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Catalina Cariaga, ‘Cultural Evidence’ (Subpress Collective, 1999)

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Of course
they didn’t eat dogs.
They didn’t have dogs.
If they had dogs
they would have eaten them.

–Catalina Cariaga

This poem, “Dogmeat,” is one of the opening poems to Catalina Cariaga’s Cultural Evidence (Subpress Collective). I really can’t think of a better way to start off a collection of poetry concerned with weighing the given anthropological, journalistic, statistical evidence of Filipinos in the world, versus evidence provided via experiential knowledge and memory. Right away, Cariaga is telling folks, don’t readily believe everything you’ve been told about us.

cultural

Consistent throughout Cultural Evidence is the necessity of speaking for oneself, and the silencing and objectification which occurs when others claim to speak for you. The poem, “No Tasaday,” is about the fake Philippine tribe, allegedly perfectly peaceful (“no word for ‘war’,” “vegetarian scavengers,”) and pure (“no smallpox, no yellow fever”) stone-agers living in a remote Philippine rain forest in the twentieth century. Many things about the invention of the Tasaday were unfortunate:

“Nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state,” wrote French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. His theory about the human condition seems borne our by this Tasaday child and his defenseless kin, who must now depend on the protection of 20th Century man for their very survival as a people.

– photo caption, “Stone Age Cavemen of Mindanao,” National Geographic (1972)

Cariaga creates for us a picture of these gentle and pure primitives in jarring, one-word/phrase lines: “Breasts / monogamous // primitive / gentle / horror / bliss,” “Napalm / rain // Viet Cong / Tasaday,” “savage / child / jungle / rain forest / 1972 / 1492 / fierce / genteel // genitals / thighs // Real / distant.”

Western contact with the natives and the constructed image of the primitive during the Age of Imperialism is not too different from Western contact with the natives and the constructed image of the primitive in the twentieth century, with the constructed image of the primitive leading to a rationale of paternalism and conquest. Humanity is blurred until it’s nonexistent.

Similarly, in “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” her speaker sifts through so much noise, television commercials, sound bytes and chatter, trying to find out something substantive about Flor Contemplación, the Filipina Overseas Contract Worker (OCW) in Singapore; she was framed for two murders, including the child of the family for whom she worked as the maid. She was subsequently executed by hanging in 1995. The poem is a series of couplets which are comprised of other people’s words:

52.

“All around the world” “diapers and baby food”
“Lysol, Clorox, and Ivory” “another Filipina maid”

“Singapore girl” “Playtex and Gerber”
“the four-year old boy” “declined to testify”

“All around the world” “a domestic” “she” “was represented”
“with clemency, but this was rejected” “please E-mail me”

“Singapore girl” “because ‘voices told her to do it’”
“a Professor of anthropology and folklore” “found untrue”

“All around the world” “and then, new versions came out”
“Roosters with blades connected” “die a quick death”

Here, the poetic speaker’s plea for someone to email her with information regarding Flor Contemplación is drowned out by the Singapore Airlines jingle, news reports that don’t tell her anything insightful or humanizing, the anthropologist Alan Dundes’s research on the Southeast Asian cockfight, brand names of products and commodities. Contemplación is a commodity moved between seller, distributor, and buyer. We never hear her voice.

“Cocks are symbolic,” wrote Dundes, as Cariaga epigraphs for “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” Cocks are bred for one thing only, to do as their owners have trained them to do up until their dying breath, as the Filipina has become used as one thing transnationally –

“Singapore girl” “a vacuum cleaner and oven” “cooks”

“a domestic” “bred and raised for such purposes”

As an OCW, Contemplación was a member of a silenced and self-replenishing labor force when one should expire. Cultural Evidence ends with this poem, and her final couplet is the plea:

“Please E-mail me.”
“Please E-mail me.”

This is a call for dialogue. Don’t speak for us. Speak to us. And hear us.

Comments (4)

  • On September 17, 2009 at 10:21 am csperez wrote:

    this book has been really influential on my work. and it’s a great book to teach!

    do you know when her next book is coming out?

    c

  • On September 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm Henriette wrote:

    The Tasaday link is fascinating:

    “They claimed that Elizalde had pressured them into posing as one. ‘We didnt live in caves, only near them, until we met Elizalde,’ they said. ‘Elizalde forced us to live in the caves so that we’d be better cavemen. Before he came, we lived in huts on the other side of the mountain and we farmed. We took off our clothes because Elizalde told us to do so and promised if we looked poor that we would get assistance. He gave us money to pose as Tasaday and promised us security from counter-insurgency and tribal fighting.’

    Iten’s discovery sent shockwaves around the world — a fake stone-age tribe managed to surprise even the most jaded newspaper readers — and soon reporters were once again making the journey out into the Filipino rain forest to visit the Tasaday.”

    What a great subject for poetry! And refreshing in light of the recent terrible name-calling over Kent Johnson’s Yasuada poems and the trouble had with certain anonymous commenters here and elsewhere. The mind reels!

    Bravo, Barbara!

  • On September 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “…and the trouble had with certain anonymous commenters here and elsewhere. The mind reels!”

    Henriette:

    How is posting with a pseudonym any different that posting anonymously? Don’t you think that anyone here reads other blogs? Yes, indeed, the mind reels.

  • On September 19, 2009 at 11:34 am Kazim wrote:

    Hi Barbara,

    Thank you so much for this review. This book has been tremendously influential to me also; I love Cariaga’s wild use of formal and spatial technique, which I see as an attempt to liberate language and poetic form from its received (and perhaps imperial?) uses. The “His Civil Rights” poem and “The Family Tree” are particularly powerful examples of this.

    Also I love the other poems that start with “no”: “No Boat,” “No Stone,” “No Moon,” and especially “No Orient.”

    And yes I too very much look forward to new work and a new book from Catalina Cariaga!

    Kazim Ali

Tags: ,
Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.