INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED by Sasha Pimentel Chacon
(West End Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2010)
EASTER SUNDAY by Barbara Jane Reyes
(ypolita press, San Francisco, 2008)
Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance, co-edited by Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Evelina Zuni Lucero
(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2009)
SARILING DUWENDE*: A TIME COLLAPSE IN INDIGENOUS CONTINUANCE
(Author’s Note: This review is the first in a series of experimental engagements focused on gleaning indigenous Filipino traits in the poetry of Filipino poets located in the diaspora. Obviously, this issue may not have been relevant to certain authorial intentions—but since the matter at hand is poetry with its subjective spaces including in my case an exploration of blood memory, and I’m making this POV transparent, I proceed with the attempt.)
I. INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED by Sasha Pimentel Chacon
Several months ago, I began to write, then soon stopped attempting, a review of Sasha Pimentel Chacon’s debut poetry book. Through no fault of the poet or book, I simply don’t have much of an appetite for the use of food and the process of eating as sources/inspirations for metaphors in (sigh, how to put it), multicultural/ethnic (?) poems; the approach has been served (sorry) many times, and even become problematic when their references become a source for exoticism. Undoubtedly, I suffer from an “occupational hazard” from having spent so many years promoting/disseminating Asian-American and Filipino-American literature (Pimentel Chacon, who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, was born in the Philippines). So I laid the reviewing pen aside, even as I chided myself for breaking my self-imposed guide of looking at a project based on what it is rather than what I think at the outset it should be or not be.
It wasn’t until months later after I participated in the April 17-18, 2010 Babaylan Conference at Sonoma State University that I returned with enthusiasm to INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED. For what I learned about indigenous Filipino culture at and through the Conference enabled me to look at Chacon’s poetry with different—and fresh instead of jaded—eyes. Particularly helpful in writing this review was a book I discovered through the conference, KAPWA: The Self in the Other by artist-scholar Katrin de Guia (Anvil, Pasig City, 2005) which, among other things, provided a useful summation of the Filipino indigenous concepts cited below.
Post-conference, I observe in INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED the surfacing of “talinhaga”, which can be translated as the (ingrained) use of metaphors for communication. “Understanding talinhaga has a lot to do with listening to the environment,” according to de Guia. To be sure, in pre-colonial times, “environment” usually meant nature. But in the diaspora, what is often Filipino in the exile’s environment is, you betcha, food and/or memories of food in the birthland. To such matters and others, Pimentel Chacon “listens” well:
I think of my grandmother,
how she didn’t write. The arthritis
curling into her knotted fingers,
I remember her shuffling
hunched to the china cabinet
where she kept the Bola de Queso
from Christmas, then the yellow cuts
of cheese shivering in her palm,
so generously extended to me. We bit
into the soft wedges together
and I told her she was beautiful
by Grandfather’s sickbed, and she cried.
Outside, the children played jacks, tossing
bottle caps from the driveway of
her knuckled house: aluminum
sparks, sudden blooms
sighing into the tired street.
—from “Filipinos Don’t Have Streets”
In the above excerpt, the Bola de Queso provides a happier moment than what is written at the beginning and end of the stanza. This is significant as many poems in this collection become wistful or sad. For me, the non-joyous tone proferred by several poems relate to what was lost by the Filipino person (person or persons, not persona) in the book. One need not be Einstein—pardon Moi, instead One need not be Virgilio Enriquez—to figure out that leaving the ancestral land is a loss. Thus, much of the book is concerned about memory.
But memory here is of events transcending the author’s or the person-in-the-book’s particular life and lifetime. The memory addressed here is what is hearkened by blood memory (a link to ancestors whereby one can inherit their predispositions in some way) or ancestral memory. This is why the first poem “Learning to Eat” comes to share more than just the metaphor of memory’s taste being like the taste of a pomegranate. Instead, “the taste / of memory” is a “sweet pluck of / death” (or loss) and the attempt to remember through what de Guia calls “knowing-through-feeling” (de Guia, P. vii) is a series of “hard growths.”
“Knowing-through-feeling” is the indigenized equivalent of (Western) phenomenology, according to de Guia (P. vii) and is critical for what poet and decolonization scholar-poet Leny M. Strobel calls “re-indigenization”. (Decolonization is relevant for if one is to discover indigenous values, one must heal from the effects of colonialism—the force that supplanted indigeneity with modernity.) To rediscover indigenous nature requires empathy, or “pakiramdam, the special sensitivity Filipinos command” (de Guia, P. 19), as the journey is a process towards the unknown. (1)
This can be why the book is aptly titled INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED as the memory being recovered is something already within the person’s body. Relatedly, food-related metaphors become apt, not just for the Filipino food references (e.g. “Bawang, cevuyas, kamatis, / …relyenong bangus, / adobong / pusit, / braso de mercedes”—from “Talking Tagalog”) but for how the eating process entails going within the body:
You know what it is to forget chicory.
And because Persephone feeds, so do you:
each seed (each taut root you love) slides down like a fish,
becoming fish, empurpling the throat through each
esophageal stricture, waved into the progress
of a swallow, they drop down the canal—
a garden whirling in the stomach’s sea.
—from “The Body is a Host of Want”
Note the body becoming nature as the swallowing ends into a stomach now called “sea,” befitting how indigenous culture is rooted in the natural environment. This is a clear manifestation of a Filipino core value of interconnections, “Kapwa” which can be translated to “Shared Self” with other beings and nature.
I don’t know, of course, if Pimentel Chacon has explored indigenous knowledge/practices. It wouldn’t surprise me if she hasn’t (yet)—in the poem entitled “Blood, Sister”, certain phrases repeat “Do I not know you?” about a girl met on a Manila street, rather than asserting “I know you” with the indigenous Kapwa implication of I am You or We are One. Kapwa also has been described as “self in the other.”
But what is evident in this book is an opening to that direction, no doubt facilitated by an acknowledgement that what has been found so far in the diaspora is at times insufficient:
My brother and I are canes, limbs cut
from a pine tree. Mother tips
on our bodies, wobbly, a moon off
—from “Childhood Parts”
But it is really only American trees I know of—pines, birches—not
Later in the poem “Childhood Parts,”
Her ear burst talking to our father
long distance, blood run through
What insides my mother has swallowed
that made its way out her ear, I wonder.
What bloodied ear could crumple her legs,
could draw her to bed and leave her there?
So, yes, the person in the book may not yet fully know what comprises loss (“What bloodied ear”?), except for generally the immigrant’s loss in leaving birthland. But there is a questioning and exploration towards answers—it is this questioning and exploring that often facilitate paths toward re-indigenization, particularly among “culture-bearers” like artists.
INSIDES SHE SWALLOWED is a first book, so it would be fitting if it’s just the first course of a meal. But Pimentel Chacon seems to be on her way to getting closer to fulfilling hunger. It certainly intrigues me to consider what kind of poems she will end up writing(2) if she transcends this quote from Sharon Bryan that she includes in her current book:
Here we are, living above our bodies
like eccentric aunts in the attic,
eavesdropping on all the commotion
This occurs, of course, with the erasure of the split between body and spirit.(2) The most effective poems (or fragments of poems) in the book reveal the poet’s capacity for rediscovery and perhaps specifically rediscovering Filipino indigenous culture. “Blood, Sister”, as I noted earlier, might have asserted “I know you” rather than questioned, “Do I not know you?” about a girl met on a Manila street (though, in all fairness from a more strict literary strategy POV, it can be argued that this questioning is appropriate in Part 1 of a six-part poem where a search or journey is just beginning). But it is my second favorite poem in the book for focusing attention on someone else other than the “I” (unlike the majority of poems in the collection), and then for ending with its last section, Part 6, manifesting Kapwa (another description of the concept is that Kapwa “signals that ‘I am one with humanity’, “ de Guia P. 9). Here is the magnificent Part 6 which certainly works, too, as a stand-alone poem (perhaps entitled “Balut! Balut!”):
We eat the developing body and I eat you my blood
my sullied brown knock-knee, my sponsored child
my limbs and bowed shins, my little squatter hemorrhaging into the river, darling
muezzin who calls me to feast on your intestine—
Blood Sister do you hear me?
I am crawling up your ear canal, I am the loudness in your pulse
I am the dhole, the lynx caracal, who are feasting on your throat
I am the hatchel in your hair, and at your elbow with papillote
I am the eyeful, the fistful, the severed self
I am the countryman who has run, is underdone, and undone
and I am the tightened asshole, the sliced onion
and builder of all shanties; friend, I am your disease
and I am at ease, and I am the tangle, the small ravel,
the singing Philomel, friend, and I am the knell
the giant clamshell, the tolling city bells—sister!
I am the Yell
in your stomach, your own yell,
and I am eating you
because you take my place
in the streets.
You fill my mouth
because I am empty
of memory, birthright,
the bruise of begging,
and this is hunger, this is hunger.
But it was another poem, “The Field,” that became my favorite (and not for the lack of a food reference!). “The Field” became my favorite for giving a sense of being born fully realized (just as in Filipino creation myth, a piece of bamboo split to reveal an already mature man and woman). Note the effortless joining of man and nature in the poem, hearkening Kapwa as not just shared (human) self but as shared Life (encompassing everything in existence).
“The Field” effects an impression of being born whole—as if it was written as a first draft, last draft (whether or not it was). This effect hearkens the ultimate strived-for memory: that time before colonialism encroached and replaced indigenous culture with modernity. This period can be described through Philippine National Artist and novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez’s notions of “mythic man” and “sacred time and place,” described by de Guia as
From the wholistic perspective of the mythic man, the world was just created. No divisions separate the past from the now, the adults from the children, the men from their myths and their dreams, men from their fellow men or the men from their fellow beings.
This was a time when one lived in a time “of primordial oneness with the world, where the sky was so near that people could touch it with their hands. The ancient ones were able to connect to anyone and everything at all times.” (de Guia, Pp. 4-5)
For me, “The Field” doesn’t depict a sequence of events through a passage of time. For me, this poem organically manifests the concurrently shared interconnection between events and beings—something made possible when someone taps into their indigenous nature. “Sacred time”, according to Gonzalez and as summarized by de Guia, “is a point of freedom and abundance—the suspended moment in a time of utmost creativity”. It’s also a reason why the Filipino filmmaker and culture-bearer Kidlat Tahimik recast the word “indigenous” as “indio-genius” (de Guia). Finally, here is the poem written by—at the time of its writing—an indigenized Pimentel Chacon who, even in these “explicit and time-bound” contemporary days, fulfills Gonzalez’s faith that the modern Filipino can still access “sacred time and place” :
Once, a boy touched me
on my nose, the squat slope
unlike his own. If our
bodies were land, his
was full of ridges, cliffs dark
under snow, jagged spectacles—
and parting the folds together, we
found mine: a small yellow plain.
We fingered the grass. Felt its
cold tear our fingers, our
hands shifting, separating
soil from soil. Cotton blooms
bowed their blown heads.
Pimentel Chacon’s ability to create this poem is significant within the matter of “indigenous continuance,” a phrase I borrow from the lovely title of a book on a Native American writer, Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance, co-edited by Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Evelina Zuni Lucero. In this book, Ortiz aptly notes that indigenous values transcend nationalism or tribalism so that it’s appropriate to reference a non-Filipino to describe the concept of wholeness which I believe “The Field” exemplifies. What Ortiz says about the “word” and “language” below can be said similarly, too, about the poem:
For [my father] the word does not break down into any of the separate elements that I expect. The word he has said is complete.
The word is there, complete in its entity of meaning and usage. But I, with my years of formal American education and some linguistic training, having learned and experienced English as a language—having learned to recognize the parts of a sentence, speech, the etymology of words, that words are separable into letters and sounds and syllables of vowels and consonants—I have learned to be aware that a word does not break down into basic parts or elements. …
…A word is complete.
…Language, when it is regarded not only as expression but is realized as experience as well, works in and is of that manner. Language is perception of experience as well as expression.
Technically, language can be disassembled according to linguistic function which mainly deals with the expression part of it. You can derive—subsequently define—how a language is formed, how and for what purpose it is used, and its development in a context. But when the totality is considered, language as experience and expression, it doesn’t break down so easily and conveniently. And there is no need to break it down and define its parts.
Language as expression and perception—that is at the core of what a song is. It relates to how my father teaches and sings a song and how a poet teaches and speaks a poem.(3)
“The Field” shows that Pimentel Chacon has the ability to access the “sacred time and place.” In this space, “the suspended moment in a time of utmost creativity” is not just possible but, as Gonzalez said according to de Guia,” it is the sacred time which enables the people to rediscover their roots over and over again. It is a memory they would never forget.”
EASTER SUNDAY by Barbara Jane Reyes is a slim but powerful chap of 14 poems. Were I to choose one poem that I felt displayed the sense of (indigenous) wholeness I described earlier, it would be
Today I recall that a quizzical boy tastes of sugared skulls and honeysuckle candles wrapped in the darkness of winter solstice. Today an old flame presses his body into mine, madly, alarmingly. Today I learn the numbers indicating completion and perseverance. Today a friend informs me we have traced circles with bare hands, and I calculate what cannot be measured against carved and polished stones. Today I begin to doubt the existence of joy, and so I read Hafiz weave light into words: I wonder what other beasts and outrageously plumed birds reside within this cage of skin. Here too must be a pair of golden falcons, clawing their way towards dear open sky.
This poem feels like a smooth ball—phrases flow smoothly into each other but there’s a weight to the underlying energy that makes me think of a solid ball rather than a circle. The weight of content being form—e.g., that completion and perseverance are concurrent. Or that reference to “cage of skin” which presents the inherent space contained by what would fashion a cage. I also find significant the last sentence with its desire to move “towards dear open sky.” The sky, indeed, is dear—evoking Gonzalez’s description of “sacred time and sacred place” where the human walking on earth can touch sky for a moment wherein one is in touch with everything and all time; at that moment, there also is no difference between human and god since all beings are one.
Note the phrase “and I calculate what cannot be measured against carved and polished stones.” A stone that is not carved or polished—is that not original stone, the stone before encroachment occurred? What is hearkened here is that pre-encroached time of “primordial oneness with the world” (de Guia, P. 4). In the Philippines, this world was disrupted with the advent of Spanish colonialism (including its introduction of linear time through Catholicism).
The pre-colonial world where the human is also god is relevant in EASTER SUNDAY because certain poems or excerpts in poems often evoke “tampo”, the Filipino behavior-concept of affective disappointment or unmet expectations (de Guia, P. 37). But with affective disappointment usually comes a withdrawal in order to facilitate a regenerative cycle—in this case, the cycle or path to recover a world with indigenous values. The ability to be god, then, also implies the ability to succeed in one’s goal.
Relatedly, the last sentence mentions “golden falcons clawing their way” towards the desired sky. Through talanhiga (metaphor), the poem offers: the process is difficult (requires “clawing”) and the seekers are also warriors (“falcons”. From the link, note that falcons are not just fast but can speedily adapt to circumstances, the latter reflecting the improvisational behavior from another Filipino indigenous value, “Bahala na.”
But note that successful warriorhood, by indigenous terms, relies on community (“pakikibaka,” the indigenous term for participation in battle, is what caused the success of the first People’s Power movement that overthrew the Marcos Dictatorship—a movement requiring the people to come together and that subsequently inspired other people’s power revolutions in other countries). In the arts, many Filipinos who have gotten or are getting in touch with indigenized values inevitably end up shifting how they create and live. What is interesting about Barbara Jane Reyes is that, beyond her written works, she is a cultural activist for Filipino writers and artists (for examples, she teaches about the subject, occasionally guest-edits literary issues focused on contemporary Filipino-authored poems, and manages the Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. Blog that provides updates on what’s happening in various Filipino artist communities). For indigenized Filipino artists, a battle taken up is often the preservation of the community’s culture—one reason why such indigenized Filipino artists are often called “culture-bearers.”
In sum, as denoted through talanhiga (metaphor) , in “Golden” the person making the journey is worthy (“golden”) of the worthwhile goal (“dear… sky”), and will do what it takes (“falcon”) to successfully complete the journey. And that person and process are already within the body of the seeker (“within this cage of skin”).
It’s significant that EASTER SUNDAY ends on an optimistic note for many phrases in the poems prior to “Golden” exemplify disappointment, unease, or discomfort. For instance,
where we reside, there are never enough
words, and never enough places for words
Or a poem entitled “Why I have no paintings on these walls” that bear such lines as
Here again this same inhabiting of someone else’s flesh
Living lackluster as slow death
What I sense-feel in such lines is what also occurs with tampo—a withdrawal from current context, as also revealed in this excerpt from “in this city, she collects confession”:
work. stilted. onset. recoil.
bring me. finish me.
I used to dream of a child named diwa, then I dreamt of a child with no name
hours on a boat
drums and summer
“we are made of stars”
feels like a myth i read
Recall the reference to “cage of skin” in “Golden”—which is to say, we are what our bodies contain, including blood-memory.(4) Our bodies contain desire(s) and memory(ies) so that when the poem’s persona in the above poem comes to read a phrase like “we are made of stars”, it elicits a memory. But the memory “feels like a myth” once read, rather than what the persona actually once experienced in that “sacred time and sacred place” (everyone and everything are bound into one by, in part, collapsing linear time).
What's unfortunate about EASTER SUNDAY is that it's constrained by the limits of a chapbook—i.e., it is a short body of work—so that most of the 14 poems are like the three poems excerpted above in terms of emanating from a similar space. “Golden” seems to come from a space more beyond the start of withdrawal, and makes me as reader wish to see more. I suppose this could be my one criticism of EASTER SUNDAY—it feels like a grouping of poems versus a singular collection that befits its form as a 14-poem chapbook (while chapbooks are slim, contents can cohere as individual collections). Having said that, I’m perfectly willing to call this a question or moment of wondering, versus a hard-line criticism of the chap. Because the imbalanced grouping also serves to emphasize the open-ended nature of the grouping—say, the earlier poems providing the tampo context and then the very last poem opening up to offer the possibility of redemption rather than what would be a depressing alternative: depression. Okay—I persuaded myself; scratch the criticism! (Lest you wonder why I didn’t just go back and re-write this paragraph, it’s because the transparency of the thought process reflects the experiential nature of indigeneity as well as the time-collapse in mythic time’s “sacred time and sacred place”. It also amuses me.)
What’s significant is that, after the chap’s offerings, I do want to see more – I want to see what this poet creates as her process matures and journey continues.(5) For there are enough places in this slim chap where the poet’s language reveals a distinct luminosity that feels like the words surfaced in a sunlit space, as what might be found in a “sacred place and sacred time.” For example, “Harana for Eve “ begins
This is the beginning—
She is woven in amber-encased cobalt dragonfly, and he sees virgin. His starlit seashell dream, his crucifixion, upon fists. He loves her because . Whisper susurrus lullaby. Leafstorm.
She love song.
This is the middle—
Her bloodless love for tattooed bodies and salt moving him, of her affecting swoon: will waits faithful, willing all. Think to measure, she fills her lungs sometimes she’s his tea into scalding deep sheen of the black banshee.
She as the constant burn.
She santo nino, sandalwood butterfly radio pop: those who chocolate star thunder, his thrumming saxophone wings unfold. For this nonetheless, there she is songbird, and he would name in sampaguita an art form name, his invocation. Apparition.
She is here.
Not only is the diction gorgeous but through excisement of certain words that normally would be required for proper grammar the energy is undistilled; this strategy also reflects Bahala na(1) by doing what is required rather than simply abiding by rules. As well, the deliberate compression of narrative references manifest a push towards the type of unity showcased in creation myths depicting humans born fully-mature (including the Filipino myth of a bamboo splitting to reveal an adult man and adult woman) .
“She is here.” Indeed. Finally, this recalls a Filipino greeting birthed long ago: “Tao Po.” "Tao" is the Tagalog term for "human" and "Po" is a word used to show respect. This greeting can be used mundanely; Tagalog-speakers in the Philippines call out the phrase when they approach a house or knock on a door wanting to know if someone is home.
But “Tao Po”, by literally meaning “A person is here” is also an expression of respect for one’s self. Through Kapwa, that self being respected also is the self/selves of others. Thus, an artist-activist groups, Artists' Collective of Anakbayan NY/NJ and Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment (FiRE), once curated in 2007 an art exhibit entitled “Tao Po? / !” to present the state of human rights in the Philippines. At the time, according to the exhibition announcement, “900+ activists and progressives had been killed and 200+ missing, including children, youth and women, since the de-facto Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took office in 2001, and at the same time, from the human rights conditions of Filipinos abroad who have been the leading export of the country in form of cheap labor for the past few years/decades, ‘TAO PO?/!’ calls out to all entities of society: ‘WE'RE NOT ANIMALS! WE ARE HUMANS!’”. Okay, the ending phrase there is unfair to animals, but we can understand the contextualized message. FiRE’s announcement also explains:
"TAO PO?" (with the question mark) calls out and knocks on other people's doors to heed the calls of Human Rights victims in seeking for justice. "TAO PO!" (with the exclamation point) on the other hand, simply and straightforwardly asserts the HUMANITY of those who have been subject to oppression and exploitation. This proclaims that they are HUMANS and that they deserve the RESPECT due to them as human beings with rights and a life to uphold.
This relates back to Reyes’ line “She is here” referencing the history of Filipinos having to needlessly assert the obvious: their existence, their presence. Certainly, I suspect that this line also is influenced by the title of one of the Philippines’ greatest 20th century poets Jose Garcia Villa who, until recently, had fallen into obscurity in the West which previously lauded his works; that book title is HAVE COME, AM HERE.
EASTER SUNDAY reveals the poet Reyes to be a mature poet: she is on a journey, but by indigenous terms, she also already is there…and also here. This collection offers a sense of a poet not just saying but being.
III. Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance, co-edited by Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Evelina Zuni Lucero
Well, yes, Simon J. Ortiz is Native American. But the indigenized POV of Kapwa as “Shared Life” means he, too, is Filipino. So, to Mr. Ortiz: Tao Po!
Seriously, it’s a fine synchronicity for me to have this book available. It’s quite true that many of the values offered in this book about Ortiz’s poetics and poems are the same as what I’ve been discovering in books about indigenized Filipino core values and practices. It’s all apt for, as Ortiz notes, indigeneity is not about tribalism or nationalism.
Acoma Pueblo writer Simon J. Ortiz has authored over two dozen volumes of poetry, prose fiction, children’s literature and nonfiction work. This book celebrates as well as fleshes out Ortiz’s poetics and influence—the combined creative pieces, critical writings and interviews reveal (in the words of the press release which I see no reason to change as a summation) “Ortiz’s role in the development of cultural studies and Native American literatures on a number of fronts, garnering tribal, regional, national, hemispheric and global levels of awareness and appreciation….The scholarship …offers readers a heightened understanding of Ortiz’s literary craft and sheds light on the historical, cultural and political factors that have shaped Native writing over the last four decades.”
Contributors include academics and critics as well as writers , poets and artists—both Pueblo and not: in addition to the co-editors, Elizabeth Ammons, Elizabeth Archuleta, Esther Belin, Jeff Berglund, Kimberly Blaeser, Gregory Cajete, Sophia Cantave, David Dunaway, Roger Dunsmore,Lawrence Evers, Gwen Westerman Griffin, Joy Harjo, Geary Hobson, David L. Moore, Debbie Reese, Kimberly Roppolo, Ralph Salisbury, Kathryn W. Shaney, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sean Kicummah Tenton, Laura Tohe and Robert Warrior. (Sadly, due to a lack of time prior to this issue’s deadline, I only will engage here with the wonderful Introductions by Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Evelina Zuni Lucero as well as Ortiz’s “Song, Poetry and Language: Expressions and Perception, A Statement on Poetics and Language”. I hope to engage with the rest of the book in future writings.)
Many of the Native American values presented by the book resonated as I read within the context of correlating (Filipino) indigenous values to poetry. Specifically, the Editor’s Introduction wonderfully depicts a literary strategy of poem-as-life in describing how Ortiz wrote
a poetic prose story about Antelope Father-Elder who goes out in the winter weather offering his prayers at places sacred to the Acoma people. Oritz first references him within his linguistic home as Kuutse-hanoh Naisdeeyah, offering the English language name second in a subsequent sentence. After providing his name as “Antelope Elder,” then to ensure his readers’ comprehension, Ortiz makes a further bold move, sharing part of the elder’s personal prayers and songs. In doing so, he affirms for his readers the firstness of indigeneity and the attendant primal relationships of those deeply connected to their sacred ancestral geographies, for Ortiz presents the Antelope Elder’s words in the utterance of an old Acoma man: ‘Hahdhishra Haaweh-shthih Shiwana? Hahdri-shra Haaweh-shthih Shiwana?” Instead of translating these lines for his readers, Ortiz follows them with the blank space of a line and paragraph break, inviting his readers to consider the orality and significance of the Acoma words, including their very presence within an English language text. The stanza break provides the emphatic space that underscores the reality of indigeneity, the continuance of ancestral roots that must, nevertheless, emerge within American letters, and, in a powerfully Indigenous deconstructive move, a presence that decenters the linguistic and literary sovereignty of conquest. (P. 28)
There is much packed into how Ortiz wrote in the excerpt above. But the way they are presented serves organically to focus the reader on the story. The harmony between literary strategy and content continues in the next stanza, according to the editors, about the elder’s wintertime prayers
noting the “thick snow clouds” and the “deep snow” that ominously covered the trails and water holes. It is only after this that Ortiz provides a translation of the prior prayer songs, but he does so in a particularly interesting way. After relating that the elder went outside to offer his prayers to the winter spirits, Ortiz first shares his song in the Keresan language of the Acoma Pueblo people. Then, after describing the winter weather conditions s and the snow, he shares the song again in a way that conveys the ongoing events of the story, namely the elder’s spiritual communion and journey: “He sang, ‘Where are you, Snow Shiwana? Where are you, Snow Shiwana?’” The translation [thus] is not an editorial intrusion, but rather the continued singing of the old man. (P. 28) [italicized emphasis mine]
What I love about this depiction is the notion that reflecting indigineity is not simply based on narrative (though it includes such—see below regarding Ortiz’s poem “Headlands Journal”) but the holistic manner through which a poem determines its form. The poetic notion of Form = Content actually reflects the indigenous value of “wholistic”-ness, how de Guia describes Gonzalez’s “mythic man” from pre-colonial/pre-modernity days.
Indigenous values of course require knowledge of, and being rooted in, history. This hearkening back to history requires, in poetry, more than the presentation of indigenous references. For the poem to be effective, there has to be energy/resonance/whatever you wish to call it, and the bringing forward of the past logically would rely pakiramdam (knowing-as-feeling). What’s interesting here is how Ortiz used pakiramdam to write a Buffalo prayer song in a journal entry:
His poetic entry for February 14 describes a herd of buffalo first seen in the distance. In a nominal personification that recognizes the interwoven mythical and actual subjectivity of the animals, they are named first in Ortiz’s tongue: “I can feel there are buffalo about— …(P. 29)
That phrase “I can feel” instead of, say, “I can see” becomes a means to “invoke remembrance of the buffalo of Ortiz’s ancestral memory.” At this point of my reading, I remembered several of Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze’s poems where I was first struck by the use of the phrase “I feel…” The first time I saw the use of this phrase, I was moved (though not sure why I was so moved)—I just thought it such a different approach than, say, “I believe…” or “I think…”. It wasn’t until I began reading about indigenous values that I learned about knowing-as-feeling. Interestingly, Sze lives in New Mexico and has been exposed to much Pueblo culture.
The indigenized’s required knowledge/consciousness of history makes logical how Ortiz’s love for the buffalo is what becomes a Valentine’s Day journal entry (rather, say, than a personal love or romance poem). Historical knowledge elevates another poem, “For the Children.” To someone essentially unaware of Acoma Pueblo history, like me, these lines
It is a door, the round hole, for the children
To climb through when they return
When they return to Acoma one day.
Still today the people wait.
are already effective, even as I might interpret them as simply a poem about the Acoma waiting for the return of people who’ve left the Pueblo (perhaps, say, for better job opportunities elsewhere, etc.). But the poem actually refers to “the Acoma Pueblo children who were taken away [during the colonial disbursement of indigenous peoples away from ancestral lands] to Mexico as payment for the church bells. For more than 400 years, the Acoma people have told and retold the story of the stolen children. The very walls of the pueblo on the south side by the graveyard contain a well maintained hole that is to remember the lost children, a small hole that is nevertheless “big enough / for a little boy or a little girl to climb through” (Out There, 70). In this way, the children remain part of their people; as the stones of the wall are overlaid into and upon each other, so are the children held and interwoven into the hearts and minds of the Pueblo.“ (P. 44)
Ultimately, Ortiz shows the depth of his poetic self specifically through his indigenized view of language. In his essay “Song, Poetry and Language,”(3) he says:
Language is more than just a functional mechanism. It is spiritual energy that is available to all. It includes all of us and is not exclusively in the power of human beings—we are part of that power as human beings. [My emphasis: human beings are only part of that power, that energy…]
Oftentimes, I think we become convinced of the efficiency of our use of language. We begin to read language too casually, thereby taking it for granted, and we forget the sacredness of it. Losing this regard, we become quite careless with how we use and perceive with language. We forget that language beyond the mechanics of it is a spiritual force.
When you regard the sacred nature of language, then you realize that you are part of it and it is a part of you, and you are not necessarily in control of it, and that if you do control some of it, it is not in your exclusive control. Upon this realization, I think there are all possibilities of expression and perception which become available.
I'm experimenting with an indigenous point of view in literary criticism partly because such is a rare POV for literary criticism of diasporic Filipino poetry (I am happy to be corrected if this an erroneous assessment--a few exist, I think, but it is only a few). It’s possible that this may be because (Hello Elephant in Room) whenever one starts referring to the “indigenous,” flakes may surface and hamper serious scholarly study.(6)
But, undoubtedly, indifference to indigenous values also helps limit indigenized literary criticism—e.g. this experience by Ortiz that led to his writing of “Headlands Journal” that contains this excerpt
my voice in song.
What I really mean to say,
singing moon song.
Sitting outside the dining hall smoking. Anica, Emily, others.
Emily offers a roll-your-own, which I decline.
I say, “In jail I’ve seen roll-your-owns so well made they’re rolled better than machine-rolled ones.” Nobody pays any mind.
The poems refers to an experience at Headlands, an arts retreat, and the editors’ Introduction, citing Jean Comaroff, presents a clear analysis of the implications of “Nobody pays any mind” as regards the “moral imperative” as requirement for the making of interconnections:
In Ortiz’s poem, the speaker’s seemingly offhand comment about what he has seen in jail offers the grounding gift of story to his fellow writers and artists—interconnected, personal grounds that Ortiz knows and stories as crucial to the wellbeing of life in the world. Had the fellow artists inquired regarding the jailhouse ‘roll-your-owns,’ they would have shown their interest in the speaker’s experiences and, too, in the realities of Native America in which the jails and prisons incarcerate much higher percentages of Native peoples than the demographics of the land would suggest. In the artists’ silent disinterest, Ortiz invites his readers to hear again, more deeply, the implied stories of conquest, racism, manifest elitism, and interpersonal isolation which, at that moment, the artists neither hear nor value. The relational proximity to the moon that precipitates the song resonates in the distances between nearby fellow artists and the resulting loneliness that comes from disconnection. (P. 35)
Thus, the book Simon J. Ortiz is a crucial addition to literature and literary criticism—not just on behalf of Ortiz or Native American culture but on behalf of a more positive way of engaging with the world: to engage with the world by continuing the healing of the trauma that occurred and continues to occur with colonialism.
All this is to say, I’m experimenting with indigenous literary criticism because the process requires me, and perhaps whoever might read, me to ponder the implications and effects of a colonial history that we all share—it’s the “moral imperative” for going towards something else, a something else that I now realize from writing this review, and without yet knowing its particular manifestations, is simply a better world.
* "Sariling duwende" = the true self inside
1) Bahala na is the indigenous Filipino concept of courage and perseverance in light of understanding that life is not under one’s control
2) For example, for me, it required being opened up by the proceedings of the Babaylan Conference to know that a poem I’ve already had published in a book should be edited to reflect Kapwa. This poem from, I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved,
Tell me more of the unending radiance
your eyes discovered when pressed
against the hole into a honeycomb.
Say turquoise. Say my uncut hair
coiling around your eyes. Say berry.
Say your finger circled hard around
my toe. Tell me more of the unending
Radiance erupting when eyes pressed
against honeyed wombs. Say my name.
You don’t know my name? Make it
up. Then say our name. Tell me more
of the unending radiance of honeyed eyes.
initially had a different last couplet. During the conference, when I had thought I might read it, I edited the original version of the last couplet to say what I now feel+ is a better outcome, “Say our name” instead of “Say my name”+
+Footnote to a Footnote! Note that I say “I now feel…” versus “I now think…” This reflects the indigenous practice of knowing-through-feeling (de Guia).
3) Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance, co-edited by Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Evelina Zuni Lucero (p. 76-77)
4) Blood memory is real, according to my dogs Gabriela and Achilles. Both are well-trained and 100% domesticated. But if they’re out walking in the fields and some rabbit ear-tips hitch up over the tall grass, Gabriela immediately RUNS toward said wabbit. And no amount of “Stop! Stop!” will make her pause. Interestingly, Gabriela is named after Gabriela Silang, the not-to-be-controlled Philippines’ first woman general who’d battled Spanish colonizers…
5) I expect Barbara Jane Reyes' forthcoming book DIWATA (from BOA Editions in Fall 2010) to explore some themes in EASTER SUNDAY, so my hope to see more is likely to be fulfilled.
6) For instance, I heard that several scholars chose not to attend the Babaylan Conference because they were afraid that the program was some sort of flakey or New Age-y appropriation of a myth. When one raises the topic of indigenization, certain flakes indeed will pop up, whether wearing tablecloths for tribal garb or claiming some spiritual position to which others should bow. But while the fear is logical, it’s not warranted by, yes, the facts. I feel indigenous values can and should be assessed for its effectiveness versus outside trappings—when one behaves bearing indigenous values in mind, success can occur in our most modern world (the most visible example would be how the indigenous value of pakikibaka made a success of the highly improbable People’s Revolution that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship, a model that then was emulated in other countries). For an expanded discussion, please visit my blog Babaylan Poetics, specifically the post on “Effectiveness, Not Co-Optation.”
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her newest book THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010) over at Litter Magazine and at Tributary. The book's "Afterword" essay by Joi Barrios is also newly-available online at OurOwnVoice. If these reviews get you curious, please note that its publisher Marsh Hawk Press is supporting a fundraiser for Haiti relief by giving a free copy if you order at least $15 worth of booklets through the Hay(na)ku for Haiti fundraiser; as THE THORN ROSARY is priced retail at $19.95, this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.