a child, I came face to face with the systems of valuation, the unquestioned principles, the cognitive and affectional home in which I was raised, and which had come to determine who and what I was.
The review and reformulation of the past in Remé-Antonia Grefalda’s “Lyricism and Poetic Vision in Playwriting” turns a similarly critical eye to the present, as an anachronous confrontation between José Rizal and modern everyman Fredo suggests a rupture and discontinuity between revolutionary Filipino history and current consumption-driven values. Efren Noblefranca Padilla in “Binalaybay: Soul of the Island” reminds us of the transformative values of poverty and grief in Hiligaynon verses which he views as the foundation of Filipino creativity. The recognition of parallel and intersecting themes across generations allows the poets to appraise the collective decision-making that informs the ever-changing nature of Filipino tradition and suggest new directions it could take.
Successful recovery of the past often finally seeks its final destination in the way of connecting with readers. Paramount among the types of recognition sought by the poets is the recognition infused by the reader into poem’s meaning. Michelle Macaraeg Bautista for example in “Kali Poetics” draws upon the Filipino notion of kapwa or the capacity “to be like the other” to characterize the gesturing and anticipatory techniques she deploys her poems. For many Filipino poets who began writing in a state of starvation for validating moments, the desire to provide opportunities for readers to recognize fragments of themselves and their experiences in the poets’ works proves an all-important task. The following passages emphasize different aspects of the ongoing reciprocal recognition with their readers that Filipino poets strive for:… my poems become lyrical letters to others, or letter to myself about others and the way I see them. (Ruel S. De Vera, “Otherworldly”)
I write to offer possibility to those looking for a home. I write to build a home between borrowed language and silence, in the movement of moments. (Leslieann Hobayan, “Mo(ve)ments in Silence: Constructing “Home” in the Gap through Poetry and Letters”)
For me, it has always been the attempt at a union… between what the reader knows of the world and the world of the poem, as influenced by the poet. (Jon Pineda, “At the Fence of the Experience”)
I would much rather think of the relationship between poet and reader as a transactive, dialogic one, therefore one that has the potential to unlock its various capacities for expansiveness of meaning and relevance. The poet, it seems to me, proposes a journey: proposes that the reader come along on a journey, explore a point of view, open himself or herself up to an experience that the poet wishes to share. (Luisa A. Igloria, “Considering [A Poem’s] History: Sources and Point of View in “The Incredible tale of the Ice Cream Cone Dog””)
… the task of the poet is to create space between words where the poet and reader/listener can have an emotional engagement of some sort. (Leny Mendoza Strobel, “A New Twist on Decolonization: Eileen Tabios’Poetry”)
Rather than facile mirroring, the reciprocal recognition sought by the writers involves first and foremost a destabilization of existing identifications by both poet and reader before finally finding the coordinates that link both. This process is carried out in several ways. In his poem “Isla Del Fuego,” De Vera voices objections by an unwilling reader while at the same time already blurring first- and second-person distinctions that separate them through repetitive use of the same pronouns: You are afraid that, once joined,
we can no longer be sundered,
can no longer tell who is who,
what is what, whose is whose.
Hobayan seizes upon conceits of liminality to embrace the shared ability for empathy in her poem “I Am”: I am a woman
dancing a path she makes up as she goes along
maps burned, pavement broken
I am the click in the lock
I am the sky divided by telephone wire
by sunset and moonlight
I am a woman who knows
exactly who I am:
a collection of this.
The ubiquitous quality given to the poem’s “I,” its interchangeability with aspects of its surroundings and its move from subject to object in the penultimate line above follows the elliptical movement of reciprocal recognition that continually multiplies in meaning according to the reader’s contexts. In the same vein, Pineda begins “Memory in the Shape of a Swimming Lesson” with a metaphor for the closely personal narration to follow:If anything, it is like water. Taking the shape of what surrounds it.
A concrete pool, or even walls of a throat…
In using commonplace objects that effect a movement from the reader’s external environment (water, pool) to inside his body (throat), Pineda solicits the reader’s familiarity, warming him up to the potentially not-so-familiar Filipino references to follow. In “The Incredible Tale of the Ice Cream Cone Dog,” Igloria’s (presumably) suburban poet-narrator draws associations between the distinct historical moments of the immediate present, the 1904 Missouri World’s Fair, and the invention of the “all-American” ice cream cone by an immigrant named Doumar. The poem is representative of many others in the anthology which, in an effort to open readers up to the overlapping exchange of experience, unsettles and breaks down the supposed impermeable distinctions normalized by homogenizing assumptions. Finally, the plenitude in Tabios’s poems which employ fits of seemingly indiscriminate cataloging and collaging invoke an expansive inclusiveness that negate any passive engagement with the poems’ meaning. In their demand of various types of recognition by readers, the writers enable the work of cultural and historical recovery to unfold beyond written completion of the poem.
After going through the ways in which Filipino poets look to history, to indigenous sources, and to readers in asserting themselves against cultural invisibility, the question remains – why desire recognition? What drives the poetics which revolves around its absence, burden or incompleteness? Why this importance placed on feeling validated? What does validation contribute anyway? And perhaps most importantly, validation by whom? Again, we can only piece together tentative answers from the essays. It appears that validation counteracts the paralysis brought on by the endless vacillations of rootlessness or by the apathetic inducements of assimilation. The process of writing, of giving voice to the particularities of one’s journeys, of posing one’s questions, becomes for many of the writers a cathartic experience. As R. Zamora Linmark conveys in “Big Trouble,” there is just something freeing and glorious in for once being able to operate from within one’s given frameworks, without needing to borrow presumptions, shift one’s aesthetic, bend one’s viewpoints, or, as it were, “stretch your imagination all the way to Williams’s South or Albee’s New England.”
Of course, these efforts are inherent responsibilities in today’s globalized world and certainly lend an integral dimension to poems by Filipino authors. However, the poets in the anthology seek a fair balance in the chance to demonstrate that their backgrounds and realities have shaped society at large just as much as it has shaped them. They seek not only the chance to freely reference from their contexts, but also to impart that these contexts have already been shared from the start. The readership seems therefore open to all those willing to broaden their perspective, or perhaps more accurately, diminish their ignorance. In writing, poets not only recover their origins, their cultures, and their contexts, but also goad readers into viewing themselves as active participants in the recovery of a collective inheritance. It is within this continuous process that a sense of community is strengthened. And as witnessed by writers in the anthology who owe the success of their first published works to the support of grassroots organizing and small press publications, more can be done through communal effort than by any individual alone. And so now a return to the question – why desire recognition? Above all, because recognition and validation spawn new possibilities and unmask hidden potentialities that marginalization otherwise prevents. Sarah Gambito puts it another way in her poem “Scene: A Loom” (from “Essay 2356 on Poems”):Children are the imminent sojourn
A maybe of love.
Brilliant persuasion from the stands.
The products engendered by the contributors’ labors present the possibility of eliminating social rifts and historical lacunae through mobilization from the stands, someday leading to (what else but) “love” – an equal, profound, reciprocal regard with society at large. It is fitting, too, that such a call should take place through poetry, “the common denominator of the world community,” according to Tony Robles in “A Poetics of the Common Man(ong).” For indeed, unlike fiction or prose which both require a room of one’s own and costly reams of paper, poetry surpasses class differences for it can happen at any moment and requires little raw material. As such, the anthology’s broad appeal, its urge to transform a fundamentally shared experience into a widely shared effort, is what finally earns the informal endearment of “Pinoy” in the title.
So apparent are the vitality and dynamism in the essays that they render more inexplicable the pervasive invisibility of Filipino poets. If Gemino H. Abad is correct in claiming that the remarkable quality in a poem involves “a moment that is lived, an insight into our humanity, a new use of language,” then society at large would be remiss in obscuring such crucial contributions from Filipino poets. “Imagine all the possibilities,” says Aimee Nezhukumatathil in “The Ocean at Night: An Inside Look at the Poetry Process,” “in poems, in language, in colors we have yet to see exist.” While Carbó certainly succeeds in forcing the literary mainstream to confront its longstanding exclusion of Filipino authors, perhaps the greater bulk of anthology’s achievement lies in its power to galvanize members of the community to take part in the task of cultural and political recovery. As Marlon Unas Esguerra in his essay “The Poetry of Rebolusyon” more eloquently states:There is that moment when you realize that this is all connected. That the six degrees of separation among Filipinos is really just two degrees. That in the end you do have a story to tell that is worth telling. Somewhere between your identity politic and consciousness, your contradiction and critical analysis is poetry.
The publication of Pinoy Poetics
is exactly “that moment.” The anthology promotes a formation of cultural memory and literary history, a critique and reformulation of traditions, and a connection with cultures and histories that have shaped the Filipino diaspora. There lies in each essay a validating moment to spark a host of changes which one hopes will soon render the cry of invisibility obsolete.
*****Abigail Licad grew up in Antipolo, Rizal and immigrated with her family to California at age fourteen. She received a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.Phil from Pembroke College at Oxford University, both in literature. This is her first time writing on Filipino authors.