Souvenir by Aimee Suzara

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In 1839, the father of scientific racism wrote in Crania Americana, “the Malay family,”of which natives of the Philippine archipelago are part, evidence an “active and enterprising spirit.” Then in the same paragraph, he went on to categorize them as, “ferocious,” vindictive,” and filled with “caprice” and “treachery.”

The 19th century was a golden age for pseudo-science, which was in bed with colonialism and imperialism. As the United States expanded its empire into the Pacific, it used large-scale taxonomy to understand and organize its new acquisitions. The accumulation of knowledge became Truth, solidified into power, and was applied via policy, money, and cannons. Carnivalesque events such as the St. Louis World Fair of 1904 were opportunities for colonizers to show off their collections, which included people.

Aimee Suzara’s poetry collection Souvenir emerges out of and responds to this history and its legacies. Souvenir is both an archive remixed and poetic commentary, written by someone who is both in and outside of the “official” archive. For those of us who remember library card catalogues, it brings to mind one that has been in deep storage, found and mined with caution:

If I were there:
1904, a souvenir:
Which suit would I become?
Which number?

As Souvenir brings the archive into dialogue with itself and others, contradictions bubble to the surface in a kind of traveling carnival atmosphere. Fragments of historical texts written in the authoritative-scientific voice are juxtaposed with Filipino voices who variously address, internalize, and question the White Man’s Burden. Anthropological assertions about Filipinos mix with litanies of standardized categories and labels.

Descriptions of the 1904 World’s Fair and its “authentic” Philippine Reservation bump up against the views of Filipinos living inside the American zoo and their wry observations of this obvious artifice created by whites. A multitude of “gazes” compete for the reader’s attention.

An accumulated fragmentation of subject and pronoun in Souvenir shines in one of its central poems, “Suture,” where the identity of the narrator and the “you” being addressed becomes uncertain. Contemplation of body parts add up to an autopsy-tourism, encompassing and implicating the reader in necrotic voyeurism.

Something
tells you to stop looking,
but you are spun: sutured
to your subject.

aimee-suzaraThis poem also functions as a transition from the paper archive to the personal archive. In the latter section, Souvenir demonstrates Suzara’s own complicated position as a diasporic Pinay, for example placing her family’s roadtrips across the United States in tension with Manifest Destiny’s ardent westward expansion, or her obvious American wealth relative to those in the Philippines.

I feel ashamed for the fat on my cheeks
try to disappear, but an American can be seen from miles away.
And Mom refuses
to hide her real Rolex
even when a watch
is unnecessary.

In all, Souvenir is an exhibit that talks back, one that admits its own tenuous hold on authority by offering up multiple viewpoints. Yet the collection is far from rudderless. The deep and long-lasting effects of colonization and imperialism are displayed throughout, laid bare on a dissection table, showing the reader that history is not always in the past—each of us contains traces of its ferocious dream.


Kenji C. Liu is author of Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. His poetry is in American Poetry Review, Action Yes!, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, several anthologies, and a chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes. He is a Kundiman fellow and an alumnus of VONA/Voices, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers. More from this author →