Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scream On, Monkey, Scream On!


Okay, more poetry about my dad and his military service during and immediately after WWII. The following poem was written expressly for an anthology titled Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images, edited by M. Evelina Galang, et al.

There's a very interesting story behind this anthology. In April 1998, Milwaukee Magazine published a restaurant review that called the restaurant owner's young child a "rambunctious little monkey." This opens raw wounds in Filipino American historical memory because of American naming early in the 20th century: the "affirmative" racist naming for Filipinos was little brown brother and the negative one was monkey. Both names obviously galling and destructive.

Evelina Galang, who eventually edited Screaming Monkeys, brought the restaurant review to the attention of the members of the FLIPS listserv (an e-group that Nick Carbó and I founded for writers of Filipino ancestry and heritage). It's a long story that probably doesn't need to be told here — suffice it to say that lots of online pressure was brought to bear, etc. (Read Screaming Monkeys to get all the details.)

In any case, the literary result of this incident was this trailblazing anthology. The blurb on Amazon.com explains:
When a restaurant review referred to a Filipino child as a "rambunctious little monkey," Filipino Americans were outraged. Sparked by this racist incident, Screaming Monkeys sets fire to Asian American stereotypes as it illuminates the diverse and often neglected history and culture within the Asian American diaspora. Poems, essays, paintings, and stories break down and challenge "found" articles, photographs, and headlines to create this powerful anthology with all the immediacy of social protest. By closely critiquing a wealth of material, including the judge's statement of apology in the Wen Ho Lee case, the media treatment of serial killer Andrew Cunanan, and the image of Asian Americans in major U.S. marketing campaigns, Screaming Monkeys will inspire all its readers.
The poem itself relates a family story. When my father was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco immediately after the war, a soldier on the street refused to salute my father (who had been recently promoted into the officer ranks of the US Army). It was quite clear to Papa that the refusal was racist — the soldier, a white man, was not about to salute an officer who wasn't white. So my father took off his uniform jacket and draped it on a nearby hedge, then ordered the soldier to salute the jacket, affixed with lieutenant bars, again and again. Which the soldier did. My father always told this story as a parable about "thinking out of the box," as we say these days.

Honor, 1946


In birdsong my father strolled the Presidio
of San Francisco, a Filipino in the U.S.

Army, sharp in parade dress, lieutenant's
bars riding his shoulders like sun cresting
clouds. A corporal in dingy fatigues walked

past my father, snickered, kept his right
hand by his hip. "Hold it right there, soldier!"

my father barked. "Where's that goddamn salute?"
The corporal smirked, looked him in the eye and said
nothing, but my father could read it in his face —

I'll be damned before I salute a little brown
monkey who ought to be climbing a fucking tree.


My father growled an order. The soldier jerked
to attention. My father slipped off his jacket, draped it
on a hedge. The rainbow of ribbons reminded him

not of crossfire and the soldier he saved on patrol,
not of the forced retreat to Corregidor,

not of the weeks evading Japanese capture,
not even of the Bataan death march,
nor of the concentration camp. Instead

he recalled the American jeep that tried to run
him down in a rainstorm. Get out of the road, monkey!

My father said, "You might not want to salute me,
young man, but you will salute this jacket, these bars.
Do it!" Birds sang. "Again." Sun shone. "Again."

The corporal's arm swept the air, a wiper blade
trying to swipe brown mud from a windshield.

Vince Gotera, from Screaming Monkeys:
Critiques of Asian American Images
,
(2003).

In terms of poetics, this poem (like "Looking for Double Victory," which appeared in yesterday's blog) employs pentameter that has been intentionally "roughed up" to avoid the singsonginess that led Ezra Pound to rail against traditional meter by sneeringly calling it "too rum-tum at a punch."

I've also used alternating couplets and tercets (all unrhymed). I have forgotten why I shaped the poem this way, but the pattern does allow me to produce some useful verse paragraphs, for example, stanzas 5, 9, 10, and 11. At the same time, I also get some nice stanza enjambments: "a Filipino in the US / Army," for example, in lines 2-3, highlighting the problems Filipinos encountered during that time, both in the US Army and in US society overall. I suppose a literary reader could suggest that there seems to be an opposition set up between the couplets and the tercets, which may represent Filipino Americans and the mainstream culture, respectively. But you know, making such an observation is the reader's and critic's job, not mine. I just write 'em — you read 'em and tell me (and whomever) what's going on in the poem(s).

Whatever, whatever. I am simply glad and honored to have had the opportunity to help with such an important project as the Screaming Monkeys anthology, an important step in deconstructing and, one hopes, deleting destructive stereotyping, not simply against Filipino Americans in particular and Asian Americans in general, but all stereotypes that oppress. Words can hurt and destroy, as we know, but more important, they can save and uplift. And that should be one of the most crucial aims of writing today.

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