MAILEEN DUMELOD HAMTO Reviews
Astrolabes & Constellations by Cristina Querrer
(Agave Press, Oregon, 2018)
Poetry often serves as the language of truth-telling, of speaking truth to power. With her debut poetry collection By Astrolabes & Constellations makes a noteworthy contribution to diasporic Filipino literature. Both imagined and observed, the gendered truths revealed in Querrer’s poems are located in islands in the Pacific, undoubtedly encumbered by expansive reach of U.S. military empire and ongoing cultural subjugation.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Querrer’s diasporic lens is colored by her experiences as a military child and later, as an enlisted servicemember. Querrer’s poetry offers a subtle, but nuanced and informed critique of the impacts of U.S. military action, both on those who have served and those who have been orphaned and abandoned after being used and spit out by a system built to molest bodies and minds, creating a “wild civilization of souls” (“At the Outpatient Pharmacy”). She raises a feminist voice to accentuate the experiences of becoming and being a woman in hyper-masculine military culture, designed only to extract and exploit. Truths woven in longing takes us to the scene of a go-go bar, until one is nauseated by what it smells and feels like, taking in the visceral experience of prostitution through a brown woman’s bleak reality (“From a Retired Disco Queen” and “Mango Man”).
Querrer’s is a diasporic style and approach, because she willingly embraces her identity as a writer who spent her formative years in the homeland. Querrer’s poetry speaks fondly of the things much loved by and familiar to her Filipino readers. Her most memorable verses speak of santol trees, sampaguita flowers, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, Mount Arayat, the barrio. In straightforward albeit melancholic tones, Querrer invites the reader to travel through time to idyllic island scenes, punctuated by exasperation and grief (“Goodbye, Paradise” and “Orchid Grower”). In stark contrast with modernity and the predominant Western worldview, island women navigate their realities with ancient metaphysical wisdom suggesting divinity, divulging interconnectedness (“Papaya Tree Prophecies” and “Espiritu”). Querrer acknowledges the tragedy of one’s ties to her tribes and the land (“Homeless” and “Death March”), while continuing to mourn her people’s continuous psychic demise and physical destruction (“Ritornello Principle”).
Also part of the impressive debut collection are poems that tell the unvarnished all-too-familiar truths about women’s lives, both known and secret lovers, unrequited desires. Every self-respecting woman pained by love should ask herself “What Would Frida Kahlo Do?” Her days may be consumed by meaningless and pointless tasks, making it necessary to whisper a secret wish to have time in the world to throw oneself into writing, uninterrupted and unburdened by housework and child care (“Cognizant” and “Poet in Seven Days”).
In the Q&A below, Querrer graciously offers her responses to questions regarding her craft, how her experiences as part of the U.S. military influenced the subjects of her poetry.
MH: Having spent your early years in the Philippines, how does your proximity to Filipino identity shape your perspective?
CQ: I never realized how much growing up in the Philippines in my formative years up until I was 18 years old has influenced my work until I started writing and compiling my poems for my first full-length poetry collection. I was never one who can recall many details of my childhood like my two brothers and sister could. Yet, it is interesting what I do recall: interesting images and textures like a store owner who took a siesta with a fly swatter in his hand, the water buffaloes, the kalesas, the jeepneys, the open-air markets, the Spanish-style church courtyards, and so many others.
MH: Place figures prominently in your poetry. You have a gift for bringing the reader along with you, whether it’s a go-go bar, papaya forest, the atoll, etc. Why is the feeling and making of “place” important to you and your poetry?
CQ: Place is important in my writing. It's how to transport readers to other worlds. It is the "subject" in my writing. I believe it is our experiences in places is what shapes us. No matter where I have lived, it has had a profound effect on me. I also find beauty in tragic places.
MH: How did your experiences as a “U.S. Air Force military child” influence the subjects of your poems?
CQ: Ah, now growing up as a military child by Fields Avenue, the infamous prostitute alleys of Angeles City next to former Clark Air Force Base in the 70's and 80s, is one of those places growing up in the Philippines that has really affected me in ways that has made my identity as a woman so very difficult for me, particularly with relationships with men.
My poem, "Mango Man" speaks of this. It is why I am an anti-prostitution feminist. I know it’s not in line with the new feminism, but I suffer from PTSD just by living by it and having to drive through it and witnessing the disparaging situations these women find themselves in and hearing the stories from both sides. To me, no amount of regulation or public acceptance can ever keep a woman safe. The happy hooker image that is being pushed--the woman with agency and wherewithal, is a fantasy. I am a liberal, but this is one part of liberal and the new wave feminism I can never get with because there is no female empowerment in it when you are exchanging sex for money.
MH: You write about Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath, feminist icons who have made great works of art from pain and heartbreak, mostly caused by men. Why were you drawn to these creative sheroes? Who are your other influences?
CQ: Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath are the feminist icons I can relate to and have shown up in my poems because of my upbringing as described above. I am naturally drawn to their work and their lives because I can relate to their struggles as women artists and writers in a patriarchal world. My other influences are writers from the post-modern era. Although I adore the work of Pablo Picasso and other male poets and writers, I do acknowledge their misogyny and sexism in the context of their perspective era. Both Frida and Sylvia are bad asses in their own right, among many other women, creating high-caliber, exquisite work despite it all, and that is the prevailing message I live by.
Originally from Sampaloc and Tondo, Maynila, Maileen Dumelod Hamto works as an equity and inclusion leader in the ancestral lands of the Ute, Arapahoe and Cheyenne. She is pursuing doctoral studies in Leadership for Educational Equity at the University of Colorado Denver, focusing her inquiry on advancing social change through praxis that centers critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, decoloniality, and emancipatory movements. With her soulmate and soul dogs, she enjoys exploring Colorado’s alpine lakes, aspen forests, birding and wildflower meadows and ghost towns. Share her adventures via @colorsofinfluence (IG).
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