NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Archipelago Dust by Karen Llagas
(Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2010)
Karen Llagas holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and a BA in Economics from Ateneo de Manila. A recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, she lives in San Francisco where she works as a Tagalog interpreter and instructor, and a poet-teacher with the California Poets in the Schools (CPITS). Archipelago Dustis her debut collection and it won her the Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize.
The cover image, "Untitled" (2009)by Vietnamese poet and visual artist Truong Tran is a poem in its own right. It features a child releasing a vast number of paper butterflies that have been individually cut from old pornographic magazines. If there were a collective term to describe this piece of cover art, I would call it an archipelago of butterflies, because it is not hard to make the connection with the geographical fact that the Philippines is a country on an archipelago consisting of more than 7,000 islands. The cover art is part of a larger work which the artist exhibited atthe Telegraph Hill Gallery in 2014 featuring "9,000 paper butterflies individually cut from old pornographic magazines" as a protest of what Tran considered the "obscenity" of the destruction of 9,000 living butterflies by Damien Hirst as a by-product of a piece of Hirst's art.
Archipelago Dust, which brings together a collection of 40 poems arranged in three sections, focusses primarily on issues relating to family, identity, politics and religion. In the opening poem, “Descent,” Llagas writes about names and their meanings: “My mother’s name means end / in Tagalog and my father’s name / means wound in Spanish”. Names are a means of identity. They single us out as individuals. She writes about looking at family albums, which is another way of trying to get a window on the past, and of a father who has his back turned to the house so that all she can see is his shadow.
Family members feature prominently throughout the collection. There are three poems titled “Mother”, for example, in which a difficult relationship between mother and daughter is finely drawn:
In the first of these poems, the daughter says
I’m holding it against you,
Mother, that you soundly slept
in my first hour of the world.
I give you now my first recorded resentment.
The bitterness is again apparent in “Mother 2”:
I have not come to the end
of your temper,
single-minded, a knife
freshly cleaned of blood.
In “Mother 3” there is isolation and rejection. Retreat into the world of books, fairy tale books at that, is met by derision by the mother who demands that the daughter go outside to play with other children.
In the middle of a poem about the father, who spends his leisure time painting on canvas, Llagas brings to the fore her search for meaning and her sense of loss.
If the universe is so big, shouldn’t everything
lost be found somewhere else?
The striking description of a black hole is used to good effect.
A number of poems such as “Imelda”are political. In “We want houses to be haunted,” specific reference is made to the People Power Revolution of 1986 that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos after alleged cheating in the Presidential election. It is a powerful piece of writing that, in its opening lines, carries with it several layers of meaning:
We want houses to be haunted. They never are.
Even as the crowd in 1986 inched forward
the main highway called EDSA,
to hang leis of sampaguitas around the guns of tanks,
and in the streets reporters mouthed
bloodless people revolution,
and words became delicacies
as comforting as fermented fish.
EDSA, in addition to standing for the People Power Revolution (and subsequent revolutions) also carries with it the force of religion because it is an abbreviation of the road’s full name: the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue. The revolution of 1986 was an epiphany moment in itself. Furthermore, when related to the title of the poem, it is also the abbreviated form of the name of an architecture and urban planning firm formerly known as Edward D Stone, Jr, and Associates. The garlands of sampaguita flowers – the flowers that symbolise love, devotion and divine hope, make a striking image when draped around the guns of tanks. The mention of fish is also another recognised Christian symbol. Llagas wants to be a part of that epiphany moment, a moment that should never be forgotten:
(O to be dropped
at any place in that crowd
and be hidden by the scent of jasmine
and the folk ballads, by the yellow flags
and the signs Marcos – out!
waved by the children).
The final lines: “holding rage in one hand / confetti in the other” remind us of the earlier contrasting image of flowers and guns.
Religion is never far from these poems. It is present in some of the titles such as “Jesuitical”; “Todos los Santos, 1985” and “Mary”and it is present in some of the lines in “Canvas”; “Biology Class”; “Carry”and “Aubade.”The speaker in “Jesuitical,”tells us that her favourite definition of God was ambivalence. So much so, that in another poem she states that she has sent her sorrows to the wrong address. God seems to be invisible. In “Todos los Santos, 1985,” she asks “Where does grace hide?” In “Biology Class”prayer is something that is automated. It does not seem to flow from the heart and in “Canvas”we are told that “Everyone forgets God sometimes”. The issues of the day weigh heavily on those who are searching for some kind of truth and ultimately, a better world. In “Carry,” another well-crafted multi-layered poem,prefaced by a headline concerning an 18-yr old suicide bomber who killed herself, a guard and a 17-yr old girl, a teenage sister asks the meaning of the words existential, agnostic and cynical. In reply:
…I bought her a milkshake.
I bought her all the CDs she wanted. On one of the covers was
the wall hollowed out by letters, the wall where everyone
can’t help but weep. What is ordinary and beautiful in a place
like that? And how much rage would a girl have to carry?
We walked home as the trees in the park partitioned the fog.
Llagas often employs geometric, algebraic, mathematical and animal imagery as a means of poetic expression. In “Cows in Sonoma,” the cows are described as having “rhomboid bodies” and they have “a simple polynomial of taking, giving.” The word “circle” and “parallelogram” appear in the title poem and the word “trapezoids” occurs in “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The animals that make their appearance: wolves, snakes, lions, tigers and the mythical monster known as the manananggal (the equivalent of our vampire) are often portrayed as being of an unpredictable and somewhat menacing nature and in some cases would appear to stand for rebellion. The wolf, however, turns out to be harmless in this unusual take on the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
These poems are personal and yet they are also universal. Llagas reveals a great deal of compassion in her search for truth. This is despite, or maybe because of, the political and emotional turmoil that marks the history of her birthland and increasingly the wider world that we find ourselves in today. It is in this sense that her poems speak to all of us and make for such compelling reading. Recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018). His work has been translated into several languages.