Craig Santos Perez: “I am a native Chamorro poet originally from the Pacific Island of Guam, and I currently live and teach in Hawai’i. I write poems to raise awareness about cultural, political, social, and environmental issues. I hope my Thanksgiving poem ruins your appetite.” (website)
WASPS IN A GOLDEN DREAM HUM A STRANGE MUSIC by Asher GhaffarPosted by Rattle
Review by Craig Santos Perez
WASPS IN A GOLDEN DREAM HUM A STRANGE MUSIC
by Asher Ghaffar
2120 Queen Street East
2008, 121 pp., $16.95
Asher Ghaffar’s first book, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music is divided into five parts: “Induction,” “Deduction,” “Conduction,” “Production,” and “Disruption.” But there are deeper divisions throughout the work: the partition between India and Pakistan; geographic and physical borders; the gap between native and adopted tongue; the distance between the past and the present, memory and language, prose and lyric.
“1947,” the year of partition, appears throughout this collection like an inscription of trauma. The first three poems powerfully situate the work within the border created in that year. It begins, appropriately, with “Genesis”:
In the age of surveillance, the border is where one discerns the pulse of a nation. The border is the inverse of the wide expanse of the frontier where we envision ourselves as infinite and unruly—where we come to know ourselves, embodied in divisive histories. Jarred out of ourselves—we never knew ourselves until we were suspended between worlds.
The prose poem continues with the speaker being interrogated on the Indian side of the Wagah border, the precise place his “family crossed, did not cross” in 1947. The themes of borders and migrations shape the speaker’s narrative: “Plates underneath the earth could quake or cleave and forge another / signature. We shift from India to Pakistan to Canada” (“Mapping the Furnace Room”). Canada, the current residence of Ghaffar, also becomes an important location in the book: “O Canada of hinge narratives. O Canada of opening and closing doors” (“Predictably, The House Was Not There”).
Where and what is home to an immigrant? In “Introduction to a Home,” we read: “Home emerges from simultaneous pasts intersecting and creating homes that never were, but here, in this space, it is possible to build another home every morning, to unimagine the border that is now locked.” Home is a difficult image throughout, a place that is continually being mapped and unmapped. The figure of home is haunted by the migrating figure of the father. We don’t receive a chronology of the father’s life; instead, Ghaffar provides brief details: “Then he would leave for months without a word. A few weeks later we would receive a letter: ‘I will be back.’ These four simple words were like inscriptions in the heart. They were like the knobs of a door into the blackness of a night without stars” (“In Possible Departures”). Many of the poems seek to remember, imagine, and heal the father’s life: “One can never break off because in dreams one is saving a drowning, displaced father” (“Dog Days”).
Besides poems about family, home, and migration, many pieces explore memory, language, and narrative. While at the Wagah border, the speaker “imagined stories,” but these stories did not necessarily come in the form of a traditional poem: “I seek a form for the body in crisis, a form in alliance with the flight of bees. I search the archive for the voice that will break the density further. I seek a drive that is not the drive for death, but the drive for the everlasting life of fervour” (“Genesis”). Ghaffar’s oscillation between prose and lyric seeks the form for his experience, “for the body in crisis.” At times, Ghaffar’s poems move shapelessly, at times they are bound by time and space. In “On the Question of a Borderless Body,” Ghaffar further explores the relationship between borders and narratives: “Every narrative crawls our of another, before arriving at a border.” In turn, the poem discusses the relationship between self, mind, and narrative:
The border transmigrates into his mind, so he can discern where he came from and what he might be, as a threshold. If he is a threshold, if he can speak from two cosmologies at once, united into a cosmology of loss—linked chain by chain to rupture, which arranges itself into mutated syllables.
Ghaffar speaks from various cosmologies of loss and hope, speaking in fragments and changing syllables. The very next poem, “In Possible Departures,” Ghaffar muses that “perhaps poets are created from threshold worlds—from languages left behind, their sanguine music lingering on the palate.”
Crossing between narratives, Ghaffar emphasizes the importance of memory and dreams for those who are created from threshold worlds. The strange music of this book is a dream music: “Ever since I was young, I’ve seen how dreaming shaped the waking body.” Not only does dreaming shape the body, but it also shapes memory: “A pure memory is a fossil. And memory needs a mooring image. / A dream to live on” (“Mis/Match”). The images throughout are often dreamlike themselves—sometimes surreal, sometimes impressionistic, always unforgettable. In many ways, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music is a story of a map. More precisely, a story of mapping, a seeking of thresholds and wholeness:
I learned to listen with ears and a broken tongue. The towers of this language. This body. Lost tongues converging. There are reeds that can be broken and remade into pipes that siphon voices from the undertow. Those lost bodies are in the body, those lost voices want only to sing. If they don’t swallow us whole, they take us in piece by piece. Until we learn their languages. Until we break. Their brokenness. One day. Will make us whole (“Pre Face”).
Craig Santos Perez’s reviews have appeared in The Colorado Review, Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, The Latino Poetry Review, MiPoesias, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, Jacket, and Rattle, among others.
Voice Carried My Family, Robert Sullivan’s 5th book of poetry, navigates the difficult currents of narrativity, while exploring the personal and mythological history of Maori culture. The title poem, “Voice carried my family, their names and stories,” establishes the central theme early in the collection:
Their names and fates were spoken.
The lands and seas of the voyage were spoken.
Calls of the stroke at times were spoken.
Celestial guidance, sightings, were spoken.
Prescriptions – medical and spiritual – were spoken.
Transactions – physical and emotional – were spoken.
Family (of), leaders (to), arguments, were well spoken.
Elders (of), were well spoken.
Burials were spoken.
Welcomes at times were spoken.
Futures lined up by pasts, were spoken.
Repeating the spoken were spoken.
Inheritance, inheritors, were spoken.
Tears at times were spoken.
Representatives at first were spoken.
The narrator wrote the spoken.
The readers saw the spoken!
Spoken became unspoken.
[Written froze spoken.]
Prior to the 19th century, the oral Maori language was the predominant language of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Around 1814, missionaries made the first attempts to develop a writing system for Maori using the Roman alphabet (“The narrator wrote the spoken”). By the 1860s, Maori became a minority to the English brought by British colonialists. When the English school system was introduced, the Native Schools Act of 1867 forbade the use of Maori in school. The exclamatory response of the readers in Sullivan’s poem highlights the violent transition of the spoken becoming unspoken, of Maori becoming English. We feel this tumultuous history between the lines of the poem, and the fact that Sullivan writes this poem entirely in English testifies to this history. Even though the “written froze spoken,” the poem does not remain frozen in the colonial past. Instead, the orality of the poem (its chanting repetition pushing against the end stop) ignites the written into a lyric fire.
This parallels the Maori language initiatives that ignited Aotearoa in the 1970s, including Te Ataarangi (a language learning system), Kahanga Reo (Maori language pre-schools), Kura Kaupapa Maori (Maori language schools) and Maori broadcasting. In 1987, the Maori Language Act declared Maori to be an official language of New Zealand and established the Maori Language Commission, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo. Sullivan’s poetry ascends from this revitalization to prove that poetry (the written) does not, of necessity, freeze the spoken, but can revitalize the spoken into new, vital fires. A powerful example of this is “Te ao hurihuri”:
The everchanging presence of the earth
is a term, te ao hurihuri, it shifts
like a dancer turns and turns.
The everchanging term is the presence
of the earth, te ao, like it shifts a dancer,
hurihuri, turns and turns.
Like turns the everchanging turn
of the term is te ao hurihuri,
the earth—a dancer shifts.
It shifts the earth, te ao hurihuri,
a term like a dancer.
If shifts te ao hurihuri, a term.
A term, hurihuri, in te ao.
Te ao hurihuri.
As a dancer turns, Sullivan shifts through the ever-changing terms of an oral tradition into the scripted presence of the word. The bilingual interplay enhances this dance and negotiates the fragile, political undertones of language policy in Aotearoa. Sullivan suggests that the poem is a site for the intersections of Maori identity to enter into critical and lyric dialogue.
This dialogue continues in the poem “Ahi Ka—The House of Nga Puhi”, which carries the metaphor of fire across the frozen page. As we learn in an endnote, “Ahi ka” refers to a “person’s right to land, so long as they maintain their presence, or ‘home fire.’” The poem moves in a tidal tercet, creating a powerful rhythm:
We light the poem and breathe out
the growing flames. Ahi ka. This
is our home—our fire. Hot tongues out
—pukana—turn words to steam. This
fish heart is a great lake on a
skillet. Ahi ka! Ahi ka! […]
carried by the tribe’s forever-story
firing every lullaby.
Shadows shrink in our hands’ quiver
as we speak—ahi ka sing fire
scoop embers in the childhood sun
stare into molten shapes and see
people—building, sailing, farming—
see them in the flames of our land
see them in this forever light
no tears only fire for ahi
ka no weeping only hangi pits
no regrets just forgiveness and
a place for the fire—it’s our song
to sing—ahi ka—got to keep
singing the shadows away—ha!
Sullivan’s poems become a place to maintain the fires—the forever-stories—of culture and identity. We can’t change the colonial past; we can only attempt to heal the trauma of colonialism by “singing the shadows away.” Poetry creates a “forever light” from which to navigate a decolonized future.
The central poems of this collection, in a series titled “For the Ocean of Kiwa,” tell the story of 4 Polynesians on Captain Cook’s several crews: Tupaia, Mai, Koa, and Te Weherua. The first poem begins in the Great Hall, a part of the old University of Canterbury complex in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the narrator looks at the stained-glass figures. Interestingly, Sullivan begins by questioning storytelling itself:
Who am I to extol Tupaia? Star navigator. Great chief.
Cartographer of a chunk of the Pacific Cook claimed his own?
Loving Tupaia of the Arioi? Who am I to say these things?
When he tells the story of Mai, a similar questioning ensues: “You’re in the public domain — perhaps I could claim / your story through your eyes? […] Why not? Why can’t I tell your tale, slip under you skin? […] But I can’t I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” Sullivan’s self-consciousness disrupts a narrative of objective representation to question the very idea of “voice” and re-imagine the historical figures:
I’m trying to make sense of this shadow
that follows me across my shoulder.
Why this discomfort? I’ve heard it said
that i should not listen to ‘enemies of the imagination’.
Whose image? Who is imagining?
The emphasis on narrativity becomes a site for the reader to imagine new ways in which the spoken can become written without becoming unspoken. Sullivan reaches into “the throat of history” to keep his and our “eyes wide open with ancestors,” suggesting that the true “enemies of the imagination” are found in the refusal to question representation. The violence of such discomfort comes to fruition in the section titled “Captain Cook”:
Didn’t we get rid of him? There are far too many statues, operas
and histories. If only I could be a brown Orwell—a Moari Big Bro,
find every little caption card in every European museum and scrub it out:
change the working to, ‘This was given to Captain Cook as a token of friendship
and should be buried with him’, OR ‘This was temporarily given to Caption Cook
and would have been expected to be returned on his death’, OR ‘ Well, actually, Captian
Cook stole this’, OR ‘The Captain exchanged this for something vastly inferior in value—
ha ha for him!’ But even as an extra large bro I suspect the lies are superglued.
The empire that sent him to his death three times has its hero.
Sullivan allows us to see that history-making is a story imagined by the privileged. The discomfort arises when this imagining becomes accepted as “forever-story,” and those outside this privileged imagining become forced from their right of narrative. Poetry embodies an opportunity for Sullivan to “scrub out” the European valorization of Cook in order to reinscribe or re-imagine alternative histories.
Voice Carried My Family carries us through a poetry of fire, a poetry of the spoken being written and the written being spoken. Every current of this book carries the “ahi ka” into our imagining of Maori culture, history, and identity, establishing a presence that can’t be stolen by any empire. As Sullivan writes in “Ocean Birth”:
Every wave carries us here—
every song to remind us—
we are skin of the ocean.
Craig Santos Perez is a co-founder of Achiote Press and author of from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008). His reviews have appeared in The Colorado Review, Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, The Latino Poetry Review, MiPoesias, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, and Jacket, among others.
[one love affair]* by Jenny BoullyPosted by Rattle
Review by Craig Santos Perez
[one love affair]*
by Jenny Boully
Tarpaulin Sky Press
PO Box 189
Grafton, VT 05146
2006, 68 pp., $12.00 www.tarpaulinsky.com
As we learn in a footnote, the title of Jenny Boully’s [one love affair]* comes from the cover of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator and alludes to how “when reading, our minds often supply another narrative” (17). Boully’s collection of prose pieces documents the narratives that emerged while she read various books, such as Roberto Belaño’s By Night in Chile, Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein, and Severo Sarduy’s Cobra and Maitreya, just to name a few. This intersection between source text and emergent text creates a fascinating movement throughout Boully’s work.
[one love affair]* contains three sections, each section composed of various, titled prose poems. The individual pieces don’t necessarily connect to each other as they emerge from various sources and project Boully’s narratives into a multiplicity of directions. What ties the disparate narratives together is Boully’s unique prose style:
In a field of rye, rye which did not allow for solitary moments, but opened one up to each flaw and freckle, in a way that Duras’s rye would never do, [viii] the couple put down a blanket and dreamt things: in the sky, a million wallowing anemones; in a shaft of rye, a landscape of hills and boulders, a crenellated planet’s covering; within a stone, a billion years of plate tectonics, cross-sections of sediment and historical evident (6).