NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
(Litmus Press, Brooklyn, New York, 2017)
In keeping with the nature of this collection of polylingual works, the editors are truly transnational themselves. Lisa Samuels is a transnational poet, essayist and sound artist who has lived in the U.S., Sweden, Israel / Palestine, Yemen, Malaysia and Spain. Since 2016, she has been resident in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Recent work includes Tender Girl (Dusie, 2015) and Over Hear: six types of poetry experiment in Aotearoa / New Zealand (Tinfish, 2015). Sawako Nakayasu is a transnational poet and translator who has lived in Japan, France, China and the U.S. Her books include The Ants (Les Figues Press, 2014) and Texture Notes (Letter Machine, 2010). Her translation of The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika (Canarium Books, 2015) won the 2016 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and The Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize.
The front and back cover images by the New Zealand printmaker and artist Dagmar Dyck entitled Seven sisters, printed on hahnemuelhe paper with acrylic and indian ink, 2016 and Fringe skirts, acylic and indian ink on builder’s paper with pandanus and wool, 2016, beautifully depict cultural heritage and textile practice setting the tone for what is to follow.
A TransPacific Poetics is a treasure trove of poetry, critical essays and prose from a multitude of voices on both sides of the Pacific divide whose unifying feature is bound by the notion of ancestry, tradition and culture. In producing this “gathering of flowers” the editors have deliberately sought out writings that “crossed borders and inhabited boundaries involving at least two zones of sustained Pacific living”. The contributors all come from places in or on the edge of the Pacific Ocean: Chile and Australia, Japan and Aotearoa / New Zealand and the United States Their occupations and the subjects that they are engaged in are as diverse as the places that they come from: translators, lecturers in creative writing, drama and literary studies, authors, editors, poets, curators and visual artists, Greenpeace activists, environmentalists, ecologists and mixed genre artists.
Within these pages, Don Mee Choi introduces the radical poetry of Kim Hyesoon from Korea, Melanie Rands maps migratory experience in collages that juxtapose text and image, Murray Edmond leads us on a journey into natural science with a personal account of his desire to escape from the stifling world of Hamilton in the 1960s, Susan M. Schultz uses memory cards as a means of capturing the past and Eileen R. Tabios gives a brief history of the hay(na)ku as a new poetic form. A number of essays explore specific themes related to ecology, creativity and literary connections across the Pacific Rim and a generous amount of space is given over to the presentation of experimental poetry (memory cards, visual poems, found poems, list poems, etc.).
The helpful introduction by Lisa Samuels which lends some definition to the term “transpacific” and the epilogue by Sawako Nakayasu, which reminds us of the extent of the ground that has been covered by the contributors, act as bookends to this anthology.
A number of common threads touch upon themes of domination (the pervasive domination of U.S. culture, the dominance of the English language “since everything in English is everybody’s business”), displacement / migration, (many of these contributors live / have lived in different countries far from their native homeland), colonialism, drivers for change (political, evolutionary and cultural) and the relation between language, nation and identity. On the question of language, Don Mee Choi remarks that translation as a means of communication brings its own pitfalls: “For me, translation is a process of perpetual displacement, one set of linguistic signs displaced by another…we have no choice but to failfail…it’s painful becoming a translation, becoming an immigrant.”
Using geography as his starting-point, Stuart Cooke in his essay on trans-Pacific connections states that “‘Home’ is not a bounded, strictly measurable area, but something porous and open to visitors. It consists of territory that might be fought for, but it does not fit neatly within the lines on a map.” His essay leaves us with much to reflect upon before arriving at this particular conclusion which is one that I took away with me after reading the anthology:
“Because free, indirect discourse is the basis of all language, a transpacific poetics cannot insist on the primacy of one language, or on rules for using a language. As a poetics of relation, it will be, (quoting Édouard Glissant), ‘latent, open, multilingual in intention, directly in contact with everything possible’. In other words, rather than clinging to resemblances between different things, differences will be cherished for their capacity to produce something else.”
Identity is not just something that is confined to, or defined by, physical location. Two other contributors, Jai Arun Ravine and Ya-Wen Ho explore the subject of gender identity and descriptive identity respectively. In this context, I particularly enjoyed Ya Wen-Ho’s visual list sequence FROM: ALL THE IDENTITY ANSWERS. In this piece, the growing list of descriptors parallels that by which we identify ourselves as we grow older. The list is merely added to, in other words, our previous traits always remain with us while others are merely added on. After a while, time erases some of the memory of these things even though they are still embedded in the psyche while other pointers to our identity are deliberately blocked out.
Corey Wakeling (living in Japan) explores writing from an ecological standpoint using Jed Rasula’s This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry as a starting point for the idea of writing poetry in the context of ecopoetics. Between the volcanoes of Hokkaido and the dunes of Western Australia, she discovers that the latter, which was the first place that she ever called home, “vibrates at a different tectonic pitch and remembers its volcanic prehistory with a wider historical birth”. Echoing Whitman’s observations that consciousness is to be found in the wilderness, Wakeling sees writing as “a material endeavour embedded in ecological circumstances.”
Staying on the theme of ecopoetics, Stuart Cooke (living in Australia) explores through the writings of Paulo Huirimilla and Lionel Fogarty transpacific connections between Aboriginal and Mapuche poetry. He sees in Fogarty’s work the strongest example in Aboriginal literature of commitment to an international fight for indigenous peoples’ justice.
Craig Santos Perez and Lehua M. Taitano offer strong contributions on the machinations of power in the US territory of Guam through found official documents from the military (Perez) and the Guam visitors’ bureau (Taitano). In the section of his poetic sequence titled “Fatal Impact Statements”, Perez includes natural phenomena such as the definition of a tropical storm, a typhoon and a super typhoon in his list of descriptors that can have the effect of bringing about forced change and irreparable damage and in a further section which plays on the noun “extirpation” he makes use of the “strikethrough” lexical icon to indicate native species that have become extinct as a result of settler occupation. Taitano achieves a similar effect with her tightly compacted lines that almost overlap each other to the point of illegibility.
The eight extracts from Barbara Jane Reyes’s book-length poem Poeta en San Francisco, a poem that makes use of several different languages including Tagalog and the Babayin script that preceded it prior to the adoption of the Romanized alphabet, speaks powerfully of violence and oppression when one culture, viewed through the prejudicial lens of the outsider is high-jacked by another in the belief that it can somehow be improved upon. Black market hand guns, weapons of mass destruction and casualties of war viewed as “a necessary expenditure” are just some of the words and phrases to be found in these extracts which portray a wholesale takeover (for which read “makeover”) by people who have no understanding of the gravity of their offense. This is more than just a portrait of her home town, it is a stage set for the wider world and for all our vulnerabilities in general.
Sean Labrador y Manzano’s Breaking Up With H.D. also plays with language that is at times quite experimental and at others quite formal. Each of the thirteen sections begins with the question [what eviscerates you?] placed in square brackets as if to indicate an editorial insertion in a quotation and ends with another question Where do we meet if not Intramuros? in bold type. Intramuros “between walls” referencing the urban district and historic walled city within Metropolitan Manila. In between these two questions, the writer alternates condensed paragraphs of prose with sections that sometimes take the form of lists, involve a certain amount of repetition, or are pitched in tercets. The whole has the effect of challenging standard English as we know it. To the extent that language and the way in which we speak it forms a part of our identity, we must be careful of our lisping, our T-lessness, our dissonance, our slippage for “speaking can get you killed.”
This anthology forces us, in the face of mass globalization to question what English is now and, in the words of Sawako Nakasayu’s epilogue, to “consider how the polyglot, porous, transcultural presence alerts and alters what is around it.” Food for thought and further reflection.
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.