“Written into Life”: On Marianne Chan’s “All Heathens”
By Rebecca Morgan FrankAugust 20, 2020
All Heathens by Marianne Chan
Early in the collection, Chan transports us to a Sinulog Festival in mid-winter Michigan in “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010,” where a community is about to rehearse a “factually dubious play.” She sets the tone by describing the buffet of “aluminum trays / heavy with pancit, dinuguan, pinakbet, caldereta, lumpia, // leche flan, bibingka, and five Hot-N-Ready pizzas for / the husbands and children.” The teenage director keeps repeating the newly learned Bisaya word for masturbation in order to make everyone laugh, and the comedy and chaos of community theater is magnified by the cast itself: an accountant plays the King and an out-of-work GM worker plays Magellan. In this Waiting for Guffman, however, the players are multiracial families who have, Chan notes, mostly met on the internet. The amateur festival actors not only act out Magellan’s delivery of Jesus to the Philippines, but also another ongoing narrative:
All the Filipina wives are playing native dancers, and their
husbands are playing conquistadors, because what were
conquistadors if not small-town men with beer breath
wearing plastic armor, holding a figurine of a brown baby
Jesus while a native woman throws them the keys to their
Buick sedan asking them to grab the paper plates …
Through the absurd details of the scene, Chan cracks open a complex colonial history that continues to play out in the Philippines’s most recent colonizing country, the birthplace of the Buick sedan.
Chan’s speaker relates to “Tony” Pigafetta in that she, too, is often the outsider looking in as she navigates the Philippines and its histories, and learns, or struggles to remember, the family language, Bisaya. She adopts the title of Pigafetta’s glossary, “Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples,” for a poem that reveals that Pigafetta’s list includes the Bisaya word for “mother-of-pearl,” but not for “mother.” The poem then leaps to imagine a motherless people, born “not from women, but from milky shells that tumbled onto shore,” as Chan archly adds, “Or maybe, these heathen peoples were never born, only written into life.” By the end of the poem the speaker, tasked with rewriting a people, and herself, into existence, concludes, “I recognize all the things that have been and will be forgotten, so I’m writing this down…” Chan reveals that while Bisaya is a language her mother knows, it is a language she herself “can understand, but can’t speak…” Throughout the collection, the speaker is learning or searching for words, sometimes with humor, as at the festival, and sometimes to connect to her extended family in mourning, as when she tries to recall the Bisaya words for “body,” “head,” and “fly home” while participating in the funeral of a dead relative on FaceTime. Meanwhile, this native language she reaches for is infused with an enduring marker of colonialism: the Spanish language.
Chan draws on a variety of poetic forms to reflect both postcolonial intersections of languages and competing narratives. Prose poems signal revisions of existing narratives; slashes offer disruptions and build connections in “In Defense of Karaoke”; and the book’s closing abecedarian moves both forward and backward through the alphabet as a “Counterargument That Goes All the Way Around.” There is also multilayered content, from the mélange of food — there’s a mix-up of identical cars in the Seafood City parking lot, but one holds pandesal crumbs and another spam — to the mash-up of song lyrics that appear in “In Case of Karaoke.” There is an adaptation of a Japanese tale of a boy born from a peach in “Momotaro in the Philippines,” and the fable-like “Which Came First” shifts in focus from childhood chickens to depictions of emerging desire and sexuality to motherhood, moving from the literal toward the allegorical with its ending:
The One-Eyed Chicken speaks
our name. Until the One-Eyed chicken
sits on our face, until it teaches us
how to do the chicken things, how to fly
the chicken way, which is to say,
close to earth.
Histories are shaped by their own mythologies, and by who tells the stories. In “Elegy for Your Master,” Chan reminds us that the colonizers did not circumnavigate the globe alone. Enrique of Malacca was enslaved by Magellan, traveling with him until freed at Magellan’s death, Enrique’s “heart, a brown / spinning globe.” The poem’s ironic conclusion leaves Enrique, converted, praying for the soul of Magellan. In an arresting transition, the next poem is titled “When the man at the party said he wanted to own a Filipino.” This stark and recognizable narrative of racism in 21st-century America begins with the speaker’s frustration at not speaking up to the man at the party and ends by allowing her the last words, as she eviscerates the stereotype of the passive Filipino:
… And we are not
amenable as much as we are insidious. We are the cornioles,
who, after being eaten alive by a whale, enter the whale’s body
and take small, tender bites of the whale’s enormous heart.
This “we” expands across time and borders, rewriting the narrative of a people colonized over hundreds of years and separated by immigration.
Chan is not afraid to turn the lens back on her own Americanness, perhaps most powerfully in “Cebu City,” toward the end of the collection. She says of her cousin, “C. is subservient // She cleans my room / though I ask her to stop.” The cousin both hangs their laundry and takes it down by dusk to protect them from ghosts. The two are connected, through body, through blood, but separated, too, not merely by geography and its politics, but by cultural difference, how it shapes their personalities and treatment of one another. “My body, my body,” the speaker repeats throughout the poem. In the end, the cousin stays in her homeland, by choice, though invited to come with the speaker’s family, while the speaker returns to America, wondering what she will “owe” her cousin when her own parents die. The word “owe” pulses with the complex relationships within families stretched across these two nations, one which once bought the other from Spain. “My body, my body,” the speaker repeats. Where does this body belong? Where does it come from? Where can it go? Like the character of Buzz Aldrin in “On Buzz Aldrin’s Birthday,” who in the poem’s epigraph claims the moon “not as a destination but more a point of departure,” Chan envisions the moon as “a reminder / of where we’ve been, where we’re destined to go.” The moon offers a full view of earth, and it also deals in dreamscapes:
In the lamplight, I dream of moon-water.
In moonlight, my mother dreams
of her mother, who once dreamed
of new beaches, mangos, black sand.
Chan’s unique moon’s-eye view, encompassing multiple cultures, periods, and vantages, makes for a resonant debut.
Rebecca Morgan Frank’s fourth collection of poems, Oh You Robot Saints!, is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2021. Her poems have recently appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Memorious.org.
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