JULY 5, 2014
IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, museum exhibits are but elaborate morgues, displays of postmortem objects meant to hint at their former lives, artifacts but arranged bones meant to perform a story. Photographs, arrowheads, headdresses, bowls, and garments laid out in rigor mortis, out of context, paralyzed into silence, their lives are for others to tell. In her book of poetry, Souvenir, Aimee Suzara unapologetically reclaims these relics — the stuff of museums, libraries, and archives — and reassembles them to break old historical narratives and sing life into new ones. Her songs gather together clashing voices that reveal colonization to be an exchange that is never unidirectional or uniform
Suzara’s historical point of departure is the US acquisition of the Philippines from Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, and the consequent four-year Philippine-American war (1899-1902). This imperial intervention is the event that definitively binds the United States and the Philippines in intimate migratory ties. The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, commemorated Lewis and Clark’s exploration and Westward Expansion in North America and celebrated the US conquest in the Philippines. The Philippine Reservation at the World’s Fair essentially displayed America’s spoils of war. About 1,200 Filipinos were brought from overseas to reenact daily life and perform rituals for the entertainment of American fair-goers. Souvenir is Suzara’s own collection and catalog of all the detritus left over from that party. She holds a poetic séance with these objects, to evoke voices and stories otherwise lost.
Suzara organizes Souvenir into four exhibits, in which she reassembles the fragments she unearthed in her diligent excavations. She finds, in the Missouri History Museum and its library, photographs, catalogs, and artifacts, as well as the names of the people who were, like objects themselves, displayed at the reservation. She quotes contemporary sources heavily, and she references them extensively in her robust footnotes. Inside the museum’s library, she has a desire to “clasp her hands in prayer,” brought on by the imposing high ceilings and stained-glass windows, and the reverence we have for sacred spaces like museums, and for seemingly unshakable stories we meet as official history. She shakes off this desire, and aggressively rearranges what she finds. She splices and stitches with surgical precision, mashes her found texts with violence, layers them like complicated collages, and weaves them like intricate tapestries. Sometimes the layering helps obscure too-easy connections; sometimes it highlights the unexpected, bringing new connections to light. As she moves through time in her “exhibits,” she digs through items from her own life — bits of pop culture, anatomy textbooks, shards of memory — which she pieces together to create her own bicultural, hybrid identity.
“Exhibit A: The Philippine Reservation” opens with a shifting but persistent gaze. In a section titled “Objects and Artifacts,” she enters the air-conditioned room of the museum, looks into glass display cases, and encounters her own gaze. In encountering that gaze, she transports the reader across time, allowing us to enter this historical moment with her. Her use of the gaze is impressively elastic, sometimes expanding like that of an invisible god — vigilant, authoritarian — seeing across time, centuries. Sometimes the gaze is more personal, specific: that of a woman with personal appetites, hoping to catch a glimpse underneath an Igorot’s loincloth.
One of the first poems in Exhibit A, “The Laboratory of the St. Louis World Fair,” makes use of the anatomical measurements once used to determine racial hierarchies. Scientific racism bloomed furiously across the modern world during this time of New Imperialism, and measurements were taken regularly at the St. Louis Fair of the various Filipinos in the reservation, recorded for each ethnic group. Rejecting such popular scientific pretense, Suzara empties out the numerical data and fills in the blanks with the names and ages of individuals. She pronounces their names like incantations, attempts to re-flesh the bones, reanimating the silenced.
Suzara demonstrates how in historical matters, nothing should be taken for granted or remain unquestioned. A poem titled “Norms14” describes the performance required of the reservation dwellers, designed to establish their savagery with a dog-eating ceremony. Flip to the references page and you will find that Suzara is not referring to the actual social norms of the Filipino people who were exhibited. Those are grossly misconstrued. The footnote outlines instead the norms described by linguist Noam Chomsky in Imperial Ambitions, the social norms of the colonizers, those developed by the United States and Western European soldiers and administrators in their expansionist quests. Such footnotes help amplify her critique of the US imperialist project and make it more precise.
Exhibition A concludes with “Antero,” a poem about a Filipino tribal man who assisted world fair anthropologists, and functioned as a kind of intermediary between the white man and Filipino tribespeople. “We’ve grown a second skin; the mask required to survive in this savage place where human bones, songs and souls are trafficked.” Histories of empire are full of complex figures like Antero. They are the translators, straddlers, negotiators, and bridgers between worlds. They are guides who take people from both sides down trails they carve as they go.
The second section, “Exhibit B: Anthropology,” leads from the precise historical events into their contemporary aftermath. The discipline of anthropology exists at an odd intersection between science and humanities, or at least has pretended to At times it has leaned more one way than the other, and Suzara’s poems in this section characterize anthropology’s in-betweenness, its imprecise and speculative nature, its pseudo-scientific spirit outdated, not unlike alchemy. In “Dear Ota Benga,” Suzara writes to a Congolese boy who was displayed in a cage with apes from the Bronx Zoo.
The skull, nose, cheekbones, shoulders, sternum,
the breadth of your hips, the length of your legs,
your height, your wide and muscled feet,
all of your physique, like ours, taken apart
under the glass, we, living specimens. And the joy the scientists
must have felt to discover “proof” of their superiority!
The measuring, inspecting, exhibiting, and naming were a form of discipline, a way to control colonial subjects, a technology of empire.
In “Suture,” Suzara combines the names of Filipinos on live display at the St. Louis World’s Fair, historical documents from 19th-century British observers, and the narrator’s own experiences. “Hands sew together what does not belong,” she writes. “One day, it will heal into something unrecognizable.” Suzara stitches together these disparate parts in order to highlight the monstrosity of colonization and its construction of race. The subject and object are joined in unholy combinations, the possessor becoming the possessed, bodies on different planes becoming inextricably entangled, enmeshed with each other, making an entirely new entity. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein, the body under the knife will eventually rise to reveal itself.
“Exhibit C: Science” presents this new creature, born out of the horrors committed in the name of empire. The focus of this section begins to ground us in the contemporary world, moving from dusty fragments of history to the narrator’s own experience, the narrator’s own body. Colonized subjects and cultural hybrids, the narrator, and her personal and familial story become our evidence, offered for autopsy and study. In the previous parts, the narrator flickers in and out; she is a ghost on glass. Here she materializes fully, first as a child but eventually as an adult, as the narrator’s consciousness metamorphoses. Constructed by history and self-generated, she is never a fixed entity. Her only constancy is her urge to collect material and weave together larger historical narratives with personal ones.
The poem “Manifest Destiny 1980” presents multiple, layered destinies, which unfold across numerous planes of time. The Manifest Destiny of history books is contrasted to the westbound migration that takes place not in canvas-covered wagons or on horseback but in a shiny red Saab on a paved road. The journey of a young Filipino family, including a four-year-old girl, is layered over the westward push mandated by Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery in 1803.
Sometimes Suzara separates these parallel journeys into narrative strands, and sometimes she mashes the narratives jaggedly into each other, in a cut-up style. In “Science,” a narrative about finding the skull of a Native American man is mosaiced with a story about the narrator’s own skull, which was warped at birth, as well as an early 20th-century text about racial classification based on skull structure. Together, these narrative shards form a strange, kaleidoscopic, composite body that evokes the eeriness of desecrated human remains, and the racial legacies of obsolete scientific practices.
In this third section, Suzara draws on more contemporary references. She pulls quotes from Gray’s Anatomy and lets them chafe against M*A*S*H and Madonna. And the personal becomes more prominent as well. In reading Suzara’s carefully constructed depiction of empire, the reader is simultaneously taking an inventory of empire’s residue on Suzara’s own father and mother, and their daughter — the “cowgirl-Material Girl’s” desire to have freckles, dimples, and pale, white skin.
Finally, in “Exhibit D: Objects and Artifacts,” we arrive fully into the narrator’s world, her hometown, her family’s home and homeland. She guides us through what seems like a wasteland (no offense, New Jersey), as she picks through radioactive remains and bones. It’s all part of growing up in the post-Atomic Era, when cancer and birth defects replace the “friendly atom” and nuclear naïveté. The microwave is a marvel to her migrant family. “My mouth salivates every time I hear the peel of cellophane. Like a cat drooling at the sound of the aluminum can being carved open.”
Everyone is changed — not only the migrants now in the United States, but also the families back home. A poem titled “because going home is not always romantic” points to an entire world forever transformed by migration. The idyllic homeland is only fantasy. She longs for the capacity to breath underwater, like a mythical creature, but knows that such creatures, even if we are their distant descendants, are now extinct.
Museum exhibits make a case for history: here are the artifacts, they say, and here is how we understand and classify them. Suzara’s exhibits, instead, essentially make a case against history and its makers. The violence perpetrated lies as much in narratives as it does in the historical conflict itself. The danger of narratives is that they can be perpetrated and inflicted again and again, for centuries. Their true damage is immeasurable, echoing over time. Poets like Aimee Suzara not only have the courage to handle these weapons of history, but they have the skill to disarm them. They have the ability to take apart the museum itself and reassemble it in unexpected ways.