Sunday, March 05, 2006



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/Traveling Party

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…



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.


maybe 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
gallantly streaming/with
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:


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