this tender gouge: On Angela Peñaredondo’s “nature felt but never apprehended”
By MT VallartaNovember 21, 2023
nature felt but never apprehended by Angela Peñaredondo
Queer and nonbinary Filipinx poet Angela Peñaredondo explores these possibilities in their body of work. Their first collection, All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia, 2016), redefines the meaning of femininity and how queerness is embodied in what we do as much as in what we desire. In the radical tradition of José García Villa and R. Zamora Linmark, Peñaredondo’s queer Filipinx poetics captures the potentiality of the nonnormative in language and metaphor, demonstrating that there are other ways to be, see, feel, and deconstruct the world. Queerness becomes an unflinching commitment to liberation, to imagining and building a world without heteronormative violence.
From the very beginning of Peñaredondo’s second book, nature felt but never apprehended (Noemi Press, 2023), the reader is welcomed into an entrancing ritual that transforms the terrain of violence. The first poem, “[mercy ceremony],” opens with a scene of tenderness, where a balisong, or butterfly knife, tenderly grazes the addressee’s flesh:
this butterfly blade on soft tissue to etch my name on your skin this name for ocean its secret wind
this tender gouge jellyfish all cinematic haunting above flaring sea anemones
While the balisong pierces the skin to create a wound, there is actually something soothing about the act. The blade lovingly etches the speaker’s name on the addressee’s skin, a “name for ocean its secret wind.” As the wind whispers secrets on the skin, jellyfish and sea anemones flare, glowing like ghosts in a “cinematic haunting.” The collection is rich with mysticism, landscapes, and imagery that submerge and enrapture us in realities outside our precarious and apocalyptic present. The “mercy ceremony” is a ritual of pain and transcendence, as our human skin, our physical boundaries, are “stripped away […] no longer an invisible assault buried under bladed tendrils of seaweed.”
The poem “[mercy ceremony]” foregrounds the collection with a watery dance of diasporic bodies, bodies that undulate, seize, bury, and gouge until, finally, limbs are laid to rest on a raft, a migration into lava, land, and foam:
like intentional stars colliding as i push your raft off into what’s destined to consume
Water is a site of beginnings and endings as the speaker captures readers in fluid language that mirrors the ebbs and flows of the tide. Water becomes a site of queer possibility, as gender and sexual formations shift with the migration of bodies and desires.
This linguistic fluidity is illustrated in the collection’s four sections, the titles of which read like poems themselves: “contradictions·earth·ephemera,” “the·dead·teach·living,” “naked·strategic·partners,” and “to·hold·these·contradictions·in·kinship.” The placement of each title word amplifies the beauty of its neighbor without defining how they relate to each other in traditional syntax. For example, “contradictions·earth·ephemera” not only encapsulates the section’s content; it also conveys the contradiction between “earth” and “ephemera.” Although the book plays mostly with prosaic shapes, often extending to a prose margin, the words flow beyond grammatical end-stops, moving outside the expected unit of the sentence. This is seen with the balance of white space next to sharp and intentional phrases, as demonstrated in the form of “[mercy ceremony].” In addition to beginning with “e”, the shared sonic texture of the “th” and “ph” sounds in “contradictions·earth·ephemera” creates an unlikely kinship that highlights both the commensurability and contrast between “earth” and “ephemera,” between the steadfastness of land and water and the planet’s changeability and uncertain future.
Peñaredondo’s attention to the textures and textual layers of language pervade many of these poems such as “[ghosts in charged objects],” in which we return to the scene of a haunt via an epistolary address in the first line: “dear ghosts hiding in charged objects and blood stories.” The ghost, according to Avery Gordon, “is not the invisible or some ineffable excess. […] [I]t has a real presence and demands its due, your attention. Haunting and the appearance of specters or ghosts is one way […] we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present.” Peñaredondo writes the ghost with this same sense of vivid presence and aliveness, finding specters hidden in the real context of war:
in paramilitarism in a hidden battle 140,000 women
The specters in this poem hide within the white space and emerge in punchy phrases to jar and haunt us. Ghosts are not otherworldly illusions but elements inextricable from the regime of “paramilitarism,” embodied by the statistics of human loss under war. Although it is not stated which specific paramilitary group or “hidden battle” the speaker is referring to, we can contextually locate the poem under the US empire in the Philippines with the reference to the “bolo,” a large single-edge knife used in the archipelago, and, again, the balisong. Furthermore, the years 1911, 1918, and 1919 are referenced throughout the book, years that mark the United States’ consistent genocidal conquest of the Philippines, and the revolutionary Filipinx guerilla groups that continued to fight for their freedom under US colonization across the islands. Peñaredondo not only acknowledges the ghosts evoked by imperial violence but also arms them with real weapons and a thirst for vengeance:
m1 carbine bolo butterfly to blades forged all redolent
picture diary of a girl girllll gurl grrrl grrlzz
These lines draw parallels between femininity and machinery. Girlhood becomes a weapon, where the “m1 carbine,” “bolo,” and “butterfly to blades” are “all redolent” of this “picture diary of a girl.” Different spellings and utterances of “girl” follow, allowing the reader to play with a multitude of sounds. Although diaries are often stereotyped as juvenile records of childhood and girl culture, here the multiple spellings allude to the complexities and potentialities of the diary not only as a historical record but also as a source that can be weaponized and used in resistance to conquest. Alluding to different stages of girlhood, the variations of “girllll,” “gurl,” “grrrl,” and “grrlzz” reflect feminine empowerment and resilience. In repeating the sounds, girlhood may be wielded as a protective amulet. The various spellings also reference feminist movements across time, such as the punk DIY riot grrrl movement in the 1990s. These ghosts—or spectral legacies—inform the fabrics of a queer Filipinx diasporic existence. The multiple formations of “girl” break normative understandings of femininity, demonstrating that there is no right way to be feminine. By weaponizing femininity, Peñaredondo extricates it from its passive articulations under heteronormative discourse.
The collection ends with “[albularya],” an English translation of the Visayan poem that appears earlier in the collection. An “albularya” is an herbalist and community healer in Filipinx culture, trained in folk and traditional medicine. Although “albularya” usually ends with a masculine “o” (albularyo), Peñaredondo feminizes the noun, literally challenging heteropatriarchy with a feminine spell. In addition, rather than placing the Visayan and English versions side by side, the English translation closes the collection in the final section, “to·hold·these·contradictions·in·kinship.” The placement of the poem’s versions—in different sections—is a contradiction in itself, since translations are typically nestled together. By asking readers to flip back and forth between the Visayan and English versions of “[albularya],” the labor of translation—or migration—is felt. This powerful anachronistic sequencing enables readers to question the process and politics of translation altogether, especially since Visayan is often underrepresented in a hegemonic Tagalog-speaking Filipinx culture.
The English “[albularya]” does not appear to be a mere parroting of the language, but a transmogrification of sorts. Peñaredondo goes beyond merely translating the language by demonstrating how meaning and form shift under the transmogrification of translation. For instance, the term “madulum” (darkness) is not directly translated but instead transmogrified as “shade.” While the English translation helps readers dissect the meaning of “[albularya],” many things remain untranslated. However, this does not interfere with our dissection of the poem at all, but transforms it, providing multiple meanings. As a result, Peñaredondo appears to queer translation altogether, an idea outlined by Gayatri Gopinath in Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005), a discussion of translation and queer diasporas: “Translation here cannot be seen as a mimetic reflection of a prior text but rather as a productive activity that instantiates new regimes of sexual subjectivity even as it effaces earlier erotic arrangements.” Peñaredondo invites readers to consider what new meanings and sexual subjectivities—queer ways of being—are illuminated in “[albularya].” What is hidden and begging to be seen, even within the physical landscape of language? How does queerness encourage us to question our understanding of something, to be okay with living outside the security of coherence altogether?
An exquisite foray into queer Filipinx diasporas, challenging our understanding of identity and language through sonic texture and mystical imagery, nature felt but never apprehended articulates new erotic arrangements and gives shape to nonnormative connotations with fluidity and precision. As queer, femme, and Brown bodies kiss with burgundy lips and destroy the US empire with balisongs and bolo knives, Peñaredondo’s second collection questions our alliances with dominance and power. Transcending colonial antagonisms to uncover the potentialities that lie in queerness, Peñaredondo asks readers to consider what other mercy ceremonies and rituals can draw out our hidden beauty and inner grit.
MT Vallarta is a poet and assistant professor of ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Their forthcoming poetry collection, What You Refuse to Remember, won Small Harbor Publishing’s 2022 Laureate Prize.
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