Review by Craig Santos Perez
ALCHEMIES OF DISTANCE
by Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard
Tinfish Press, 47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9, Kane`ohe, HI 96744; ISBN# 1-930068-10-7, 77pp., $12.00
In alchemies of distance, Samoan poet Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard transforms the distances of time, culture, memory, and migration into a poetry of witness. The poem 'soiree' describes this alchemical process:
an alchemy of distance:
your absence, sisters, stirs longing
your telephone talk/ raking
embers from the muses's fire.
the spirit rises to the task, &
I from the couch/ awake now
to take up the story
where the last daughter left off/
giving voice to the silence/ inside
green mountains looming/ from a warm sea
& voice/ to the insides
of calderas/ cooled volcano's tilted cup
half-sunken to carve harbor from expanse of ocean
giving witness (45)
Sinavaiana-Gabbard gives voice to the absence of others and the silence of the earth. She rises to the task of story, allowing us to witness the transformation of narrative "calderas" into poetic harbors. The "talk-story" tone of this poem is the main texture throughout the collection, and the use of the virgule (/) as a disjunctive caesura accentuates the poems’ oral roots.
Interestingly, alchemies of distance opens with an 11-part, 16-page introduction titled 'a kind of genealogy.' The introduction traces the poet's personal and poetic history in a prose that interweaves memoir, literary commentary, Samoan mythology, chants, and quotes from poems by Rumi, Rita Dove, and Ramprasad Sen.
As we learn, Sinavaiana-Gabbard's father joined the American military, and her family migrated from Samoa to Florida during the fifties. She locates the origin of her poetic upbringing at her family’s kitchen table, where her parents would "talk-story." As a teenager, she became influenced by T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, and J.D. Salinger. In the seventies, she attended Cal State Sonoma, and learned from the emerging "multicultural" poets: Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagedorn, Al Young, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and Ishmael Reed. Imagining a young Samoan poet migrating across the distances of the colonial fatherland makes her transmigrations from memory to page all the more compelling:
Looking back over these poems--their distances wander off pages and snake back to childhood--I see traceries of journey, its fits and starts, a stubborn moving towards some space of light. A single thread stitches through all those distances, leave-takings and arrivals somewhere else--a moving line of poetry, of voices caught in print, or breathed into performance, oratory, song and woven into filament--lighting, winding, finding its way through the thick air of loss. The line is woven from poetry, that moving line of breath. These poems are woven together with those of others met and loved into a lifeline to keep me from falling out of the boat. (12)
The poems in alchemies of distance present a decade of the poet's work (the dates on the poems range from 1988 – 2000). Sinavaiana-Gabbard's voice acts as the "single thread [stitching] through all those distances" and weaves together her different voices. In her poems, the "moving line of poetry" truly becomes "the moving line of breath":
born from our union
born from our struggle
born from communion.
our leaves & twigs/ made
of heart/ muscle/ & bone.
our song/ born in ocean &
weaned on struggle.
strong clear voices/ singing:
we have arrived!
we are here. [...]
we tell our own stories:
who we are/ children of islands/
protectors/ warriors of our peoples/
fierce guardians of the land/ we
are here. (73)
As this poem announces, Sinavaiana-Gabbard writes from within the struggle and communion of displacement. Her clear, strong voice ranges from piercing to meditative, sentimental to sassy:
ruby in paradise
selling sea-kitsch by the sea-
shore/ enough she sez, to be playin
some game whose rules she understands/
anyway/ better than no game atall/ she
sez/ this refugee from tennessee
who escaped from cracker land w/out gettin
pregnant or beaten up/ she sez/ leanin'
over the cash register/ watchin’ her man
walk away to some war/ whose rules she
don’t understand [...] (35)
In addition to the influence of the Bay Area Beat and Multicultural poets, Sinavaiana-Gabbard draws a parallel between Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and Samoan creation narrative. She explains: "Samoan genesis begins with nothingness (leai), and is followed immediately by fragrance (nanamu), then dust (efuefu), then the perceivable (iloa), then the obtainable (maui), and finally the earth (18)." This creates an interesting dialogue between American avant-garde poetics and an indigenous, Pacific belief system. From this intersection, Sinavaiana-Gabbard powerfully critiques "colonial Amerika":
o say can you see that the
ramparts we watch are so
gallantly streaming/ with
the blood of children/ their
small offshore fingers weaving
color in the garment factories/
their small eyes losing sight/
in sweatshops/ in brothels/ in
the perilous night? (66)
Sinavaiana-Gabbard isn't afraid to indict America for its sins; nor is she afraid to imagine poetry as an art "that can harness anger." By navigating personal and social themes with equal intensity, her poetry becomes "the alchemy that can transform loss [,] the breath that can pass the fire to the other side [and] the vessel that can deliver the goods (27)."
Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard's alchemies of distance teaches us "something about distance, about crossing the divide." We learn, as the poet does, "that distance has implications, among them, loss and journey (20)." She offers us a new perspective between the borders of countries, times, landscapes, and relationships. In Samoan epistemology, the space between things is called the "va;" Sinavaiana-Gabbard, through her poetic alchemy, transforms dividing distances into a poetry of the "va."
Craig Santos Perez's reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Jacket, Rain Taxi, Traffic, Galatea Resurrection, Slope, First Intensity, and Boog City. He blogs at blindelephant.blogspot.com, where he has links to his other reviews.