Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dragonfly (pages 16-17)

I can't believe it's been over two years since I posted a Dragonfly page. Two years! Okay, I'll have to confess.

All this time, I've had a kind of writer's block . . . blogger's block, I guess. From my perspective now as a poet and artist, this poem is the weakest one in the book. It was indeed a strong poem, an important poem, for me when I wrote it during my grad-school days, working on my MFA, but now . . . meh. So I've been stuck, frozen, paralyzed, unsure how to move the blogging of Dragonfly beyond this point, this poem.

Today, though, I decided I should be loyal to the book as it was published then. Or, better yet, to the emerging poet I was during those times, the late '80s. Besides, whenever someone picks up a copy of Dragonfly today, they'll still be able to read this poem, right? So why not post it here. At least this way, I'll be able to comment on the poem in a way that may guide others' reading of it. And I do have a responsibility to my loyal readers — to you — to finish the serialization of the book in this blog. Okay, so here goes.


In the 50s, we drove each month to my uncle's house.
Springing from the car, Papa would joke with him,
"The American Dream, ha, Kumpadre? No sleep
till Monday." Then they'd play mah jong non-stop
and we cousins, sleeping under whispering
gauze, dreamed of Arabian nights, Sinbad,

genies with palaces nestled in their palms.
Those Saturday and Sunday mornings, the kids would build
castles with mah-jong tiles piled up in walls
of many colors, which my cousin Levy
would demolish with a sweep of his hand.
We were mystified by cries of "Kang!

Mah jong! Pong!"
We didn't yet have dreams
of horses named Flip Side or Pearl of the Orient.
Jai-alai and cockfights—just games.
Not yet insomniac rounds of Keno, dollar
slots or poker. We hadn't yet entered
that airy mansion Long Shot built from clouds.

How could we have predicted the chill of adrenalin
from snake-eyes? Up against the wall, crapped out.
Papa's weekend trips to Reno were
a calculus of chance. Any day now,
Lady Luck would wave her Ninang's wand
in our direction. You never know. What's that?

Romantic, you say? I want to tell you mah jong
is real. Hard and cruel as the Napa asylum
where my childhood friend stares into
oblivion. My kumpadre, Jose Manalo.
He can't escape it, lives it over and over.
How he had scrimped on lunches to join the "Empress

Page 16

of China Tour" bound for Reno. From the bus,
he and his partners flipped off the old-timers
hanging out on Kearny. Yeah, they were going
big time, no more tonk for 10 and 20.
Jose saw Chinese ideographs in Harrah's
Oriental Room and copied them off the walls

onto Keno cards. In his mind, they said
long life, wealth, or dreams come true.
On his last try, 10 minutes before
the bus was scheduled to leave, he matched 9
spots—50 grand. Manalo: a winner.
He knew he had to claim the prize before

the next game, 5 minutes at most. But balato,
the Filipino custom of spreading your luck,
meant at least a hundred bucks in each
of his buddies' pockets. So he strolled
with his friends to the bus, then said
he'd forgotten his coat. As the bus revved up,

he sprinted back into Harrah's
where the Keno boss waved him away.
"I'm sorry, buddy, you know you've got to collect
before a new game begins," and he pointed
to the Keno screen on the wall, newly blank.
Now, Jose spends his days building mah-jong castles.

Page 17

I'm going to backpedal a bit here and say that, nevertheless, there are still elements I like in this poem.

For example, lines 5-6, "sleeping under whispering / gauze" — an evocation of mosquito nets — exhibits a sussurus-ish atmosphere (perhaps from the use of s and z) that still suggests magical dreamscapes for me. Also, lines 13 through line 24, from "We didn't yet have dreams" to "Ninang's wand / in our direction" . . . those lines still rock. They dramatize well the common Filipino interest in (for some, obsession with) gambling. My parents routinely traveled to Reno and Lake Tahoe . . . for them this was a way to banish and vanish our family's financial woes, and they were very methodical, even technical, about their gambling so they wouldn't bankrupt the household. The influence of Keno, its numbered ping-pong balls and marked-up tickets (as pictured at left), was indeed large in my family's lifestyle and livelihood. While the game's odds are astronomical against the player, the payoff was much larger than with other casino games and so my parents played Keno quite a lot and often. "You just never know," they would say. "You could win any time."

The poem also retells an apocryphal story you would often hear when I was a kid in San Francisco in the '60s: some poor schmuck wins a big jackpot in Keno, but through his own selfishness in trying to sidestep the Filipino practice of sharing gambling winnings with friends and relatives, doesn't collect in time. And so he goes insane, the legend goes. Hence the mention of "the Napa asylum," the California state mental institution where the indigent would be committed.

I crank up the legend by naming our hero "Jose Manalo" . . . "manalo" is the Tagalog verb "to win." I just now googled "Jose" and found it means "he will enlarge" or "the Lord will increase." When I was writing this poem some 25 years ago, I had a keen interest in names and what they denote so I'm sure that, although the first name was probably originally inspired by a childhood friend's given name, I surely did know about the "enlarge/increase" connotation. And of course the name turns out to be ironic because Jose Manalo does win but eventually loses it all.

It's also important that the speaker calls Jose Manalo his kumpadre. This word calls into play one of the strongest relationship systems in Filipino culture. A kumpadre is the godfather of one's child, or one may be the godfather of the kumpadre's child . . . ditto with kumadre, a connection through godmotherhood. Such a godparent relationship is one of the most crucial social affiliations and alliances in Filipino society, equal to family bonds, in some cases even surpassing them. The reference to a "Ninang" in the poem is closely related, also; a ninang is a godmother, and evoking the word is how a child interacts with the kumadre/kumpadre social system.

Okay, given all these factors why do I say then that this poem "is the weakest one in the book"? My largest misgivings lie in the poem's strange (and uneven) lineation. Look at line 8 . . . why is it so long? A somewhat more graceful line break might be after the word "would," to bring "build" and "castles" closer together. In other places, there are lines that are overly enjambed: why break "dollar" from "slots" in stanza 3; or "Empress" away from "of China" at the end of stanza 5; or, worst yet, "9" separated from "spots" in stanza 7. At times, the line breaks seem almost capricious.

At some locations, lines are so enjambed they become melodramatic, using structure to up the ante rather than character action or significant detail. For example, the aforementioned "sleeping under whispering / gauze" in the opening stanza: notice how "whispering" unmoored from "gauze" may suggest that something maleficent nears the sleeper . . . and then we are told "gauze." Anticlimax. Stanza 5: "into / [line break] oblivion" . . . really? And again, at the end of stanza 7: Jose must "claim the prize before // the next game," the stanza enjambment in this case suggesting some dramatic turn or revelation only to be deflated by something routine. Ditto in stanza 9 when "the Keno boss" says, "'you've got to collect / before a new game begins,' and he pointed /" — here, because of the line break we think there will be a momentous climax, but he is pointing only "to the Keno screen on the wall."

Having been a magazine editor now for over a decade, it's immediately (and painfully) obvious to me how many small errors there are in the poem. For example, "the 50s" in the first line should have an apostrophe before the 5: "the '50s." The word "nonstop" doesn't have a hyphen in it; I was tempted to change that above but finally left it alone. Or "mah jong" (no hyphen) as a noun, and then "mah-jong" (hyphenated) as an adjective . . . hypercorrect, don't you think? In stanza 3, the sport name "Jai alai" has no hyphen, at least in this universe. Maybe just one more: "adrenaline" is spelled wrong; the closing e is MIA. Sans closing e, the word is a Parke-Davis trademarked medication, Adrenalin, a compounded epinephrine.

That's probably enough. I've flayed the poor young poet too relentlessly. Oh, wait, one more thing: entirely too much italicization of non-English words; just italicize the first occurrence. Okay, now enough flaying.

Listen, perhaps this isn't that bad a poem, after all. I don't know. You be the judge. Write me a comment below . . . I've got a thick skin, so tell all. Peace out. Ingat.

NOTE: The photo at the top is by Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia commons, used
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.



InnocentBystander said...

Vince, great flaying! it has always been interesting to me to review old stuff to try to imagine the world i was in at that time and reassess the abilities of the vocabulary i used then.

I think for the same reason, i like using older dictionaries: words have changed as times have changed and i guess i like to reminisce.

but thank you for your analysis, it is a thoughtful deconstruction!

Vince Gotera said...

Dan, thanks for your insightful comment. It was very strange critiquing my own (much older) work. You know how it is: we look at old poems and we think ooh, that's not very good but we don't go through them and parse what's not good. In the process of doing that I also realized what still worked for me in the poem. —Vince

Candy Gourlay said...

Hey - followed this link from the Filipino Writers facebok group. I loved the poem actually - even though it speaks of an unfamiliar world (I am London based) - it's got the texture of Filipino-ness about it. I enjoyed your critique - but you were too hard on yourself about the copy-editing. What matters is that the poem evokes a feeling and a time and place worth remembering. Kudos!

Vince Gotera said...

Candy, thanks so much. Part of the situation, of course, is that it's my own poem and it's so old in my eyes, and so unlike what I write now. The other poems in the book (or many of them) still seem strong to me though, so it's not only the time thing. Anyway, thanks. Come back and read more, please. —Vince

InnocentBystander said...

i totally agree with candy, it really is time-and-place worth remembering -- and the value you add to that context is your unique interpretation.

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