Monday, June 07, 2010


Open veins of fire

Poeta en San Francisco by Barbara Jane Reyes (TinFish Press, 2008) is a book of poems epic in conception and variation. Written alternately in English, Spanish and Tagalog, these are poems that confront and expose the long brutal history of imperial occupation and plunder of the world by the government of the United States and its corporate backers; poems that honor and celebrate the enduring struggles of the majority of people in the world in spite of, in the face of, every manner of imposed degradation and deprivation.

The book is organized in three sections, "orient," "dis orient," and "re orient," with short prologue and epilogue sections. Written on the page sometimes as prose paragraphs, sometimes in the linebreaks of poems, this is writing that constantly shifts perspective, moving through a landscape of viewpoints, speaking in a chorus of voices. I described the book as epic. It's the average length of a typical book of poems, not a massive volume to pick up; it's epic in every other sense. The great variation of the poems never wanders away from the book's central subject: the nature of life, and death, and love, in the heart of the beast of empire.

Many of Reyes's poems deal specifically with the history and present character of U.S. government and economic policy and relations with Asia and the people of that part of the world. She frequently probes into questions of how culture is defined, and by whom, and for what purposes; a number of the poems make reference to the portrayal of Asian people and places in American-made films. From a poem (untitled, in the conventional sense) that begins "dear love,":

remember the bamboo tiger cages in those goddamn movies. and napalm, sinister rain, deathly tangerine vapor veiling the islands, for simulation's nothing like the real thing. the real thing. military choppers of film script, steel demon birds, called away to quell real life dictatorship's farthest outposts of rebellion. who among us could've told the difference? they have mistaken my home for a hollywood set of your home.
(In the 1970's, during the filming of the movie Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, director Francis Ford Coppola made use of helicopters of the Philippines military to film the helicopter scenes. At one point filming was temporarily interrupted because the Philippines government called the helicopters away to aid in suppressing a real-life populist rebellion that was breaking out in the Philippines.)

At times the voice in the poems is clear and accusing, other times quiet and abidingly tender, and again coolly analytical, and yet again public and declamatory. Reyes's poems move with insistent rhythms and concentrated power that evoke the movement of the sea, the tectonic plates of the earth.

she whispers desert trees, thorn-ridged, trickling yellow candles; roots spilling snakes' blood
virgin of ribboned silk; virgin of gold filigree
one day's walk westward, a crucifix of fisherman's dinghy dimensions washes ashore
virgin adorned in robe of shark embryo and coconut husk
she fingers mollusks, wraps herself in sea vines
virgin of ocean voyage peril
she wills herself born
virgin of mud brick ruins; virgin of sandstorm echoes
she is saint of commonplaces; saint of badlands
virgin of jade, camphor, porcelain; virgin of barter for ghosts
penitents, earthdivers of forgotten names praying skyward
virgin of scars blossomed from open veins of fire
(From the poem "[galleon prayer], pilipinas to petatlán.")

Poems about the destruction and survival of the Philippines and Vietnam. Poems about corporatespeak and corporatemind that can conceive of most of the world as little more than an oil well, a silver mine, an undrafted army of low-wage labor, a brothel, a tourist picture postcard, a hotel on a sunny beach. Poems of soldiers returning from the latest imperial expedition, missing limbs and souls. Poems of love persisting in the face of everything. Poems of the constant and probing search for identity, not as a label or slogan but as an actual reality of who each of us is in relation to each other in the lives we live, which are in every sense political.

Between decreed days of honor,
you think of their faces, twisting,
blood clots in the brain. Today,
you pretend they are your heroes.

El valiente, el nómada.
La sangre, las venas, la ruptura.

Consider this procession:

Those missing pieces of themselves,
held up by will, metal stilts,
antiquated wheelchairs.
Quad-pod canes of they've got
adequate health insurance.
Amputation's romance, enacted
upon world stages. Videotaped. [...]

[...] Día de los muertos.

Those who fought with only scythes and sticks,
those who have held their innards in with a pot lid,
they are not present and accounted for here.

Sin ofrendas. Sin oración.
(From an untitled poem beginning "Aquí, in mi ciudad de sueños...")

Reyes doesn't translate the Spanish or Tagalog passages in Poeta en San Francisco into English. I don't know any Tagalog, and until I checked the publisher's webpage for the book (at the link above) I wasn't sure if it was Tagalog or possibly another language of the Philippines. Portions of some poems are in another writing, not familiar to me; Reyes includes transliterations of these into Roman alphabet, I would guess as a way of giving a sense of the sound of the passages. I appreciated the demand and invitation the poems offered, another act of changing perspective, a simple reminder that English is not, in fact, a language everyone chooses to speak.

In a world in which the life and well-being of the earth increasingly and inexorably depends on our capacity and desire to care for each other as human beings; where borders and languages, cultures and viewpoints, history and ideology, poetry and song, can be doorways and flowerings, not fences and walls; the poetry in Poeta en San Francisco is a star and an emblem, it is essential. To those who would destroy the earth for their insatiable gain, the poetry here is a warning: to those of us who would make the world live, the poetry calls our names.

you have angered the evil spirits of the machine, and they demand appeasement. this is why you have come, a man presenting himself as a voice, always suspecting the jungle's eyes are not human. if they are, capable of humanity, then they are the first men, wordless, taking possession of accursed inheritance. no, you wish for deliberate belief. you insist upon absolution and deliverance. and so it shall be.
(From the poem "[panambitan]".)

Lyle, Many thanks for this! I really appreciate such a thoughtful read.
Thanks for bringing Barbara Jane Reyes to the spotlight Lyle. I really admire her work, and haven't read her in a long time. I remember reading her in mipoesias and being blown away.
Yes, Lyle, this is fabulous. Her work is stunning. Thank you for all your efforts re the interview and I'm assuming you don't mind that Maureen quoted you! xxxj
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