January 29, 2016
BY JON PINEDA
University of South Carolina Press, 2015
by A.K. Afferez
Things lurk in Pineda’s poetry. What starts out as a seemingly straightforward autobiographical recollection of events ends up charged with unspoken, evasive grief, which, to be understood in all its devastating power, must be considered obliquely. Not the thing itself, but what surrounded it, a sort of displaced objective correlative: to talk about the sister’s fatal car accident, consider instead the name of the driver who drove the truck that collided with the sister’s car. To talk about the heaviness of waiting for news of the deployed father, remember the neighbor’s rash promise of violence against the family dog, and the mother’s reaction, who “in one it seemed / practiced gesture brought / out the pistol to the man’s / head.” The core emotion is sidestepped, referred to in passing, only to be fully embodied, in all its urgency, by a gesture or a word that existed only, up to now, on the margins of the story.
Grief, of course – the trauma of the sister’s death is addressed in the opening poem, “First Concert,” which begins with sensory overload – a small boy at an electrifying concert, where each sensation becomes magnified – and ends in tragedy, recalling the sister one year before the accident. On coming back home from the concert, the boy shares a brief moment with his sister who’s waiting in the hallway and laughingly declares him to be high – it only lasts ten seconds or so probably, but it’s enough for the narrator to establish the full force of what’s been left behind by the sister’s absence.
Violence, too, seeps into childhood recollections. In “Silence,” the narrator remembers going outside, early in the morning, to feed the rabbit his sister loved, and finding it dead, its remains scattered over the lawn. We guess it’s the work of neighborhood boys – the mention of them knocking on the storm windows when the narrator’s father is far from home, deployed during the war, is enough to tip us off – and that irruption of violence in what could have been a scene of simple happiness points to the ceaseless undercurrent of menace beneath the veneer of joy. The quiet threat of the boys’ lurking presence is magnified, since we never actually witness the violence brought upon the pet, only its distressing aftermath – as such, the boys are symptomatic of the potential for violence inherent to us all, which could be released at any given moment. Yet violence is also considered as both action and reaction: it’s the neighbor wanting to kill the family dog, and the mother pointing the gun at his head; it’s the white sailors starting fights with the Filipino GIs during off-base dances and the GIs retaliating by wearing “thick chain links around / their necks under silk shirts” to use as weapons. One is not the same as the other: the first is offensive, the second defensive, meant to show what can happen when limits are overstepped. There’s only so much someone can take.
There’s a counterbalancing movement, though – alternating as he does childhood poems with vignettes of his own family life, the narrator doesn’t attempt to dissipate the sadness but instead reasserts the power of small moments of joy, however fleeting they might be – little anodynes, indeed. The final poem – also the title one – is haunted by the recollection of a friend’s suicide, but it hinges on the relationship between father and son in the context of a bicycle lesson, a tender moment threatened by thoughts of death but one that still occurs, and in its existence provides a salve of sorts against the undercurrent of suffering. Defining himself as a father also leads to a reconsideration of masculinity for the narrator. He doesn’t reject his father’s model of masculinity – as a GI in the war, a model that’s also complicated by a racial aspect, since the father is Filipino – and one poem gives us a scene of him and his own son watching a boxing match, the brutality of it understated but still palpable. But his relationship with his children allows him to formulate and enact another type of masculinity, one that doesn’t refuse intimacy through touch or rely on silence to convey meaning. The narrator abandons his poem, which he knows is “nothing only jibber / jabber,” to go comfort his daughter during a storm; he cradles his newborn son, kisses him, doesn’t refrain from showing tenderness. Even in his relationship with his own father, the narrator opens up a space of creativity and affection that, though unspoken, is still overwhelmingly tangible in its quasi-sensuousness: on a study abroad in Italy, he sends his father pieces of a puzzle that smell of garlic and that, once put together, reveal a sentence on their back, a “phrase in Tagalog.” The contents are not divulged to the reader, but we intuitively grasp the weight of the language that has passed between them.
In the foreword, Oliver de la Paz calls the poems breathless ribbons of prose verse – and it’s true, the way all these poems seem to be contained within one breath, narrow and taut, but what’s also true is the way each of them renders you breathless with their acute knowledge of both pain and joy, suffering and salve. They knock the wind out of you, with the precision of each line, muted and raw, landing like the punch that will win the match.