Tuesday, May 16, 2006



Poeta en San Francisco by Barbara Jane Reyes
(Tinfish, Kaneohe, HI, 2005)

To my mind, poetry that evokes a response or a reaction from its readers is evidence of its effectiveness. Poeta en San Francisco is Barbara Jane Reyes’s second book and the winner of the James Laughlin award.

I was glad to read the opening words of the section called prologue because here the poeta says:

--what may be so edgy about this state of emergency
is my lack of apology for what I am bound to do.

Reading these words, I nod and approve. Too many times, we apologize, and too many times, this apology results in the erasure of us. No, I think. No need to apologize, dear Poeta.

No need to apologize for the “ghazal swimming inside her wanting to born”, no need to apologize for:

this is not a love poem, but a cove to escape the flux, however

This reader is thankful for the opportunity to speak and to enter into dialogue with Barbara’s book-length poem.

Poeta en San Francisco is sectioned into three parts before closing with an epilogue. As I read this book, I felt the significance of the three-sectioned structure:


If I examine the word orient, it represents two things. Orient as being the place of origin--here representing the east; and orient as verb in how it involves adjusting to or acquainting with a particular situation.

Reading this section of Poeta, I marvel at how the poet unfolds the streets of San Francisco so that this reader, who has never been to San Francisco, can almost see the homeless ‘nam vets, homeboys and hollow-eyed men (is what I see on TV shows reflective of what San Francisco Streets really are?) I see these images in my mind’s eye and hear the intonation of their voices, in the captured words of the poeta:


and especially:

I don’t need the poeta to explain to me how she feels upon writing these words. They are at once confrontational, orienting the reader to the reality of what exists under the skin of society.

Poignant when I recognize, too, my own inability to retaliate except inside my mind, when the poeta writes:

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

The section, orient, ends with two poems back to back.

The first:

[why choose pilipinas?]
the answer is simple, dear ally. the pilipinas are the finest group of
islands in the world, its strategic position unexcelled by that of any
other global positioning.

and the second:

[why choose pilipinas, remix]

the answer is simple, my friend. pilipinas are noteworthy for their
beauty, grace, charm. they are expecially noted for their loyalty. their
nature is sun sweetened. their smiles downcast, coy. pilipinas possess
intrinsic beauty men find delightful and irresistible.

Painful to read as a nation is narrowed down to terms of use and gain, painful when we recognize on the other side how a people and a nation (in this case pilipinas) have been turned by this silent war, into commodities,

Both poems end with this observation:
                              in short, the pilipinas are
custom tailored to fit your diverse needs.


Incredible to see this juxtaposition of images--the white man’s assumption of the brown man’s ignorance, and the written word and spoken text which give lie to the assumption. For are not written text and spoken words marks of civilization?

The use of Baybayin and the sounds of a language long forgotten by the islands of her birth, serve to heighten this conviction. When the white man came to the Philippine islands, he did not discover an uncivilized and ignorant race.

But there is always this desire, as the poeta writes: this belief exists that a conquered culture, an oppressed race, can be changed for the better:

for every daemonic place he erects stone
archangels and infernos, exacts penance
from those driven underground, spills his seed,
his battle cry, his body presses firm dispensation.
he invents himself by extracting others’ titles.

dis.orient then goes on to speak of how culture is systematically erased and lost when one race seeks to oppress another. To me, the poeta speaks then, not only of the fate of her ancestral country, but of the fate of other countries and other peoples who have been subjected to this eradication and superimposition of what is conceived to be better, more civilized, advanced way of life.

This eradication and superimposition are carried on when migration occurs for there is a displacement, a disorientation. The landscape changes, culturally as well as geographically. In the midst of these upheavals, the poeta records the sentiments of a people fighting to survive, fighting against invisibility, waging a secret war against oppression.

Here we find the appearance of the disputed prayers, seemingly irreverent, seemingly blasphemous, but speaking the truth when it comes to what the masses mean when they pray. These prayers take on a deeper meaning when looked at in the context of a people struggling to survive while they endure humiliation and discrimination.

Lord. Have mercy. Christ. Have mercy.
Lord. Have mercy. Christ. Hear us.
Christ. Can you hear us?

Whoever the fuck is up there-–
Have mercy on us. Have mercy on us.
Have mercy on us. Have mercy on us.

Perhaps it is the fact that it is so true of what is spoken in the secret corners of our minds that evokes a strong reaction or response in the reader.

But here is a struggle for justice, an outcry against judgemental eyes and ears that belong to this milieu the poeta finds herself in. This struggle finds its justification in the last lines of this section:

the morning paper
reported a suicide-–
filipina crack whore
nothing to live for.


Reading re.orient, one feels as if one has journeyed through turbulent waters with the poet, and returns to this point of reorientation to discover one’s self changed. There is a firm quietness in this section where the poeta says:

in this home that is not our home, we have mutually exiled each
other. i walk down your street in the rain, and i do not call you. i
walk in the opposite direction of where i know to find you, that we
do not speak is louder than bombs.

Reading through this section, the reader gains a strong sense of the poeta returning to herself and embracing all this history and baggage that is part of her identity.

In Confession (al) the poeta writes:

Forive me father, for here have I faltered.
It has been thirty years and counting,
the process of my acculturation.

A pure product of America, my English
is more proficient than many native speakers;
usage conventions and colloquialisms do not elude


from "[panalanging sigaw]":

nguni’t laging alalahain namin: itong lunsod ng panaginip ay
pagkaligaw sa tunay. pag lumuluha ang lupa, dumadalisay na apoy
ang mga luha niya. pag may bagyo, sumisigaw ang lupa. ang sabi
niya: tama na.

Here, the poeta lays claim to herself. While the tagalog is not perfect, [panalanging sigaw] lays emphasis on the poeta’s determination to be who she is.

Following the third section, is the epilogue. Beautiful and lyrical, the English flows on smoothly into Filipino. It is a wedding of the poeta’s two languages. It is also a statement made with regards to the duality of experience, emotion, and connection. There are no explanations made, no solutions offered, only this epilogue that is a delight to read. It is true of life.

And as the poeta says:

dapat ganito ang pag-ibig:




Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, lives in The Netherlands where she writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She writes an interview column for The Sword Review, is Authors and Books columnist for Munting Nayon (a Philippine-Dutch publication), and is on the editorial board of an online and print publication, Haruah (http://www.haruah.com). You can visit her blog at http://rcloenen-ruiz.blogspot.com


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