Friday, November 21, 2008

O Brother, Where Art Thou?


My father was a laconic man. I don't mean to say that he didn't talk much . . . he didn't give off an air of rudeness or mystery, as Webster's defines "laconic." He talked plenty; he held his own in conversations. What I mean to say is that my father didn't tell something unless he saw a need for it to be told.

Here's a classic example: one time when I was a teenager, a young man knocked on our door and asked to see my dad. I showed him into the living room and went to get Papa. Who then peeked into the living room and hustled me into the dining room, where he whispered in my ear, "That's your brother." I had no inkling that I had a brother.

It turns out my father had been married to another woman before Mama and had two sons from that marriage . . . our visitor was the younger of these two, Pepito. The older was Angel, a name that requires a story I'll tell another time. Hmmm. I guess I can be a little laconic too.

Here's a poem about my brother Pepito, another Gotera who was a soldier in the US Army.

A Soldier’s Letter


To my brother: 
 When I was fifteen, you surfaced
out of the San Francisco night, a stranger
knocking on our door. Your family
a mystery kept from me, a wife and kids
from another face in my father's secret mirror.

You stayed with us for two or three nights, a dark
and glum presence, brooding at the dinner table.
Mama didn't seem shocked at all. Those nights
we lay in my room, listening to the Sopwith Camel
and the Stones on KFRC, and you softly crooned

the melody. Once you asked who Jesus
was — why did we light candles to him?
At the end of the week, Papa drove you to
the Army Recruiting Station. And Vietnam
swallowed you whole. No news for six months, and then

your letter came. The one in which you threatened
 to disembowel Papa with your bayonet,
 to blow him away with steel shot from a Claymore,
 to lock and load your M-16, then shoot him
dead. 
 Dead for leaving you and your Mom

alone in Manila. Where she took you and your brother
down to the bay and hugged you tearfully
until she saw St. Jude floating over
the water. A miracle. Your lives saved.
And now, in the 'Nam, your life had again been spared

by the vision in air of a woman in a white ao dai.
You jerked your head back in surprise, and the sniper's
bullet lopped off a leaf where your face had been.
And so you believed your hophead's life was sacred.
No rocket, no mortar round could pierce the armor

of revenge, the righteous shield of vengeance.
I vowed to make myself strong, to take
taekwon-do lessons, to save my father's life
when you rotated home. But moments pass
like buckshot, and when you finally landed at Oakland,

you went on back to LA, without stopping again
at our door. The letter — a reefer fantasy.
Today, the letter forgotten, you live in our father's
house, alternating between gay bars
on Castro and the VA hospital psych ward.

Rather than bullets or a C-4 explosion,
you pay our father rent from your disability
check — the proceeds of your post-traumatic
stress disorder syndrome. The last time
we saw each other, you showed Mary Ann your saints,

like a pack of cards. "This picture is St. Blaise &mdash
he saves you from choking on chicken bones. And here's
St. Anthony. I use him to find lost things."
You called the pictures your "directory to heaven."
Nights, I see you in my mind, bowing

before a small Buddhist altar, lighting
sticks of incense, chanting with your eyes closed.
You're thinking back to velvet times in Manila,
when you were a teenage singer on TV,
crooning love songs under a blue spot.

— Vince Gotera, from Premonitions: The Kaya
Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry

(1995). Also appeared in Ghost Wars (2003).

I don't know what to add to this story. Pepito had indeed been a teenage singer in Manila . . . and I don't know much more than that. He was quite a colorful fellow, very eccentric in weird ways. A gay man who sometimes pretended not to be though he made it eminently clear at other times. One day he would be a drag queen, a Diana Ross knock-off, and the next day he would say, "You should find me a wife, a nice Midwestern girl." He was sometimes a recovering drug addict, and at other times just a straight-out drug addict. I think he was a small-time drug pusher as well. He is no longer with us . . . he died violently, stabbed on some San Francisco street. The police never uncovered who done it.

About the poem as a poem: I worked pretty hard on lineation. A mix of end-stops and enjambment . . . creating (I hope) a meld of both hurry as well as suspense at different points. In the fourth stanza, I use indentation and a reverse drop line to set off and emphasize the word "dead." Which is then repeated immediately after. I'm giving you precious little here . . . basically I guess I just don't know much about this poem. Sorry.

I would appreciate some feedback about what you think is going on here. If you feel like it, leave me a comment, please. Not a remark for potential revision, because as far as I'm concerned the poem is done and I'm not interested in reworking it. I'm just curious about how people read it &mdash how you read it. And how you make sense of the poetics of this particular poem.

When I wrote "A Soldier's Letter," probably almost two decades ago, Pepito was still alive though we were hardly ever in touch. And now, after he has died, I realize that this poem was, in many ways, already my elegy for him. Rest in peace, Jose Pater Gotera. Rest in peace, my brother.

9 comments:

hat said...

Hi, Vince, I especially love this poem. So powerful, yet so quiet. I'll need to take a little bit of time to think about my response, but what I sense is this overwhelming, silent sadness that pervades the stanzas. Perhaps it's the last stanza with all the evocative images... the night quiet except for the chanting, and the blue, the velvet, and the crooning in the mind's tv... Despite all the words in the letter (and the poem), which can often overwhelm, one of the things remaining in my mind as a reader are the muted sounds of the love songs. Thank you for sharing this.

Vince Gotera said...

H-A, thank you for such a thoughtful response. Yes, the "mind's TV" at the end ... but my brother was also on TV in the Philippines, as a youth.

How do you, as a person of Vietnamese heritage, connect (or not connect) to the poem's narrative about the American war in Vietnam?

hat said...

Thank you for phrasing the question as the American War in Vietnam. I have not heard that from many folks that I've interacted with; it is refreshing to hear the contextualized assumptions behind your question.

I think that perhaps I read the poem less as a narrative about the Vietnam/American War and more as a family narrative (which is not to say that they are mutually exclusive in some family cultures). The poem narrates by second hand images of a war through a soldier's letter -- a context that I am unfamiliar with as a Vietnamese American. There are certain things that I know about the war and about what my family experienced during he war. But they are different from my experience of and appreciation for the poem.

I can tell that war-time VN had a profound effect on your brother's life, and as a poet I appreciate the poem in its complexity.

But as a Vietnamese American reader, I'm not sure how I should respond since it references a war long gone which occurred in a country that is now vastly changed.

If this isn't delving too deep into the poet's intentionality... What do you think the poem offers as a connection (or disconnection) between the Gen X-ers and the American War in VN?

Vince Gotera said...

H-A, many many thanks again for another thoughtful response. I don't know if you're aware that I wrote my dissertation on poetry by American veterans of that war and that I also teach Asian American literature, so yes, I'm well aware of the politics and so on connected with naming, etc., here.

About your question ... as the poet, I think maybe I'm too close to the poem. I certainly have no answer (at the moment) to that question. Let me think about it.

In the meantime (doing the teacherly thing), what do YOU think the poem offers as a connection (or disconnection) between the Gen X-ers and the American War in Viet Nam? (Wish I could do the diacritics and give honor to the language of Vietnamese.)

hat said...

Hi, Vince. I'll respond as an "American" poet might:

I don't think of the poem as offering either a connection or a disconnection. A large portion of the poem is weighted by the war experience, and sadly I think that many Gen X-ers (with Vietnamese heritage or no) are less familiar with this particular war. In fact, the war is the only lens through which some Gen X-ers recognize Viet Nam. And we all know too well how little and/or how much war reveals about a nation and its peoples.

For me, the poem (and our ensuing conversation) calls to mind multiple times when the American/Vietnam War served as the primary experience (cause?) for (dis)connection between peoples of different generations, different cultures, different ethnicities. If anything, I wish that Vietnam could be known more by its complex histories, cultures, languages, landscapes, peoples, cuisines, etc.

Thanks for throwing the provocative question back in my court, Vince! I'm enjoying our dialogue immensely...

Vince Gotera said...

H-A: I like your answer, especially double-edged as your view is, almost like W. E. B. Dubois's idea of "double consciousness." I agree completely with both of your views. I feel the same way about the Philippine-American war and about Americans' view of and knowledge about the Philippines. I think many Americans in general (and GenX-ers in particular) are unaware of how tightly the history of the Philippines is braided with the history of the U.S. A big difference between our views, though, is that few people today think much about the Philippine-American war. On the other hand, people today still think quite a bit about the American war in Viet Nam, especially as a reflection of the American war in Iraq. I'm sure it must be especially galling to you that many Americans think of the word "Vietnam" as a war and not as a country.

hat said...

Too true. The power of naming is powerful in some very peculiar ways, don't you think? Identifying VN only as a war and not as a country is a tragedy (thanks to our educational system? or politicking? vagaries of memory?) but not as a great a tragedy as the intentional erasure of other events in the history of our nation, and of humanity in general. One such example is the Philippine-American war.

I love discussing and thinking about language, and what you've said about the word "Vietnam" brings up an interesting point. When I was in VN in '05, almost nobody talked about the war, but if they did, it was called the "American" war. You know that the difference(s) between the names for this event is/are complicated to explain; all I can say is that when I heard it referred to as the American war in that context, the word sounded synonymous with the American presence (assuring as well as domineering) in all its glory.

I'm glad you've opened the discussion beyond the American/Vietnam war to include the Philippine-American war. As a vet of one particular war, why do you think there is so much "silence" about the Philippine-American war? I suppose here we get into the politics of war, don't we?

Vince Gotera said...

It's important to keep in mind that I am a "Vietnam era vet," not a "Vietnam vet" (and those are strategic quotation marks).

But anyway, to answer your question, it's an older war and people just don't think about it that much, I think. People hardly remember that we helped the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and that's within the last couple of decades. The Philippine-American war goes back 110+ years, so ...

If you ever watch the PBS documentary "The US and the Philippines: In Our Image," there's a moment where a very elderly woman talks about her husband going off to fight in the Philippine-American war, and she says something like, "We had to save those people." From whom? From themselves? That rhetoric comes up again and again, doesn't it?

Back to the mujahedeen: the exceptions are the Stallone fans who specialize in Rambo trivia ... they remember the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviets, but for the wrong reasons perhaps.

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