Tuesday, September 15, 2015



Archipelago Dust by Karen Llagas
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2010)
This is the first book by Filipino-American Karen Llagas. Do I need to mention her cultural heritage? Perhaps this book endeavors to answer that question. Remember, tho, that this is a book of poetry. Poetry speaks in curls and shadows.

The first verse of the first poem in this book, “Descent” seems telling:

My mother's name means end
in Tagalog and my father's name
means wound in Spanish.

...And Ms. Llagas is writing in English. She does in fact teach and interpret Tagalog in San Francisco. You see the forces at work in the quoted lines. Colonialism, imperialism, and the impressive disregard have left their mark on the Philippines. The thing is, these poems are not about that, but it seems like the odour is inescapable.

Asked to explain my melancholy
I offer my full name and continue
to reside in English.

I don't want to misrepresent the work here. The poems are personal and local. Stresses and reverberations sound the human depth but the political mayhem cannot be ignored. A nascent stream wants to find the sea.

“The moment / you close the door you will start inventing / your father's country and this task will remain / unfinished in your lifetime.”

I believe that when you start stating what poetry is about you lose the trace. It is the traces, sifted thru language, that beguile us. Nothing in these poems by Karen Llagas explain anything. They have simply found the metre of melancholy, exaltation, and confusion that we all hear.

Just to be disagreeably critical, I think Ms. Llagas could scuttle a few commas and dependent clauses. Poetry is punch.

Here's a striking, surrealist poem:

The Museum of Smell

We could no longer believe what we saw
so we built a museum of smell. We placed
a jar of smoke from a spiced lamb on a spit
beside a pewter jar of a girl's burning hair.
We declared they could only be acquired together.
We were asked to solve problems of holding air,
of coddling scent atoms so they don't, over time,
change. Chlorine, for example. If as a child you
almost drowned, were pulled down by a grip
so blue and sure of where it wanted to take you
that you agreed to go, if twenty-five years
later, you were in love, spent a month by the pool,
in a far and easy country. That licked-salt smell,
you'd think death. Then, being effortlessly content.

Non-editor's note: I would place a comma after 'change' then add 'like chlorine'. Then delete the following verbless. The surreal and surprising stands out. Too many commas become too many commas.

That being said, these are poems of grace, founded in our small world.


Re. Allen Bramhall: A diminishing flow of poems, a continuing insistence in watching superhero movies with my son, an increasing interest in the healing, lifebound elation of creativity, and some websites:

Generally cheerful.

[Each review provides the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily the opinion of THE HALO-HALO REVIEW staff.]

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