Over the last couple of weeks, I have been posting and commenting on my poems reprinted by editor Shawn Wong in the 1996 textbook Asian American Literature. The immediate occasion for these blog posts, as I have mentioned previously, is that I was contacted through Facebook by members of an Asian American Lit class at the University of Georgia, and we have been discussing these poems online. At about the same time, interestingly, my own Asian American Lit class at the University of Northern Iowa reached these poems in our ongoing course schedule. Here, then, is the last of the five poems from Shawn Wong's textbook:
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Ploughshares (1989).
Reprinted in Asian American Literature: A Brief
Introduction and Anthology (1996). Appeared also
in Fighting Kite (2007).
Readers of this poem often say it's about "the making of the artist." Not quite like James Joyce though, I'd say — more like "the making of the artist as a young preschooler." My father did train me for amazing feats, of sorts. He worked with me on the alphabet at age two or three so that I was reading before I was four years old. When I was about six, he decided he would make me into a chess Grandmaster. So every day, we would drill on the chessboard, sometimes for hours. The King's Gambit. The Sicilian Defense. The Ruy Lopez Opening. (I only now learned, via Google, that there's an interesting irony here because the Philippines was named after King Philip not by Magellan, it turns out, but by the Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos. Fancy that. Ruy Lopez. I wonder if my father knew that.)
We would replay famous chess games, such as the 1956 so-called "Game of the Century" in which chess master Donald Byrne lost to 13-year-old Bobby Fischer; as we duplicated the moves in these replayed games, Papa would have me analyze what made each move weak or strong. I suppose Papa was probably glad he taught me to read early, because he had me begin reading chess strategy manuals at this time. We spent a lot of time with endgame puzzles and checkmate tactics. (The only result of this training is that I ultimately lost my love for chess and now play only seldom.)
Back to the poem . . . I have always thought that this poem is not about me (as those who call it a "making of the artist" may assert) but rather about my father. His strong ambition for himself, later deflected to/through me. His dogged andeavors and planning, culminating with earning his law degree. His disappointment at the Philippines enacting a law to prevent American lawyers from practicing there (since Papa was a naturalized US citizen). His even deeper disappointment that he was also not able to be lawyer in his beloved America; to pass the bar in California, he would have had to go back to school, but since he was already a lawyer, he felt that such schooling would be below him. His further bitter disappointments as he worked jobs in the US that he felt were similarly beneath him: selling encyclopedias door-to-door, selling dress shirts at a department store, working as an offset printer running enormous printing presses. (Some of this is also described in the autobiography started on this blog.)
Of his many jobs, the one I remember fondly was when he worked in a print shop. Ten years old, I loved the gigantic machines Papa ran, the sharp smell of the ink, the thunderous noise in the shop when the presses were turning. Probably the only way he could have been more heroic to me was if he ran a bulldozer or earth mover on a construction site.
Needless to say, he was keenly disappointed in himself for not being a lawyer, for having to work under supervisors he felt were intellectually inferior to him, etc. Today though, I gotta say, when I go to a print shop for my work as a magazine editor, all that love for Papa comes flooding back when I smell that ink-laden air, hear the thudding whirr of the presses. I don't think Papa ever knew how much I idolized his printing-press work. Though I suppose, even after the fact, that would not have been sufficient consolation for his workaday suffering.
In terms of craft, nothing much jumps out at me that I haven't already discussed at length vis-à-vis other poems, except for the emphasis here on the letters of the alphabet. Not only in the earlier section when the child speaker is learning the magic of reading, but also the letter-based logo on the ten-year-old child's ball cap, the UCSF of Papa's work (University of California, San Francisco), and the single numeral "2" followed by the letters "A.M." And finally of course, the father's work with letters — vowels and consonants &mdash making Papa a sort of primal man of letters, though he would not have appreciated that complexion in the least.
To round out Papa's story, he eventually did find work that suited him. As I have noted in various posts here, my father was a WWII veteran who had deep concern for veteran's issues. Papa ultimately found an occupation, not just a job, as a Contact Representative for the Veterans Administration; he assisted veterans with all sorts of problems: pensions, health care, service-connected disabilities, etc. Although this was not working with the law, the job was sometimes legalistic, and more importantly Papa felt great satisfaction in being of service to other veterans. So this is a story with a happy ending.
And I bet my father did know about that Ruy Lopez who named the Philippines. Papa was a heck of a smart guy.
NOTE: the graphic above is the cover image from the Wikijunior Animal Alphabet.
Oh, also, there was one small change between the Ploughshares and textbook version and the one above (same as in Fighting Kite): the earlier "two a.m." was changed to "2 A.M." to coincide with customary usage (numeral with A.M. or P.M. in small caps) as well as to include yet one more single-character entity to match the alphabet letters throughout the poem.
Added 7 April 2009: a slide show of this poem. Enjoy!