Tuesday, May 12, 2009

TheBus as literary vehicle

[Tortilla & "Stop Requested"]

This semester my honors student, Gizelle Gajelonia, wrote a book of poems about TheBus, that awkward system of transportation that circles O`ahu island, takes workers to Waikiki and ferries tourists out of it, bears the word Aloha on its dirty metal skin. Over the course of a couple of years, Gizelle has seen the world through the bus's windows; when she took a Poetry & the City course from me a couple of years back, she had a notion that buses and cathedrals were the same. Naves, you know. Indulgences. Out of discoveries like that one, she has built herself a monster thesis in which TheBus is simply one vehicle among many. Her bus moves her from Wahiawa, where she grew up, to the university; other buses perform the Circle Isle; a metaphorical bus moves between literary stops. The bus contains intertexts: voices of Filipino workers and those of Whitman, Williams, the Bible. She has chosen to inhabit the poems of others, carefully replacing their references with her own, creating a mix that is almost always funny, but sometimes quite grim. While a stop is requested at the end, these poems never refrain. The wheels on this bus just go round and round!

Last summer, while teaching in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an odd city inelegantly shared by residents and ex-pats (many of whom own striking houses, one of which we lived in for a month, with fountain, garden, and gardener . . .), I read John Ashbery's "The Instruction Manual" at the open mic. Ashbery's poem is about Guadalajara, a city he had never visited. The details are as ravishing as they are fake. Colors, moods, chatter, all figure into his hallucination of tourism, which reminds any long-time Hawai`i resident of dreams provoked in others by the tourist bureau. Whether or not Ashbery intended to criticize the bad art of tourism, he succeeded deftly. And now, along comes Gizelle Gajelonia of Wahiawa, to write "The Thesis," her take on Ashbery's take on Mexico.

"As I sit looking out of a window on the 52 Wahiawa Circle Island
I wish I did not have to write a thesis about TheBus"

answers Ashbery's own:

"As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal."

From instruction manual to thesis is not far to go, if you're on the right bus. And so Gizelle imagines her visit to Columbia's campus ("The school I most wish to attend, and would likely not attend, in New York City"), remarking on WASPS and on the "Jewish boy with the book, he is in love too; / His angst shows it." Her tour of Columbia is as extensive as Ashbery's of Guadalajara, as rife with exoticism and stereotypes as his:

"We have seen street smarts, book smarts, and the smart that is not smart enough for Ivy League
What more is there to do, except apply? And that I cannot do.
And as "Stop Requested" echoes through the 52 bus, I remember that I am but only a second-rate poet from Wahiawa,
So I open my eyes and turn my gaze
Back to the honors thesis that has made me dream of Columbia."

This is perhaps the most extreme of Gizelle's poems, this parody of a parody of an instruction manual qua tourist guidebook. Among the other poems she inhabits, hollows out, and refills, are Stevens's "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" ("13 Ways of Looking at TheBus"), Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" ("The Mongoose"), Hart Crane's "The River," and closer to home, Eric Chock's "Tutu on the Curb" and Jill Yamasawa's "What We Get." And then there is "The Waste Land," which Gizelle mocks and then adopts for the voice of Hawai`i's last queen, Liliuokalani, who was deposed by American businessmen:

I sat on my bed
Thinking, with my people behind me,
Shall I sign the proposition handed to me?
The monarchy is falling down falling down falling down
O ka halia`loha ihiki mai,
Ke hone ae nei ku`u manawa
O oe no ka`u ipon aloha,
A lo ko e hana nei.
It is for them that I would give the last drop of my blood;
it is for them that I would spend everything belonging to me.
Aloha `oe, aloha `oe, aloha `oe.

I don't think that any of the terms Gizelle or I or the thesis committee came up with do these lines justice. This is not strict parody, or translation, or revision. This is the Queen entering the body of a poem by a poet grieving for the loss of his tradition--which is the tradition that did hers in. Irony doesn't say it either. Eliot's poem has been ghosted, re-appropriated. His poem is pure form, and Gizelle's borrowed words fill that form beautifully and sorrowfully.

[Tortilla & "Eulogies"]

Lyz Soto, who runs YouthSpeaks Hawai`i, wrote an extended chapbook called "Eulogies" about her late ex-husband's schizophrenia, their relationship, his suicide, her coming to terms (if such is possible). She included several maps: a map of the Atlantic as a brain; a map of Belgium's (he was Belgian) cities with parts of the brain; a map of schizophrenia itself. What links Lyz's work with Gizelle's is that, like Gizelle, Lyz began by inhabiting another poem. She was quite taken with Adrienne Rich's Atlas of the Difficult World, which was assigned on the syllabus (and discussed while I was away, alas). So her poem began as a possession by and of that poem. Over several months, Lyz wrote, rewrote, and re-re-rewrote the poem until it became "her own," insofar as any poem can be one's own. It is also very much her late husband's poem. Because schizophrenia is a disease as much as a way of seeing the world, Lyz footnoted the chapbook, including scientific work, as well as poems she was reminded of. And then the footnotes because a place for response to her call; they too became part of the poetic linguistic fabric.

One of my favorite sections runs along the right margin; I cannot do it justice here on blog-spacing. The words are these:

Did you know
there are over five hundred
waves of red?
I see them.
Letters written across
they are speaking
even when they are silent.

Your heart has ten shadows
of red.
irony oxide
You are scarlet.

And finally, my two sections of 273: Creative Writing & Literature, made chapbooks and other projects as containers for collages of their work for the semester. Here is a book made by Sam Hatfield out of coconut skin. It is but one of the beautiful and funny creations strewn across my offices' floors. Others include a kleenex box, a trash can, a box carved with the author's name, a score book, a bubble gum dispenser, a picture frame, a manapua box, and more!

["Roots & Branches"]


Lyz Soto said...

Thanks, Susan, and now I'd really love to read Gizelle's work. You have more than stoked my curiosity.

Unknown said...

Yes, me too and mine too!