purpose & craig santos perez

lukao coverIn my recent microreview & interview of Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao], I spoke of Perez’s multivalent poetic approach demanding an equally multivalent reading, and how the book makes this demand in an accessible manner. Every literary tradition has their footnote-ridden “masterpieces” (I’m nodding at T.S. Eliot’s aptly named “The Wasteland”), but for every footnote or incorporation of Latin or French in such pieces, there’s a headscratch moment that is rarely explained, specifically  regarding purpose. Literary critics can extrapolate and pontificate about their given interpretations and tell us why something matters only so long before one wonders how much the poem/poet is actually intending and putting down for the reader to pick up.

Upon first reading, the poem below, “(pō),” reads as an intimate love lyric, one whose enjambment and use of brackets and slashes only heighten the need for a close reading. The rhetorical approach of presenting a list of “before” statements only heightens the intimacy, creating tension amidst close listening and rich language. Even before one makes use of Perez’s textual notes, which explain the title’s meaning as:

—Pō: In the Hawaiian belief system, Pō is the creative darkness from which all things emerged

there is an contextual translation in the pacing of the lines

before was pō \\
the first darkness

The poem, then, upon first reading, gives over enough of itself to stir and evoke reactions on a number of levels; it also makes itself matter in a way that is only further served by the online “footnote” Perez provides.

There is a great generosity in this approach, a virtuosity that is humble and tactful. It is something I empathize with when I see it in other writers like Perez who write in more than one language not as intellectual flourish but poetic necessity. That Perez accomplishes this once would be gift enough; that his latest collection lends itself to multiple and various readings is nothing short of a tribute and testament to the poetic act itself.


from ginen understory



before i first visit [you]
in ka’a’awa // before
[we] swim in salt water
and forage the tide
for shells \\ before [we]
learn our body
languages // before i
mistake trade winds
for your hair \\
before [we] dive
// before [we] come
against wreckage \\
before [we] close
our eyes to see
what night asks [us]
to let go // before
the emotional
chickens crow the sun
risen \\ before vow
-els and consonants //
before was pō \\
the first darkness
birthing our sea
of moving islands


find out more about Dr. Craig Santos Perez’s work here.

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