Tuesday, December 20, 2011



Archipelago Dust by Karen Llagas
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2010)

In Karen Llagas's Archipelago Dust, the author begins in "Descent" with a reflection on the pain implicit in names. "My mother's name means end/in Tagalog and my father's name/means wound in Spanish." This reflection on names and their meanings and how these meanings evoke a certain "melancholy" persist throughout the work. Llagas interrogates the themes that concern the modern Filipino American immigrant; issues of family, rejection, identity, history and ultimately desire permeate this collection of poems, showcasing the narrator’s relationships and failed connections within a contained poetic landscape.

Take, for example, "Mother: 3." The poet calls up the image of a young girl in a room "too small, books/in the way so I'm reading them all." The retreat within is met by derision by her mother who says "this is not healthy," demanding that the girl go outside to play with the other kids and offers her a "threat outside the door." The girl protests this intrusion and wishes instead for the "Lapland queen," a reference to the Snow Queen of yore, who is a preferable companion to her own mother. The subject has failed to find solace in her mother and instead turns to the tenuous affections of fantasy to find comfort.

This theme of isolation and rejection continues throughout the anthology and repeats, not just in her relationships with her mother, but also with her father, her sister and ultimately her lover. In "Shyness" she relates the feeling of knowing love to the feeling of these familial and amorous links:
To know love is still sometimes this:
the moment right before my father finds

how much he's giving away,
the moment becoming grass
about to be brushed against, the self

a smudge only. This: his lips at rest,
with no need for my mother's.

Love here is defined not by what it is, but what it is not. The disavowal of the mother and the subsequent discovery of meaning in the lover becomes the central concern of the narrator.

Unfortunately, this respite is fleeting. In "The Muse Speaks," the narrator hints at the gray end that comes at the end of love. In a loose reformulation of the Catholic prayer "Hail Holy Queen," we hear echoes of this desire for connection and the realization that it will fail.
O infinite
afternoons, O profound boredom. All I've
known is brightness until you came. Here,
I give you back the charcoal you sketched
me with, the one you left by the bed that night.
You told me very few colors can be seen
at once, what matters is what separates them.
I dreamt of the light in Arles, the sepia snow.
But that world is mute for you now, as it will be
for me, once you leave.

The connection the poet seeks is frustrated by the anticipation of the lover's departure. The world's colors recede and the hope that rises in this archipelago of stories rises and falls, once again, into dust.


G. Justin Hulog writes stories about ruined gods, forgotten spaces and new worlds. Born in Baguio City, he grew up in California before leaving home to study Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was a senior staff writer for Karma Magazine and is the founder of DigiTomes, a digital publishing company focused on creating the YA and children's books of the future for tablet devices (www.digitomes.com). Justin is currently completing his MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Follow him on Twitter at gbh2001.

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