Where Islands End and Begin
March 15, 2018
Mar 15, 2018
8 Min read time
Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao] is a personal document of witness, shelter, history, and hope.
from unincorporated territory [lukao]
Craig Santos Perez
Omnidawn, $17.95 (paper)
In from unincorporated territory [lukao], the fourth installment of his multivolume epic from unincorporated territory, Craig Santos Perez creates a personal document of witness, shelter, history, and hope. Continuing to deliver the insights into Chamorro experience and U.S. colonial power that define this ten-year project, from unincorporated territory [lukao] stands apart in its tenderness. As formally inventive here as in his previous books from unincorporated territory [gum’a], from unincorporated territory [saina], and from unincorporated territory [hacha], Perez uses many different forms to create an account of birth—of his daughter, of a captive Micronesian Kingfisher, of Guam itself. The result is a nuanced depiction—at once documentarian, activist, and lyric—of Guam’s present.
In from unincorporated territory [lukao], insights into Chamorro experience and U.S. colonial power are delivered with tenderness.
Creation stories are crucial to from unincorporated territory [lukao], whose title is the Chamorro word for “procession.” The first poem of every section, “from the legend of juan malo (a malologue),” a series carried over from from unincorporated territory [saina], examines the origins of Guam, sometimes with humor, sometimes with rage. The final poem of every section, “ginen island of no birdsong,” refers to the environmental damage imposed on Guam, and recounts the story of the Micronesian Kingfisher, native to Guam. The bird came so close to extinction due to environmental changes wrought by militarization and tourism that the last few needed to be bred in captivity. “ginen island of no birdsong” weaves together the story of the growth of a fledgling Micronesian Kingfisher born in captivity—“‘day seven : feather tracts visible on back, sides and head’”—and the poet’s sharply critical response to the circumstances that necessitate a captive birth:
fanhasso the fighter jets breaking the langet above the halom tano’ : deep jungle behind grandma’s house // native birds once ate insects and wove nests from spider webs \\ “guam now has forty times more spiders than other nearby islands.”
Between these bookends are tender accounts of Perez’s daughter’s birth, in “ginen understory,” and of his grandmother’s advanced years, in “ginen organic acts.” The overall effect is a collection of creation stories imbued with hope but fringed by doubt.
Sometimes lyric, sometimes concrete, the creation story at the heart of the book is the one surrounding Perez’s own daughter, an account that, like much of Perez’s writing, draws on a multifaceted, multilingual analysis of its themes and terms. The “ginen understory” and “ginen Ka Lhui o ka Pō Interview” poems relay the experience of a new father connecting to traditional childbirth practices. In an interview with Split This Rock in 2016, Perez explained: “In many Pacific and indigenous cultures, time is viewed as a spiral so that we face the futures with our backs, which means we look to the past to teach us how to move forward. This is practical as well, in the sense that ancestral practices will help us deal with modern problems.” Perez takes his own advice by bringing ancestral wisdom to bear on the description of his wife’s pregnancy and delivery. In turn, the ancestral practices of childbirth shed light on modern problems of over-medicalized childbirth and a weakening connection to “old” ways.
Birth is framed here as passage back to the ancient, but those terms sound more easily mythic than Perez is willing to indulge. Perez’s writing is clear-eyed, experimental, often searing, but never simplistic. In “Ka Lāhui o ka Pō Interview,” redacted text reveals that Chamorro midwifery, which had been successful and relied on, was forcibly ended by 1967, “
when the last midwife license expired.” Perez’s device of redacting official text, filled with historical information but providing only the colonizer’s account, both provides his reader with information and visually undermines it. Home births and natural pregnancy in contemporary culture are charged subjects on a good day, and topics that incite the drawing of battle lines on a bad one. For Perez, the framework of the poem offers a way to connect with a diasporic, dissipated, colonized culture in a present-tense context. In each collection of his epic, Perez is able to make Guam’s history part of its present, and our present. In from unincorporated territory [lukao]’s account of pregnancy and delivery, Perez and his wife enter into a live stream of Chamorro and Pacific Islander tradition in immediate experience. This is not history, this is happening.
The poems are in a state of happening, too: Perez’s account of Chamorro culture, its fracturing diaspora and the deeply negative impact of militarization on the people and environment of Guam, places the reader in the middle of an ongoing story. from unincorporated territory [lukao] is made up of four sections, each comprising five poems that then repeat with identical titles in subsequent sections. They are sequences braided together, individual strands that rely on each other and build strength. Their repetition evokes continuation: the ongoing “unincorporated” status of Guam, a colony militarized and wielded as a weapon, militarized and environmentally devastated. Perez’s work raises a voice of protest and, within that outcry, moments of joy.
This is not history, this is happening.
Throughout from unincorporated territory, Perez uses documentary materials such as transcriptions, military announcements, and interviews to achieve poetic ends. from unincorporated territory [saina] uses redacted text from testimony to the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee to illustrate the impacts of colonization, forced military buildup, and tourism on Guam. from unincorporated territory [guma] contains strikethroughs of texts about fallen Chamorro soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places to convey the extent of military service by Chamorro. In from unincorporated territory [lukao], Perez uses an interview form to share stories of childbirth. The poems titled “ginen Ka Lāhui o ka Põ Interview” are part documentation, part oral history, part safe passage. Because Perez and his wife live in Hawaii, where she is from, he relies on the tradition of natural childbirth in Hawaiian culture, context that serves as another reminder of the diaspora of Chamorro culture and its traditional knowledge. Perez wrote in his blog post “This Paradise of Fugitive Dust” that his and his wife’s experience of carrying on practices of traditional childbirth “empowered us to explore the meaning of ‘birthing sovereignty.’” Through oral history and prenatal education, a practical history of his family’s experience of childbirth is pulled movingly together. The intimacy of these interviews, featuring the voices of Perez’s parents, his in-laws, his wife, and himself, underscores the compassion at work in from unincorporated territory [lukao].
Perez has said about his varied use of form that he considers himself “a radical poet who is interested in decolonizing and deconstructing empire. That said, I also write in lyric and narrative traditions of witness and intervention, as I believe these poetic traditions have something valuable to offer poets interested in sharing stories of trauma and poems of protest.” One of the triumphs of from unincorporated territory is this virtuosity in mixing poetic traditions with formal experimentation. Perez blends private thoughts with public, historical events, extending and developing the lyrical tradition of poet-as-witness. For example, in the “understory” poems, Perez swings between lines describing his pregnant wife or infant daughter, and lines from the (terrible) news.
[neni] cries from teething // how do parents
comfort a kid in pain, bullied in school, shot
by a power drunk cop #justiceforkolinelderts
\\ [you] gently massage her gums with your
fingers // count how many children killed in gaza
this hour of siege \\ how do [we] wipe away tear
-gas and blood, provide shelter from snipers,
disarm occupying armies #freepalenstine //
Mixed with hashtags and isolated news events, the personal details and the speaker’s compassionate point of view constitute an innovative approach to juxtaposing the public and private. Another formal contrast lies between his “poemaps”—visual poems that interpret, for example, a “Telegeography cable network map” or “Key US Bases in Pacific Pivot Buildup”—
and more straightforward lyrics, such as “(i tinituhon)”:
mānoa valley and
the ko’olau mountains
where do islands
end and begin
time spiraling fractions
For Perez, there is no opposition between the experimental and the lyric. Over the course of his epic, Perez has ushered lyric expressions of trauma and protest into a contemporary formal lexicon, then has created and cultivated those forms, ultimately proving the resilience of the lyric—and the Chamorro. Resistance is complicated, much like oppression, and Perez’s embrace of complexity, both in his activist message and his poetics, suggests that the from unincorporated territory books are a chronicle of a new activist poetics forming.
from unincorporated territory chronicles the forming of a new activist poetics.
from unincorporated territory [lukao] feels like the fullest expression of this project so far, but we are reminded by its title “procession” that these poems are part of a longer continuum. Perez’s development and vision have not concluded, nor do they hold still within the covers of any given volume. The long poems in each book of from unincorporated territory suggest that they are excerpts from some larger text, so that our reading performs a passage through the material. We are on a procession through our world, with Perez acting as deft guide. There is the sense in an epic—no matter how classical or experimental its form—that we are being told one part of a larger, infinite, human story, and that the act of retelling is a metamorphosis the teller undergoes and imposes on their reader. There is no reader who seriously encounters the from unincorporated territory books without leaving more educated, aware, empathetic, inspired, challenged, or all of the above.
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March 15, 2018
8 Min read time