Forms for an ocean

Edited by Susan M. Schultz


Susan M. Schultz

Forms for an ocean

Categories — like “Pacific,” like “poetry,” like “feature” — are meant to contain places, genres, ideas, and yet this one cannot. As its editor, I can perhaps live with the word “feature,” even as it also points toward containment, but I cannot fathom the Pacific. While most readers of Jacket2 will be aware of the term “Pacific rim,” which like a basketball hoop contains the emptiness inside it, those of us who live on Pacific islands think of them as foremost a “basin,” as Oceania, a place that cannot be so easily defined, lineated. Oceania is at once land and sea, a mapping of islands and water, rather than landmasses. The tension between “rim” and “basin” is everywhere to be seen in Hawai`i, for example, where native Hawaiian culture exists next to (and, in capitalist terms, for) tourists from other places; where the military presence is palpable in all things; where immigrants and refugees come together in the metropolis of Honolulu; and where the environment itself is a colonizer, as most of the species that live here were brought in from the outside. If there are tensions on the small places we call islands, then there are also problems of communication between these places and other islands and landmasses. Robert Sullivan’s book Star Waka (Auckland University Press, 1999) centers around canoes, which move between islands, but he includes among his waka an old Toyota. The waka that concerns us here, as writers and as readers, is that of the Internet. The Internet is the fastest of the many kinds of canoes that have crossed the Pacific, from the original Polynesian canoes to Spanish galleons to American and Japanese warships to jet planes and now to the invisible pulses that offer us language on the platters of our computer screens.

So the feature opens with “Have Net, Will Travel,” where Steve Bradbury examines the radical effects of the Internet on Chinese-language poetry from the mainland, Taiwan, and elsewhere. He quotes Andrea Lingenfelter translating (another Pacific waka, translation) Zhai Yongming, in “For Women Poets”: “But we // want it all: // an iBook     Estee Lauder / a printer     paint and powder.” Features indeed. To appear at all, the poet must have technological features; for Bradbury that means the mixed blessing of a generation of poets whose work has been transmitted on blogs (not on the interdicted Facebook or other social networking sites). That many of the poems Bradbury includes in the poetry section of his contribution seem agitated more by individuality (see Hsia Yü) than by commonalities is something that speaks to the power of the medium. The personal blog contains what is most personal inside a vehicle that is a communication machine. Even the political is interrupted by the personal, or a false gesture toward it, as when in Yu Jian’s “Punishing Saddam” (translated by Bradbury) the television cuts off the moment of the tyrant’s death for “a commercial for cosmetics,” and viewers turn back to eating and telling their kids to do their homework.

Among the issues raised by the oceanic form of the region is the poem’s own form(s). If containment is metaphorically a colonial act — and the Pacific has swarmed with colonists over the centuries — then how to compose a form to meet the openness of ocean? To compass it, instead of encompassing it, in other words? Craig Santos Perez has found such a form, one that Kaia Sand highlights in her essay/anthology in this feature. He writes in the form of what is called in Chamoru “i truncun nunu,” a banyan tree whose aerial roots meet in the air, rather than in the earth. The banyan sends its roots down, rather than growing up out of them. Banyans thus cover wide areas, are filled with open spaces. While Wikipedia tells me that “some of them [in Hilo, Hawai`i] were planted by celebrities throughout the 20th century,” most banyans can give credit to birds and aerial roots for their germination. Perez’s work, which already spreads across a couple of books (both called from unincorporated territory, the first from Tinfish Press, the second from Omnidawn), features sections called “Aerial Roots.” These are sections of a long poem, but they spread across sections of other poems, winding like the roots of a banyan across a wide oceanic field; no accident that one of his largest influences is the poet Charles Olson. Open field to open ocean poetry proves a fertile leap.

Sand’s primary focus in her section, however, is not form so much as the environment. She also interviews Jen Coleman, a Portland poet, about her work on the ocean. Coleman tells Sand, “I was thinking about how this [BP] oil spill is a moment that will accumulate myths, that will be told in a way that simplifies complicated things.” She hones in on the “folly of authority,” whether BP’s authority, the fossil fuel economy’s, or the government’s. “Did Poseidon have a cozy relationship with the / minerals management service?” she asks in “Plan D: Hot Tap.” While her definition of “mythology” is at odds with those of other writers, like the Chamoru Perez, she knows that history alone will not be able to tell these oceanic stories.

I have added a poem by Steve Collis, “Midway: A Requiem,” which complements Sand’s interest in ecopoetics in the Pacific. Collis writes the elegy of birds caught up in environmental disasters. Among these are oil spills and the global plastic patch that spreads across the Pacific. Birds in the Midway Islands sometimes feed plastic to their chicks, with predictably horrible results. The story of western adventuring in the Pacific is juxtaposed with the rather less heroic saga of “see goo catastrophe”:

The birds’ hollow bones —
What’s inside them? Ideas of
Flight and Amelia Earhart seas
See? All the way to midway y’all

More directly, he writes in the petroleum adventurer’s voice: “Hey albatross fuck you!” before the poet intervenes with his softer pronunciamento, “Sweet bird.” And yet how to write an elegy, when the dead have been suffocated by human trash? “Sweet bird” hardly does it, and Collis knows that.

While Haunani-Kay Trask’s poetry, according to Brandy Nālani McDougall, works polemically against the western c-words Christianity, Civilization, and Colonialism, it’s telling that her imagery is primarily natural. Often rising to the level of allegory, her work presents missionaries that are “that dark, swollen / river filled with tongues,” westerners as a species of bird, the koleathat comes and goes, getting fat off the Hawaiian land before flying to Alaska each year. Trask describes the place as out of balance (her poetry has much in common with Collis’s on this level): its “diseased maile, brittle lava, `ulu rotting due to neglect or waste, polluted shores” are evidence of colonial destruction. She is able to effect these ideas poetically through kaona, a Hawaiian poetic idea most akin to the pun in English, or language in which meanings are layered and mean more than one or two or three things at once. In the context of this feature, Trask joins with non-native poets to express anger and concern at the ravages of big oil, big money, and big talk on the environment. Like Collis and Coleman, she finds a strong mythological basis in her work, where myth is understood not in the sense of old fictions, but as a living body, though for her the mythology is Hawaiian, not Greek or secular (adventurer).

In his essay on the work of Cecilia C. T. Perez, Craig Santos Perez sets out a genealogy of Chamoru writing (to his credit, the genealogy was more extensive before his editor asked him to trim it). In Cecilia Perez’s MA thesis, he finds poetry that seeks to discover what it means to be Chamoru, and that uses — aptly — the metaphor of the sea voyage: “Where do we go from here? We are in uncharted waters, or maybe in familiar waters, unable to recognize the signs that show the way. Am I a navigator? Am I the navigator? Are we moving? Are the islands moving? Have we been following the navigator, so well-guided we don’t even know the navigator is here?” The terrible openness of these questions, which suggests everything from being utterly lost to utterly found, offers us another sense of what it means to write within the formless form of the Pacific Ocean. Cecilia Perez, too, uses kaona of a kind, which Perez unpacks when he points out her lines about “conditioned air / conditioned minds.” Divorced from the natural air, the Chamoru writer is conditioned in more ways than will simply cool her off. That these kinds of conditioning apply to an increasing tourist trade, Santos Perez makes clear toward the end of his essay, in ways similar to his own treatment of the issue in the second volume of his ongoing epic about Guam, from unincorporated territory [saina]. The tourist industry has ravaged more than the air of Guam; it has also had removed large sections of reef in Tumon. As Cecilia Perez writes:

It’s getting
so it’s hard
to find a fish
but a hotel dinner plate
these days.

One of the many arguments of this feature is that it may soon be hard to find fish anywhere, that ravages against the environment endanger us all, that these ravages stem from a global economy based on consumption. Despite this sense of a closing-in, Pacific poets continue to look for ways to express and transmit the openness of the Pacific’s spaces, meanings (kaona), and routes or roots. Hence the open forms of the Chamoru poet, Craig Santos Perez, and the opening out of poetry via the Internet in China. While this feature presents only a tiny fraction of a fraction of what is happening in Pacific poetries now, my hope is that it will offer each reader a small waka in which to go forth to find other works from rim and basin, metropolis and atoll.