To Love as Aswang: Songs, Fragments & Found Objects by Barbara Jane Reyes

Reviewed By

The titles in Barbara Janes Reyes’s latest collection, To Love as Aswang: Songs, Fragments and Found Objects, operate like infinitive verbs, ranging from the simple and familiar “To Wait,” to the complex and particular “To Pray to the Goddess of Lost Things.” At once the table of contents reads like a dictionary of verbs that one might employ in specific settings, or else a set of wise proverbs meant to guide one on the path to a good life—”To Proceed, You Must First Understand.” The titles can also be taken as coming from a manual, however, a handbook for a certain kind of revolutionary, the “How To” book missing its “how,” which in the hands of Reyes’s readers becomes an incendiary device: to read this book aloud is “To Spit Fire,” under instruction from Reyes, and to give voice to a poetry of and for Filipina women.

When it comes to representing Filipino voices, Barbara Jane Reyes is not new to the scene. She has been writing, blogging, teaching, and advocating for Filipino American literature for years, creating precious space in the literary landscape for other Filipino American writers, and establishing herself as a powerful proponent of Filipino and Filipino American culture. In earlier work, she demonstrated the fullness of her lineage, whether carrying Whitman’s torch and showing herself to be a sheer master of the litany, or evoking Lorca while looking deep into the fabric of the city, or still further, when writing in Tagalog in an act of linguistic defiance that many recent poets have emulated in a multiplicity of languages.

Every bit of this continues to be the case, but in To Love as Aswang, Reyes turns her language specifically to the Pinay, the Filipina woman, a subject of oppression around the world following decades of diaspora, but also within the heart of Filipino culture as well. Where previously her muse was “Diwata,” a not-necessarily gendered spirit from Filipino mythology, now she invokes “Aswang”: “a mythic, monstrous creature which has, since colonial times, been associated with female transgression, scapegoating, and social shaming…In the 21st century, and in diaspora, she manages to endure.”

The poetry itself is forceful, daring, and prophetic:

We tend to the body, baptism, medicine,

We tend to the body, we guard the spirit.

We charge through water, tsunami, typhoon,

We charge through water, flanked by our kin,

We march valiant, pressed and starched.

We march valiant, in battle formation.

We forge ashore, unsullied, ashimmer.

We forge ashore as we swore. We return.

Whether transcribing texts from Western men advising on what to expect from a Filipina wife (or from an adult crying afoul of their rich father supposedly getting scammed by one), or delivering addresses to “Sweetie,” the computer-animated avatar designed by a civil rights organization to appear like a 10 year-old Filipina and lure sexual predators online, or saying prayers to the cancer-ridden bodies of mother-figures, Reyes does not let the line go slack for a second. At no point is the reader given permission to forget to whom this book is dedicated, the Pinays who have struggled, suffered, and persevered despite separation, neglect, abuse, slavery, and rape:

Blame the Pinay,

Sad like her country ___________We split ourselves in half

Blame the Pinay,

Work that bitch properly ________We leave our bodies behind

Blame the Pinay,

She won’t give you pussy ________We fly, and we feed

Blame the Pinay,

The kind who fight back ________We unmake your marrow

Formally, Reyes makes use of repetition in various aspects, deploying refrain and anaphora in particular and in profusion. This is political. It is a refusal to simply move on, to change for the sake of comfort, to be Other where “Other” is the safe/oppressed Other that is desired by dominant forces. To resist being assimilated into another poetry, be it Patriarchal Poetry or anything else. If we wanted to be reductive, we could say that repetition is the insistence that, despite all attempts at erasure, we continue to exist, we continue to exist, we continue—and Reyes repeats it for Filipinas worldwide and throughout history.

In fact, Reyes’s use of repetition enacts a direct rebuttal of the most common and oppressive critique of the so-called poetry of “identity,” the critique which asks: “Haven’t you already written about that? Isn’t it time to move on? Isn’t it time to ‘make it new’? Isn’t it too easy to write about being a minority? Aren’t you over it yet?” Reyes writes poetry that is in itself her reply.

Lyric poetry’s political strength lies in presence—it brings the word into uncanny presence with an address, not overheard, but intoned by the reader. It makes present, and therefore visible, audible, tangible, what might otherwise be erased or even violently obstructed from being. By nature it resists, defying elision. It breaks silence to voice what is, and makes it so in its performance. Any controlling interest that tries to make lyric poetry “move on,” is trying to break off that political efficacy at its root.

Meanwhile, it’s impossible to imagine any poet or generation of poets ever exhausting the incredible richness of Filipino culture (taking into account indigenous, pre-colonial societies; the trauma of colonial oppression, with a heavy dose of Catholicism just to make it extra dour and no less mystical; war; disease; survival; the fact of diaspora, and the fact of it reaching America, of it flourishing in California; and contemporary Filipino art around the world; just to name a few aspects), to the point where poems claiming and defining “identity” might cease to have a basis. But who knows this better than Barbara Jane Reyes? It’s not for me or you tell her. She is giving presence to the Pinay in contemporary American poetry. She is giving the Filipina the fullness of her language. It’s our turn to listen:

Where is my voice. Every time I speak, some man, any man
Always interrupts, and every time I speak louder, he shouts

He claims he knows far better than I, what I need, what’s good
For me. Where is my fire to burn the filth from his tongue.

Jeremy Allan Hawkins was born in New York City and raised in the Hudson Valley. His is an alumnus of the US Fulbright Program and the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project. His poetry has appeared in Tin House, Harvard Review, Waxwing, and other journals. He also reviews poetry regularly for Pleiades and lives in France. More from this author →