Saturday, April 4, 2009

Prepositions and masculinities

My Poetry & Politics class lingered yesterday over the preface to Craig Santos Perez's from Unincorporated Territory (Tinfish, 2008). I'm struck, on teaching the book, at the very different way I'm reading it--not as a manuscript to decide for or against, or at a book to proofread for "errors," but as a coherent text. This time the experience feels profounder (and reminds me of trying to get Radhika to pronounce "Federer" correctly: the player who is more than simply "Feder"). How appropriate that a poet who gleans one of his headnotes from Gertrude Stein (more on these marvelous epigraphs in a bit), stops to consider how crucial is the preposition "from."

"I" am "from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY." From indicates a particular time or place as a starting point; from refers to a specific location as the first of two limits; from imagines a source, a cause, an agent, or an instrument; from marks separation, removal, or exclusion; from differentiates borders. (p. 12)

It is the discovery of a prospective "from" that preoccupies Perez (in the face of his country's occupation by the Spanish, the Japanese, the American military). It is the way in which his "from" includes both an oral Chamorro tradition (by way of his grandparents) and an avant-garde western tradition (by way of the mother of us all and other writers) that pre-occupies me, his publisher. If Guam, according to one of the schematic maps drawn by designer Sumet (Ben) Viwatmanitsakul, is the center of a Pacific airport hub, then this book is the hub from which many traditions radiate. One of my students described the book as "inoffensive," which caused us to wonder what charge to put on that word: does it indicate a calm that is itself an act of poetry-politics, or is it a word that means "ineffective"? (The student who said this quite liked the book, but was wondering about it as political praxis.) We will keep this question alive for at least two weeks, as we'll be skyping with Craig on April 17.

I would, for now, point to Perez's own language maps, such as the one on the first page of the poetry section of the book, "from LISIENSAN GA`LAGO" (these were ID tags the Japanese forced Guamanians to wear during the Japanese occupation of the early 1940s, before the U.S. retook the island). Each word for Guam on this page is presented as an island on a larger map (page as ocean). None of these words is erased or rejected (as Chamorro was outlawed by the U.S. educational system), but presented as a map including history (to modify Pound). Over the course of the book, through more than one form of translation, Perez introduces the non-Guamanian reader to crucial words in Chamorro; he tries, as he says at the end of his Preface, "to being re-territorializing the Chamorro language in relation to my own body, by way of the page." That "territory" and the Chamorro word for "heart" are close sonic cousins (79) points to a place "beyond territory," or at least beyond territories that "belong" to colonial powers.

But Perez's use of the western avant-garde is an acknowledgment that this tradition, however problematic in its own right, also tries to de- or re-territorialize the languages we speak. Re-territorializing differs from de-territorializing in its creation of allegiances across cultures. That is certainly why Perez's book fits so well in the Tinfish catalogue. More than that, the book offers a positive critique of any attempt to fence off traditions from each other. Fences don't work well on islands, which may be why so much work along these lines comes from islands--the Caribbean, Hawai`i, Guam, and elsewhere.


My life is consumed these days with Sangha's and Radhika's baseball practices and games. Sangha's coach has a baseball event every day of the week, while Radhika's more moderate coach only has them practicing three or four days a week for their weekend game. (As Radhika would say, "mom, you're being sarcastic!").

The culture of kids' baseball is perhaps not different here from anywhere (aside from the omnipresence of Pidgin among the coaches). But this is what I know, and so I'd like to think more about it, in particular about the models of masculinity that are being offered to my children, especially my nine-year old son. On the one hand, there's a loving-doing-bonding among boys and men, with only the coach's barking of instructions to bring in the linguistic world, which I find very attractive. On the other--there is the governing idea that masculinity involves physical and mental toughness (if the taboo on tears is toughness . . . ) only. That you gotta suck it up, gotta be tough, gotta battle, gotta believe, gotta find yourself, gotta tink baseball, gotta be strong. So many "gotta's." So that learning the rules of the game, which are one thing, bleeds over into the rules of that larger game, which is another thing entirely. On some level playing the game teaches you the game, but you learn other lessons at your peril. (Coach was quoted as saying, don't cheat yourself, cuz you're only cheating yourself.) Yes, and yet.

When I coached t-ball years ago, one father approached me and said, please tell my son not to act like a girl.

That's what I want to think about. Like a girl.


Lyz Soto said...

So I'm still dwelling on questions of politics, and poetry, and the body politic of the state vs. the citizen or the individual. Questions of nation states and imagined communities are impinging on these contemplations, like what happens when we combine the state apparatus with the cultural, and is that combination always in danger of creating a xenophobic condition. . .How do we fit poetry into these questions? I thought Mr. Perez was posing the questions, perhaps giving us pieces of the puzzle to play with, rather than a paint by numbers. . .and I must admit my "quest" for a more strident polemic may be a hidden search for the numbers, and a latent desire to be led, instead of lead, which is, probably, exactly what the powers that be would wish for . . .

susan said...

Reminds me, oddly enough, of what a young Norwegian poet told me a few years ago. Norway funds the arts lavishly, so he was talking about the ironies of having his avant-garde magazine funded by the establishment.

And part of the problem--always--is that because our culture doesn't listen to poetry or the other arts, we may internalize that sense of being silenced as a fear of subtlety. That if only we shout more loudly, we won't need to translate so hard!

But keep dwelling on that. It's clearly one of the central concerns of the course.