Owen Bullock Reviews A Transpacific Poetics

By | 10 October 2017

Craig Santos Perez’s contrasting use of erasure via struck-through lines forms a moving attempt to evoke environmental degradation (‘Fatal Impact Statements [Volume Two: Marine Corps Relocation]’). It follows a prose poem which asserts the connections between energy fields, as ‘Sound waves pressure bodily organs’. Since the impact of sound waves can be measured, the metaphor, ‘Our voices are oceanic waves’, has some authority. The good news is, ‘Through our words, we can move the air’. Lehua M. Taitano’s typewriter text contrasts the many contemporary and progressive registers of the book; its layered and blurred sciptio continua contains lyrical phrases such as ‘the sun is bleeding into the sea’ (‘A Bell Made of Stones’).

There are also substantial essays on issues related to transpacific poetics and creative practice. Corey Wakeling discusses the thrust between ‘life and record’ in his own writing (‘Pacific Rim: Indifferent Pastoralism’), and how this has been nuanced by understandings from Jed Resula and Steve MaCaffery about language shaping our membership of the world. The idea is particularly relevant to the overall thrust of the collection, as is Wakeling’s discussion of the way embracing ecology can de-individualise the mind and allow the ecology to ‘do the thinking’. From this perspective, ‘language is a bacterium’. The concept includes the urban, yet its metaphors re-affirm natural imagery: ‘as termites make castles of excrement so too do we live in towers constructed of matter masticated by external digesting apparatus’. He writes about the membrane in a Deleuzian sense; though a divide, ‘it is a living and erogenous one, through which things transform’ – again, an apt comparison for the poetics that pervades the anthology. In turn, poetry plays a role in ‘the ecological decentring of the subject’, where ‘an enormous indifferent pastoral will’ is found in the landscape – a familiar concept to anyone who has contemplated the austerity of nature, perhaps especially in the detached sensibility of haiku.

Stuart Cooke also writes in assemblage terms and begins by reflecting on the porous nature of the term ‘home’, informed by the idea that the entire planet is home. His essay charts commonality and intersections between Mapuche and Aboriginal poetry. Mapuche poet Paulo Huirimilla actively pursues a transpacific connection through writing about the black-necked and completely black swans of Chile and Australia. The poetry, Cooke observes, conflates the swans’ experience with that of humans and leads to the comment that ‘if poetic language is to continue to survive as an expression of the physical world, this world must be vibrant and healthy’ (‘Non-local Localities: Transpacific Connections Between Aboriginal and Mapuche poetry’). In Mapuche thought, the human is ‘of the earth’, and culture (including language) is a sign of the health of the environment.

Cooke moves on to consider the international flavour of poet Lionel Fogarty’s writing in the collection Minyung Woolah Binnung (What Saying Says) and the way in which it reaches out to the indigenous peoples of Latin America through their ‘shared histories of resistance of territorial dispossession’. Cooke observes that the first person is absent from much of Fogarty’s writing, where a collective is ‘hungry for our lands’. The commonality between the two poets described includes an ‘impersonal expressive agency’ found throughout the world, which echoes Wakeling’s essay, and accords with the call to exceed and resist nationalist definitions cited from Philip Mead. Cooke stresses a poetics ‘of relations’ which cherishes difference rather than resemblance, where ‘statements about the world must be sensitive to the world’s own resistance to definitions’.

The resistance to definitions also spills over genre boundaries. Form often pulsates between poetry and prose. Sean Labrador y Manzano’s complex and compressed prose is juxtaposed with lineated sections (‘Breaking Up with H. D.’). The strategy reminds me of the haibun (haiku and prose). It includes a radical English:

Slough polyps of new desert. Masonry optic tongues febrile. Abrupt pudendum rocks baby’s first shoes through rattle snake grass. Slough plates of dying redwood and dying oak tumble down dandelion parachute snow, the debris bed tumble down. Should I

Each paragraph of prose ends on a hanging fragment, like ‘Should I’, one of many forms of suspension in the poem. The writing critiques standard English and re-colonises language. As a reader, I also feel I’m learning about English, partly through the breadth of references and vocabulary on offer. Each page of the sequence ends with the emboldened question ‘Where do we meet if not intramuros?’ and begins with another question ‘What eviscerates you?’ in square brackets.

In a sense, Myung Mi Kim’s poetry explains some of Manzano’s strategies:

The necessity of carving out [intuiting / enacting] one’s own treatment of a particular arena of language

Social and psychic identifications that disrupt and (re)envision, to throw into question conventions of codifying

(‘“Aphorisms are ‘Broken Knowledge’ that Create Wonder,” Advancement, Bacon’)

Like many of these long works (they are often extracts from extended sequences), the poems in the anthology include a degree of self-referentiality with regard to form. Another quality associated with the long poem (and the postmodern) is the fragment, referenced overtly by Kim in a quote from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: ‘The fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality’. It’s interesting to contrast this thought with the idea of de-individualisation raised by Cooke, since the individual can also be read as a fragment of the collective. Another quote that Kim makes from Hélène Cixous nuances this thought further, that part of the poet’s cause is ‘to love the other, even before being loved’. Other poems gesture towards multi-lingualism in poetry – even as Barbara Jane Reyes’ selection is an example of it – and reinforce concerns about how English is constructed and distributed.

Though adventures with form are a feature, they do not overwhelm or dominate the images or ideas present in the writing, rather they emerge as part of the contents’ need to disrupt and protest conventions. Extracts from Susan Shultz’s ‘Memory Cards: Albert Saijo Series’ take a phrase or sentence from Saijo’s Outspeaks: A Rhapsody as a starting point. These short prose pieces are dream-like in quality and flexible in form – I loved ‘trope’ as verb.

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