JESSICA GONZALEZ Reviews
Returning a Borrowed Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino and Filipino American Poetry edited by Nick Carbo
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 1996)
Returning a Borrowed Tongue, the critically-acclaimed and enormously important anthology of Filipino and Filipino-American poetry edited by renowned poet and professor Nick Carbo, has helped enrich Asian and Asian-American literature as we know it and continues to be relevant as time passes. Our literary canon has gradually, especially over the past decade, expanded to include more important ethnic poetry, and this vast collection of pieces portrays various rich and colorful versions of the Filipino and Filipino-American experience. In this review, I will navigate through and engage with poetry by well-known, Filipino and Filipino-American poets such as Jessica Hagedorn, N.V.M. Gonzalez, and R. Zamora Linmark, in addition to those poets whose work is not as readily found.
In the beginning pages of Returning a Borrowed Tongue, Filipino poet Gemino H. Abad poses the Catholic corner stone of Filipino culture and its importance in the country’s landscape. His poem, “Holy Order”, hints at the complex existences of those that “follow strictly / the Rules of their Order / And keep all the holy hours / By bell and candle and book”. He deems their vocation “unearthly”, and ultimately resolves that “their meditations most strangely shape / Our daily speech”. He muses on the intertwining of Catholicism with Filipino culture and life, for good and for worse. Those faces of the church are never seen; their holiness is at once an aspiration and a haunting mystery: “…their scripture, if you listen, / Is what you glimpse but never hold”. This idea of holiness seemingly close yet obscured and still mysterious lives and breathes throughout the poem, painting an important part of Filipino life. The relationship between Filipinos and Filipino-Americans and Catholicism is undoubtedly complicated, important, and one that is unquestionably a marked part of identity navigation as a Filipino and/or Filipino-American.
Delving further into portraits of Filipino and Filipino-American life, poet Rofel G. Brion depicts a conversation between a speaker and his significant other about breastfeeding in a jeepney. The poem is interesting in that the speaker and his wife appear to be speaking about life in the Philippines from a point of view that regards Filipino society as less-than-accepting of certain, merciless aspects of femininity. The speaker refers to his wife’s “thesis” that she “defends”, arguing that “ordinary people in ordinary jeepneys / Remain cool and composed / At the sight of bare breasts / As long as they are a mother’s / Wanting to feed her child”. The idea of shame prostrates itself markedly in this poem. The speaker engages in it delightfully and humorously, ultimately unable to decide “Whether I wished I were / A stranger in that jeepney / Or the father of your child”. His wish speaks more to the idea of shame, entertaining ideas of taboo and sexuality. The poem is aptly titled “Love Song”, countering stereotypical yet ultimately unrealistic views of love by offering an account of a relationship that may contradict societal standards (e.g. children out of “wedlock”; the opposite of the nuclear [and inherently Catholic] family). In just a few lines, Brion’s portrait of this Filipino family says so much.
Editor of this anthology and highly-esteemed poet Nick Carbo’s poem, “Little Brown Brother”, meanwhile offers another portrait by shedding light on how Filipinos are regarded stereotypically in America and in American media. The poem begins:
I’ve always wanted to play the part
of that puckish pubescent Filipino boy
in those John Wayne Pacific-War movies,
Pepe, Jose, or Juanito would be smiling
bare-chested and eager to please
for most of the steamy jungle scenes.
The speaker laments the Filipino’s stereotypical position as a brown-skinned prop in the grand old “John Wayne Pacific-war movies”. Never the hero, the Filipino actor settles for the role as a smiling “Pepe” or “Jose” who ultimately waits for his “reward”: a “big white hand on my head” and a “promise to let me clean / his Tommy gun by the end of the night”. Carbo takes us through this narrative, one that is unfortunately still present and relevant in much of today’s movies and shows. Only relatively recently have a select few of Asian-American writers been able to bring shows about their Asian-American experience to prominence. And still, many of these shows have relied, albeit (perhaps) necessarily for the sake of resonating with viewers on a grand scale, on stereotypes every now and then. The final lines of “Little Brown Brother” echo strongly and disturbingly: the Filipino character is depicted as hiding under the bed on which the white protagonist and his “Betty Grable look-alike love” have sex. While actors of color have the utmost talent and potential to act out stories that would ultimately be far more interesting, much of white American media insists on telling and re-telling tired stories of white heroism and supposed American machismo. Filipino and other ethnic actors continue to settle for oppressive and insulting parts, convinced that these are inevitable pathways to possible success.
Jessica Hagedorn confronts another version of the Filipino and Filipino-American experience in her poem, “Vulva Operetta” — by the speaker having a dream in which the word “vulva” is synonymous with a “sweater”, she reimagines a world where ideas of gender are more flexible and inclusive in the mainstream context. She portrays a Filipino and Filipino-American experience that shows non-conservative, and thus more realistic and diverse, assumptions of gender identity and fluidity. “We wear these sweaters” the speaker declares, while “people say things like: ‘It’s hot, I think I’ll take my vulva off’ / Or, ‘It’s cold. I think I’ll put my vulva on’”. By reintroducing the vulva as something that anyone could assume, she further bolsters the idea that femininity is something anyone could wear or try on, advocating for a more creative and complex view of gender and gender identity. Issues of queer gender identity may conflict with traditional ideals, but conversations about them have become increasingly prominent, nuanced, and productive. The growing visibility of the ethnic, queer population is entirely important and necessary, and Hagedorn’s attention to this fact via this poem only further enriches this already outstanding anthology.
A poem in one of the final pages of the anthology by R. Zamora Linmark serves as the perfect piece to include; “Day I: Portrait of the Artist, Small-kid Time” offers a glimpse into a Filipino childhood painted with the good, the bad, and the merciless. Even as small children, the speaker and his fifth-grade classmates casually observe atrocities and are then called upon to write about them for their poetry contest. The winning poet would receive a one-hundred dollar prize (the students’ “eyes went bonkers”). The plethora of different (mostly disturbing, and sometimes tragic) experiences the fifth-grade students write about all contribute to the many portraits offered throughout Returning a Borrowed Tongue. In the last stanza, the speaker’s poem draws on all of the aforementioned experiences his classmates mention in their own poems; his piece demonstrates the ills that are seen and miraculously survived by young children everyday. Words and sentences that could otherwise stand alone as fragmentary are strung together by a general, overcast feeling of a collective oppression and helplessness: “hungry bees eating space, black dogs losing it first time … / … Immigrants coming to Kalihi twinkling with their American crystal meth dream fourth time … / … Uninvited priests with their rose tattooes, grinding fighting / cocks and preaching last words on a hundred dollar / altar sixth time”. The speaker counts down, each line demonstrating multiple afflictions and merciless truths. In this way, the “hundred dollar poem” comes full circle in its depiction(s) of a collective daily Filipino existence, and ultimately, a collective Filipino strength. The poem is powerful and demonstrative.
All of these poems work together to create a fluid picture of a population that is unfortunately, at times, invisible, but is also strong, relentless, resilient, and resounding. Their voices are given an invaluable platform through the publication of this anthology, bringing to light a reclamation of a language by which they were once oppressed. This volume also continues to remain relevant as the world progresses. As a first-generation, mixed Filipina-American, I personally consider Returning a Borrowed Tongue required reading for Filipinos, Filipino-Americans, and (other hyphenated-)Americans alike.
Jessica A. Gonzalez is an editorial assistant and freelance writer and translator based in New Jersey and New York. She recently graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in English and also writes poetry.