Nicole Cartwright Denison
( North Carolina )

breath is word is spirit: considering the procession of catastrophe

Poeta en San Francisco by Barbara Jane Reyes
Tinfish Press, 2005
109 pages

Simultaneously a call to action against war in all its forms, forced acculturation and assimilation in, and outside, the United States, and a love letter to a fragmented yet hopeful culture, Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005) is that rare piece of poetic work: the smashing sophomore effort that transcends and blends poetic form and theme. Blending overt Catholic ritual, street life, myth and folklore, along with Clash lyrics, this book prepares you for the explanation of the journey, the long tribulation and the (hopefully) triumphant homecoming.

Awarded the Academy of American Poets’ 2005 James Laughlin Award, this second book exudes all the bravado and panache of a seasoned poet’s language through a pastiche of Spanish, English and Tagalog, melded into an endearing Spengalog, that works as equal parts encomium and indictment, offering tropes and subtexts of rebellion, resignation and redemption delicately balanced amid tales of submission, surrender and salvation.

Reyes boldly challenges the reader’s linguistic, political and geographic sensibilities, deftly interweaving the history of Filipino oppression with obvious allusions to current military engagements thereby overtly urging further spiritual and psychological exploration of both the familiar and the unknown: fortunately, there are several Tagalog translation dictionaries available online, and through researching her usages and idioms the work unfolds as a testament to the power of semiotics, phonemes and lexicons as stated in both the book’s opening and closing poems, with translation provided:
“in my native tongue, breath is word is spirit” (page 20)

“dislodge these words
from my throat
with a single breath—

ugat. (root)
lupa. (soil)
halik. (kiss)
sayaw. (dance)
dugo. (blood)
ligtas. (help)
ulap. (cloud)
lipad. (fly)
langit. (sky)
umaga. (morning)
ligaya. (merry)
bituin. (star)
buwan. (moon)
diwa. (sprit)
ginhawa. (comfort)
awit.” (song)   (page 109)
The idea of word as spirit, or the breath that sustains, is immediately noticed, as, upon thumbing through the text, the reader is struck by myriad poetic forms and, most notably, significant use of Tagalog, the native tongue of the “pilipina”, in both character and text, and this presence underscores the reader’s understanding the devastating effects of lost language. Cast into a wondrous labyrinth of homily, mythos, and schema, an urban and jungle tale, one part fairy, one part grim, the reader is equally at home amongst, and disgusted by, the Charlies and crackwhores, the namecallers and ‘nam vets, and eerily discomfited amid the vicious landscape of misplaced hope, perpetual war, misunderstood love and decimated culture.

By dividing the book into six portions, Reyes curtails normative poesy by establishing a chapter-esque format, including a “prologue” and “epilogue” that lend a sense of true closure to the pre-apocalyptic theme, engendering a series of events the reader can allow to unfold sequentially or partially. Disarmingly, the tactic works: from utilizing the prologue and epilogue’s implicit functions, Reyes works to establish the tone that there is always something to consider in the formation of the before, always something left after every end. The narrator first reminds of the first stage of any journey, or any beginning in [state of emergency], the prologue’s first poem:
“… what may be so edgy about this state of emergency
is my lack of apology for what I am bound to do…”    (page 11)
It seems, as is evident from titles such as [Kumintang], or “war song”, and [hulaan], or “prediction”, our narrator is the proverbial bard-heroine, honor-and-duty-bound to protect and proclaim her heritage-tale, using everything from creation myth to pop culture to sing her song, with no regard for propriety, for what society dictates should be expected/accepted, hence the lack of an apology: the author understands revolution is inviting, revelation is ugly, dismissal is denial and that above all words can spur action as detailed in the prologue’s last poem title “(ә-pŏk’ә-lĭ-ps’)”, or apocalypse, warning that “the word is uttered the sky will open its thunder…” (page 13). Part prophecy, part admonition, Reyes builds poetic tension only felt in most fiction, allowing the poems to shape into an arc that simultaneously extols and decries beginnings, endings, and the lives found in between.

Entitled [orient], [dis • orient] and [re • orient], respectively, the three integral portions of Poeta en San Francisco mimic the trope of procession in that the narrator fully embraces her origin, has been taught, and/or forced to deny it, and now, with the acumen of the transubstantiated, is working to reestablish a bond to it, and the broader humanity. This “procession” also belies the subtext of the brutal march of war, the lust for power and possession and the trudge toward oblivion humans perpetuate.

Upon entering the [orient] portion one finds an introductory quote from Alejandro Murguia’s “16th & Valencia” stating “El Camino Real stops here.” Reyes’ use of the mythical, and very real, King’s Highway leads the reader along the famed road of missions connecting us to those strewn by the wayside: those outcasts for whom the crude road offers no hope, no possibility, only subsistence and wearying travels.

[orient] also provides the narrator with a platform for negating the seemingly real, yet mostly unattainable, “American Dream” with the poem “The pure products of America go crazy”. The quote comes ostensibly from another generation, or another “product” of American assimilation, but the overlying message is clear: “she grows weary of the daily routine” (page 21).

From here Reyes’ form easily flows from event poem to apostrophe, from litany to lists, her catalogues of crimes and prayers working to detail those among us who are both sinner and saint. Among Poeta en San Francisco’s many forms is the epistle as seen in the series throughout entitled “dear love”. This correspondence seems directed at both the reader, and another, either family member, soldier or lover, but always one on the front lines and one whose relationship often cannot aid the author’s desired transcendence beyond the horrors of everyday prejudice, along with the mendacity of existence and misunderstanding as she tries to dwell individually among her own front lines, the diverse collective community.

A closer reading of the letters beginning “dear love” allows the audience an intimacy only felt between veterans of both love and war, of both word and deed, enhancing Reyes’ peripheral theme of hope amidst the ruins and that love can abide any form of torture, can reclaim any territory with a “dream in the language of dodging bullets and artillery fire” (page 92). Yet, ultimately, this relationship succumbs to imagined ghosts and misappropriated affection and affectation.

The [dis • orient] section relies on the assimilative implication of the prefix: the dis-connect from one’s culture and society in order to engage in another. Focusing predominantly on catalogue and eclogue poems, this section explores war’s impact on the psyche and soul. “War” becomes a highly subjective event and phenomenon in this book: it’s not merely physical battle and bloodshed or a terrible sport of conquest played solely by powerful men, rather it becomes an intense, sometimes staggeringly and disappointingly religious internal struggle with forces defying description with the simpler adjectives “good” and “evil”. Reyes shifts perception in this portion, allowing the reader a certain respective dis-connect, by exploring the historical abuses of all women, but more particularly the Pilipina minorities, and this chronicled abuse spurs Reyes’ invocations of virgins, sirens, and goddesses all seeking retribution and recompense. This becomes painfully apparent in [exaltation of the lowly], an ode to the woman still seeking freedom, remembering its price:
“sleepless beneath palm frond during monsoon, when thick tongued
men pumped grandfather and elder brother full of lead, dragged
mother away pleading. this, the price of liberation.

blade slit force once tore open her thighs. This, the price of youth and piety.”    (page 63)
The girl of the poem does not understand, at the time of the events, the import of this perceived liberty and only in retrospect can she, as woman, explain her distance, her bitterness at being forced from her way of life. Reyes counts on the double-entendre, the terrible dichotomy that, for many, supposed liberty comes only at the hands of an oppressor, which directly negates the patently Christian practice from which the title is taken.

In order to reconstruct the fractured self/culture Reyes’ tone teeters toward optimism in [re • orient]. Filled with prayers to San Francisco de Asís, the oldest surviving structure in town, and to archangels, this portion most closely defines Reyes’ cultural reconnection via catalogues of [Filipino Names] and dirges, or [panambitan], along with the [uyayi], or “lullaby”. The reorientation process is difficult for the narrator at times: it means abandoning the “dear love”, conjuring magic charms for the future, howling prayers heavenward and confessing sins of a faltered siren.

[the siren’s story] contains the narrator’s admission that:
“… she lost herself in this city.
it lured her, drank her air; honey voice’s precision, hybrid beyond
memory. songbird, adrift, this city’s misplaced siren.”    (page 87)
and it is this profession that endangers the songstress’ role. In capturing so much exterior life, by dwelling so on loss, and pain, and war-torn aspects, the siren, or bard-heroine, no longer has capacity, or desire, to lure, to sing, to tell. The reorientation process has left the narrator seemingly without word, breath and spirit: the only weapons needed to effect change, to continue the journey.

The epilogue’s most powerful poem, [on viewing subjective catastrophe], sadly defines what has led to the siren’s undoing by asking
“do you know what it is to witness an unraveling?”

            and answering

“it is being at the
right place at the wrong time, or being at the wrong place at the right
time. both may break you.”   (page 107)
Finally, although broken by her chronicle and journey, the poeta prudently prods us to “ keep your eyes to the sky and think of heaven” (page 107). Good advice from one who so desperately wishes her earth to be as it has been taught it will be in heaven: a place of equality, liberty, and stability, a place untouched by the corruptions of the human.

Reyes expertly guides the reader along the siren’s riverbanks as we “consider this procession” of breathed words from spirits colliding into the worlds of goddesses and generals. Running a gamut of cultures and set against the famously diverse backdrop of San Francisco, the author urges readers to search among city streets for the ruins of the parade, finding the scattered rosaries, beads counted, prayers unanswered, hope sheltered.

Drawing heavily upon inspiration from Filipino creation myths, along with multiple biblical and classical allusions, Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco transforms her hometown into the broader world teeming with struggle, with life wasted and wanted, with hope leaking from the edges, and produces a hauntingly powerful book demanding our attention and action.

I - Thrum of Wings
II - Eclipsed by the Whirr and Squeak
III - Raw Silk in the Mouth
IV - The Parenthetical Body

Review - Suzanne Frischkorn
Essay - C. E. Chaffin

Featured Poet - Sandra Beasley

Current Issue - Summer 2007