A few things about R. Zamora Linmark's 'The Evolution of a Sigh'

zamora linmark

[R. Zamora Linmark: Photographed by Roger Erickson in Los Angeles. From Out Magazine.]

I wanted to say a few things about R. Zamora Linmark's energetic collection The Evolution of a Sigh (Hanging Loose Press, 2008) which I've read and reread, and which had me cracking up at some of what I enjoy best in Linmark's work; he mines and dredges that space between languages and all of the weirdness of that space, which facilitates communication and miscommunication. As in his first book, one of my favorites, the novel Rolling the R's, he writes unapologetically from a place of historically and culturally misused English. This misuse leads to the creation of new sets of definitions, as in the first stanza of "Surviving the Post-American Tropics":

The most important thing to remember
when entering the Postmodern Islands
of Beyond Repair is that "to salvage" means
to exterminate someone, ice their heart
and kidneys for transplant trafficking before
dumping the boy in the tallest manmade
mountain of refuse, or selling the corpse
whole to the media, as in: "69 journalists salvaged
since '86; president vows to salvage salvagers."

The Postmodern Islands of Beyond Repair is, of course, the Philippines, and the abusers of English are salespeople ("Sir, have you availed / already of the 2-4-1 skin-bleaching promo"); blonde-dyed Filipinas in Starbucks in Manila ("The acting manager-in-relief, you know, / gave me an ocular inspection"), sugar daddies in bathhouses ("Use 'my dick' in a paragraph. / And then I'll pay you."), action heroes who've become politicians ("To be / what it takes to be. Only then we shall / be so be it because it is."). We have here the irony of a nation of people who pride themselves on their mastery of English and American popular culture, and obscenely misuse them both, as in "Doris Day & Night Eatery":

BLOCK & WHITE, best-selling skin-whitening cream. "IT BLOCKS THE SUN AND WHITENS THE SKIN."


ee plumbings, chief rival of Christopher Plumbing.

FELIX THE CUT SALON, located right beside the SINE QUA NON convenience store.

I believe the above Philippine businesses' names are real. I also believe the gusto with which Filipinos pun the English language and American popular culture references has to do with staking a claim in English, transforming it rather than being disenfranchised or victimized by it.

Language and communication are about context, as we see from the use of "salvaged," and in the poem, "In Tagalog":

In Tagalog, there is no he or she.
Instead: siya, while we is split
into two, designed especially to include
(tayo) -- or exclude (kami) -- you.


So when you run into Filipinos
at the eggplant and bitter melon market
behind the Virgin Mary grotto
and are greeted by someone
telling you how fat (sobrang
taba) or dark (itim na itim)
you've become, that's normal.
Remain calm, avoid the specifics.
The vague response diyan lang
(just there) is enough
to end the conversation.

What I like about the above excerpt is that it reads like a politically impolite rendering of the Culture Shock! series, you know, the travel guide book series which is supposed to instill cultural understanding in westerners traveling to the "Post-American Tropics." Makes you wonder if the "you" of this poem is included or included in "we."

In the book's final section, Linmark explores the spaces between English, Tagalog, slang spoken in Hawaii, and Japanese.

"'Chichi' are "tits" in Hawaii but a "father" in Japan. Don't laugh because 'haha' is your mother."


"Taeko" is a Japanese girl's name but "my shit" in Tagalog.

This final section reads like zuihitsu, a compilation of various notes from Japanese 101 class, post-it's from a one night stand with a Burberry suit wearing "salaryman," Yahoo chats, pantoum crafted using a friend's text messages, and travel notebook entries through Japan. Through his travel notebook entries, we see he is jarred by his interactions the marginalized Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) population and community, who are both familiar and foreign to him:

7:57 p.m. 85% of Filipinos in Japan are women.

8:04 p.m. The Japanese government issues only three-to-six-month visas to OFW's ... less for Filipino tourists.

8:33 p.m. Cassius' apartment, on the kitchen table, a still life of banned foods: oxtails cooked in peanut sauce, shrimp paste, mongo beans, pork innards, and rice.

8:35 p.m. Dumbstruck by Filipinos conversing in Japanese, he sees himself as an invited guest through a common origin but made exile by language.

8:38 p.m. Autumn moon-viewing at Kashima Shrine, Basho said:

"Neither monk nor warrior
I call myself a bat --
Neither bird nor mouse."


10:33 p.m. "The moment, like eternity, is in a word" -- Edmond Jabès

I think it's appropriate to end my write-up with Jabès, who also wrote, "Always in a foreign country, the poet uses poetry as an interpreter."

Originally Published: September 28th, 2009

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...

  1. September 28, 2009
     edward mycue

    what an astoundingly spectacular post this is. this opens.\r
    edward mycue

  2. September 29, 2009
     Latino Poetry Review

    Thank you for consistently bringing new voices to my attention.

  3. September 30, 2009
     Don Share

    Let me second Francisco's thanks for opening our eyes.

  4. September 30, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Thanks folks, for your kind comments, and am glad to have introduced R. Zamora Linmark to you. It's interesting how obscure he seems to the readers here. His first book has been very widely taught in Filipino and Asian American lit classes for about a decade now. He has recently been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize (shortlist is soon forthcoming), a Fulbright scholar, has had two books of poetry published by Hanging Loose Press.\r

    Maybe it's a Pacific thing?

  5. September 30, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    I don't know...it could simply be that with the world's exploding population, there are simply so many good poets writing these days that it's impossible to keep up with them all. Which makes this blog very useful! Thanks from me, as well.

  6. September 30, 2009

    Barbar Jane Reyes, this post has nothing to do with your current blog entry and everything to do with, what I think, was your first. Which entry would be by now buried. (Blog managers if you see fit to remove my comment as irrelevant I understand. Just make sure please Ms Reyes gets the text.)\r

    You mentioned a collection of translated Arab women poetry. I ordered it online from some sort of American-Palestinean clearing house. I finally gave up on getting the book from them, figuring, what the hell, it is pay pal money I'll have to recoup. The book finally got sent. I picked it up today at the P.O.\r

    This is such incredible stuff! I suppose that in the English language poetry world this might be called outrider poetry, or poetry whose rules of construction, syntax, tone, address, and texture are different. But I think not so different to poetry working in the Spanish language tradition(s). Immediately I remember something Lorca said about flamenco poetry. That it has (had) as its formal inspiration Arab poetry models. Specifically he mentioned Hafiz.\r

    What I find particularly interesting is that many of the poets are European and American based. Some are professionals and college employees. But they work in a tradition that is both Arabian and Persian going back to Hafiz. And they work effectively. So many of the poems have duende, that stark thing. And humor and irony and a bite. I get again what Lorca meant.\r

    Thanks. I read poetry like this and I get restless. I figure poetry should always make us restless.\r


  7. September 30, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Terreson, many thanks for this very thoughtful comment. First I am glad to hear you picked up that anthology I'd mentioned. You are right about the poets being American and European based, and I'll also add working in American and European traditions, even as they work in traditions going back to Hafiz. Lorca then as something of a bridge between those foci? Anyway, if I may try to link this back to Linmark, I think it's also apparent that he works in multiple traditions, and like many poets from non-Western backgrounds, makes connections between these disparate parts. As I type this, it feels like the most obvious thing, but sometimes I wonder if this kind of poetry which you've referred to as "outrider" tends to get pushed aside or overlooked, precisely because mainstream western readers aren't sure what to make of these unexpected or unlikely or even vulgar combinations of traditions?\r

    Finally, glad to hear this kind of poetry makes you restless. Me too.