Right from the get-go, Craig Santos Perez lets the reader know that the space they enter is a personal one. Poetry collection [Lukao] (Omnidawn, 2017) is laden with natural beauty, heartfelt stories and sincere love. It also reveals the everyday truth behind the island of Guam and, indeed, the world at large.
Before we even reach the poetry, the collection offers what Perez calls a “poemap,” a picture outlining Guam’s cable network. The small island is crisscrossed with black lines which, according to Perez, “carry almost all transpacific Internet traffic.” Guam is a hub, interconnecting the USA with other continents. It’s a striking image to begin a book of poetry with, not least because of its utilitarianism. Guam is a tool for the United States, the reader sees, introducing the expectation of seeing the life and love breathing between those cables. Or struggling between them.
These images, and indeed this emotional thread, is fascinating and unsettling to follow throughout. More poemaps show the toxic chemicals in Guam, the intersections between the military firing ranges and parks and hiking trails and, strikingly, the spread of the USA’s ownership over Pacific islands.
The scope soon narrows onto Perez’s own Guam. In “from the legends of juan malo (a malologue) (the birth of Guam)” he fires off contextualizing proverbs which leaves readers (even those unfamiliar with the island, like me) with some idea of the pride and despair contained within.
“‘Guam is Where America’s Western Frontier Begins!”‘ ‘”Guam is Where America’s Logic of Territorial Incorporation Ends!'” ‘”Guam is Where America’s Voting Rights End!”‘ ‘”Guam is Where America’s Poetry Begins!”‘ Juan Malo’s malologues continue throughout the collection, railing against topics that seem innocuous and entertaining on the surface, like SPAM, connotations of the name “Guam” and the island’s “liberation.” Perez’s wit and concise, modern voice, shown these terms to be confused and enraged threads of Guam’s DNA.
[Lukao], at its heart, is about birth.[Lukao], at its heart, is about birth. Whether it’s the birth of an island nation or the birth of the narrator’s baby, birth is treated as a sublime subject. Something too large to treat as normal. The island, and the USA’s treatment of it, is not an insignificant thing, but rather something, babylike, that is destined to be stared at, lived with and thought wishful thoughts about. It is life itself. In “(first ultrasound)” the narrator asks us to “listen to hearbeats echoing // is this the sound of our ancestors pulsing on your taut skin drum.”
History is intertwined with the present and the actions of individuals; such is the way of island life and heritage. And it isn’t just history and the present that mix, but the different aspects of the island itself. Nature and man, myth and reality, peace and war. Perez can, in one sentence, describe the incomparable natural beauty of the place and then mention his route to the hospital for his child’s birth, or, indeed, the sound of military fighter jets overhead.
…It feel(s) as though you are looking at the bumpy surface of an island, not a book of poetry.
The current political significance of the island – a bargaining chip in an unstable game between world leaders or (more pessimistic) an island of potential collateral damage – is interrogated as Perez blends scenes of his wife bathing their baby then, in the next breath, recounts the stranded whales brought to shore by deafening military exercises. Perez’s poetry causes readers to experience this life of tension and the dialogue between an imposing world of danger and a life of such love. What a gift for a poet.
Throughout [Lukao], Perez is fearless, not only because of his ability to dig his fingernails into the belly of his home and show all the working parts, but because of how he bends the page, the form, to his will.
It’s a delight turning the pages of this book because the irregularities, the interviews, the maps, the monologues, crossings-out and see-through paragraphs make it feel as though you are looking at the bumpy surface of an island, not a book of poetry. The jumps between subjects mirror, one senses, the reality of life on the island.
Far from being a collection of tension and anxiety, however, it is the moments of personal clarity that allow the collection to breathe the heavy, pacifying breaths of childbirth. And what a relief it is.
Josh King received his MFA from Adelphi University in New York, and now lives in the UK. His fiction has been published in BlazeVOX magazine and The Matador Review, and he divides his time between writing articles, plays and drawing comics.