So a bunch of us in blogland have been keeping quiet about the Poeta’s big secret for maybe over a month now — but now the secret’s finally out (scroll to the bottom).
What the Poeta didn’t link to on her blog entry, however, was the list of former James Laughlin Award winners — the only proper response for which is “daaaaaaaaaang.” Have come, am here indeed.
And so I thought I’d pull out my old comments from almost a year ago on a slightly different version of the now-award-winning Poeta en San Francisco; I’ve boiled them down from a rambling six-page, Lorca-ignorant, Ezra Pound-foolish letter that rather lamely begins with:
I must confess I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing on your committee… I don’t think I’m equipped at all to examine line breaks, or to be able to see how your work draws from specific literary traditions (or doesn’t). All I can do is read it as if I were “analyzing” it, so take what I say with a grain of salt…
and my puzzlement continues from there.
But I think I’m equipped to recognize a crucial, essential work of art when I see one (one you can bet my students will be reading once it comes out), even if I completely failed to identify the Clash lyrics she quotes. As you can tell, I loved the poem, which by the end achieves a kind of dirty, ragged transcendence. The poem is an obviously contemporary one, though with an odd timeless quality, as if it dealt with some ancient humid corruption.
So here goes:
What makes your poem important in my eyes is its direct, poetic confrontation with colonialisms. In that respect, the poem functions — even on a purely linguistic level — as a critique of conquest. But it’s an epic, catholic one, encompassing different places and times, Vietnam and some stand-in jungle in the Philippines, the churches of Rome and Hollywood. It’s a deeply (dare I say quintessentially?) Filipino American poem, one that interrogates (not just in the lit-crit sense of the word, but in the fist-shaking, confrontational, bare-bulb-hanging-from-the-ceiling sense), on multiple levels of the colonial. And the title is excellent. (I was actually thinking of something of a return to San Francisco at the end — a reminder that the procession at the beginning continues.)
I love it. It’s head and shoulders over your previous work (which is already really saying something), and I think it’s great that the reader is, in a way, under no obligation to love it.
It’s a terrific, hallucinatory, corrosive read. Its tension / descent is almost unrelieved, and there lies both its virtue and “problem.” (I put “problem” in quotation marks because it’s not really one.) Tonally it reads like, say, a Diamanda Galas album, a long, keening shriek in the jungles of the colonized. But it’s also the reason why listening to a Galas album all the way through is difficult, enervating and sometimes even painful, but pierced with many moments of beauty. Like Poeta. It’s unapologetically hard work, and in a way it’s hard for the reader to take pleasure (in the ordinary sense of the word) in reading it, and as I wrote earlier, she or he isn’t under any obligation to “like” it.
The pleasures of language, however, are another matter; there is an awful lot to like.
There are various excerpts scattered around her blog, but you folks might as well wait for it once it comes out from Tinfish Press.
And once again, Poeta: congratulations.