the operating system
Apr 11 · 8 min read
Image of Lehua M. Taitano

Welcome to the OS’s 8th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 Series! This year, contributors far and wide were gathered by four incredible curators, who are also our 2019 Chapbook Poets — to learn more about this year’s amazing curators and their forthcoming chapbooks, please click here! You can also navigate to the series archive, of over 200 entries, here! This week’s curator is Knar Gavin, author of the forthcoming chapbook, Vela..


The terraqueous poem: Lehua M. Taitano

On April 24, 2014, Barak Obama announced at a press conference with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that “the United States is and always will be a Pacific nation.” (1) A year later, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy reinforced the point at the National Press Club of Japan. (2) On June 3, 2017, then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis repeated the same talking point. (3) As did Vice Admiral Linda Fagan. (4) Again and again, (5) the idea that the United States is a Pacific nation is an all too familiar trope that dates back, as far as I can tell, to William Henry Seward, who served as the Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. In 1849, he proposed, “our population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.” (6) Seward clearly believed that the Pacific region was vital for the economic and military wellbeing of the United States. (7) However, the problem with this formulation — that the United States is a Pacific nation — should be obvious, for it erases the violent history of U.S. global expansion, the unique environments of Oceania, and the situated experiences of indigenous peoples, living in the fourteen territories of the Caribbean and Pacific regions.

As I wrestle with my own outside positionality in relation to Pacific literature, I find that Lehua M. Taitano’s latest collection, Inside Me An Island, is a salient re-centring of indigeneity and the Pacific diaspora that resists such empire-driven erasure. The title implies that the island is carried within bodies of the Pacific diaspora; that indigenous spaces and networks migrate as Pacific peoples migrate; that the ocean is a great connector of, and conductor for, situated knowledge. Inside Me An Island foregrounds the local-global network that frames indigenous identities. It attends to the displacements that the diaspora embody. It makes me wonder how we can enact sovereignty, citizenship, and justice in the twenty-first century.

Lehua M. Taitano is a native Chamorro poet from Guahån (Guam). She is the author of A Bell Made of Stones (TinFish Press, 2013), Sonoma (Drop Leaf Press, 2016), appalachiapacific (University of Montana Press, 2010), and the aforementioned Inside Me An Island (WordTech Editions, 2018). When I first encountered Taitano’s poetry in A Transpacific Poetics (Litmus Press, 2017), edited by Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu, I was especially drawn to the compacted typography of her poetry, which I read at the time as symptomising the impermeable fragments of place (see figure 1). Excerpted from A Bell Made of Stones, the poem demands a slow mode of engaged-reading. The spatial variances of lines and words gesture as much to the constructedness of the world as it does to the constructedness of writing. “Take the globe and spin it slowly in your hands,” Taitano writes:

Figure 1. From A Transpacific Poetics, 130.

Visually, figure 1 illustrates the tension between the appressed typography and the critical thrust of the poem, which lays bare the ways that colonisation has penetrated Guahån, as with other nations in Oceania. The courier font weighs heavily on the excerpt: the text feels clinical, pressing, even antiseptic as it foregrounds the density of archaeological colonisation. Fieldwork at the Naton Beach Site uncovered 177 skeletons when the Aurora Resort Villa and Spa, a luxury resort on Tumon Bay, Guahån, was undergoing renovations. Most were exhumed from underneath the restaurant and swimming pool. (8) I wonder if the denseness of the poem counteracts the need of Empires to classify, to read easily, to streamline local populations, to make clinical sense of the world. Archaeological in its endeavors, colonisation undertakes claustrophobic parsing of Guahån. It displaces ancestral remains in the name of scientific discovery.

Inside Me An Island pursues these themes of erasure, of drift, and of distances, which are produced through neocolonialism. In her poem, A Love Letter to the Chamaru People in the Twenty-First Century, Taitano writes: “Who but a horizon so keenly feels how we are kept at each other’s distance?”

“Because two more of our sons and daughters have enlisted. Because their

enlistment might return them home whole or in pieces or not at all.

Because diabetes has taken another pair of our eyes. Because we cannot

tread on pieces of our own land without clearance. Because we keep

words like clearance and deployment and strategic and stationed in the bowl with

our keys by the front door. Because we can count to a thousand in

Spanish. Because we can count to the apocalypse in English. (16, emphases in original)”

Taitano reminds us that the colonial apocalypse has already crystallised on the islands. And she builds her evidence after each successive “because.” Yet, each explanatory clause that follows signals another distancing, another breakdown, another feeling of disintegration. Another wet wound. Colonisation militarizes some indigenous bodies (bodies of land as well ashuman bodies) and fragments others. It weaponises words like clearance and stationed with the authority that either unlocks or denies access to ancestral homelands.

While A Love Letter to the Chamaru People in the Twenty-First Century underscores the global militarization of the Pacific Islands, and specifically of Guahån, the collection also builds up and collapses different geographic spaces. It draws attention to the intersections of the mainland and the islands and to the displacements of indigenous peoples across the United States. Titles include “Enchanted Rock, Texas,” “Kituwah” (on the Tuskegee River), “Smoking in the Window of My New Lover’s Kitchen,” and “Estuary.” In “Sonoma Prelude,” Taitano accentuates Native American displacement after the construction of the Warm Springs Dam in 1967. “So I found a boat. And a lake,” she writes:

And I thought of the way the lake had come to be. And the way of history that floods and flushes out those who would call the bottom of the lake home. And the stories and languages of those displaced people — the Pomo, the Miwok — whose sacred sites were drowned to make the place where boats like mine could float above on any given Wednesday in spring. (98–99)

As I re-read and re-read Inside Me An Island, I keep hearing Édouard Glissant between the lines. In Caribbean Discourse, Glissant echoes Kamau Brathwaite, writing:

Submarine roots: that is floating free, not fixed in one position in some primordial spot, but extending in all directions in our world through its network of branches.

For Glissant, creolisation, Caribbean histories, and identities are mobile. They flow and spill outwards. I’m not suggesting that Caribbean identities overlap with Oceania, but there’s a fluidity in Pacific literature, too, which flows tidally. It is visible in the work of Craig Santos Perez, Albert Wendt, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Vaughan Rapatahana, and Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. It is legible in Taitano’s Inside Me An Island, which gestures thematically and typographically to the certainty of the tides. Structurally, the collection has three sections: “Correspondence,” “Ma’te (Low Tide),” and “Hafnot (High Tide).” Visually, ocean swells are rendered legible on the page. In “Shore Song,” for example, short lines leave the impression that the poem is gently oscillating (see figure 2). Taitano’s poems are terraqueous in this regard. That is, they seek for the space between sediment and water, drift and belonging. That is, you cannot put a finger on them. Her last poem, “Sonoma,” refuses summation but I believe the final word allows us to grapple with the difficulties of migration and movement. Perhaps this word is meant to be used in its positive vernacular sense, but its ambiguity feels rather solid. Regardless, Taitano simply leaves us with: “swell.” (127)

Figure 2. From “Shore Song,” 21.

Notes:

  1. Barack Obama, “Joint Press Conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,”American Rhetoric, Online Speech Bank, April 24, 2014, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/barackobama/barackobamapmabejapanjointpresser.htm.
  2. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, “Address at the National Press Club of Japan,” American Rhetoric, Online Speech Bank, December 17, 2015,accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/carolinekennedyjapannationalpressclub.htm.
  3. Jim Mattis, “The United States is a Pacific Nation,” European Security & Defense, June 3, 2017, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.european-security.org/?q=articles/2017/06/03/united-states-pacific-nation.
  4. “Alameda-based Coast Guard cutter and crew depart for Western Pacific patrol,” United States Coast Guard, January 20, 2019, accessed March 22, 2019, https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDHSCG/bulletins/2298f1a;.
  5. George W. Bush, “Remarks to the troops at Osan Air Base in Seoul, February 21, 2002,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, George W. Bush 2002, Book 1, January 1 to June 30, 2002, 261. I also recall a documentary from the 1940s or 1950s that began with a similar turn of phrase. I believe the film was produced from the United States Navy, but I can’t recall the title or who directed it.
  6. Quoted in Alexey Postnikov and Marvin Falk, Exploring and Mapping Alaska: The Russian America Era, 1741–1867, trans. Lydia Black (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2015), 406.
  7. William H. Seward, “Commerce in the Pacific Ocean,” Global Gateway, accessed March 22, 2019, http://international.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?intldl/mtftext:@field(DOCID+@lit(mtfgc1000_2)):.
  8. David G. DeFant. “Early Human Burials from the Naton Beach Site, Tumon Bay, Island of Guam, Mariana Islands,” The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 3, no. 1 (2008): 149–53, DOI: 10.1080/15564890801990789.

Works Cited.

  1. Samuels, Lisa, and Sawaka Nakayasu, eds. A Transpacific Poetics. Brooklyn: Litmus Press, 2017.
  2. Taitano, Lehua M. Inside Me An Island: Poems. Cincinnati: WordTech Editions, 2018.

Orchid Tierney is from Aotearoa-New Zealand, currently residing in Philadelphia. Her chapbooks include Brachiation (Dunedin: GumTree Press, 2012), The World in Small Parts (Chicago: Dancing Girl Press, 2012), Gallipoli Diaries (GaussPDF, 2017), blue doors (Belladonna* Press, 2018), and ocean plastic(BlazeVOX, 2019). She is the author of a full-length sound translation of the Book of Margery Kempe, Earsay (TrollThread, 2016). Her collection a year of misreading the wildcats is forthcoming from The Operating System in 2019. She will be joining the faculty of Kenyon College as an assistant professor of English in the fall.

The Operating System

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

the operating system

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The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. Join us!

The Operating System

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

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