Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keeping Six Words Tumbling in Air

Okay, one more of my poems from Asian American Literature, the textbook edited by Shawn Wong, for the benefit of the UGA students with whom I've been interacting (see the last two posts) and now my own students in our Asian American Literature course (at the University of Northern Iowa) who are about to start discussing my poems in that same textbook.

Vietnam Era Vet

A fragrance remembered is Vietnam —
the acrid odor of gunpowder and tracer fire,
smudgy cooking fires in every hooch, the pungent scent
of nước mắm and water buffalo shit, a father's
acid sweat as he searches for his lost son
in some ville, smoking from an H&I strike — all this was my wish.

I'd look at my class A's in their plastic bag in the closet and wish
sometimes I too had been to the 'Nam.
I remembered basic training at Fort Ord, double timing in the sun
to the range. "Ready on the left! Ready on the right! Fire
at will!" Late nights in the latrine, I wrote my father
long letters about being afraid I'd be sent

over there. Everyone in the platoon was afraid of being sent,
but not one of us admitted it. "Sure wish
they'd ship me over to that motherfucker,"
we said to each other in the noonday light, "Vietnam —
can't wait. Shoot me a fucking gook or two, fire
mortars all goddamn night." Papa'd write back, "Son,

let God's will be done. Just be a good son.
Just do your job. If they send you, then they send
you. That's all." And I'd lie on my dark bunk and smoke — the fiery
tip of the cigarette curling like a tracer ricochet — wishing
I loved it all. C-rations, the firing range, the memorized Vietnamese
phrases, my leaky shelter half on bivouac. All for Papa.

That was as close as I would get to my father's
war. I'm sure my grandfather called him a good son,
both in the U.S. Army, the Philippine Scouts. Their Vietnam
had been Bataan. When the sergeant would send
my father out on point, did he wish
even for a moment that he hadn't joined up? Did artillery fire

make him cringe in his foxhole? That time he was caught in crossfire,
did he try to will himself into a tree, a rock, a bird? Papa,
I knew only the mortar's crump and whoosh,
the parabolic path reaching up to California sun.
I never knew the shrapnel's white-hot whistle at arc's end.
Two nights ago, I dreamt I was in Vietnam:

a farmer runs for the tree line — I fire a crisp M-60 burst — Vietcong,
for sure, for sure. The LT sends me up to verify. In shimmering sun,
Charlie's face is the one I wash in my helmet. No. It's your face, Papa.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Journal of American
(1993). Reprinted in Asian American Literature:
A Brief Introduction and Anthology
(1996). Appeared
also in Fighting Kite (2007).

Some brief footnotes. In line 6, "H&I" stands for Harrassment and Interdiction: indiscriminate artillery fire at the enemy to break their morale; of course, this procedure caused a great deal of so-called "collateral damage," i.e., injury and death among civilians and noncombatants. Ain't military terminology as fun as a barrel of junkies? In line 7, "class A's" are semi-formal Army uniforms, similar to a suit and tie. A "shelter half" refers to half of a pup tent (line 24); two soldiers would team up to make up a single tent for bivouac or encampment. The Philippine Scouts (line 27) were an elite US Army unit before and during WWII; the Philippine Army was a separate force from the Philippine Scouts. In line 37, an M-60 is a heavy, belt-fed machine gun. Finally, "LT" stands for lieutenant and is pronounced ell-TEE (line 38). With regard to the Wong textbook in particular, there are two errors. The word "is" in the first line was typeset as "in" in the textbook. Also, "nước mắm" is misspelled in the textbook as "nuoe mam," without the diacritics essential in printed Vietnamese.

Let's focus on craft and technique first. The salient point here is that this poem is a sestina. If you don't know this poetic form, the sestina repeats the ending words of each line in the sestets (six-line stanzas) so that they eventually appear at the end of every possible location (the first line of the sestet, the second line, etc.). Then the repeating words (called repetons [REHP-uh-tawns) appear in a three-line stanza (known as an envoi [own-VWAH]), two words per line, one at the end of the line and the other in the middle.

The repetons are re-used in the stanzas in a preset pattern. The matrix below shows the cycling of this particular sestina's repetons — Vietnam, fire, scent, father, son, and wish. I've color-coded the words so you can follow their movement through the stanzas easily.

 Stanza 1........

Stanza 2........

Stanza 3........

Stanza 4........

Stanza 5........

Stanza 6........

arc’s end 

fire Vietcong 
sends sun 
wash Papa 

As you can see, I "cheat" by altering the repetons occasionally (this is pretty common practice among contemporary writers of the sestina). For example, "Vietnam" becomes "'Nam" in stanza 2, "Vietnamese" in stanza 4, and finally "Vietcong" in the envoi. Almost always sestina alterations are done through consonance ("wish" ——> "whoosh" ——> "wash"). I'm pretty proud of how, in stanza 6, the "sent"/"send" sound is rendered by "arc's end" — cool, eh? I'm even more proud (perversely so) of "father" becoming "motherfucker" . . . a kind of literalist double entendre. And there is even a basis here (admittedly distant) in rich consonance: /f/ and /r/ in father and motherfucker, not to mention that the /th/ sound appears in both words. Poetry . . . no, poetics . . . is fun, kids!

Okay, on to content. Many readers misinterpret this poem as being spoken by a grunt in Vietnam, a combat veteran. The central conflict of the poem orbits around the speaker not having gone to Vietnam. In fact the title of the poem is US governmentalese for someone who served in the US armed forces during the war but was not sent to Vietnam. Although this poem uses many autobiographical details from my own life, this speaker is a persona, not me at all. I personally don't feel this way about not having been sent to Vietnam; in real life, my father, even though he was quite the proponent for Army and veteran service, did not want me to fight in that war because he felt the war in Vietnam was wrong.

So why did I write the poem? I had read and was wowed by a story titled "The Persistence of Memory" by Walter Howerton, Jr. (from an anthology called The Perimeter of Light). Howerton's excellent story focused on a Vietnam-vet wannabe driven by a deep need to connect with his WWII-vet father, now dead, who had condemned him for being an anti-war activist during the Vietnam war. After reading this bravura story, I wondered if I could write something similar using elements from my own life. So essentially "Vietnam Era Vet" is an imitation that ultimately transcends imitation. At least I hope so.

There is one final concern to air. In my last post I talked about my decision to revise "Alan Valeriano Sees a Lynch Mob" by replacing the n-word with two other alternatives. The same issue surfaces here. What about the word "gook" in the third stanza? I would assert that the "g-word" is necessary here to convey the devil-may-care language and 'tude put on by young soldiers; at the same time, in terms of poetics, "gook" carries the /oo/ assonance in "shoot" and "two" . . . as well as the /k/ consonance in "can't" and "fucking." I suppose you might say I'm contradicting myself. Well, I would have to stand with Whitman then: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." Amen.

NOTE: I have intentionally not included any visual images in this blog post. We get too many images of war as it is. Blank space, in writing (and in life), has many virtues.

I would also like to offer my apologies to color-blind people who probably had a hard time with the color-coded matrix above. I wish there was another way to do that kind of diagramming without leaving you out.

Monday, March 30, 2009

'57 Chevy ... Sweet, Sweet, Sweet

In my previous post, I mentioned that I am currently in touch through Facebook with some University of Georgia students who are in an Asian American Literature class reading my poems this week. While discussing my work with these students, I have found myself rethinking and reconsidering an artistic decision I made over twenty years ago while writing a poem in their textbook, Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Here is that poem:

Alan Valeriano Sees a Lynch Mob

This morning, Alan wraps a rust and verdigris
paisley scarf around his do, a bouffant
Elvis coxcomb. I'm sitting on
his bed with his little brother
Jose, my best friend in fifth grade.
On KDIA, the Tempts croon about sunshine
on a cloudy day while Alan's getting on
his finest threads. Later, the requisite black
leather hip-length coat, but first,
starched Levi's steam-ironed between newspapers.
Jose asks about the cut on Alan's forehead.
Here's the thing, blood. I'm styling down Fillmore
yesterday. The old men, they standing round
the liquor store, and old Mr. Page, he ask,
"Where you going, my man?" But I keep on strutting.
Ladies on corners with they twenty dollars of White
Rain hair spray, they pivot to watch me go by, yeah.

Alan slips a flamingo knit over
a sleeveless turquoise undershirt. Then
silk stockings ribbed in maroon. In the mirror,
he rehearses the strut: left index finger
slung inside the pants pocket,
the other arm swinging free from right shoulder
cocked slightly lower than the left.
Anyway, I seen my partner Jackson
across the street, dig? And he yells,
Say, Al! Check out my new ride, man!"
And his buddy Rolando, he yelling too,
"That's a '57 Chevy, brother!
Sweet, sweet, sweet." So I yell back,
"Let's go for a spin, man," and Jackson,
he give me the wheel. We burning rubber
now, blood, heading for the Sunset.

Jose and I look at each other. Both
thinking the same thing: the Sunset District
might as well have its own white
pages — MacInerny, Petrovsky, Puccinelli, Ryan.
Well, maybe some Changs and Wongs. A Gomez or two.
We doing it, boy! Rubber smoking
every time we come round a corner.
But, hell, that cheegro Jackson, he got gypped.
Some motherfucking thing wrong with the brakes, and boom!
the car's up against a garage door.
Jesus Christ, man. Got blood dripping
in my eyes, and we drawing a crowd now.
Blonde hair, freckles, everywhere. Rolando
and Jackson, boy, they gone. And I'm seeing
axe handles, shotguns, a burning goddamn cross.
So I rip off my scarf, man, show them straight
hair. "I ain't black! I'm Flip! Filipino!"

Jose glances at me, but I'm
looking out the window. Now
Alan adds the final touches: sky-blue
Stacy Adams shoes, the leather coat,
one last glimpse into the mirror.
Vince Gotera performing this poem.<bgsound src="http://www.uni.edu/~gotera/podcasts/Alan-Valeriano-Sees-a-Lynch-Mob.m4a" loop="1">

Click on a picture to see a larger version.

The fashions shown in the ad above would be about eight to ten years later than in the poem, but they reflect a parallel kind of boldness in fashion statement (Ebony, 1970s).

1957 Chevrolet Two-Ten Sedan
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Madison Review
(1989). Reprinted in Asian American Literature:
A Brief Introduction and Anthology

If you have the Wong textbook in front of you, or else the issue of The Madison Review in which this poem first appeared, it would be relatively simple to see how the version above has been altered from the original text. The changes involves two instances of what is called, in polite society, the n-word.

The character Alan Valeriano above is quite the raconteur, speaking in ultra-hip Black English — well, hip for the late 1960s, anyway — and he uses the n-word the way African American youth today say "niggah" (insiders say this spelling and alternate pronunciation indicate a non-racist usage, though I still find it troubling). Alan is not black, however, so although he sees himself as an honorary black person, when he uses the n-word it has a more toxic bite.

Here are the two times where the word "nigger" appears in the text of the poem as I originally wrote and published it: And his buddy Rolando, he yelling too, / "That's a '57 Chevy, nigger! / Sweet, sweet, sweet" (lines 28-30). So I rip off my scarf, man, show them straight / hair. "I ain't a nigger! I'm Flip! Filipino!" (lines 49-50). When I originally wrote this poem in the late 80s, I would have defended this use of the n-word as "true to the character's personality and customary language." In other words, someone like Alan — a Filipino American "passing" as a black man — would have used the n-word in just this way. And in fact this would be accurate, at least as I witnessed it back in the day.

But . . . does this make it art? Twenty-plus years ago, I would have said yes. But now, I wonder. Especially when the changes I am making to the poem today seem equally genuine for Alan as character: "That's a '57 Chevy, brother! / Sweet, sweet, sweet." And again, "I ain't black! I'm Flip. Filipino." The deal-breaker for me is imagining reading this poem out loud to an audience where there might be one black person, perhaps an older woman in her 70s. In that situation I would probably have tacitly made these very changes on the spot, on the fly.

I suppose the craft lesson for the day has to do with revision, how one makes decisions about what to change and what not to. I am tempted to make some other edits: (1) Change the verb tense in the non-Alan sections to past (e.g., "That morning, Alan wrapped . . .")to solve the quandary of whether or not the speaker is a fifth-grader or an adult looking back. (2) Redo the line breaks so they reflect a more consistent lineation strategy. (3) Tighten up Alan's Black English (e.g., "he yells" should be "he yell"). (4) Rename some things according to how we called them: "silk stockings" should be "pimp socks"; "strutting" should be "pimping"; and so on. But I think I will leave off, make only the large sociocultural edit today.

I should say, though, that I have made a couple of very small changes: the textbook has "the Temps" as a nickname for The Temptations; this should be "the Tempts." Otherwise, it sounds like a reference to temporary workers. I've also taken the hyphen out of the middle of "motherfucking" . . . that hyphen should have never been there in the first place, if we are to follow customary usage. I also capitalized "Flip" since it derives from the proper noun "Filipino."

Moving to issues of content and theory, "Alan Valeriano Sees a Lynch Mob" is a dramatization of a phenomenon among Asian American youth in San Francisco when I was a teenager: imitating and even entering African American culture as a rebellion against the tendency among our parents to imitate European American society, become the "model minority." During the 1960s, American culture was seemingly made up only of white and black — that's all we saw in the news, in the movies, on TV, in sports, wherever. Asian American young people felt they had to choose between those two monolithic influences, and many (both boys and girls) chose black culture to identify with. It would be more truthful to say, though, that Asian American youth often individually swung back and forth between "being" black and white.

In the discussion I've been having with the UGA students, a question that came up was whether or not the "lynch mob" scene is literal or figurative. I meant it to be not literal. Imagined more than figurative, though. In other words, there is no mob, just curious bystanders, but Alan, because he has identified so closely with blackness, imagines the lynch mob. And his blackness breaks . . . he falls back on being Filipino.

At least that's how I had always thought about it. Because of my conversations with the UGA students, however, I am starting to see a new way of looking at Alan. My idea for the poem had been that Alan was not seeing a hypocrisy within himself. Because he's still dressing up, right? But how about this? Maybe Alan is really a trickster figure and he tells the story as he does because the lynch mob drama makes it a better story. He's a showman, an entertainer. Alan could be exagerrating about both the lynch mob and his reaction. Does that make sense?

There is a real person I knew as a child on whom Alan is modeled, and I can certainly see "real Alan" just making up all that stuff. Maybe there was no car accident at all. Maybe he was just pulling the kids' leg. Playing a joke on them. Keeping them real. Alan the character then becomes something like a Native American trickster, whose job it is not just to pull the rug from under our feet, but to pull the whole world out from under us. Destabilize us. Keep us from getting too comfortable. From thinking we know everything. Hmm.

I do want to thank those students in Georgia, my new Facebook friends, as well as their professor, Will Abney, for making it possible for me to see in new ways this poem and the others we have been discussing ("Aswang" and "Fighting Kite"). I hope our interchange has helped them also to see literature in new, fresh ways. Peace out.

NOTE: the International Fashion ad above comes from a collection of 1970-1976 Ebony ads (http://learning2share.blogspot.com). The second picture comes from Wikimedia Commons; the original photo was taken by Douglas Wilkinson for RemarkableCars.com in 2006.

Added on 3-31-09: audio recording of poetry reading above (to the right of the poem).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Skulkers of the Philippine Night

Over the last five or six days, students in an Asian American Literature class at the University of Georgia have been friending me on Facebook. Their professor, Will Abney, offered them extra credit for contacting and friending authors they are studying.

At first, I was divided about the situation, but it has developed into an interesting learning opportunity for them as well as me: we now have a Facebook group in which we can discuss my poems in their textbook, Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. There is only a small window during which we (along with their professor, who has now joined the group) can address my work online; they start discussing the poems in class this week and will probably be done with them in fairly short order.

In the meantime, though, the students have started asking questions and I am answering . . . though I'm not simply giving the answers away. I find myself responding in such a way that I hope will entice the students to meet the poems halfway, so to speak, engage them to read the poems critically and actively.

Here is one of those poems that are in their textbook, on aswang (ah-SWAHNG), the bogey man (or woman) of the Philippines.


Shooting marbles, Carding from across the street
and I knelt on gritty concrete in front
of his house. His mother and a couple of friends sat
on the steps, laughing and gossiping about aswang,
those routine skulkers of the Philippine night. Carding's
mother had a pretty cousin who could
pierce your jugular with her hollow tongue
like sharpened bamboo, then delicately sip your blood,
her eyes darting crimson. One of the friends
had an uncle with fingernails hard as stone,
his breath reeking of damp earth, of human
flesh three days dead. They said Mang Enteng,
who sells baskets at market, changes into cat,
dog or boar at full moon and prowls bundok roads.

That night, I was strolling by Carding's house,
and I saw his mother, a pretty mestiza widow,
her face hidden by hair hanging down
as she bent far forward from the waist.
A manananggal, the worst kind of aswang:
women who can detach themselves at the hips,
shucking their legs at night like a wrinkled slip.
They fly, just face and breasts, to prey on infants.
For a moment, a shadow like a giant bat
darkened the moon, then I ran to my friend's room.
He cried as we sneaked into his mother's bedroom
and sprinkled crushed garlic and holy water
on the legs propped up in the southeast corner. "She'll be free,"
I told his trembling shoulders. "She'll finally be free."

The next day, friends and neighbors gathered
at their house. The priest wouldn't let anyone
in the bedroom, they said. Then six men carried a pine
box into the light. I couldn't forget how his mother
flew in the window at dawn. Her face was white, her
lips full and red. She screamed when
she couldn't touch her legs. He rushed in,
began to brush away the garlic. His mother
like a trapped moth fluttering against the wall.
I leaped and wrapped my arms around Carding.
She swooped, we struggled until the first sunbeam
touched her. My friend sobbed as I wiped blood from
a cut on my arm. The funeral was a week ago, and all
I've dreamed the last six nights is neighbors standing

in a line — I'm running — they whisper, "Aswang. Aswang."

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Zone 3 (1990).
Reprinted in Asian American Literature:
A Brief Introduction and Anthology

Vince Gotera, "Aswang: Manananggal"   (click to view full-size)

The opening stanza is a kind of primer about aswang, the Filipino all-purpose monster: vampire, ghoul, shapeshifter. These different types of aswang have European cognates, but not the manananggal (mah-nah-nahng-GAHL) . . . there is no monster in European or American culture that does what she can do: split her body at the waist, entrails hanging like broken cables, unfurl leathery, pterodactyl-like wings, and sail through the night in search of prey.

Now of course all monsters have to have some weakness; otherwise, we humans would be long-extinct. A vampire can be killed with a wooden stake, the werewolf with a silver bullet, the zombie by a death-dealing blow to the head. With the manananggal — typically a woman — the vulnerability is that she must leave the bottom half of her body alone while she hunts. Spread a little salt or a little garlic on her nether regions and she cannot reconnect, reintegrate her body; when sunrise comes, she dies at sunlight's touch.

In the second and third stanzas, the poem moves from primer to narrative. Carding, the speaker's playmate, is the protector of his mother's bottom half. The speaker, off stage, convinces Carding to be brave, to set his mom free from the curse of being an aswang. After all, Carding is short for Ricardo, a Germanic name meaning "hard ruler," a là King Richard the Lion-Hearted of medieval fame.

But Carding is no Lionheart; he wants his mother to live. Her only release from aswang-ness is through death. It turns out not Carding but the speaker is the "hard ruler" and he must battle in epic struggle against both Carding and his monster mother. In the fight, the speaker is injured slightly. Later he fears (no, perhaps is more than certain) that he has damned himself, that he has in his heroism been turned into an aswang.

I suppose I really didn't need to tell you all that; we are all such good interpreters of horror-film conventions. But I wanted to retell the story, rehearse the thrills again.

You see, I really just wanted to write a good old-fashioned horror story, and the clincher was I wanted to do it in a sonnet. Well, fourteen lines was not a large enough space to contain this topic, so it ended up being three sonnets. With a tail, a small caudate: an ending monostich or single-line stanza where the punchline is, full circle from the characters in the beginning of the poem "laughing and gossiping about aswang."

You may not have recognized that the poem is made up of three sonnet-shaped stanzas because, at times, I use quite distant slant rhyme. Here are the rhyme schemes of the three stanzas, broken into rhyme groups:
















white, her


standing   //   Aswang
As you can see, the first stanza is a Shakespearean sonnet, the second a modified Petrarchan (cddc instead of abba in the second quatrain), and the third a pretty standard Petrarchan . . . with the caudate line rhyming with the closing line of the last sonnet stanza.

Some of the rhymes are so slant they may hardly be rhymes — and some of my poet friends probably would say they don't rhyme at all. For example, in the first sonnet stanza, "front" and "aswang" (the b rhyme). Or "stone" and "Enteng" (the f rhyme), though that pair has a more subversive rhyme: the rich consonance of /t/ + /n/ with /t/ + /ng/. Which also rhymes, consonantally, with the earlier c rhyme: "Carding" and "tongue" (/d/ + /ng/ with /t/ + /ng/). Which in turn rhymes in a more standard fashion with the second b rhyme above, "aswang." So, while the rhymes can be quite distant, there is a great deal of subtlety in the rhyming that gives the poem a confident musicality and poetic texture. (I'm particularly proud of the rhyme of "white, her" with "mother.")

Unless you counted the lines in each stanza, you might not have thought these were sonnets at all. You might have thought this was free verse, in fact. While I was pursuing my MFA at Indiana University, my classmates in that program were mainly unfriendly to rhymed and metered verse, so I developed a formalist style that used slant rhymes and roughed-up meter as disguises. A reader expecting free verse could see my poems as such, while a reader looking for formal conventions could also find them there.

Okay, enough craft talk. A few final notes. In the original version of the poem, published in Zone 3 and reprinted in Asian American Literature, I misspelled manananggal. I left out a na syllable. This spelling is corrected above.

In the textbook, a footnote says the manananggal is a "witch who is half-human and flies around in a caldron [sic]." I have never encountered the cauldron element in literature I've consulted on aswang legends, so I wonder if this footnote is in error, though the cauldron may be part of a local version of the myth somewhere.

Here is a YouTube video showing a female aswang transforming into her manananggal form, from the Philippine film Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984). Production values quite low, but interesting nevertheless.

It was difficult to find an aswang image I liked out in the internet. So I made my own; see above. It's more of a cartoon than a representational rendering, though my wife and kids assure me it's nonetheless a scary image. You decide.

And comment below, please. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Headers, Headers, Headers

Hey, everyone . . . did you notice I've got a new blog header? I find myself always wanting to use the word "banner" instead of "header" here because the first term reminds me of flags in a strong breeze, how they whip and crackle, straining to fly free in cerulean ether. And I want that kind of energy in the blog itself. But alas, "header" is the correct term; "banner" is reserved for a graphic used to advertise the blog somewhere else.

Here's the old header if you want to compare the two headers, assuming you haven't been bored to tears at this point!

Click on this thumbnail of the header to see it full size.

I would love some feedback about either header. I created the new one to be more 3D, to have the letters feel like they're floating. And also to minimize my name, which was way too prominent in the old header. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Weddings and Knife Clouds

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."

Click on the ad if you want to see a larger version.

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
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 abba acca, a small departure from the norm, an octave made up of two envelope quatrains (abba abba). The second stanza is a more standard Petrarchan sestet (or six-line stanza) rhymed cde cde. There is also the usual turn (or volta) at line 9 . . . in this case, a change in time: the opening octave set in the speaker's childhood and the closing sestet set in the present.

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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Not St. Paddy's Day but Ash Wednesday

Last night was a truly wonderful evening. I had the good fortune to be asked to give a poetry reading at Wartburg College in nearby Waverly, Iowa. This was part of a "Writing Symposium" put on by Wartburg's English department and The Castle, the student literary magazine. My two fellow guests were Gary Eller, fiction writer and author of Thin Ice and Other Risks, and Tim Bascom, a memoirist whose recent book is Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia. I enjoyed their readings; it was great to see Gary again and very nice to meet Tim for the first time.

My thanks for this kind invitation go to Claudio D'Amato and Emily Van Oosbree (editors of this year's Castle) as well as to Dr. Paul Hedeen, professor of creative writing at Wartburg College. I really enjoyed the symposium; the students in my poetry workshop were lovely people. We'll be keeping in touch to discuss their poetry, and I'm looking forward to those contacts.

The poem below is one I read last night from my poetry collection Fighting Kite. Enjoy. (Though maybe "enjoy" is not quite the right word; I'll wish you the little thrill, the frisson — hair standing up on the back of your neck — that I inevitably feel whenever I perform this poem.)

A Visitor on Ash Wednesday

Papa faced the devil again
on the stairs to the living room.
Seven years old, I couldn't sleep.

Papa shouting: "Make it now, damn you, end it here."
I saw clenched in his hand a buntot pagi,
the long tail severed from a sting ray,

the Filipino's traditional weapon against
spirits. Papa kept his on the living room wall,
and when neighbors would visit and talk

of his monthly standoffs with the devil,
he would take the buntot pagi down, let them
touch it. When I was over at my friends' houses,

I would hear people talk about Papa:
"So brave, that Mang Martin," they would say,
"Did you hear last night he took on the devil again?"

When my great-uncle Tay Birco died,
we prayed for nine days, a novena of dinners
and dancing. Late into the night,

the grown-ups told stories
of encounters with demons. Eyes glistening,
my grandfather Tatay described how when he was a boy,

church bells woke him one night. Peeping out
his window, he saw on the plaza facing San Antonio Church
a man in flames, dancing in red-hot

chains on the flagstone steps. Next day,
all the neighbors asked each other, "Did you see
that burning man?" then rapidly crossed themselves.

Tatay's mother, my great-grandmother,
once met a man in a hooded robe on the stairs
in her house as she left for morning mass.

"Who are you?" she asked. "Can I help you?"
When he threw back the hood, his face was like
molten copper. She shrugged, walked on.

But that Ash Wednesday when I was seven, I recall
I stood rooted to the shadowy floor
of Papa's bedroom. Half-heard voices

downstairs, a glimmer of light wafted up.
I could see the tusks, its eyes like glowing
coals, as it climbed the steps. I could hear Papa

praying below: "oh jesus save us from the fires
of hell lead all souls to heaven help . . ."
I can still see its red eyes. I'm sure if I had

reached out, I could have touched spiny
hackles — it was that close. Gliding by,
the pig entered my dim bedroom.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Caliban 7 (1989).
Also appeared in Fighting Kite (2007).

I'm gonna guess that I probably know precious little about what's really going on in this poem. So much of it is stuff bubbling up from my subconscious. At least I think so. I really don't know 'cause all of that is invisible to me. But here's what I do know . . .

If you read the autobiography I started in the blog back in November, I was born in the US but lived in the Philippines as a small child for some time. While there, I eventually realized that my father would periodically have visions of the Devil. And that in these encounters he would take the Devil on as his nemesis. It was also clear to me as a child (the poem says I'm seven) that people did not write Papa off as a lunatic. Instead they believed in these visitations and saw my father as a visionary man, tormented as well as honored by the Devil.

In the US, of course, Papa was not seen this way; he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spent a great deal of time, off and on, in psych wards. My poem "Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside" describes that other side of Papa's life experience. In fact, at the reading last night, I read these two poems together to highlight these sharp differences between Philippine culture and American culture.

If I could switch over to talking about craft for a minute, I want to point out that I use a framing device. The Ash Wednesday event, in which Papa is visited by the devil and where the speaker sees a devil-like pig moving through the half-darkened house, frames a narrative of vignettes told by relatives at a funeral. My intent is to have the middle section contextualize and legitimize the magic-realist Ash Wednesday event. Filipinos customarily believe in such occult happenings and in fact treat them as everyday occurrences. The speaker's great-grandmother is not at all surprised at meeting the Devil in her house. She is, after all, the wife (so to speak) of a Catholic priest, and the devilish presence may just be par for the course, an attempt to tempt her, to terrorize her as a kind of extension of her husband the priest.

Whoa, whoa. I don't think I've mentioned my great-grandfather the priest in the blog before, have I? Hmmm. Okay, let's hold off on that. I'll tell you more about that another time. Now you'll have to come back to get that story!

So, back to the poem. And back to what I know (or think I know). Seeing the devil pig . . . that's an actual memory. I remember that distinctly. My father was downstairs with the Devil, shouting at him. And then I saw the pig. It was dark. It lumbered right by me, very close, ignoring me. And then it went into the darkened door of my bedroom. Where it disappeared into blackness. I swear to God. This memory is one of the strongest, most vivid remembrances of my life. No surprise there.

I found out later, as a teenager maybe, or as an adult, that Papa had been seeing the Devil for many years, ever since he was a teenager. In fact, probably not long before the poem's Ash Wednesday event, my mother and father both saw the Devil, as a face glowing like fire on the wall. Both Mama and Papa, mind you, not just Papa.

My father always said that the Devil, when he would see him, looked like a goat, so I searched for goat-like images of Satan to use as illustrations here. I included the Doré engraving above because that very image was what, as a child, I thought Satan looked like; in my poem "Wings" I talk about my vision of angels and heaven, based on a Doré illustration of Dante's Paradiso. Dante provided me, when I was a child, with entire cosmologies of belief.

Well, let's leave off there. I worry sometimes about over-explaining and over-analyzing here. This poem is best served with a little frisson, as I said above.

Yes, today is St. Patrick's Day but I never have anything Kelly green to wear. It is Lent right now, though, so Ash Wednesday is also strangely apropos. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. And not to the Devil, one hopes! Take care.

NOTE: The top image on the left, above, is from the Codex Gigas, the largest extant medieval manuscript, often called the "Devil's Bible" because of this illustration of the Devil. The center picture is Baphomet, from Eliphas Lévi's book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie ("Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic," 1854); while the image refers to a pagan idol, it is also connected to the central icon of the Church of Satan, founded by Anton Lavey, where this goat image is merged with an upside-down, or inverted, pentacle. The top image on the right is the Devil card from the Tarot. The image at the bottom is Gustave Doré's illustration of Satan from Dante's Infeno.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dragonfly (pages 10-11)

I need to apologize here for letting the blog slide below my day-to-day horizon. It's been a crazy couple of weeks, work-wise and whatever else, and I see it's been a week and a half since my last post. Yikes.

Let's look at another couple of pages from Dragonfly.

Pacific Crossing

The pier, a great concrete semicircle,
stretched into San Francisco Bay
like a father's arm around a daughter.
On Sundays, we would venture on that pier,

Mama in her broad straw hat, a country
woman in some rice paddy on Luzon.
In his lucky lime-green short-sleeved shirt, checked
by orange pinstripes, Papa would heft the net.

I would lean over the rail, watch the two
steel hoops — the smaller within the larger,
criss-crossed by heavy twine in diamond shapes —
loft out over the dark water and sink

in a green froth. A small wire cage nestled
in the center of the hoops, containing
chunks of raw meat. Papa would say, "Best bait
is porterhouse. Crabs really go for that."

Sometimes he would let me pull the net up.
The rope slimy and tight in my small hands
and then the skitter and scuttle of claws
on the wooden deck of the pier. Later

at home, I would play the radio loud, hide
that same skitter on the sides of the large
enamel-white Dutch oven, concentrate
instead on the sweetness I knew would come.

One of those Sunday evenings, I dropped in
at my friend Peter van Rijn's house. Dinner
had just been served, and the family rule
was: all the neighborhood kids had to leave.

Page 10

But I didn't. There was Pete's father, like some
patriarch from a Norman Rockwell painting,
poising his carving knife above the shell —
huge and bountiful — of a red King crab.

I said, "Wait." Their heads swiveled toward me
in shock, as if I'd screamed a curse word out.
Old Peter, the daughter Wilhelmina, his sons —
Paul, Bruno, Guido, my friend Pete —

the Mom whose given name I never knew:
a good immigrant family. The heirs
of European culture, I always
thought, these direct descendants of Rembrandt.

I said, "Wait." And then I shared the secret
passwords to being a Filipino.
Here is where you dig your fingernails in
to pry the top shell off. You suck this green

and orange jelly — the fat of the crab.
This flap on the underside tells if it's
male or female: pointed and skinny or
round like a teardrop. Here's how you twist off

legs, pincers. Crack and suck the littlest ones.
Grip it here and here, then break the body
in half. These gray fingers are gills — chew but
don't swallow. Break the crab into quarters.

Here you find the sweetest, the whitest meat.

Page 11

The first half of this poem describes one of my fondest childhood memories: crabbing with the family. I've never been one for fishing, I gotta say, but crabbing, now there you've got something! My dad really did use steak for bait — porterhouse, no less — rather than something like chicken (which many people use); that gesture is part of his devil-may-care, aristocratic attitude.

This is a guy who (thought he) looked like the movie and TV actor Dick Powell . . . a not uncommon sentiment among Filipinos of his generation, that they resembled white celebrities. The famed Filipino writer Bienvenido Santos, in fact, wrote a novel titled The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor.

Below is my father's passport photo from the late 1940s, next to a picture of Dick Powell, a crooner in 1930s movies and later a film-noir tough guy in the 1940s (he played the detective Philip Marlowe in the 1944 movie Murder, My Sweet.) You decide if there's a resemblance. I guess the point here is that Papa thought of himself, of Martin Avila Gotera, in romantic terms, and that carried through into everything he did, even crabbing.
Back to the poem: the details and feelings I connect here to crabbing are pretty much an unadorned recounting of how I felt. I really enjoyed those lovely family moments even though when I was a child it disturbed me that we would cook the crabs alive. For those of you not used to seafood, this boiling crabs alive is how it's done by everyone, not just Filipinos, something to do with eating crab safely. The crabs you can order for shipment to you are also cooked alive and then frozen.

Okay, by now, you're probably wondering who the third guy is in the pictures above, the one to the right of Dick Powell. That's the greatest Dutch painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, a self-portrait painted in 1630 when he was in his mid-20s.

As the poem says, my oldest childhood friend, Peter van Rijn, is a direct descendant of Rembrandt, and I was always awed by that ancestry. But then there are other kinds of knowledge, and in the poem the speaker shares expertise the van Rijns didn't know, the "secret / passwords to being Filipino." Believe me: you don't want to cut a crab open with a knife; you'll have sharp, pointy shell bits mixed up with the meat.

For what it's worth, this dinner and crab event really happened. Though I did take one small liberty: the poem says the van Rijns were eating a "red King crab" — probably a red Alaska King crab. In all likelihood, they would have served a Dungeness crab, the most common crab typically eaten in California. You can probably recognize this in the pictures below of an Alaska King crab on the left and a Dungeness crab on the right; the King crab looks like some kind of space alien from a B-movie. Here's why I chose to use "King crab" in the poem: it's a very expensive crab, and I liked the word "King," emphasizing the "heirs / of European culture" connection I wanted to highlight.
That admission of a poetic liberty taken with the story is pretty much all I'll say about craft in the poem. Obviously it's in free verse, though we've got quatrains or four-line stanzas rather than the more usual verse paragraphs to emphasize meaning. 'Nuff said.

Okay, wanna know what you should do next? Go eat some crab. Maybe King crab legs. Expensive, yes, but well worth it. Better yet, get a whole crab, rather than crab meat that's been extracted by stainless steel gadgets. There's something magical and fun about getting your hands dirty while eating crab. Whatever you do, steer clear of faux crab, imitation crab meat.

If you've never eaten crab by hand before, check out these instructions from Instructables.com; but also follow my tips in the poem, which will become easier to apply if you look at the Instructable pictures. Remember, no knives. Also, the online instructions say, "Remove and discard the spongy, inedible gills"; as I say in the poem, "chew but / don't swallow" — try it. The Instructables write-up says, "Rinse the greenish-brown goo out of the body"; don't do it: "suck this green // and orange jelly — the fat of the crab," says the poem. You won't be sorry.

One little aside. Look again at the pictures above of my dad, Dick Powell, and Rembrandt: don't you think the bottom half of Papa's face resembles Rembrandt's? Hmmm. Nah, just kidding, just kidding! Thanks for reading the blog.

Oh, wait. Another little aside. Check out the picture below of a coconut crab doing a little dumpster diving. Well, not a dumpster exactly, but a common household garbage can. Scary, don't you think? You probably don't have a pot big enough to cook this bad boy.
And this crab definitely is a bad boy. I'd hate to meet this guy in a dark alley. I'd hate to meet him anywhere. But with all the coconut he must eat to get this big, I bet he would taste pretty damn good!

Just so we can all feel safe taking out the trash later, let's leave off with a picture where human beings are firmly in charge of the crabs.
That's a scene from San Francisco's world-famous Fisherman's Wharf: a sidewalk vendor's crab stand, where you can walk up and get as much crab as you can stand. Hmmm-hm. See you down at the wharf, then?


Photo credits: The picture of San Francisco's Municipal Pier at the top is from yelp.com, taken by Ed "Mr. Peabody" U. The next picture, of a full crab net, is from the Beachstumps website. The third picture is from the Instructables.com instructions on "How to Cook and Clean a Fresh Dungeness Crab." The next picture, of a person holding a live crab, is a San Francisco Chronicle file photo from SFGate.com. The fifth picture, of a whole cooked crab on a plate, is courtesy of PDPhoto.org. The sixth picture, of a quarter crab plus legs served up on a plate, is again from Instructables.com. The photo of Dick Powell is a detail from an image on fanpix.net. The self-portrait by Rembrandt (1630) is from Wikimedia commons. Also from Wikimedia Commons are the pictures of the Alaska King Crab and the Dungeness Crab. The picture of the coconut crab on the garbage can be found all over the internet; just google "coconut crab." I found it in the blog Loko's Domain. The last picture, of a Fisherman's Wharf crab stand, is also from Wikimedia Commons.

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