Explorers, anthropologists, and historians
A review of 'from unincorporated territory [saina]'
I was a history major at the University of Georgia, no doubt the worst history major not only in Athens but the greater Southeast. It’s not that I dislike history, you understand, it’s that I cannot interpret history.
In from unincorporated territory [saina], Craig Santos Perez sent me back to the period at which I realized I couldn’t be a historian, to the point where the facts evolved beyond themselves and became ambiguous notations. This isn’t a negative reflection on the book; quite the contrary. It’s a reflection on what drew me into the book in the first place: an exploration of the culture, identity, and language of the Chamorro. Santos Perez leads us all to be explorers, anthropologists, and historians. If anything, I feel vindicated.
This is Santos Perez’s second book, and while I admit I have not read the first part of the Unincorporated Territory saga, it’s not impossible to pick up with Grandma Santos’s story here. She’s a grandmother like many others — like one of mine, even — concerned with reassuring the future that their particular group will find a way through the future, in this case via a sakman, which as far as I can gather is a long-range canoe. The stories and comments attributed to her throughout the course of the books, beautifully pieced together and splayed out via line breaks and white spaces, give us the sense of a language and identity in the middle of a fearful transition:
a map dividing the land covers
my mouth and ears at night
I don’t know if I can say our language
will survive here
yet I’ve never known another place
Maps are lines. I know that sounds self-explanatory, but how many cultures can we name at this point in the twenty-first century that are separated by arbitrary lines that reflect no reality but their own? Voice is the strongest weapon.
But what happens as language changes and the culture begins to be “reinvented by each new gaze?” This is the crux of [saina] and I believe the entry point at understanding the world Santos Perez is expressing, which for a great many of us is generally beyond comprehension. The thing is, these lines that have been previously drawn are all eventually erased, and to an extent, [saina] comes to terms with that realization. Language, culture, and identity are always on the verge of reinvention: it’s just a question of what impetus will lead to the change.
The poems of [saina] are generally anchored in moments like this one at the bottom of page 37:
‘guahan is being briefed by federal officials from us department of homeland
security on new guam-cnmi via waiver program will allow visitors from hong
kong but not from china or russia primarily concerned illegal immigrants or asy-
lum-seekers will enter us along with security issues of military buildup govern-
ment of guam banking on visa waivers for china and russia to drive declining
These moments feel like hinges from which the more personally focused parts of the book are free to swing. What I feel is interesting here is that I have no idea whether this comes from a document or whether Santos Perez is simply writing about something that he knows is going on. It probably doesn’t really matter, as culture is entirely perception, and as the poet says in his acknowledgements, the misinterpretations of history and culture are entirely his own. But that’s sort of the beauty: the determination of right and wrong is immaterial in the poem, which allows the poet to work progressively without being worried about such binary issues. And in [saina], Perez can do that: he can work through any issues he chooses because if the book were an essay, it would be open to criticism based on what’s right or wrong, whereas here, we’re concerned with the poetics.
Much like language itself, [saina] doesn’t settle anywhere on a particular form for that poetics. Throughout the book, prose is mixed with thoughtfully delineated sections, as well as places where the visual décor takes on a falling and sometimes splattered appearance. This too pushes the points of the poems: in order for all these known things to shift, so to must the manner in which we speak of them. If culture is going to adapt and move in new directions and if old identities are to be subsumed and new ones created, then so must the way we think of the poetic line. The way Santos Perez mixes forms is rather indicative of what we’re talking about: we’re taking the old and the new and creating a new identity and culture through language.
A question I like to ask myself in my own work is, “What are the white spaces doing?” Asking of this of [saina], I find myself noticing the breath, the gaps, creating beats in which the previous idea has a moment to settle. I used to feel such things were arbitrary (and thus avoided white space myself), but I see how they work here: the beats and moments of [saina] are the sinking in of renewal. The white spaces are a vehicle for language as it regenerates into more identifiable cultural forms. At one point (page 103), words are even broken up so that “but” becomes “b ut,” though I imagine it as “buuuuuuut,” drawn out and hesitant. “We had to be quiet,” the piece continues, spaced out and riffing on the tension of ever having to be quiet when that’s not your choice.
In the pages of [saina] Santos Perez has created a new culture, a new identity through his use of language. Rather than attempting to preserve, the ultimate goal of the book is to embrace reinvention. While I’m still not a historian and hope I never am, it’s OK, because we cannot dwell on history. History being a nightmare and all that, it’s important to remember to move forward. New cultures and identities are to follow, each with their own perspective and attention to language.