Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)


Two Thirds: Mabi David's Spleen and Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory [guma']

by Collier Nogues

Image 

Mabi David, Spleen, High Chair Press, 2014. 34 pgs.
Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory [guma'], Omnidawn, 2014. 96 pgs.

 

If a first book is an apprenticeship, and a second is a journeyman's work, then a poet's third book is a test of mastery. A third book may employ a mature, well-honed craft to revisit the poet's enduring concerns more keenly, or it may apply that craft to new styles and subjects—or it may settle into a rut, reproducing what has worked before. This reader's hope, always, is that a third book retains some familiar pleasures, but that it surprises in its reach, whether in terms of style or subject matter or formal innovation.

In their previous work, Mabi David and Craig Santos Perez have each written elegant, incisive poems rooted in the Philippines and Guam, respectively, about personal, cultural and institutional memory in the wake of war and colonisation.

In her third venture, David has moved into new, more private terrain. Spleen begins with "Still Life," a series of instructions that read as a self-address. Here's the poem in its entirety:

Take the plant boxes off the ledge. While there unhook
the chimes. Pluck the peals from their throats to a thunk.
Strip the swivel from the weather vane. Climb down
without looking. Fold the limbs with the lights. Steal creaks
from the flooorboards. Blind windows. Sheathe the galaxies.

These are rote actions of grieving, of cleaning up and taking down the remnants of a former life. The poem's title is a bitter pun: what the speaker is left with is, still, life, though not how she ever wanted to live it. It's a perfect opening poem for the book that follows, and it's an example of one of David's consistent strengths—her ear. The musical pleasure of lines like "unhook / the chimes. Pluck the peals from their throats to a thunk" will work throughout the book as counterpoint to the pain mapped in the poems.

It soon becomes apparent that these poems are as concerned with point of view as they are with music. "Sitting Poem, 1" picks up the theme of stasis, as its speaker observes that "nothing happens" despite the clear presence of a continuing world: pink bowl, paper clip, piece of fruit. But here, a lyric "I" guides the poem from its first line: "These days," the speaker confides, "I like to sit patiently in front of objects." Having "sheathed the galaxies" at the end of "Still Life," the speaker has begun to speak not only to herself, but also to us.

The third poem, "Eating Alone," starts off in third person: "she" leans over the sink to gulp what barely nourishes. And so we begin to understand that dislocating pronouns will be one of the book's primary strategies—one which David has carried with her from her previous book, You Are Here, in which she turned the pronoun "you" every which way to examine the nature of an individual's responsibility to national memory. In Spleen, shifts among second and first and third person are a way to measure the distance travelled from one's former self in the wake of personal disaster.

That shifting expands into persona poems with "Squall," the first of a series in which the poet displaces herself into the body of the wind or the objects manipulated by it. "Squall" is also marked by a new tautness in the lines:

I can
if I want to
undo you. More
brutal, colder
than your cold front

I come. Nothing holds
you but a tendril.

I know this. You know
I know this. So immediately
it must mean
to you I am cruel.

[…]

Days I descend upon one
as would a blow to the brow.

I advance from deep down too.

Here is David in the mode I find most appealing: reveling in tightly syncopated breaks and rhymes, rhyming even full sentences ("I know this. You know / I know this"). That close attention to sound particularly stands out in this series. What also stands out is the progressively tighter coil the poems wrap around the grieving figure at the centre of the book. In "Squall," the "brutal" voice is external, the storm taunting as it descends like a "blow to the brow." When David swaps the voice of the wind for the voices of chimes, they're no less cruel. The last lines of "Wind Chimes" are these:

by the thread we hang
in stiches, we squeal
cellophane glissando,
slender spasms we go
white like froth, we
orgasm ornaments
by your window and
your suburban sorrow, god,
must you blight our delight?

The chimes' reproach distills the approbation of the normal, continuing world the poet can't feel part of. Soon, the reproach turns inward, and this is where the poems get razor-sharp and painfully good. Here is all of "Toy":

And because I've gone ahead and done
the unthinkable, I want to know

what else I won't ever do. I go ahead
and do that too. I think of a thing or two

the mere thought of which makes me
retch: I do it. And do it

until the idea of me and my turns
silly, toy, being built a certain way

has little truth, until I get to the bottom
of where I came undone and keep at it

until the hurt it gives gets good
and the good I give gets animal.

This is David masterfully matching tone and sound and subject, deploying glibly sing-song rhythms to deliver scathing self-judgment. Having projected herself into atmospheric entities, exterior objects, third- and second- and first-person personas at a range of distances, there is finally no avoiding the fundamental situation of the mourner: she is alone with her misery, and, no idiot, she is perfectly aware of how isolation enables bitterness to round on itself exponentially. This poem succumbs to the pleasure of the spin, and it is a glorious descent.

The road back out of the pit begins several poems later. That the book should track the plunge into and then the emergence out of grief is understandable, but my sense is that we leave too soon; the trajectory up is less rewarding. This has to do with the language handling, which becomes looser, even prosy at times in the second half of the book. "Habagat" is a good example:

Benighted body
asleep by the window with its gauze curtain
trained by rhythms (the creeping dawn, the trailing away dark)

to trust only the fluent build up, the slithering descent,…

The lines are long, the syntax is less "trained by rhythms" here, and the images have become less concrete: presumably "the fluent build up, the slithering descent" are stages of a storm (the Habagat is the seasonal Philippines monsoon), but, though this poem concerns itself with how "There is something to be said about the unsubtle," the language relaxes into hard-to-track subtleties to say it.

Still, there are many strong moments later on. The last in the "wind" series, "Night Breeze," gently settles back into the possibility of intimacy, and the prose poem "Postscript" is an experiment in alphabetisation that neatly catalogues the stops and starts of a new relationship. But there was such searing accuracy and such striking music in those lonely poems from the depths. They are the best poems in the book, and the most rewarding ones for readers familiar with her earlier work.

Craig Santos Perez's third book, from unincorporated territory [guma'], continues the project of his first two, [hacha] and [saina]. Each book's title, and each poem's, begins with the word from, or sometimes, ginen, the Chamorro translation (Chamorro is the indigenous language of Guahån, or Guam). Any single work does not stand alone; it is always an excerpt from the larger project. This is a fitting strategy for a body of work whose concerns are paracolonialism, militarisation, the fragmentation of a people and their cultural memory and the urgency of making those things matter to people beyond Chamorros themselves. As Perez explains in the first book-length installment, [hacha]:

From indicates a particular time or place as a starting point; from refers to a specific location as the first of two limits; from imagines a source, a cause, an agent, or an instrument, from marks separation, removal, or exclusion; from differentiates borders.

Two central concerns of Perez's project are exemplified here: first, the interest in how a single word means multiple things, and how those meanings are limited or unleashed by context. Second, the question of how one might move from "a particular time or place as a starting point" out to an audience, and how one might then bring that audience back across a "differentiated border" until what's on the unfamiliar side begins to feel familiar.

Ultimately, Perez wants his readers to feel included in a literary community that cares about what happens to the comparatively smaller community of Chamorros.

This literature is as politically interested in language as, for example, Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera, but unlike Anzaldua's strategy of switching seamlessly back and forth between Spanish and English (so that the monolingual English reader must, for once, pick up a translation dictionary), Perez emphasises his own non-fluency. He notes that when he was growing up on Guam, the Chamorro language wasn't taught in the American-modeled schools and remarks that the poems "are an attempt to begin re-territorializing the Chamorro language in relation to my own body, by way of the page." Throughout all three books, he includes Chamorro words, usually leaving them undefined in their immediate context, but providing suggestive background or slipping in a definition several pages later. Everything a non-Chamorro speaker needs to know in order to paste together the multilingual references is included here, though it will take some legwork to do it. The use of the Chamorro word ginen in some poems' titles is a case in point. Perez never defines ginen. He allows his reader to understand its meaning the way immersion grants understanding—through exposure, alternating from titles with ginen titles. The result throughout the books is a gratifying labour with occasional epiphanies about meaning—a generous way to instruct a reader in the significance of the language.

Over the course of the three books, Perez employs many other formal strategies to engage readers: innovative punctuation and wordplay, storytelling intercut with quotes from archival texts and bureaucratic records, even graphic illustrations and maps. What's new in this third book is a meta-textual resonance of some of the stories from earlier poems, and a broadening of the field of vision. Where the previous two books were more interested in the history of Guahån's colonisation, this book shifts focus to the colonial force present on Guahån now, the US, and the way it absorbs Chamorros and other peoples into its neo-imperialist machine.

One of the early poems in the book traces a narrative of military recruitment, taking us from Perez's 1990s high school in California, through the 9/11 attacks, to the more recent deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of soldiers from Guahån and its neighbouring islands. The poem shares its title,"ginen ta(la)ya," with a series of poems from the first book, [hacha], which told the story of Perez's grandfather's WWII experience. In those poems, we learnt that a talaya is a traditional Chamorro fishing net. In this third book, Perez reworks the central story of those earlier poems so that the talaya figures in a new way. Here he writes that his grandfather

cradles his imaginary talaya in his hands and bends his body
coral bones into proper form. He refers to the mesh of the net
as 'eyes' these passages my sourcing. He uncoils and throws

the talaya directly over me.

In the first book, the net stood for both the endangered knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next through storytelling, and for the labour his grandfather's generation was forced to do during the Japanese military occupation. But in this new poem, there is a meta-narrative: "these passages my sourcing." We learn that the poet first heard this story while he was sitting "across from my grandfather on a small kitchen table in his apartment in Fairfield, California." And this new poem begins with a bracketed date, 2004, followed by the brief obituaries of six soldiers from the Marianas Islands who were killed in Iraq. Our field of vision is growing wider as the poet's does, expanding to include the poet as his younger self, the diasporic travels of his family, the casualties of American military involvement in Iraq and the claims made particularly on Chamorros and their neighbours by that military. In another section of "ginen ta(la)ya," Perez writes;

Chamorros removed from enlist in the US armed forces at
alarmingly high rates. Military recruiters based in Guam
almost always exceed their quotas. Headline: "US Territories:
A Recruiter's Paradise: Army Goes Where Fish Are Biting"—

When his grandfather "uncoils and throws the talaya directly over" Perez, the poet calls to mind a net that's much more concretely ominous and far-reaching than the one of his grandfather's memory. This net catches up the poet himself, his fellow young Chamorros and young people in US territories across the Pacific—wherever the fish are biting.

This broader attention to territories and former colonies beyond Guahån galvanises a scathing sense of humour akin to Mabi David's in her bleakest poems. In his note on the series "from the legends of juan malo [a malologue]," Perez explains that Juan Malo was a poor Chamorro man whose trickster escapades legendarily frustrated the authorities of the Spanish colonial era. The poems in the series riff shrewdly on modern brochure language and popular sayings in passages like this one, from the book's opening poem:

Guam is an acronym for "Give Us American Military"....
Guam is strategically invisible. Guam is published by the
Guam Hotel & Restaurant Association and the Guam Visitors
Bureau.

When this series of poems invokes the figure of SPAM®, the potted meat product famously popular across the US's formerly occupied territories, the knives flash:

Rub the entire block of SPAM®, along with the accompanying
gelatinous goo, onto your wood furniture. The oils from the
SPAM® moisturize the wood and give it a nice luster. Plus,
you'll have enough left over to use as your own personal
lubricant (a true Pacific dinner date). Why didn't you tell
me about the "In Honor of Guam's Liberation" SPAM®! I'm
trying to collect them all! Once I was on a diet and SPAM®
faded from my consciousness. Then I met my future wife,
who's Hawaiian, and SPAM® became part of my life again (a

true Pacific romance).

As Perez points out elsewhere in the poem, canned meat is the legacy of US military actions in the Pacific and is popular everywhere the US forces went in the middle of the 20th century: Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, Hawai'i, South Korea. SPAM®, in all its pink gelatinous glory, turns out to be a pillar of shared history, the basis for a communal vision pursued earnestly in the books' other poems.

There are flat moments here and there—the repetition of some phrases can feel heavy instead of illuminating, as in the multiple appearances of "a cage can be either solid material wire mesh or." The phrase comes originally from a description of the literal breeding cages of the Micronesian Kingfisher, a bird nearly forced extinct by the proliferation of brown tree snakes introduced to Guam by American or Japanese ships during WWII. The phrase recurs throughout the book, interrupting sentences about federal student loans, customs declarations and Marianan military memorials. While the point is well-taken, a cage is a leaden metaphor, and would benefit from a lighter touch.

But overall, this book feels timely, carefully crafted and deeply necessary. Close to the end of the book, in "ginen (sub)aerial roots," Perez writes about being invited to represent Guam at a London poetry event. He spends his layover in San Francisco to visit family: "Before I return to the airport, my dad gives me a bag of / chicken kelaguen to eat on the flight. My mom gives me an /envelope of money and whispers, 'for chenchule'."

What's chenchule'? Any reader who has come this far in the book knows to be on the lookout for an answer. It appears in the end notes, where he explains: "In Chamorro custom, chenchule' refers to a gift and the act of giving. It is usually practiced at special events, or at the beginning of a journey. If you receive chenchule', you accept the responsibility to reciprocate."

This becomes especially important when we reach the last line of the dedications page at the end of the book, which reads: "This book is for you, dear reader. As gift, as chenchule'." Accepting this book—its fragmented stories refracted through personal and national memory, its indictment of the US military, its pointed humour, its sincere concern for the lives it describes and memorialises—means accepting the responsibility to reciprocate. It's testament to Perez's skill and spirit of generosity that the book succeeds—it will be a rare reader who doesn't feel she has become a stakeholder alongside him.

 
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