by Mike Puican
Published by TinFish Press, 2008 | 98 pages
No one’s an island, and no island is, either, on the evidence of from Unincorporated Territory [Hacha]. Craig Santos Perez’s ambitious first book of poems offers a dispatch from Guam, the Pacific island that the average American may know only as a reminder, along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, of this country’s forays into colonialism. Despite some lapses in execution, his book conducts its investigations of both the stormy history of his native island and the intersection of language with imperialism in an incisive, poetically charged idiom.
Perez opens the collection with a selection “from Lisiensan Ga’lago.” (All the pieces in the book, like the book itself, are presented as selections “from” some larger project, a gesture that at once underlines the provisional nature of the enterprise and suggests that, like the island it depicts, the book is only the tip of an enormous submerged imaginative volcano.)
“isles de las velas latinas”
(of lateen sails –
the poem begins. The incantatory sequence of names for the island initiated here demonstrates Perez’s sensitivity to the mythopoetic dimensions of language. Many of the events from Guam’s history that Perez describes reflect Max Weinreich’s definition of a language as “a dialect plus an army,” but Perez consistently acknowledges at the same time how deeply words are woven into the fabric of everyday life. It is no accident that Perez himself often shows up in the poems as a child, learning from his grandparents what a thing is called:
“you hold the nicho like this” he says “and the nasa around your fingers like this”
The talaya (net) that his grandfather shows him in this poem mirrors the network of trade, war, and airline routes mapped in diagrams interspersed throughout the collection, as do the linguistic networks that Perez constructs, offering Chamorro (native Guamanian) vocabulary and translating it only pages later. None of these intricate networks are untouched by colonial history; even the talaya, we eventually learn, signifies as much the confinement of the Chamorro by the Spanish as it does Perez’s familial heritage.
Perez is at his best constructing such large-scale patterns of correspondence; his “from Aerial Roots” makes a miniature epic from the introduction of horses to the island. He’s less assured in the almost de rigueur stripped-down lyrics that punctuate the book. Such forms don’t mesh well with the political and conceptual force of Perez’s imagination. They’re something like Norman Mailer writing haiku. But they are minor imperfections in this compelling debut.
John Beer’s poems and essays have appeared in periodicals including Barrow Street, Chicago Review, Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Context, Court Green, Iowa Review, MAKE, Verse, and Xantippe. He is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and social thought at the University of Chicago.