by Abigail Licad
Karen Llagas, Archipelago Dust, Meritage Press, 2010. 61 pages.
Archipelago Dust, the first collection of poems by Filipino-American poet Karen Llagas, captures in nuanced, lyrical form the ambivalences constantly being negotiated by those of the 1.5 generation, young immigrants raised in native homeland but who came into adulthood in a new, adopted country.
Llagas's poems probe questions that often reside in the immigrant's heart—how should the cultural past be preserved? What is forgivable to let go? What should be restored? How does one deal with the oppositions and contradictions between cultures? Her poems contain the sadness that ultimately comes from not being able to honor both traditions equally, from the realization that some memory or practice might recede as new ones are gained. Yet despite recognizing such difficulties, Llagas's speaker still strives to be "the woman with the most/of both."
"In Descent" the collection sets out to stitch together various tears caused by migration:
[…] The prepositions I must supply
– in, until, of, despite –
or perhaps a clause – and?
Asked to explain my melancholy
I offer my full name and continue
to reside in English.
To be a daughter is to have
a duty to grammar, to exact
the relationship between
words that otherwise disappear
into vision – super, then lack of,
and much later, di – […]
In seeking a position within the interrupted history of her family, the speaker finds that she must supply the connectives, not just between cultures, but also between generational rifts. Repeated colonization of the Philippines by Spain, Japan and the U.S. has resulted in cultural lacunae and a pervasive inability to transmit information between generations due to linguistic differences. In "Descent," the poem's speaker imposes upon herself the "duty" to serve as a mediating voice and provide the "grammar" by which family members can understand each other despite cultural differences. As later descriptions of photographs in the poem further suggest, the speaker must also mine the past to establish a continuity between past and present, so that colonial disruptions into familial history may be resisted.
This process of bridging cultures and generations, however, is not undertaken without vacillation. For instance in "Shyness," where "pleasure" is defined as "future wilting/into present saying I let you owe me nothing," the speaker expresses a desire to be unburdened of obligations to the past and of the responsibility of preserving threatened cultural inheritances arising from an endangered, minority status. At other times, however, the speaker expresses guilt over being freed from such burdens:
What I wanted was for you to help me by mocking
how quickly we assimilated here,
how we slip in and out of our dialect
like thieves in a hometown
that never changed. […] ("Fruit")
Llagas's poems are perhaps best read as counterpoints to each other, with each poem testing observations and inferences made in others. The result is an overarching feel of tentativeness, of conclusions held in suspension while being progressively re-fashioned. The honesty in the poems, especially in the persistence of negative memories associated with the homeland, including the speaker's lonely childhood ("Canvas"), resentment (series of "Mother" poems) and religious indoctrination ("Todos los Santos, 1985," "Biology Class," and "Jesuitical"), resists a simple nostalgia, further intensifying and authenticating the speaker's doubts over her assumed role.
While the speaker recognizes herself as a mediator by default of the formative influences exerted upon her by both native and adopted homeland, she remains uncertain about her own connectedness to her adopted country as expressed in the poem "America":
[…] America, I want your brand
of ecstasy bursting
in me like champagne.
I want that power
to exempt from suffering
whomever I deem worthy
with only a few syllables,
a name, so solid
it gives off rays
as if made of glass.
In the poem, America elicits longing, as though the speaker's liminal existence between cultures will always deprive her of citizenship in its fullest sense. Notice again, however, Llagas's tentativeness, her subtle habit of denying a stance as soon as it has been taken: America is "solid" only in "name" (therefore questionably so in substance), and the "rays" or influence it spreads might have the fragility of "glass." Similarly, the speaker echoes the many-layered uncertainty of belonging in "Satellite Broadcast Pantoum" where the line "We're safe here, why not belong?" shifts in meaning with each repetition. Its casual tone is part of the irony—it's not really safe here, the speaker can never fully belong, but at the same time, desires to do so.
While the notion of an emigrant writer writing from a cultural in-between space is nothing new, Llagas rescues her own exploration from cliché through her complexly-wrought leaps and juxtapositions, surprising imagery, intimate tone and, most of all, her musical language. As the poems show us "how to navigate the different/kinds of darkness," they ripen more sweetly with each reading and re-reading. Archipelago Dust is a most accomplished debut, signaling reserves of talent and a fruitful career to come.