MATADORA by SARAH GAMBITOALFRED A. YUSON Reviews
Matadora by Sarah Gambito
(Alice James Books, 2005)
[First published in The Philippine Star, Manila, April 11, 2005, Arts & Culture Section Editor, Millet Mananquil]
The grouch recants
I met Fil-Am poet Sarah Gambito last year in Chicago, in attendance at the rather frenetic AWP (American Writers and Publishers) Conference 2004. There has since been the 2005 edition in Vancouver, also attended by our U.S.-based poets.
In March of 2004, the New York-based Gambito took part in a dynamic reading session arranged for a sterling roster of Fil-Am and Fil-European poets and writers at De Paul University, as hosted by UP alumnae in Illinois. Sarah was one of two poets, together with Joseph Legaspi if memory serves me right, whom I hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of, although good word had reached me on her work. I was introduced to both, but the exchange was all too brief. And the rest of that humongous convention went by in a blur.
Thankfully, however, Sarah has renewed ties through e-mail. I received a copy of her first book, Matadora (Alice James Books) a couple of months ago, but failed to find time to go through the collection, initially appealing as it seemed.
The brief bio-note on the back cover reads: “Sarah Gambito holds degrees from the University of Virginia (B.A.) and Brown University (M.F.A.) Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, New Republic, Quarterly West, Fence and other journals. She lives in New York City.”
Here’s quoting from the couple of back-cover blurbs:
“… These poems fly in from other countries. They blur the speed of prayers with alt. rock lyrics. In the poems continents reverse themselves as if drifting in amniotic fluid, lines of lineage re-emerge and voices in other languages adopt themselves to various new forms of speech. The speaker arrives from time to time. … She flits from Tagalog to East Villagese….” (by Tan Lin)
“The poems … are sheer juxtapositions of anything — star fish, Tagalog, frisson — and the friction very often adds a political dimension to the poetic. Lovely!” (by Kimiko Hahn)
Well, let’s see. The opening poem, “Paloma Loves,” starts thus: “Gayon na lamang ang pag-ibig ng Diyos sa sanlibutan, kaya ibinigay niya ang kanyang bugtong na Anak, upang ang sumampalataya sa kanya ay hindi mapahamak, kundi magkaroon ng buhay na walang hanggan.”
That is the first stanza of what appears to be a prose poem, which is why I place no slashes to signify line breaks in the quote above. This stanzaic quotation, a Tagalog translation of John 3:16 in the Bible, is repeated seven times. In each refrain, English words replace a few of the Tagalog words or parts of words, such that the second stanza reads partly thus:
“Gayon na God knew g-ibig ng Diyos sa sanlibutan, kaya ibinigay niya ang kanyang bugtong na another language lataya sa kanya…” and so forth. Note that the English words are the ones italicized, and that some Tagalog words are truncated in their displacement.
The third stanza only has “pretty well” replacing “sumampalatay” while the fourth reads partly thus: “Gayon In another language, he drank Pelligrino water, ya ibinigay niya … ay hindi mapahamak, kundi He left gift-bags for comrades. ggan.”
The fifth has “He drew reindeer.” displacing “lamang ang pag-ibig” while the sixth has the most major displacement, rendering it into the briefest stanza: “Gayon na Paloma would have written about this but she does not write every day in her Light Journal. Paloma buys jewelry. g buhay na walang hanggan.”
And so on, with the seventh stanza having the following lines of intromission in English: “I noticed a new garnet in her ear the other day. But she” and “wanted me to notice her scarf” (placed apart). And for the eighth: “She pointed to it and said,” and “Now, I am Paloma of the Mountains” (also placed apart)”
That’s it. That’s the poem.
So what are we to make of it? Charming, at best. That is, if we’re Filipino, or maybe even Muscovites who’ve been trained to understand both Tagalog and English.
Experimental, obviously. A poem that shucks tradition, convention, the well-worn paths of familiar poetry. It tries to introduce something new. Bilingual displacement, we might call it.
Does it make sense, on a bilingual level? No. Does it have to? Well… Let’s say for now that it doesn’t, and recall that old Archie once said “A poem must mean and not be.” Or was that the other way around? Can’t remember, for the life of me. Getting old, and increasingly mystified by fresh qualities of experimentation with both language and form.
Is there at least a discernable pattern to the displacement process, that is, is there something pointed to, or at, in terms of meaning/s enhanced by the displacement, granting that the reader is bilingual? Oh, okay, I’ll grant that this may not be necessary either. In which case, an appreciation of this poem will rest on the level of bemusement. Tres charmant, at best.
The next poems charm me even further, for at least a quality of line-charging, or phrasing, that’s distinctive and fresh, and occasionally riveting. But just as lines or line fragments. To wit: “America loves the oceans between the World Wars.” Or: “Who in this house will admit to my amethyst ring?/ If you are here, I feel you almost recognize me.” (both from “Paloma’s Light Journal, February 12th”) And: “Children are the imminent sojourn./ A maybe of love./” The following line, while still strong, doesn’t seem to connect: “Brilliant persuasion from the stands.//” (from “Scene: A Loom”)
Certain passages appear to have some sense of continuum, whether as narrative or simply cerebrated flow. “Family Day” starts with “I’m sand surfing. Waiting for a bad boy to come home.” Etc. Then concludes thus: “Embrace our role as temp agency to the world./ I do the laundry. I know the residents. Yet, where is he?/ I have a niece in Italy, a nephew in Bern,/ another nephew in Brussels./ I have nieces in Los Angeles and New Jersey./ How when he was showing me around London./ How I felt so special./ Please come home as I am lovesick./ ‘Look Asian, think Spanish, act American.’/ I never thought I’d be here waiting for a valentine./ Each 160-character message costs one peso (two U.S. cents).”
Now, that poem I appreciate positively. There’s an intriguing, effective refrain of a reference to the wait for “the bad boy” -- prefiguring the mysteries and myths of diaspora. Two simple lines utter: “I want him to come home so I can wrap/ my five-dollar arms around him. “ Makes sense, besides offering poignancy.
Another prose poem, “Paloma’s Church in America,” essays wonderfully curt, highly charged, demi-surreal narrative: “… We drank and became practiced. We missed our mothers. Our mothers couldn’t call. We called in dreams. We dreamed illnesses on our new bodies. The bodies clung to covenants. The covenants, in turn, drove to scholarship.” The next lines lose me: “(Stewardship, pharmacists like to say. Star Connection, my Tannenbaum makes to say.)”
Of course poems aren’t always supposed to guide us entirely through a course of meaning or sense. I grant poets the license to be private, even abstruse or hermetic in certain instances; well-hung jury am I on this one.
Other poems in this collection delight for their fanciful, character-driven dialogue, as with “1001 Nights” which features a near nonsensical yet appealing conversation between Sharazad and Sultan. Even better is the longer “Numerology” with God engaged in repartee with His Absence. (Should be great for a dramatic reading with two voices.)
All throughout the collection of 46 poems divvied up into three apparently sub-thematic sections (“Veronicas”; “Suerte de Recibir” which is prefaced with a Hemingway quote on a “dangerous … way to kill bulls”; and “Toro Libre”) is a patent parade of curious juxtapositions and disjunctions, with but a flippant voice posing as the unifying element. This voice can be diffident, indifferent, mock-naif, defiant, insouciant, imperative. What saves this voice from flimflam experimentation sans cachet is its uniform, characteristic manner of extending incongruities into jaunty elisions, that — and this is important — don’t just seem to say, Oh, whatever.
I must confess however that for a good part of this book, my appreciation hung (very well indeed) on the balance. Three elements determined the final state of this equipoise.
One: A prodigious 14-year-old daughter of a Vancouverite e-mailed her thanks for a copy I sent of Angelo Suarez’s second book, else purely it was girls, whose contents I had only recently contested the value of vis-à-vis his debut collection [Editor's Note: see Mr. Yuson's review in post below]. Well, the girl was effusive in gratitude, saying: “I am now in love with Angelo V. Suarez’s work, it’s so awesome and rhythmic and hip and snarky.” There goes my demi-demolition job. Obviously, teeners connect to what I thought was, at worst, poetic graffiti.
Second, I realized that I might hurt some feelings anew with what could be interpreted as a diatribe, such as what happened with a review I wrote last year, on a couple of poetry books by relatively young Fil-Am poets whose “disjunctions” I questioned. I’ve considered since then: Might just be getting too old for this job, and getting too quick at dispensing other than tender loving care.
Third, critically enough, I found Matadora getting more engaging towards the middle part, where that voice ever chanting incongruities turns into a more sustained force, starting with the terrific closure in the poem ”Providence,” which I’m afraid I can’t quote in this family paper. Then, too, I begin to espy a certain method to that mad/wry voice’s oft-elliptical, space-cadet stances, as evidenced by even stronger lines:
“I am short hair and small breasts. I smile at birthday cards.// I lurch from my seat.// I wear lipstick. I sweep up glass.// Heedless. // In all my selves, I am a corroded quilt./ But I welcome all the times….” (from “Paloma, Because I Love Her”)
I like the poems “Sonogram,” “Scene: This Is Your Country” (“I’m tired only in Technicolor….”), “Of My Fury,” “How to Make Your Daughter an American,” and “Asian-American Food Poem” (“I’ve been admitted to the fiesta./ I drank beer, pinched the children,/ admired the dogs.// The fact that he’s filipino and sings really hard into the mike/ makes me lie unprotected with only bangles on./ I’m ‘one-of-those.’/ I mean I’m also filipino./ That’s an understatement-underwear.// This is so similar to my accident,/ my fuckapoet syndrome: I have a beautiful/ I inform the others. It’s young yet and full of bile and Sylvester.”)
I forgive Sarah Gambito all those earlier blank lines, I mean, as in fill-in-the-blanks. I toast her blithe, city-smart ellipses, her stylistic, sudden divagations into distant peripheries, her mystifying evasiveness. I challenge her however to drop the “I persona/voice” for her near-future poems. And for now I choose not to be a grouch and say of her book Matadora that I like it, I like it.
Alfred A. Yuson, nicknamed Krip, has authored 22 books: novels, poetry collections, short fiction, essays, children’s stories and biographies, apart from having edited many other titles, including literary anthologies and travel and corporate coffee-table publications. His distinctions include the SEAWrite (SouthEast Asian Writers) Award from Thai royalty for lifetime achievement. He has been elevated to the Hall of Fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippines’ most prestigious literary distinction. Yuson contributes a weekly literature and culture column to a national broadsheet, The Philippine Star, and a fortnightly column to the weekly Philippine Graphic magazine. He teaches fiction and poetry at Ateneo de Manila University, where he held the Henry Lee Irwin Professorial Chair.