BRANDON SOM Reviews
from Unincorporated Territory: [gumá] by Craig Santos Perez
(Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, CA, 2012)
[First published in The Asian American Literary Review, Spring 2014, Co-Editors Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis and Gerald Maa]
Craig Santos Perez’s from Unincorporated Territory: [gumá] is the third installment of Perez’s long poem composed of serial poems all beginning with word from (or the Chamorro equivalent ginen) and stressing the fraught and often violent experience of an excerpted existence—one that is appropriated, fragmented, exiled, and diasporic. Titled with the Chamorro word for “home,” [gumá] focuses on issues revolving around home, migration, and homecoming, charting the native and diasporic presence, what scholar Elizabeth DeLoughrey has termed the “roots and routes,” of native Islander experience. Perez does this work by documenting the long history of colonialism and foreign militarism on Guam while also writing a narrative of his own travels away from and returning to the island. In doing so, Perez draws upon his two previous collections within the longer project from Unincorporated Territory. If his first book [hacha] focused on mapping where the poet is from—the poet’s roots—and his second [saina] focused on native seacraft and so native sea routes, [gumá] uses both map and craft to bring the poet “home.”
Of course such a return is never easy or even completely possible, and Perez’s text complicates any notion of origin. In one passage of [gumá], we find Perez returning to Guam, where he was born but left with his family at age fifteen. Presenting his passport and papers, Perez is met with a customs officer who “inspects” Perez as if he doesn’t belong. By contrast, Perez pauses to reflect on a moment “a few years later” when the poet would arrive in San Francisco and find a Chamorro customs officer who exclaims, “Hafa Adai, you’re from Guam!” (53). Indeed, as Perez reports, the Chamorro diaspora has increased decade after decade, so by 2010 estimates, “more of [us] live off-island than on-island” (40). What might this mean for representing home? Is home still home, if the majority of peoples native to that home do not live there anymore?
Moreover, how can one begin to reclaim a home that has been appropriated, colonized, and militarized by foreign powers? For centuries Guam has been under foreign rule, beginning with the Spanish in the 17th century, the U.S. in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and the Japanese during World War II. Currently classified as an “unincorporated territory,” Guam remains a colony of the U.S., and over one third of its land is reserved for U.S. military use. The control of lands by U.S. military parallels the large numbers of Guamanians enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. As Perez reports, military recruiters always meet and exceed their quota on Guam, enlisting Chamorro men and women to fight for and defend a nation that currently holds their own native homeland as a colonial possession.
In part, the difficulty of telling where the poet is from is an issue of recognition and representation. In his Preface to his first book, Perez reflects on the challenge of locating Guam:
On some maps, Guam doesn’t exist; I point to an empty space in the
Pacific and say, “I’m from here.” On some maps, Guam is a small,
unnamed island; I say, “I’m from this unnamed place.” On some maps,
Guam is named “Guam, U.S.A.” I say, I’m from a territory of the United
States.” On some maps, Guam is named, simply, “Guam”;
I say, “I am from ‘Guam’” ([hacha] 7).
Including a colonial history of Guam while emphasizing the close relationship between language and colonial rule, Perez’s project focuses on before-ness and derivation. Pointing to various maps, Perez demonstrates the ambiguous existence of his homeland and his own subjectivity. Moreover, he introduces how that ambiguous subjectivity is connected to U.S. empire and its possession of the island as an “unincorporated territory.”
Here in [gumá], in a series titled “(sub)aerial roots,” Perez provides further evidence of the erasure of Guam in Pacific mapping by turning to the writings of his mother, Helen Perez. In her book, Bittersweet Memories, she reflects on growing up in Virginia, where she was asked by her grade school teacher to point to where she was from on a classroom map. Unable to find her native island, the young girl must finally ask, “Please help me find Guam” (18). Incorporating this passage from his mother’s writings, Perez finds coordinates by way of collaboration or coordinating with other writings. Indeed, throughout from Unincorporated Territory, Perez’s primary mode of writing is citation. And frequently, Perez cites native and matriarchic traditions in order to reinscribe the colonizing and masculine discourses that have defined and delimited the Pacific and its peoples.
While remapping colonial erasures to establish visual presence, Perez’s project also works to counter colonizing silence by providing a forum for native voices. In [gumá], the series “fatal impact statements” collects the various comments made by the people of Guam as part of the Department of Navy’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), prepared in 2009 in order to assess the effects of a proposed U.S. military buildup on Guam. According to Perez, “The community had 90 days to read, decipher, and comment” on a document that was some 11,000 pages long (60). In a note on process, Perez tells us the procedure he used to produce this series:
—I read Volume Ten of the Final Environmental
Impact Statement, which contains nearly all the 10,000
comments that people submitted in response to the DEIS
during the official 90-day comment period
—I copy and paste phrases, sentences, words, passages
from the comments of the people
—Sometimes others comment on the comment
—Sometimes I (45)
While the DEIS comments had a 2,500 character limit and ninety-day time limit, the conversation on Facebook (and the conversation that might occur in response to publication of Perez’s book) expands the discussion without limits—extending it on- and off-island and incorporating a larger transpacific community. The poem also suggests that poets, despite many popular conceptions of them as solitary and inaccessible, can, and often do, play very social—and social media-savvy—roles within and beyond the poetry world. Moreover, the series shows that diaspora does not mean diffused agency; there is still the possibility of assembly, of coming together.
Indeed, assembly is central to Perez’s formal practices and evident in [gumá]’s exploration of the Chamorro architectural latte stones. As Perez reports, the latte is a stone structure composed of a column and capstone and was a prevalent foundation within Chamorro architecture. Perez evokes the columnar structure throughout [gumá], whether in the wider prose format that is right and left justified or within the shorter, one-to-two-beat lines in the series “tidelands” and “sounding lines.” Here, Perez assembles a latte-like structure in verse and connects the native architecture with the physical body. Moreover, he builds the structure by way of translation:
a body (14)
More than its grammatical function within the Chamorro language, the lowercase “i” here serves as a visual representation of the latte, both its pillar and capstone. And one begins to see that this communal symbol and commons-making structure undergirds Perez’s own poetic self, suggesting that the lyric “i” is a construction of a larger social and cultural presence. Like the Chamorro seacraft featured in Perez’s previous book [saina], the latte stones were destroyed under Spanish colonialism. In [gumá]’s “(sub)aerial roots,” Perez reports that TASA—the same group responsible for building the outrigger canoe, the Saina, in 2007—have resurrected a latte with intention of constructing a boat house. Here again we see the central theme of [gumá]—a foundation that might lead to homecoming and that might provide an alter/native presence to the U.S. military “buildup” on Guam.
If the latte provides Perez with a form for [gumá], the Chamorro practice of “throw-net” fishing provides Perez with method—a process that interweaves texts, bringing together multiple voices and sources. The reader is left with the task of choosing how to read the braiding strands. In fact, the braided italic words serve many different rhetorical functions throughout the poems—as translation, as appositive, as interjection, as knowing aside, as spiritual call and response. Also many of the italic lines come from Perez’s earlier books, so it is as if the texts were textiles—each line possessing the potential to be reused and rewoven within any given (or ginen) poem.
In “Ta(ya)la,” a series started in Perez’s first book, the poet explicitly explores the poem as visual and sonic netting. Ta(la)ya means “throw net” and describes the Chamorro tradition of seine fishing. In this series, Perez’s grandfather shares the tradition of net weaving and net fishing with his grandson while reflecting on the history of colonization on Guam under both Japanese and U.S. empires. Perez’s grandfather was fifteen years old (the same age Perez was when he left the island) when Japan bombed both Guam and Hawaii on December 8, 1941. Under Japanese control, Perez’s grandfather was conscripted into forced labor, building airstrips and “machine gun encampments” (33). He would later go on, “like so many others of his generation,” Perez tells us, to enlist in the U.S. military. Here, Perez’s line—both woven verse and cast net—serves to connect and document both Japanese and U.S. military imperialisms.
Perhaps the most powerful demonstration and indictment of U.S. militarism and empire in this series is Perez’s listing of fallen U.S. soldiers, from both Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who were native to unincorporated areas. Perez uses another line—the strikethrough—to draw through and over the specifics of age, origin, and how the soldier died. What we are left with are the soldiers’ names. The strikethrough line demonstrates the social, political, and physical erasure of these soldiers while simultaneously gathering and documenting the individual stories of the fallen soldiers. Indeed, the strikethrough line on the page is a visual net that weaves together the tragic loss of these soldiers while also demonstrating their ambiguous status in relation to the nation they died for—a status that is incorporated and unincorporated, included and not-included.
In this same series, weaving his own story, Perez is conscious that his path as poet and academic could have turned out very differently: “I was 17 years old when the recruiter of trespass of theft visited [our] house in California. I was 21 years old when the US invaded Afghanistan. I was 23 years old when the US invaded Iraq.” Reading this, we quickly understand that if recruited at seventeen, Perez’s own name might have also appeared among the fallen dead. While some may find it sentimental to suggest that poetry saved Perez’s life, one cannot argue with the fact that Perez writes poetry with an urgency and conviction to set about the changes that might save other lives.
Reading [gumá], one thinks of William Carlos Williams’ often quoted line, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Turning to the book’s endnotes, we find that many of Perez’s sources are online news stories, suggesting that, for Perez, it is not so difficult to get poems from the news. Indeed, “what is found” in Perez’s poetry is an accounting—one that revises colonial discourse while reinscribing indigenous traditions and practices. In this sense, making it “new”—to use another famous adage of poetic modernism—is necessarily “to sing / forward…to / sing past” (15). Assembling such a song, [gumá] expands the notion of home by testifying to a far-reaching indigenous presence, contributing to the longer project from Unincorporated Territory by continuing, with vigilance, to attend to a “lack,” as well as a blindness, within both current news and contemporary poetry.
Brandon Som is the author of the poetry collection The Tribute Horse, published by Nightboat Books. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of Southern California.