This review is 1,600 words
or about 4 printed pages long
Among the 60 sections of this book-length poem, many are in stanzas (often quatrains) or strophes with spacing between words or phrases in a line, giving a pleasingly jagged look to the page. Although a substantial number of grammatically intact declarative sentences appear, whether punctuated or not, and sometimes run-on, Javier usually produces fragmentary clauses and phrases and sometimes a succession of nouns.
Since the poet does not drop so many bombs on syntax as the most “anti-grammatical” of the Language poets have done, a reader can see how his fragments could be part of “real” sentences. Instead, the big bombs are reserved for ordinary lyric or narrative continuities. Each section, including “a play, a play” (part 59), featuring the characters Paolo, (Filipino-American modernist poet Jose Garcia) Villa, Nietzsche, and Love, and “a tale” (part 60), written in short, unindented paragraphs, proceeds disjunctively.
Numerous words, phrases, and sentences are reiterated — sometimes frequently — and this encourages an accretion of thematic elements that counterpoints the non-linear style. Further, Tagalog is frequently interspersed with English, and there are quasi-Joycean coinages like “Trysteaser” (stripteaser, tripmaster, teasing trickster, teasing tryster, easy tryster) and “corzine,” which does not signify a wealthy New Jersey politician, but may be a pseudo-chemical name for the Spanish corazon (heart) or a cognate of courage/ engine, corazon/ engine, or courage/ heart/ (maga)zine.
In the italicized “My Corzine Somber,” which serves as preface to the bo(e)mbs and contains lines that will appear later, sometimes repeatedly, Javier makes it clear that his postcolonial subject-position as a Filipino-American will powerfully influence evocations of love and violence promised in the book’s title: “I’ll agree to venomous mass dual citizenship libations./ I will vent against the lynching horde/ / with an initial canto.” The speaker is agreeing to bear witness to the poison of racist white definitions in order to take the opportunity to “vent against” them.
Section 5, for example, is entitled “English Is an Occupation” (6-7). For a poet whose native language is Tagalog, the English language involves both his livelihood/ art form and a sharp reminder that, when the U.S. wrested control of the Philippines from Spain in 1898, put down the independence movement led by Aguinaldo — “Didn’t you, my love, tender me the handsome TNT, Aguinaldo, his visa entry?” (24) — and occupied the country until 1946, it used English as an instrument of domination. Rationalizing their behavior by considering themselves a “civilizing” Christian force in the “savage” Philippines, U.S. imperialists like blatantly racist President William McKinley, whose name appears directly after sixteen Tagalog words in the middle of “Crescendo Subic Destitute Sonnet” (26), exhibited a desire for power and lucre that Javier identifies (and various other Filipino writers have identified) as darkly libidinal: “savior come lascivious” (6); “In God we thrust” (40).
Of course, in the postcolonial era, as Javier reminds us, “English” remains “an occupation,” because U.S. commercial culture, business, and military presence have never left the Philippines, even if Filipinos elect their own political officials: “U.S. Bases pitch against my patience” (2); “why does the East accommodate mass culture” (36); “hustling Tom Cruise the looting enter Missy Elliot haya” (63). The verb “pitch” in the first passage above is especially felicitous; in order to convince the Philippine government that the U.S. military should continue to “pitch” a “tent” in the Philippines, the U.S. makes a sales “pitch” about the necessity of “protecting” the vulnerable country against its enemies, even though the real beneficiary is the “protector.” Further, as Nick Carbo, Eileen Tabios, and others have pointed out in their poetry, prostitution near U.S. military bases is a major “service” industry in the Philippines, and so links between sexuality, commerce, and imperial ambition are further elucidated. When Javier refers to “the East,” he is simultaneously mocking westerners for lumping the tremendous heterogeneity of East Asia into a single entity, but he is also lamenting many Asians’ susceptibility to the glitzy appeal of U.S. cultural products.
For Javier, one response to colonial history and the postcolonial situation is to act as a “bilingual heretic” (24): he takes “impure,” hybrid linguistic opportunities to utilize English in ways that are “heretical” to its imperialist uses and Tagalog in ways that acknowledge its contact with “English.” My earlier example of how “McKinley” is inserted in what seems to be a Tagalog sentence is an effective example of both. “The East comes knocking” (35), and the poet can say to “English,” “today Paolo occupies you” (6). One of his primary purposes in this “occupation” is to encourage Filipinos and others to “withstand” the seductive “courtship” of the hegemonic aspects of “my corzine love U.S.”: “with honor withstand large oil tankards all of it vetoed” (70). At times, references to conflicts in the Middle East also indicate how “justice” is “on the lam” and “war foretells inferno” (63).
Repeated allusions to Jose Garcia Villa and the need to “untrap” and “undo” (redo?) him involve the recognition that Villa was “trapped” in a rejection of political poetry (and, perhaps, significant identification with Filipino culture) and was not given his due as a poetic innovator by European-American arbiters of the modernist canon. Javier’s “Villa” in “A Play, A Play” articulates various perspectives, including the possibility, ever playful, of protest against Orientalism: “Love: I can ascribe lust to verses. A massive tryst. Nietzsche lost to the East. Villa: You mean inscribe, in your temple: ‘The notion of the East narrated by the West is an irritation, an assault, atrocious, a large lesion.’ But I prefer: ‘You are legion!’” (72). It should be noted, too, that the proper name “Villa” carries possible reference to the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, who “vetoed” oligarchic impositions.
Not only is the “truth” of political critique and resistance bound up with duplicity and concealment — “Truth serum: please assume your voluminous disguises” (21) — but Javier, as a trickster if not a tryster or “trysteaser,” obviously wants his writing to exceed explanatory frameworks, narrative paradigms, and stable identity-representations so that he neither serves as “native informant” to postcolonial Orientalists nor oversimplifies matters for his allies. Cultivation of discontinuity is also pursued, I believe, in the interest of assembling a heterogeneous music that stretches readers’ imaginative capacities. In this regard, Fanny Howe’s blurb comparing the book to Clark Coolidge’s project makes sense, as lines like “Tutankhamen metastasizes layers of muscles candor” (66) would indicate. However, Javier’s experimentation is probably closer to Bruce Andrews’ politically charged work.
Some of the most remarkable moments in 60 lv bo(e)mbs occur when passages are saturated with overdetermination and underdetermination at the same time, and passages from the poem cannot quite fit the more general remarks about social contexts that I have been making. Section 48, “To Wreck Iraq,” begins with an uncanny quatrain:
To wreck Iraq where document personnel ultimatum autonomy
Irrational boeing grisly curry Zionist calm
Interest host plebeian lost Hamas tell corpse & skull
Who will ask us Cains in all agony to date Alma. (59)
Despite the first line’s clumped syntax, the reader can perceive that George W. Bush’s “personnel,” assigned to “document” the existence of WMDs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, were merely pawns in the execution of the White House’s “ultimatum” “to wreck” the country’s “autonomy.” In the next line, though, it is unclear whether the adjective “grisly” rides with “boeing” or with “curry” and whether “curry” is a verb or noun (or both!). One cannot tell whether a violently “irrational” U.S. war plane curries favor with Israel by “protecting” it from “Hamas,” etc. and thus make Zionists “calm” or whether “Zionist calm” is “curried” (disturbingly “cooked”) by anti-Zionist bombers.
Should one expect Javier to side with Palestinian over Israeli claims and thus read the line in the first way that I have sketched? The third line offers no answer and much more trouble. The first two words can be adjectives, nouns, or verbs; “plebeian” (if an adjective) can modify either of those words or “Hamas.” Who is the “host” or doing the “hosting” here — Israel, the U.S., Hamas, Jews, Palestinians, or some primordial origin of a family preceding Judaism and Islam? “Host” could refer to Eucharistic bread, trope of Christian sacrifice, alluding to how members of the Intifada and Israeli army are willing to die for their creed. The “host”/ ”lost” rhyme should link the two words conceptually, and it may refer to an absence of the possibility of authenticating origins. But perhaps Hamas is or has “lost,” unable to achieve its aims. Are strategies involving “corpse and skull” — suicide bombing? — responsible for such losses, or is it ruthless “Zionist” military power? If “lost” modifies “plebeian” rather than “Hamas,” then this may signify extreme Palestinian poverty that Hamas is enjoined to “tell.”
As the quatrain concludes, the Cain/ Abel allusion may suggest that, since Jews and Muslim Arabs are originally “brothers,” “God” (the U.S.) favors Israel and thus, representing the Palestinians “in all agony,” Hamas seeks violent revenge, but the poet’s speaker beseeches someone to intercede for the “Cains” so that they can be “saved” by erotic union with “Alma” (“bountiful” in Latin) “Mater” (mother), and turn away from violence. However, since both sides have acted as fratricides, and thus may consider themselves the sole victim, “us Cains” may refer to both Israelis and Palestinians; the question becomes: what great peacemaker will enable the warring groups to choose Eros over Thanatos and not to mingle the two?
Complex as the quatrain above may be, I could have chosen to analyze passages from 60 lv bo(e)mbs that are considerably more opaque — even on the same page: “Yogi Berra dystopia anchor missed ardour/ Il Duce in the highest hassle warp speed sever my Alma” (59). And yet, the more individual parts scatter focus as multiple “allegories come racing” (6), a powerful orchestration of linguistic and conceptual repetition propelling the text as a whole ensures that Javier’s long poem will fulfill the violent/ tender thematic promise embodied in its title.