Reviewed by Mark Bilbrey
Despite the old saying, sometimes a book's cover can provide an insightful introduction to the contents underneath it. “Bigyan Mo Po Kami” (“Give Us This Day . . .”), the artwork by Marvin “Bin” Samonte that appears on the cover of R. Zamora Linmark's first collection of poetry, creates stark contrasts: bright red and blue colors against a black background, a feast of roasted pig against the picked-clean bones, the fat and smiling rich against the pious and hungry poor. A kingpin character (a parodic Jesus) with chubby, outstretched arms appears at the top of a large red-brick cross, wearing on one side a cross and a smile, and on the other a jester's costume. Unlike the typical “Last Judgment” painting that this one mocks, there is no difference between right and left here: only up and down matter. The wealthy whites on top prepare to feast while the poor on the bottom give thanks for bones, brandishing useless flatware. Whether in prayer or in peaceful gluttony, everyone (besides the pig) has their eyes closed. No one is blameless here.
The image represents much of Linmark's own artistic techniques as well as his social concerns. Linmark and Samonte share a sense of outrage that masks itself in a bold, wild, cartoonish humor and irreverence that cannot entirely paint over the darkness and despair from which its energy derives. Linmark's poems are filled with jokes, pop-culture, sex, and a playful curiosity with language. Such a happy-go-lucky attitude serves as a trap; one is lured into these colorful, easy-access poems before realizing what difficult and complicated issues they handle: the social ills of the Philippines, sexual abuse, inequality, religion, and homosexuality, to name a few. Linmark also deals with issues of identity stemming from his fractured sense of homeland and language, as well as his own sexual orientation, experiences, and desires. Yet these poems do not attempt to solve problems or reconcile differences; instead, they explore the fault lines and shout fearlessly into the mouths of active volcanoes.
For example, one might be charmed by the title of the first poem, “A Letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila.” But the poem is a response in the voice of a young fan to Danes's comment (published as the poem's epigraph) that Manila “fucking smelled of cockroaches.” The loyal fan, rather than expressing humiliation or offense, takes up where Danes left off, filling out a long list of horrors that Danes never saw, from “people / who walk without legs, drive long / chrome-plated coffins without arms, / and stare . . . without eyes” to “sidewalk dwellers . . . with huge signs / reminding people not to dump trash, / piss, shit.” Then, without transition or wavering of tone, she asks, “By the way, / how was San Francisco?” Such dramatic contrasts, such collisions of language and perspectives drive Linmark's poems. The speaker here wonders equally about the latest Brooke Shields gossip and the fact that “travelers/ from First World countries all undergo / cultural seizures here.” The fan mentions in the same breath and without false naiveté that Danes should return to film another movie, this time with “Matt--Damon or / MacConaughey or Broderick, but / preferably Dillon” and bring “your dollars, / your talent and, this time / crutches and roach spray.”
The book jacket tells us that Linmark lives in Manila, Honolulu, and San Francisco; Faye Kicknosway's poetic introduction reveals that Linmark speaks at least eight languages including two Filipino dialects and Hawaiian pidgin. As in the epistolary persona poem described above, Linmark utilizes a sense of heteroglossia to negotiate his unique--and ruptured--experience with language and place. His poems speak from many voices and tongues, his own voice hardly audible, thus paradoxically revealing a truer sense of the poet's multiplicitous identity as someone at home in varied places and tongues, yet never comfortable. Poems like “If I a Gay” and “Rhapsody” speak a pidgin that connects the first and third world, high and low culture, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kenneth Cole, but also shines a spotlight on the gap between cultures, as in the differences implied even in a name, say, “Brad” and “Braderick Alohakakahiaka Peterson.” American readers may chuckle at the poor English skills--or even the stupidity--of a speaker who says “if I a gay,” but they would then be implicated in the process of arrogant dismissal that leads that voice to consider shooting the class president “Because homosexuality to his snake eyes / Is lonely and acceptable only inside sin asylum.”
Among the poems in this book, one also finds the voices of a pidgin-speaking Calaban, an academician, a seventy-year-old woman named Felicia, ESL students, a bird, popular icons, and others. These poems also vary widely in scope, form, content, and technique, coming across more like an anthology of many poets, despite the insistence of the lyric “I.” For Linmark, if not for everyone, the voice of the self cannot be extracted from other voices; signal is inextricable from noise. History and memory are added to the pot as well. In “Sensory For Nine,” each of nine sections speaks of erotic, and sometimes disturbing, sexual relationships, from “ten-inch Southwestern cock up my ass without / a lubricant” to “a haole visual artist who got rich and / famous sketching native boys.” Yet only a few pages later, as if all stories can be equated in Whitmanesque fashion, the poem “What Some Are Saying About the Body” explores the mysteries of President Ferdinand Marcos's life, piling local gossip and historical contradictions in a monument of urban myth-making, driven by the popular voice, referred to only as “Some say.”
Theoretically, allowing the language of one's life to splatter onto the page in all its various forms is an admirable and intriguing project, especially in the hands of someone with “so many tongues in his mouth,” as Kicknosway notes. The danger is that when everything in the kitchen goes into the pot, one can expect it to taste more interesting than delicious. Without any filtering of the material that goes into the poetry, there's no way to avoid dull moments and tired language; after all, most of what we hear and say over the course of a day is forgotten because it's so highly forgettable. Thus, we find in “The Muse This Time” lines like “watching the skyline, making out, making mistakes,” or in “Requiem” an easy attack on the cant of Communion along with lines like “Memory is a woman who howls wolf past curfew. Late night dinner parties and spilled champagne.” The poem about Ferdinand Marcos seems largely to rehash the typical discussions that surround the figure, presenting few surprises or new perspectives. One also finds moments, as in the poem “Exodus,” where the epiphany, rather than arising out of the poem itself, occurs only as a pre-determined and carefully arranged contrivance.
Yet these criticisms pale in comparison to the book's achievement. At his best, Linmark explores the limits of speech, the “map in the making” that is “larger than metaphor.” His social concerns are purposefully eclipsed by his proactive concerns with communication and the relationship between language and truth, as in poems like “ESL, or English as a Sign Language,” in which public language like “LOOKING FOR SEWERS” is translated: “Hanging on glass door of Elizabeth Tailoring.” In “Slippery When English,” a broken-English-speaking witness in court explains to a judge,
You're barking up the wrong dog, Your Honor.
. . .
You can never can tell.
It either happens or it doesn't.
Or you think it does but not really.
Or it's not real.
. . .
So please, Your Honor, do not judge me.
I am not a book.
It is this testimony we find ourselves pleading as Linmark exposes the worn seams in our own social constructions and our careless faith in the illusions and comforts of language.