The Last Book I Loved: Poeta en San Francisco by Barbara Jane Reyes
I wish I had come across Barbara Jane Reyes’s powerful volume Poeta en San Francisco when it was first published in 2005. At the time, I had just returned home to the Bay Area after having completed a graduate degree at Oxford University. I found myself in the midst of a full-blown quarter-life crisis as I struggled to determine my next move and true purpose in life. Although I have always loved literature and had even demonstrated some promise as a writer in my formal studies, the pressures and expectations that came with my background as a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines to overcome and elevate my family’s debased social status won over. Rather than pursue my burgeoning interests in writing and poetry, I did the “sensible” thing and enrolled in law school. However, that itch to write never did quite go away. Over ten years later, I continue to wonder still if I could have cultivated rich poetic sensibilities and honed the craft on par with writers such as Reyes who greatly influence how we (and by “we,” I mean Filipino Americans as well as all Americans) see ourselves in our current contexts. I can’t help but feel that had I encountered Poeta en San Francisco back then—its fierce sense of Filipino American history and culture, its unyielding celebration of Filipino endurance despite relentless colonization, its staunch conviction in the power of the written word to galvanize social movements, and its adamant refusal to behave and fall in line with prescriptions of dominant society—I would have gained the courage to follow my true calling sooner.
Navigating one’s individual course is impossible without thorough knowledge of self and history, and it is precisely such knowledge that Reyes brandishes with urgent ferocity in her volume. The speaker in Poeta demonstrates an ever-expandingawareness that doggedly explores, interrogates, positions, and repositions the enlightened self amid overlapping contexts of history, culture, language, race, gender, socioeconomic class, and geopolitics. “[W]hat may be so edgy about this state of emergency is my lack of apology for what I am bound to do,” writes Reyes in the prologue, and indeed, what results from her endeavor proves treacherous to the most preciously-held of American beliefs. Through incisive and uncompromising verse, Reyes unearths the hypocrisy at work in exalted American democracy as considered against the United States’s ongoing imperialist undertakings and strategic exploitation of other countries which can be historically traced to its annexation of the Philippines in 1898.
The Philippines is where the US first joined in the global race for imperial power and where it first tested its pacification strategies as a nascent national security state that later set the blueprints for the occupations of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Reyes pushes this knowledge of American imperialism to the forefront in evaluating her inheritance and identity as a Filipina American, while also promoting a hyper-awareness of the US’s continued stake in the Philippines through various sectors of interest such as its military operations and human trafficking of women. In educating readers about the historical relevance of the Philippines as the original setting for the spread of American imperialism, Reyes further betrays the unforgivable irony in the pervasive ignorance about Filipino people, history, and culture. Poeta en San Francisco speaks knowledge and truth from this vacuous rift, imparting a powerful and empowering sense of Filipino American identity that questions and challenges assertions of America democracy.
The book is divided into three main sections—”orient,” “disorient,” and “reorient.” “[O]rient” explores various colonial impositions of power upon the Philippines, from proselytization by Catholic Spaniards to American market consumption and exploitation of its resources, including its people. “[D]isorient” repudiates the notion of a monolithic America through linguistic experimentations (employing English, Spanish, Tagalog, and the pre-colonial Filipino script baybayin) couched in prayerful invocations. “[R]eorient” focuses finally on the embodied self, particularly the female self, as it is subjected to surveillance and appropriation.
Although the sections differ in their emphases regarding the widespread effects of colonization, all the poems in Reyes’s volume confront the various ways that colonial powers have subjugated the minds, bodies, and lands of Filipinos. However, such exploration is ultimately overpowered by personal and collective accounts of active and forceful resistance. The very first poem, “consider this procession:,” immediately avows the raging sense of dispossession that overwhelms the colonized. As the poem’s speaker marches with other worshippers bearing idols in a religious cavalcade advancing through the speaker’s native city, readers are led through the speaker’s inner questioning and searching thoughts:
…could we ever know how
much blood has seeped into the soil —
this church, a prison. here, tongues
severed and fed to wild animals.
The speaker’s interrogation of cultural practices inherited by the Philippines from its initial Spanish colonizers yields a profound sense of loss that signals a latent eruption into violent, full-blown rebellion. The reference to the inherited religion of Catholicism as a “prison,” along with the realization of lost native lives and languages stolen by colonizing “wild animals” subverts the notion of “civilization” brought by the Spanish, and later by the Americans. Elsewhere, as the speaker continues to engage religious iconography only to contrast it with her chosen and preferred unholy “alliances with outcasts and expatriates, street corner / denizens,” the contradiction between ostensible worship and expanding inner sense of resistance would seem at first to mirror the hypocrisy between American oppressive practices and egalitarian idealisms. However, Reyes casts the conflicting thoughts and actions of her Filipina speaker not as a betrayal of principles, but rather as a necessary means of momentary self-preservation that eventually allows for transformation:
in our collisions, we learn to make new:
from our lacerated and fractured selves,
appendages resembling tails, horns.
and, siempre, wings to capture breath.
The “collisions” the speaker experiences between various competing Filipino, Spanish, and American cultural narratives that result in “lacerated and fractured selves” give way to determined struggle and resistance that grow “wings” to enable liberated flight.
This “liberation” is not the same as a simple, linear return and reassertion of indigenous Filipino culture (itself a tenuous notion for the term “culture” is imbued by Reyes with shifting as opposed to static attributes, and because Filipino traditions and practices as carried out today are inextricably linked to 300 years of Spanish colonial rule). Reyes does not resort to facile nationalism because she is, after all, both Filipino and American. Her emergent, hybrid cultural and historical awareness that refuses to assimilate to any cohesive, unified, consistent narrative and instead posits continual negotiation as a form of resistance is perhaps best understood through the poem quoted in full below that begins with a borrowed line from William Carlos Williams’s “To Elsie” (bracketed italicized translations of Tagalog to English are mine):
“The pure products of America go crazy.”
en esta ciudad, where homeless ‘nam vets
wave old glory and pots for spare change;
she grows weary of the daily routine:
aquí, en las calles de esta cuidad,
they pray their tropical dreams will come
true again: blow jobs under a sticky table.
cheaper than a pint of watered down beer.
they want to touch her. on their greasy lips,
maganda ka mahal kita magkano ka ______[you’re beautiful I love you how much are you]
and if she believed in God,
and if her tongue had not been severed,
then she could issue this damnation:
wala kang pag-asa pag darating ang araw ng pahayag ______[no hope for you when Judgment Day arrives]
The linkage in the poem of two local “ciudad” settings—the first three stanzas (first line included) recall memories that take place in the US, while the fourth and fifth stanzas recall realities witnessed in the Philippines—prefigures the same kind of double consciousness or hybrid awareness always being straddled by the speaker. In both settings, the speaker is objectified (that is, attempted to be verbally, psychically, and physically subjugated and annihilated through violence or commodification), first as a target of racial hatred, and then second as a target of sexual exploitation. However, the last two stanzas of the poem subvert the previously established subject-object dichotomy as the speaker positions and imagines herself as oppressor and issues her final damnation. The use of William Carlos Williams’s first line therefore signals a profound irony in the supposed subject-object dynamic between colonizer and colonized. “Pure products of America,” which can refer to either side of American geopolitical invasion (the subjugating Americans and their presumed subjugated colonials who in turn enact their own subjectivity through resistance) all “go crazy,” or as the structure of the poem would suggest, continually act upon each other in such a fashion that betrays the illogic and inhumanity of any assertion of supremacy. Colonialism corrupts and destroys the goodness in everyone, its negative effects manifest in all sides of reality, however delineated they may be through national or cultural distinctions.
Poeta en San Francisco takes precisely this kind of holistic and large-scale view that embraces tensions, and demonstrates that selfhood and identity are not a reconciled whole but a continual negotiation—an endless piecing together, rearrangement, and recontextualization of various fragments. And these fragments, rather than amounting to a sort of broken-ness or weakness, can become at once everything and anything it wants to form. I love Reyes’s book because it gathers and resonates with many inheritances and parts of my background that I’ve always had to variously compartmentalize or repress depending upon the given context in which I find myself. As an immigrant, especially, I’ve always felt pressure to conform: on the one hand, to keep retaining elements of my native culture and prove my continued “authenticity” as a Filipino, and on the other, to “become an American immigrant success story,” to fulfill and perpetuate the dominant society’s constrictive prophecy of the economically successful “model minority,” as though the opportunity to start anew must always carry the burden to become materially wealthy. But Barbara Jane Reyes leads me to realize in Poeta en San Francisco that material wealth is not the only means by which to be enriched or to enrich others and the community. There is also art, music, literature, song, and poetry. Reyes proves that although these vocations may not be deemed “practical” by the dominant majority, they are vital to arriving at deeper truths and self-knowledge, the kind that shatters hearts and minds only to heal them whole again and make them much stronger and better prepared for radical undertaking and transformation.
Above all, I love Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta because it is one of the bravest and most courageous works I have ever encountered, especially, in my opinion, due to its generous and untranslated use of Tagalog. That Reyes so lyrically, achingly, scathingly sings in my native tongue, likely at the expense of alienating the vast majority of non-Tagalog speaking readers, came nothing short of blowing my mind. Even the ending passage of Poeta en San Francisco below is devastatingly delivered in Tagalog (bracketed italicized translations of Tagalog to English are mine):
dislodge these words
from my throat
with a single breath —
ugat. [root.] lupa. [land.] halik. [kiss.] sayaw. [dance.] dugo. [blood.] ligtas. [safe.] ulap. [cloud.] lipad. [flight.] langit. [sky.] umaga. [morning.] ligaya. [happiness.] bituin. [star.] buwan. [sun.] diwa. [spirit.] ginhawa. [rest.] awit. [song.]
dapat ganito ang pag-ibig: [love must be like this:] tunay, [true,] tunay. [true.]
The imperative to “dislodge” signifies liberation. And for a reader such as myself who for most of her life has silently internalized the predominant view of the cultural and geopolitical inferiority of her native homeland as compared to her adopted country, and has fashioned her life goals accordingly, Barbara Jane Reyes’s insistence upon Tagalog’s equal significance and importance to English (and also Spanish), fills me with such an ineffable feeling that can be only partly described as something like a mixture of pride and renewed determination. She has shown that the love or “pag-ibig” (which literally translates to “capability for and ability to love”) toward one’s cultures and one’s histories, keeps one rooted and protected from being led astray from one’s true purpose. I may just pick myself up and try my hand at poetry once again, for Barbara Jane Reyes has proved to me that I, as a Filipina American, have much from which to write and inspire.