2 BOOKS by PAOLO JAVIERCRAIG PEREZ Reviews
the time at the end of this writing by Paolo Javier
(ahadada books, 2004)
60 lv bo(e)mbs by Paolo Javier
(O Books, 2005)
Paolo Javier’s first collection, the time at the end of this writing, echoes long after the time at the end of the writing arrives. Javier’s poetry embodies what Robert Duncan called “beautiful compulsion,” a lyrical urgency that “establishes measures that are music in the actual world” (‘The Structure of Rime II’). The very first page of the collection exemplifies this compulsion:
Yellows leave fall on the sidewalk, so the storeclerk sweeps.
Yellow leaves tumble past my weeds. My landlord emerges yellow
in a gold Camry. Down a camera creek of Mercurys a sleek
Continental glides. Content in a rental, with a panda on his back
a man passes. He makes a pass, pauses, the sun in his mouth. He has
hurt teeth. Off-yellow, fall. Trees leave. The storeclerk weeps. (11)
Javier sculpts sound, syntax, and image into an interwoven texture, coloring the lines with a unique musicality. The measures fall, tumble, pass and pause as they emerge from the page as “music in the actual world.” Javier describes his method in ‘Naturally’:
I see every sharp occurrence
from beyond unbreakable distance, crystal clear, like silence.
I feel it mostly, such method of events as you prescribed
in the accurate world. Each time since then you question my place
in like surroundings, I think to feel to know it’s real. (80-1)
With a sharp eye, measured ear, and embodied mind, Javier feels his way through the poems’ fragile distances. This establishes an immediate and intimate tone most powerfully captured in‘Mi Ultimo Adios, ayon kay Original Brown Boy’:
It’s 825 pm &
the name as it appears on my death certificate
Paolo Rafael Santos Javier.
That's PJ to you if you're K.O.,
Pao to my kamag-anak in Toronto,
Lu Pao if you're Papa,
Paowie if you're Tita Eva, &
always Kuya, of course
to Eric & Patricia.
Rene—pare, if you can hear me, talaga
pogi pricks my ears up.
But if it's you, Cacay, hollering, then
by all means, please holla
pangit, MB, or, even better, OBB—
yours alone & short for the
Original Brown Boy. (22)
Throughout the "personist" poems that book-end the collection, Javier seamlessly navigates the sentimental, playful, hip, sarcastic, tragic, and philosophical. He acknowledges the diverse influence of Rilke, Neruda, Villa, Berrigan, and O’Hara, and yet manages to discover his own unique voice at the interstices of influence.
The central poems of the time at the end of this writing deviate drastically from a "personist" approach. For example, there’s a ten page ekphrastic poem (after Manuel Ocampo) arranged with spatial and typographical variation (unfortunately titled ‘Pimples of Love Swastikating Through Inattention’). There’s also an experimental “annotating” of a reading of Nick Carbo’s Secret Asian Man.
Javier’s most interesting experiment is ‘I sculpt poems,’ in which he re-orchestrates Eileen Tabios’s poem, ‘The Erotic Angel,’ into a 30 page operatic experience. Using the page-as-field and typography-as-tone, the poem reads like a sexed-up ‘Un Coup de Des,’ with the major symbols in the poem being “her arching back,” “my bed,” and “a blindfold of cracked leather.” Javier’s revisioning of Tabios’s poem reminds me of a passage from O’Hara’s ‘Memorial Day 1950’:
At that time all of us began to think
with our bare hands and even with blood all over
them, we knew vertical from horizontal, we never
smeared anything except to find out how it lived.
Throughout the time at the end of this writing, Javier finds the life of his subject matter by seeing every sharp occurrence and transforming these feelings into music. He suggests that the time at the end of his writing is the time when we all begin to think “with our bare hands” and find out not only how it lived, but also how we live in the “accurate world.”
Whereas the time at the end of this writing is a collection of disparate poems, 60 lv bo(e)mbs is a long poem fairly coherent in structure. Because the first “bo(e)mbs” are homophonic translations of Pablo Neruda’s Veinte Poemas de Amor, it’s generative to read these texts side-by-side:
Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos,
te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.
Cure the demure, bilang ko call her muscles bilang ko
to parse almond unto attitude intrigue
my cure in a puddle of mud rig salvage
why hasten alter Elijah Delphi achara (2)
Javier translates the Spanish into both English and Tagalog, which gives the work a further linguistic texture. He maintains the “beautiful compulsion” of his translations, which often feel sensual, visual, and improvisational. It is striking to see what Javier invents: “Mi sed, mi ansia sin limite, mi camino indeciso!” becomes “my sadness, my anxious sin limited, DJ Cam1 indecisive” (2); “de modo que un pueblo pálido y azul” becomes “demoted Kai pebble Paolo why azaleas of Zaleela Montes” (3); “Y las miro lejanas mis palabras” becomes “you lasso Miro’s loneliness parabolas” (6); “Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso” becomes “Yellow keys Villa Satan tumbling mickeys” (31); and (my personal favorite) “He ido marcando con cruces de fuego” becomes “the id markings ex-con cruises fugue” (14).
Reading the poems without the Spanish becomes increasingly tedious because their sonic density overwhelms any attempt the words might make to signify. More often than not, the words only spark the briefest semantic moment, a “blink blink minutiae” (“tus blancas manos”).
As if anticipating this tedium, Javier quickly introduces the use of erasure to counterpoint the homophonic translations. Where the seventh love poem should be translated, we only find one line halfway down the page: “despair amended spies asul sober Ocampo,” (a translation of the last line of Neruda’s seventh love poem: “desparramando espigas azules sobre el campo”). The erasure is completely unexpected, and the blank space offers a retreat from the overwhelming sounds of the preceding poems. In the same way, Javier’s use of intralinear space airs the line, enacting the momentary pauses of translation.
As soon as these devices start to lull, Javier shifts again and collages lines from the first set of poems into new poems. He also seems to translate his translations and write between the lines of his translations. By the time we are midway through the book, it becomes impossible to distinguish as we become swept up in Javier’s generative process. In turn, the poems reach critical mass:
In case of fire they’ll say hello kill uncle enter Donny Osmond tayo na limited lunar delay
Grrr Tita errantly Nietzsche look cadaver to hose down
A vertical content Australis tryst dulcinea
Hustling Tom Cruise the lotting enter Missy Elliot haya
Fois gras Metal Mickey zulu Nietzsche the Alaska landlady leche
Meek horizon die Voltes Five come involuntarily colloquial (63)
From the relatively simple technique of homophonic translation and erasure, to the more complex modes of collage and improvisational generation, Javier arrives at the dizzying upper limit of musical noise. Thinking of Zukofsky, who also worked with homophonic translation, it’s interesting to imagine 60 lv bo(e)mbs as a post-avant fugue. The statement of the theme becomes textured by various voices entering and re-contextualizing the theme until the material develops a contrapuntal, improvisational composition (fugal technique, such as inversion, retrograde, diminution, augmentation, stretto, and false entries could also be used to describe some of the movements in Javier’s work).
In “A Statement of Poetry,” Zukofsky writes: “The parts of a fugue, Bach said, should behave like reasonable men in an orderly discussion.” 60 lv bo(e)mbs does not represent an orderly discussion, nor do the many incarnations of Javier (Paolo, PJ, Pao, Paowie, or OBB) engage in a reasonable discussion. Instead, Javier orchestrates a hustling, fugal structure “to feel to know” his own polyvocal, diasporic experience.
Besides the pure aesthetic pleasure of such a project, Javier argues that there is a political dimension to this work. In an interview conducted by Eileen Tabios (E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S, 9/20/05), Javier describes how “during friar rule in the Philippines, a method of homophonic translation called ‘fishing’ was used during the church sermons by the uneducated, non-Spanish speaking native congregations.” He then quotes Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism:
‘for whom the priest's words rouse in [them] other thoughts that have only the most tenuous connections to what he is actually saying. It is as if they saw other possibilities in those words, possibilities that served to mitigate the interminable verbal assaults being hurled from the pulpit. To the extent that such random possibilities occur, the native listeners manage to find another place from which to confront colonial authority.’
Javier suggests an analogy: the way in which he “fishes” Neruda’s Spanish to find and construct variable possibilities parallels the native congregations’ “fishing” the Spanish sermons. To me, this is a barely tenable analogy considering that Neruda’s Spanish is not being hurled at Javier from any pulpit; nor is he assaulted, linguistically, in as desperately strange a situation as the “native listeners.” We should also question Rafael’s “as if” in “as if they saw other possibilities,” which overly romanticizes native resistance (it seems less romantic that the native listeners just didn’t listen).
Perhaps I would be more convinced of this analogy if Javier chose an actual Spanish sermon to translate, or some other Spanish document relating to the colonization of the Philippines. In the interview, Javier explains why he chose Neruda:
I remember as a college undergrad how I would take my dog-eared copy of WS Merwin's translation of Neruda's book everywhere I traveled, luxuriating in the poet's vision of eros while remaining (blindly) uncritical of its overt objectification of the female. & this complication troubled me.
Choosing Neruda seems almost completely arbitrary at this point, and this fails to strengthen the analogy of “fishing” that Javier wants to construct as the political scaffolding of the work. This, of course, does not weaken the aesthetic value of the poems themselves (which is beyond my lower limit review), but is only meant to open discussion on how the work confronts the Filipino past of Spanish and American Imperialism.
Since 60 lv bo(e)mbs is the first of seven cycles, I look forward to reading how Javier continues to transform this ambitious project. It’s quite amazing that his first two collections both present an incredible range of technical experimentation and intuitive improvisation; in my mind, he has established himself as one of the most aurally and visually perceptive poets writing today. The epigraph of 60 lv bo(e)mbs, from Mahmoud Darwish, reads: “Any madness, for I have turned into words,” and the last lines of the time at the end of this writing read:
These lines the selves are gathered by
I, Paolo Javier, the Original Brown Boy
Submitting, finally, to you:
‘Me too.’ (90)
A native of the Pacific island of Gua’han (Guam), Craig Perez immigrated to California in 1995. He completed his MFA at the University of San Francisco, and he is co-founder of Achiote Press. His reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Jacket, Traffic, Slope, and Rain Taxi. He blogs at http://blindelephant.blogspot.com.