Thursday, December 22, 2011

THE FEELING IS ACTUAL by PAOLO JAVIER

PHILIP TROY Reviews

The Feeling is Actual by Paolo Javier
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2011)

3D Glasses and Collage Tropes in Paolo Javier's The Feeling Is Actual

On a first look into the Filipino American poet Paolo Javier's The Feeling is Actual, the reader may be struck first by its ambiguous title, or by the title page's double-image logo. Farther along, the reader is threatened with a bit of sensory overload, as what had been supposed to be a simple book of poems veers off in ever-shifting voices and points of view, wordplay simultaneously playful and thought-provoking, and, perhaps, a sense that a poem just might not be a proper poem without its accompanying illustrations, slide projections, stage directions and/or video. While some may even be tempted to wonder if this can truly be called poetry, poets since (and probably before) Homer have had multimedia associated with their work. Although there are non-textual aspects to Javier's work, the text is still the spine and the muscle of these pieces. Zhou Xiaojing, comparing several Filipino American poets, concludes that they share a tendency to undermine English as “the institutionalized instrument of colonization and as the model of official language of the dominant culture to which Filipinos and Filipino Americans must conform in their process of assimilation” (157).

The Feeling is Actual begins with a bit of seemingly childish naughtiness, written in the voice of someone who may not have been speaking and writing in English since birth, but who has acquired fluency without taking for granted, or losing respect for, the power of the language of ad-copy, playfully combining the sexually suggestive with the commercial come-on:
This Pepperoni

is a one-
of-a-
kind

you'd love it too
if you
were
pepperoni-inclined
it's got big, big, flavor! (8)

Those born under colonial rule, or those with such a heritage, are surely familiar with having the imperial culture's language and commercial practices, including advertising, imposed upon their own culture, often to be completely and irrevocably assimilated. It is entirely natural to expect to see changes in how language is used when the colonial dynamic changes: statements that once might not have been safe to make are now possible, and situations that had been ironic might only now be seen as funny.

Text is essentially a linear form of communication. Letters or words in the wrong order may lose their intended sense, and some early writing appeared on papyrus strips before anyone thought to attach those strips together to form a truly two-dimensional, easily portable writing surface. Later, telegrams would echo this practice. Text is a vector aimed, by the writer, in a given direction at an often fairly specific intended reader, and proceeds to move and have an impact upon the recipient. Multiple messages from different directions or in different dimensions can impact upon the reader in unexpected ways, and the ability of a poet to use text coming from different directions to manipulate the thoughts or mood of the reader in new ways is a tool Javier fully exploits. One technique he employs involves hybrid, clichéd phrases that call to mind some familiar stock message, such as “the feeling is mutual” —often expressed in our society without much feeling at all—and introducing, either by changing a word or two, or by attaching an entirely different stock phrase, a different, often somewhat jarrring, concept. These colliding ideas can produce several results, including calling attention to themselves in a new voice (as when cinematographers directly acknowledge or address the viewer, also known as “breaking the fourth wall”), and taking the reader off in a third direction of thought without losing any sense of the new phrase's original component parts. Thus, “the feeling is actual” carries not one, but a minimum of three, possible associations, and perhaps more: the common, if somewhat half-heartedly formal, response to some statement such as, “I love you,” “the feeling is mutual,” is changed by one deceptively similar-sounding word to become, “the feeling is actual.” “Really?” one might ask. “Why?” It's an odd use of the word, certainly, and the reader can't help but notice. A simple response phrase moves in one direction, only to be halted by a word that reverses the dynamic logic of the phrase, effectively turning it into a question that the reader may feel challenged to consider. The word “trope” derives from a Greek term meaning “turn”, and that these are, quite literally, turns of phrase requiring our attention on at least two levels even before we invest a third line of thought reacting to them, effectively adding a third level, like a game of 3D chess. Marjorie Perloff writes on collage in the work of Ezra Pound: “In omitting the context, Pound both arouses the reader's curiosity and heightens the [ . . . ] contrast. Then, too—and this is how collage works—juxtaposition replaces exposition [ . . . ]” (7). Although this technique is not new, it does seem particularly appropriate as poets increasingly experiment with multimedia pieces, challenging the ability of the reading audience to interpret on multiple levels simultaneously.

The title of Javier's poem, “Wolfgang Amadeus Bigfoot,” for example, sounds vaguely plausible to the semi-attentive. It scans well, rolling off the tongue. It also evokes an image of mathematically-controlled passion—Mozart, tempered by his somewhat bestial-sounding given name, along with the “beloved of God” middle name—and all the images we might associate with Bigfoot, both in American folklore and popular media frenzy. The resulting combined image of Age-of-Enlightenment men in powdered wigs, velvet pantaloons and stockings rubbing elbows in a country bar with plaid-capped, conspiracy-theorist Bigfoot hunters in camouflage dress compels us to take an ironic look at our own culture—are we rational or redneck? —and it is hard to rule out the possibility that all of these references are entirely intentional. At a recent reading, Mr. Javier explained that he was not so much “into Bigfoot” —at least no more so than most people—as he is fascinated by people who are. Elsewhere in his collection (“Pinoy Signs,” part of the section entitled “FYEO”) Javier speaks of a great love of the Filipino people—presumably remembering their colonial past—for twisting common American-English phrases in unexpected ways, using the example, “Doris Day and Night,” the name of a 24-hour restaurant. Throughout his collection, Javier uses these mini-collage tropes as metonymy. In “LMFAO,” his speaker states:
It was a no-win-win situation
It was as brand as new
It was as clean as daylight
           for me

“Hi, I'm Paolo,” I said, “What's yours?”

I couldn't help myself to it
you reap what you saw
the sky's the langit, &
I am only human nature (68)

Most of those references which will be fairly obvious to English-speakers—win-win versus no-win situations, etc. —langit, a Tagalog term translating as “Heaven” or “sky” is more obscure, but inserting a word that a conscientious reader might have to look up in a dictionary only emphasizes that the focus of the reference has been shifted. The effect is similar to that of James Joyce's twisted clichés in Finnegan's Wake, such as “Hearasay in paradox lust,” or “The flushpots of Euston and the hanging garments of Marylebone.” The framework of an expected phrase, carrying its own meaning, is combined with a word, words or phrase carrying their own implications which don't simply change the meaning of the phrase, but rather preserve the original reference while adding a new, different direction of reference and the question inherent in the distance between the two concepts, all while calling attention to the fact that this is being done. The reader can decide whether self-consciousness is an asset or a flaw, but it is amusing to think of a poet announcing his trickery, like a narrator in a 1950s B movie advising the audience, “Put on... your 3D glasses... now.”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Bigfoot,” using several characters to explore themes which include, among others, juxtaposed rationality and barbarism, machismo and sexual ambiguity, and mainstream American culture versus various manifestations of the alien Other, is also apparently intended to be staged as a play, with an introduction stating that performers may wish to choose images to project at key moments in the piece identified by capitalized text. Cynthia Wagner points out that this type of multimedia use in poetry is becoming more commonplace:
Experimentation is not new to poets. Even the constraints of the printed page permitted visual enhancements through the arrangement of words on a page and the additions of illustrations; adding music to words creates songs. The multimedia age permits and encourages new ways of approaching poetic communication, such as three-dimensional installations in virtual reality, which invite direct participation of the reader (16).

Wagner is referring to adding dimension to text by using visual aids and other outside sensory input, and Javier does sometimes do this, but it only seems to echo and reinforce his use of collage within the text itself to produce a similar effect of audience involvement, and Wagner's claim can be said to apply to it equally as well.

Multiple levels of collage, on both large and small scale, are used extensively in “Heart As Arena.” The title itself comes from a painting by 80s graffiti-themed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (who also employed collage techniques), and parts of the poem appear to be spoken in the voice of a fictional Basquiat-as-character, while others seem to refer to him as a third party. The poem is filled with references to Basquiat's work, and the extent to which we are getting some sense of Basquiat's point of view, Javier's point of view in his disguise as Basquiat, Javier himself in his own voice, all or none of the above, is never entirely clear, but Javier does occasionally offer clues in what may emerge as something of a trademark form:
oy            Jean-Michel
           tangina, pre

who's laughing now
           raging
all the way to the
                       corner bodega

           in the clouds where
former champs gather

oy bodega (108)

Again, apart from Filipino terms such as tangina and (arguably) bodega (a term common in many Latino cultures for a small market, but also a place name in the Philippines), we see the cutting and pasting of various clichés to refer to concepts different from their probable original target: who's laughing now? / laughing all the way to the bank / raging all the way to the corner bodega / oy vey / oy bodega are all concepts which we must take in, individually and in sequence, before fully grasping what is not just a simple play on a couple of words. It seems quite possible what is being referred to in the above (and much of the rest of the poem) is the shifting dominance of multiple ethnic groups in a given area over time; certainly the combination of the phrases evokes images firmly rooted in mainstream American culture, but subtly introducing elements from Latino, Yiddish, and Tagalog tradition. Before Javier launches into a section on Basquiat's “Santo Versus Second Avenue,” he uses more of this type of deceptively transitional wordplay:
but I awoke groggy this morning
one of six philistines missing

I'd love to break the jawbones
           of an ass
& serve it to him on a plate
stupid dumb dog motherfucker
- -----
            (blank black) (109)

The “six philistines missing” could refer to any number of things, from the actual Philistines of the Biblical Book of Judges, Samson and his jawbone, etc., to punnish, sound-alike references to Palestinians, or to Filipinos; it may well just be some variation on something Javier read in the newspaper or heard on the radio on the day he wrote it, or perhaps it is one of the enigmatic text lines appearing in a Basquiat painting. We may never know, but it is still important that anyone attempting a serious critique at least acknowledge the question. The painting could be seen as a response to perceived assaults on the local supremacy of whichever ethnic group may have been, or may now be, dominating the Lower East Side of Manhattan, specifically the area around the Second Avenue IND Line subway station at Second Avenue and Houston Street—a neighborhood that had been a refuge for both Basquiat and Javier, but now considered part of New York City's Chinatown. Images within the frame include a combatively-posed, somewhat skeletal, figure—among other possible interpretations, Santo is the name of a long-popular Mexican masked wrestler who appeared in many films with titles like Santo Vs. The Vampire Women, before finally unmasking and retiring in 1982 (a date mentioned in the poem) —a group of vaguely Hasidic-seeming figures with what may be traditional headgear and a horse and wagon, a painted facsimile of part of a Chinese takeout menu, and at least one figure in a pointed hat which could be anything from a dunce cap to a bishop's mitre to the sunshade hat found all over southern Asia. All these motifs are separated by frames or portions of frames emphasizing differing points of view, and at strategic locations various angry or monstrous faces are placed on the periphery, reacting to it all. Javier ends his address of that painting and launches into another section on Basquiat's “Irony Of The Negro Policeman” with the simple words, “black tar and feathers” (112).

Javier pressures the reader into asking some very serious questions about what Western civilization has done, and continues to do, to many cultures deemed foreign to it. Zhou Xiaojing writes, of the Filipino American poet Catalina Cariaga,
Rather than retreat into what might seem to be a self-indulgent language game, Cariaga's poetry is resolutely situated in the social, historical, and political. Her interrogation of language and form shares with many Filipino American poets an investigation of colonized subjectivity in relation to cultural imperialism, particularly the imposition of Spanish and English on the Filipinos. Part of this investigation entails the poets' exploration of the possibilities of using the colonizers' language to tell “another tale” (Abad 3) (157).

This argument could surely be applied to Javier: the language of the conqueror being used to comment on and expose the injustices inherent in imperialism and colonialism, and the ironies and inconsistencies of post-colonial life is a tool probably as old as, if not older than, the Magna Carta. Still, while asking some seriously provocative questions, the author of “This Pepperoni” just might not be above multitasking with the odd self-indulgent language game.


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Works Cited:
Javier, Paolo. The Feeling Is Actual. East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2011. Print.
Perloff, Marjorie. "Collage and Poetry." Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford U P, 1998. 384-87. Web. http://marjorieperloff.com/articles/collage-poetry/. Accessed 12/03/2011 Wagner, Cynthia G. "Poetry In The Digital Age." Futurist 42.1 (2008): 16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.
Zhou, Xiaojing. "Language And A Poetics Of Collage: Catalina Cariaga's Cultural Evidence." Melus 29.1 (n.d.): 157. Gale: Literature Resource Center. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.


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Phil Troy is a former chef who studied creative writing as a teenager with the late Frank McCourt at New York City's Stuyvesant High School. He is currently compiling three cookbooks, including one on Lunar New Year foodways, and authoring a semi-fictional history of his family told as a series of holiday dinner-table anecdotes and tall tales narrated by an assortment of relatives.

2 comments:

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Alan Ramon Clinton in GR #18 at

http://galatearesurrection18.blogspot.com/2012/05/feeling-is-actual-by-paolo-javier.html

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Mirna Perrin-Louis in GR #19 at

http://galatearesurrection19.blogspot.com/2012/12/a-poem-from-feeling-is-actual-by-paolo.html