Last week, I visited Rochester, Minnesota, for a day, with my daughters Amelia and Melina, and we happened to pick up an issue of Rochester Magazine. In it was a clever full-page ad, picturing a young woman extending her left hand toward the viewer, giving "the finger" with her third finger. Only her hand is in sharp focus; face and torso are blurred, calling attention to the ring finger sans ring. The caption reads, "Is your girlfriend trying to tell you something?" The sales pitch continues by claiming Lasker Jewelers has "the largest selection of diamonds in Rochester" then advising a young man in need of an engagement ring to get down to the store, "Because trust us, it's better we tell you where to go before she does."
I find this ad fascinating on a couple of levels. First, switching from the second finger to the third finger is brilliant — the hand still looks like it's giving "the finger" even though the finger doing the semiotics has changed. Second, it suggests that the woman is in charge of the relationship, the timing and particulars of the engagement and also the wedding, though the ad is hardly a feminist document. And of course the ad upholds the societal privileging of heterosexual life. As well as the privileging of the male, who has the agency of procuring the ring, the symbol of union. Or is it of fealty?
Obviously, the ad got me to thinking about weddings and marriages: who is in charge? Especially with regard to national culture and customs. The Philippines, before contact with European culture, was inhabited by many tribes and peoples, all of whom shared the folkway that women and men are equal; this is reflected in Philippine languages and dialects, which have no segregating "she" and "he" pronouns, but rather a single generic nonsexist one. In our time, though, just about a half a millennium after Magellan claimed to have discovered the Philippines, unleashing hundreds of years of Westernizing by Spain and the US, this vaunted gender equality has become quite rare throughout the society.
And so it was in my parents' marriage. Here is a poem that explores these issues.
Papa said, "You know I would have to kill you,"
to Mama, who sat quietly, head bowed.
I was just a kid — five or six — and cried
deep gut-wrenching sobs. The moon, like a new
coin in the window, sliced in half by blue
knives of cloud. "You're too young to understand,
Vin," he smiled. "It would be my duty as a man."
A tear on her cheek, Mama whispered, "That's true."
To this day, I don't know if there was another man
or if they were only talking possibility,
in case, for example, Mama felt her face
begin to flush downstairs with a repairman.
Her only safety net then — Papa's motto,
A place for everything, everything in its place.
— Vince Gotera, from Tilting the Continent:
Southeast Asian American Writing (2000).
Also appeared in Fighting Kite (2007).
I hope this poem speaks for itself, because I don't think I can say it any clearer than this.
Something I can tell you is that the incident recounted in the first stanza did happen. I remember my parents talking in these words or something very like them. I was indeed five or six, and you can draw whatever inference you want from parents talking about such matters in the presence of a kid in kindergarten or first grade. The event certainly stuck with me. I think this was probably, from my father's point of view, part of my indoctrination into maleness, into machismo. Part and parcel, I think, of US Army training as he saw it, from the dual perspectives of trainer and trainee . . . father and son, in the way his father (my Lolo) taught him to be a man, through hard knocks and a thick belt.
For those of you who read the blog to hear about poetic craft, the basic element here is form: we've got a sonnet here. I am using this form because of the tradition of sonnets as love poetry. In this case, though, the sonnet is being used as a vessel for "anti-love," for control and oppression in the name, allegedly, of "love."
To be more specific, this is a Petrarchan sonnet with an octave (or eight-line stanza) rhymed
All of these mechanics and specifics are not probably quite as important as the effect of the form, specifically the Petrarchan form, on the unfolding of the initial narrative in the octave and the sestet's meditation on that narrative. Both parts are contained and molded by the Petrarchan architecture, like liquid being poured into a bottle of a particular shape. I can't be more specific than that because I don't really know more than that. More often than not, an art object is more opaque to the artist than to the viewer.
I have also borrowed an image from Un chien andalou, the surreal silent-film short by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. This image occurs at the film's opening, when a full moon is sliced in half by a thin, knife-like cloud. This image occurs in tandem with another, more horrific, cutting that I won't reveal now in case you want to experience Un chien andalou yourself. My borrowing (stealing?) of this image is serendipitous; I don't know really what it means in the context of the child's narrative, but it works for me at some deep, unknowable level of emotion. How this happens occurs, for me, subconsciously or unconsciously so that I find myself at a loss as to how to explain the effect. I would appreciate any insight you can contribute here . . . please write a comment below. Thanks.
Beyond all that, I guess I would caution the young woman in the ad — well, really anyone considering marriage — to be very, very careful. And watch out when you see knife clouds bisecting the moon, too. Just watch out.
NOTE: The ad above comes from the March 2009 issue of Rochester Magazine. No copyright infringement is intended, and the appearance of the ad in this blog is free advertising for Lasker Jewelers. At least, I hope they see it that way. Oh, also, in case you're still wondering what the Petrarch an envelope quatrain is, the rhyming of the quatrain's inner two lines is enveloped by the rhyming of the outer two lines . . . abba, the b-rhyme lines enclosed by the a-rhyme lines.