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Craig Santos Perez
reviewed by
Mary Kasimor
Tinfish Press 2008; USD$15

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Mary Kasimor and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

What has been lost


Craig Santos Perez, a native Charmorro from the Pacific Island of Guahan (Guam), has published his book of poetry about Guahan (Guam) titled from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY. As I am reading Craig Santos Perez’s book, I realize that I have a very tenuous grasp on my land and history; this is something that I don’t think about often, but this disconnect with my land and history is a part of my identity. I am a European-American, first generation on my mother’s side, and my father’s family can be traced back about five generations to the Midwestern part of the United States. I am displaced and have always felt displaced, and sadly, I have never felt any ancestral connection to the land on which I live. Yet I know people who are European-Americans, who feel that where they live is their land and their heritage and their way of life; they belong and have never doubted that sense of belonging, but the crack in their façade may be that they fear people whom they see as interlopers who are settling into the area. This resettling and with it the fear of other others seem to be a worldwide trend; perhaps it is the way of peoples.

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There are problems when trying to figure out who the people are who have lost their identities through imperialism and colonization. Who are the indigenous or first people?  Perhaps it isn’t something that I should get too concerned about, but I do like clarity―if clarity is possible. It has been pointed out to me that people have been colonized, not just by Europeans and Americans, but people from their own regions, people whom we do not consider colonizers, but are colonizers, nonetheless. Therefore, for myself at least, I need to understand anyone who feels that they have lost their land, and most certainly as a result of that first loss, their identity, their language, their cultures and their traditions. Perhaps my thought on my history and where I grew up and now live may not seem important in a review on Perez’s book, from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY. Yet, I believe that if location, as well as internal and external forces are important to Perez, as they are, and through his poetry he convinces me of their importance, which he does, then where I am located in a geographical space as either a first person or a person many times removed from the first people, I am connecting with past, present and future in ways that I can understand only through poetry.


Guam, What does the world know about Guam or Guahan, which is what it has been named by the Charmorro people. I remember it mentioned in my grade school years, in the early 1960’s, and it would have been mentioned as an example of American right and might. We were  lead to believe that any time that we colonized a country, we were doing the people a favor, leading them to a better standard of living, a better religion (Christianity), a better outlook on life, simply a better life. Another belief was that the invaders, the colonizers, the imperialists had a right to the riches of the land because they had proven themselves the strongest.


Craig Santos Perez’s history of Guam is a history of the native Chamorro that he shares with the other native people of the island, a history that is also a part of the history of the colonizers. The story is similar to many stories of colonized people who have had to deal with lost history, memory, language, family, yet it is told from a unique perspective. The voice of the writer informs us, the readers, of the personal narrative as the writer sees the history, as it has been told and as it has been passed down. Perez tells us that only once has Guam been mentioned in poetry — in Robert Duncan’s, Bending the Bow, and it is as though it is mentioned only in passing. Thus, Perez’s book is the first collection of contemporary poetry about the island of Guam.


Perez begins his book by stating the facts about Guam: how the United States defined Guam as a territory and the rights that the U.S. government did not give the people of Guam, rights defined by United States law. He has given us a location of the island of Guam and a description of the island. Perez tells us that, “I’m from this unnamed place.” He tells us also that on some maps, Guam does not seem to exist. Yet, it is an important place in the Pacific Ocean, a place that has been invaded by the Spanish, the Japanese, and most recently, the Americans. Its importance lies in its location.


The poetry in this collection weaves together the different perspectives of Guam, in terms of its people, and from the perspective of  Perez’s family, the natural and unnatural landscape, and it s early history of colonization. Perez also includes the language of his country, intermingled with the language of the most recent colonizers―the language that he has spoken, the language that often distances the people from their culture and their spirit.


The type font and the arrangement of the words in this collection work well together. The words on the page are arranged as though they were links of silver, or links of words to ideas  that have been carefully preserved. On most pages and in most poems, the words are spaced in such a way that each link is important by itself. Several examples that struck me are


                 chained ground―“does not constitute a
   navigational hazard” but delves
                 “one witness”―“of different flags” (page 42)




                   “if safe passages” marked―sails by
                         the absent “stars”―as tho enclaved”―

                      ballast and salve “the natal

       voice” tren-

                       chant―{sabana} veiled routes


The links involve the extension of land as it pertains to movement from one place to another; this linkage shows the land as it was born and as it became captive to the colonizers.  Also, these lines seem to be referencing other lands and other histories, and we are also told that both the stars and the words are found within another territory. The land collapses and does not exist for those who live on it and have lived on it since birth. What does the land mean? It is clear that it means different things to those who claim the land after those who have lived on the land for centuries.


Perez begins his book with his most personal poems about both the island of Guam and his family’s relationship to the island and its changes. It is interesting that the achiote plant, not even indigenous to Guam was transported to Guam by the Spanish, figures in several of his poems about his family. This plant figures prominently into the poems about the Spanish missionary priest, Father Santivores, who was later killed by Chief Mata ‘Pang. Even though the achiote plant was not native to the island, the Chamorro  people have made it “native” to their island. However, Father Santivores’ life , despite his humility, did not last as long as the achiote plant


                          -the frail blind body of father santivores [1672]
is led around by a rope tied to his waist    he refused glasses because “if the poor were too poor
     for glasses”


Even though Perez gives voice to the Charmorro people and the island of Guam, he also gives a complex characterization and perhaps even a voice to Father Santivores, who was complicit in colonizing the people of the island in ways that he probably did not even understand.


The last line of the poem also informs the reader of several medicinal uses for achiote. Perez also uses achiote to explain to the reader his relationship to his family members. In these poems, his grandmother uses the plant for various purposes, and she tells her grandson of its danger. This non-native plant, brought over by the Spanish has changed the landscape of Guam and the daily lives of the Charmorro people, and it has become both dangerous and useful to them, and that is one of the themes in this collection.


As an American, an inhabitant of a western industrialized country, I am told that I fit into my landscape through the purchase of commodities. Poets escape to nature to distance themselves from the constant reminders that we need to consume. Perez’s ‘from TIDELANDS’ poems are unique and beautiful as they work within the other poems in the collection, juxtaposed with ‘from AERIAL ROOTS’. In poems from  ‘from TIDELANDS’, the natural world endures despite the actions of humanity, on whatever scale. In these poems, we see the beauty and endurance of the natural order of Guam, whereas in ‘from AERIAL ROOTS’, we are exposed to the bitter cruelty of the ways of the colonizers and its impact on both nature and nature as a part of the first people’s civilization. Perez, through his poetry, explains the importance of the language of the Charmorro people and how it frames their culture and the way they see the land. Perez uses the language in his poems, supplying the reader with a glossary. He uses the words sparingly, yet gives the reader a vision of the language within space on the white page. Rather than a cluttered language, it appears on the page as a chant.


Perez’s book is ambitious but unified.  The book begins with a factual detailing of Guam, including and importantly, how it exists and what are its people’s rights under American rule.


The final poems, ‘from DESCENDING PLUMERIA’, are personal and very contemporary; there poems are about his cousin’s death in San Francisco and how the extended family deals with it. In these series of poems, Perez has an internal discussion with his cousin, Renae, about the past―the warnings that they had as they navigated through their childhood in Guam. He reminds her that even as youngsters, they paid attention to their ancestors and to the natural order of their lives.


I have read from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY several times over and have concluded that this collection is exquisitely put together and needs to be read. Unfortunately, poetry is not read by a wide audience. However, for those of us who read poetry and understand the importance of poetry, this is an important book. Perez gives the reader a subtle and serious version/vision of Guam (Guahan) that is necessary in understanding the country and other countries of colonization. Perez gives us much to think about through ideas and feelings in the poems. We are also given a personal vision of lives, language, geography, and culture on this island. I have not thought about Guam in many years, but after reading this collection, I will certainly approach Guam and other U.S. territories with a different understanding of what colonization means to this places that we consider part of us―and yet a part from us.

Mary Kasimor

Mary Kasimor

Mary Kasimor has been writing poetry for many years. She has been published in online and print journals, including Otoliths, GutCult, How2,moria, indefinite space,MIPOesias, BlazeVox2k3, Fogged Clarity, Bird Dog, Big Bridge, among others. She has a book of poetry, titled silk string arias, published by BlazeVox Books. In her other life, she teaches writing and literature courses at a local community/ technical college. The class that she is especially proud of creating is her American Literature About War class.

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