Thursday, November 26, 2009

NEW! Review of Christian Peet

Big American Trip by Christian Peet. Shearsman Books, $15.

Reviewed by Brittany Taylor

Imagine a lone wanderer in the doeskin of his ancestors. As a poet, he borrows the rifle they toted and transforms it into a pen. Their combative stance becomes his criticism. In an anonymous narrative, a native made unnatural in his homeland scribbles a series of postcards commenting on a journey across a country that continues to bear the mark of his people, no matter how American arrogance insinuates itself into every ravine in an effort to become a New, a Better World. The postcards are at once addressed to no one and everyone; it does not matter who reads them, but everyone will. Buckle up for Christian Peet’s worthwhile Big American Trip.

As we follow the lone wanderer from Blaine, WA, to Brooklyn, we are given an increasingly intimate view of his private frustration with a society that wipes out all that has come before and simultaneously acknowledges its ravaged past with cheerful sound bites. The captions that crown many of the postcards are not-quite-prosaic bits of encyclopedic arcana that offer insight into the matter-of-fact manner in which Americans have treated their predecessors. With these tidbits, Big American Trip seeks to recall America’s erased history, deridable and otherwise:
Blaine, WA, home of the US-Canada Peace Arch was named by Cain Bros., townsite proprietors, in 1884, only twenty-five years after it was first settled as Semiahmoo, the name of the tribe of Salish Indians who inhabited Semiahmoo Bay until being relocated to the 390 (presently 320) acre reservation.

Language, particularly the notion of naming and possession, is an essential influence on Peet’s narrator. The postcards show a progressive thumbing-through of Strunk and White, relating the grammarians’ lessons on the English language to the manner and mindset of those who speak it. As the narrator writes, “It is not simply a matter of language . . . / it is possible to translate with fair accuracy from one language to another / without losing too much of the original / meaning. But there are not methods / by which we can translate a mentality / and its alien ideas.” By analyzing the ways in which syntax, diction, and grammar change from language to language—with an emphasis on the rift between Native American tongues, colloquial Spanish, and English—the wanderer is able to make nuanced criticisms of society as a whole, as when he writes:
The emphasis in English
is religiously in the possessions
but the adoration of the Salish is in a tender place . . .

. . . According to Dorothy Lee, “The hunter
who has lost his luck does not say
‘I cannot kill deer anymore,’
but ‘Deer do not want anymore to die for me.’”

The contrast between English or American and not-American is prominent. Three of the wanderer’s acquaintances, all with proper given names, are described as aliens. Another is vaguely specified as “hermano sin sleeves.” This notion of otherness is key, but there exists a tension throughout the series of postcards between it and a sense of commonality. On the one hand, the narrator writes, “The ‘other’ refuses to disappear; it subsists, it persists, it is the hard bone on which reason breaks its teeth.” On the other, the series is bookended by “In Texaco it is said ‘they’ / are forcing the coast to a single state / from Tijuana to Vancouver. / It is the common feeling, / the agreement of the convenience store” and “It is the positive vibration: The Nation of Brooklyn. It is apparently a common feeling, the agreement of the bodega.”

By writing lines in a variety of western European languages and offering verbatim translations that are at times poignant and appropriate and, at others, stilted, Peet shows the variety of otherness that came together to create one America, at once highlighting and erasing the tension. We see proper English and slang, Spanish, German, and French. There are references to partially remembered Native American languages, and a poem dedicated to those no longer living in modern memory.

As a book, Big American Trip is light on plot, heavy on narration, and nontraditional in form. Pieces like the postcard written from Downtown Big Timber, MT, are stunning in their simplicity and socio-political acuity. The caption of the card reads “Enjoy small town pleasures such as a 1930s soda fountain, antique shops, or just a shady bench to watch the world go by,” and in response, the poet-wanderer writes:
Yo no deseo que el mundo se iria
Yo no deseo mirar el mundo salen

I do not wish that the world would go by
I do not wish to watch the world leave

Reluctant though he is to see it exit, the wanderer is a blunt critic of the world. Big American Trip exposes the realities of racial profiling for the non-Arab. It ridicules the high price of oil and the “wars” that we fight to achieve it. It censures the state of the laboring poor worldwide. “Jesus, King of Beijing, Television should not oversee / the counter sales,” the wanderer writes. “Witness subliminal procedures / of the manufactured goods, the broken worker—odds and ends, bits and pieces, rags and bones . . .”

Surpassing all this is the acute reality of this fictional narrator. The paper is his flesh, the ink his blood. He writes of romantic aggravation, of sitting in traffic, of rejection from a publisher. He muddles the words of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded.” But most importantly, Peet gives his wanderer a nation of friends, notably fellow poets, proving that this narrator can mean something to readers because he has value to others, even though these others are fictional. As the wanderer crosses the United States, he seems to be searching for a piece of it to call his own, a community that will accept him rather than hunt him. Despite the scorn and despondency we can detect in his voice throughout the book, when he reaches the Nation of Brooklyn, he is hopeful. He buys the t-shirt.

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