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|Poeta en San Francisco|
Barbara Jane Reyes
ISBN Number: 0975937642
Reviewer: Collin Kelley
Manila-born and San Francisco-reared poet Barbara Jane Reyes´ winning of the James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets for her second collection, Poeta en San Francisco, was a surprising–and refreshing–choice.
Clocking in at 108 pages, this book is without a doubt one of the edgiest and most unflinching one-poem volumes of verse and prose I´ve read in years. Those who eschew “accessible" poetry might be begging for it at the end of this harrowing journey through the streets of the Bay City and beyond.
Best read in one sitting, Poeta is punctuated with pop culture, profanity, and foreign languages. It´s a political statement that indicts the current administration and those who came before, as well as a polemic against the ongoing xenophobia that runs rampant in America. The opening gambit–called state of emergency–is a declaration that niceties, prosaic metaphors, and strict adherence to form will not be tolerated. Reyes writes, “…what may be so edgy about the state of emergency is my lack of apology for what I am bound to do."
What it immediately called to mind for me was another controversial book, Alice Walker´s The Color Purple. Reyes frequently writes letters to an unidentified “love" who could just as easily be God, a lover, or a country.
dear love it is true there are no demons but the ones we´ve invented
fallen from firmament´s edges into oceans of fire harnessed
secrecy´s epidemic trace salt circles upon stone virgin´s breached
fortresses mercy aversion
tell me your name awakens carved flesh sutures continue to pray
the word is uttered the sky will open its thunder because doubt was
no memory corroborates we exiles in the register of baptism.
dear love, i cannot remember when we last spoke.
Divided into three sections, part one´s double entendre title “orient" not only means the Poeta´s place of origin, but also how she has adjusted to her adopted home of San Francisco. Its sloping streets are filled with disgruntled Vietnam vets, ghetto-blasting homeboys, and homeless men and women in epic proportions.
we are penned in this narrow strip of land,
sutured by train tracks and high voltage wire,
where these piss and dank stankin alleys
embrace and tear us from our vigilance
The city´s vibrant melting pot of cultures belies an undercurrent of racism:
But the Poeta, in another letter to her “love," writes that she feels both separated from her native country and her adopted one: “…they have mistaken my home for a hollywood set of your home. even my language was a stand-in for yours. your country is not at war. my country is no longer mine."
Delving more specifically into racial issues, the Poeta also takes aim at the image of Filipinos as nothing more than meek domestics, who have traded in their religion and customs so they won´t appear “too foreign." She archly observes, “in short the philipinas are custom tailored to fit your needs. now will that be cash or charge?"
In section three, “dis.orient", the Poeta time-trips back to the Philippines (even writing in Baybayin, the country´s ancient language), to see how the white man, stunned to find the Filipinos far from being ignorant savages, worked to erase the culture by assimilation and oppression. The Poeta recognizes that this type of eradication has affected not only her native country, but others as well.
the scribe expresses profound disillusion–
the edifices of his own empire are lackluster.
he tastes other´s tongues and tang so curious,
so fresh, he discovers they are to his liking.
he names himself sage eradicator of ennui.
The diaspora of the Filipinos–their attempts to assimilate into another way of life and how forced migrations have affected generations–are detailed here in a series of “prayers" that are blasphemous, terrifying, and, sadly, true:
under freeway overpass sunday worship
congregation´s shopping carts sleeping bags
whiskey in paper sacks nothing to eat
a teenage runaway wonders if tonight
will be the night she sleeps unmolested.
Lord. Have mercy. Christ. Have mercy.
Lord. Have mercy. Christ. Hear us.
Christ. Can you hear us?
Whoever the fuck is up there–
Have mercy on us. Have mercy on us.
Have mercy on us. Have mercy on us.
And, finally, this:
the morning paper
reported a suicide–
filipina crack whore
nothing to live for.
In the third section, “re.orient," the Poeta embraces her identity and her city, but steadfastly refuses to give up her history. Reyes writes in Tagalog, the Philippine national language, but returns to English when she describes how the narrator has come to deal with her exile.
in this home that is not our home, we have mutually exiled each
other. i walk down your street in the rain, and i do not call you. i
walk in the opposite direction of where i know to find you, that we
do not speak is louder than bombs.
The hymn-like quality of the book continues as the Poeta goes to confession and frankly admits her assimilation, but refuses to carry the baggage this often entails:
Forgive me father, for here I have faltered.
It has been thirty years and counting,
the process of my acculturation.
For the names I have been given:
Hispanic Hussy! Slanty-eyed Ho!
Cannot bind me to any one place:
Los Angeles Mexico City
Hong Kong Hanoi Bangkok
San Juan Havana Madrid
And even more.
For my money, Poeta en San Francisco deserves to be part of the contemporary canon–remembered, revered, and studied. Reyes breaks new ground and plants a defiant flag for her convictions. Everyone, stand up and salute.