Thomas Fink
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Review of Not Even Dogs, by Ernesto Priego
(Meritage Press, 2006)


On Philippine Independence Day, June 12, 2003, Eileen R. Tabios announced the birth of “a diasporic, thus transnational form” (112), the hay(na)ku, which consists of a single word in the first line, two in the second, and three in the third. Soon thereafter, many poets began to write hay(na)ku, which might be considered the Filipino displacement of the Japanese haiku. In 2005, Tabios’ Meritage Press brought forth The First Hay(na)ky Anthology, edited by Jean Vengua and Mark Young. This year, “the first single-author hay(na)ku collection,” Mexican poet Ernesto Priego’s Not Even Dogs. (Young’s lyrical introduction, “The Reckless Sleeper,” opens the book).

As a prominent hay(na)kuist, Priego has been dubbed a writer of “jainaku” (a Spanglification suggesting further transnational travel). Mostly in English with some Spanish included, his collection features one individual hay(na)ku and hay(na)ku sequences ranging from two to 42 tercets each. In his January 2006 blog review of the Vengua/Young anthology, Ron Silliman asserts that the hay(na)ku, like a quatrain “is more stanza than finished work” and that the “first generation of hay(na)ku writers have created—not a poem, but a stanza, simple, supple, elegant, capable of considerable variation.” Silliman’s analysis holds true of Priego’s hay(na)ku sequences, titles of which are often the entire first hay(na)ku in the sequence. Sometimes he uses reversals of the form, like the highly charged coda of “Considered the possibilities”: “Stars,/ considering wreckages,/ willing to giving// It all again/ for one/ word” (22).

Many of Priego’s poems interrogate properties of language in ways reminiscent of Jacques Derrida’s writing. Derrida, whom Priego cites in an epigraph to one poem (23), frequently utilized the trope of “ghost” to further his elaboration of the deconstructive logic(s) of absence/ presence. The figure of the ghost surfaces in enough poems in Not Even Dogs for Priego to admit, in the opening lines of a hay(na)ku sequence, “How/ I wish/ I could write// about/ something other// than my ghosts// but/ what are/ words if not// traces/ of absence. . .” (31). While these lines may be uncomfortably close to the ur- deconstructionist’s lingo, other poems on language exhibit much less derivative discourse. Especially, note one interlingual example where non-equivalence is declared elegantly and symmetrically:

another language
is not Latin

untranslatable word
cannot be learnt

impossible experience
you simply ignore

distant madness
you once imagined

once meant
something to us (36)

Problems specifically illustrate the general thematic of obstacles to representation. Is the Spanish infinitive “Recordar” the grammatical subject of the first hay(na)ku, thus making the implication that the retrieval of a “living” language is different from that of a “dead” one, like Latin, or does it have the function of a command, thus calling attention to the disparity between “another language” and “Latin”? If, as asserted, “to love” cannot occupy the same connotative space as “amar,” we also cannot be sure what, exactly, “cannot be learnt”: is it the feeling or action of “amar” or is it adequate conceptual bridging between two languages? While the three Spanish words—no longer verbs, but nouns—beginning the last three tercets steer the poem in a political direction, and the last is clearly an ethicopolitical lament, the examination of language’s capabilities and fault lines continues with the irony of the apparently subjective “impossibility”/actual possibility of “Hambre” (hunger) intersecting with a deliberate lack of attention to it and the similar distancing of “Pobreza” (poverty) as “madness” and something “imagined.”

In another highly successful bilingual poem about language(s), Priego notes that “in this/ language question marks// only/ indicate endings,” but that “in [his] mothertongue,/ in which” he feels “unprotected,” beginning and ending are marked, as he demonstrates: “said punctuation/ mark is one// and/ its contrary./ ¿Lo habías visto?” (78). One can only respond affirmatively to the question of whether s/he has seen this phenomenon in Spanish if s/he is bilingual enough to read the three-word line or, as in my case, obtains some extratextual help. Perhaps the postcolonial history of commerce and global culture dictates that English can “protect” individuals, even native Spanish-speakers, more than Spanish. Considering “the/ body as/ a question mark,” the poet implies an analogy between the body and a Spanish “question mark// that/ opens and/ closes: begins &/ ends.” However, rather than forcing an extended comparison, he first asks, in English, “what/. . . question marks say about// our bodies, written,/ marked by language,” then shows the obstacles to answering this with another, probably rhetorical question in both languages, and two final questions:

can’t I
ask this question

abriendo, cerrando,
with these words?

kind of
body am I

closing off,
but not opening?

¿ Podríamos,
por favor,
ponernos a pensarlo? (78-9)

For someone to be able to “ask” the “question// properly,” it is insufficient to include Spanish and English in one sentence or to find “the right words” in either language; s/he must transcend the previously articulated difference between the two tongues to create a unified utterance. This seems impossible. The textual “body” being written, likely with the desire to give expression to the corporeal one, in a single language is “closing off” representational possibilities of the other. In order to begin to try to overcome such problems, the polite (or desperate?) entreaty in the “closing” (yet “re-opening”) Spanish hay(na)ku calls for the concerted effort of re-thinking.

Not Even Dogs includes various poems that “write” the body interestingly but without recourse to such intense linguistic self-consciousness. There are tender love poems like “We Walked Together” (19-20) and “How/ could I/ sleep all night” (60), as well as evocative short pieces about the intersection of human-made and natural elements, such as the single hay(na)ku: “Grass/ moving slowly/ the sculpture watches” (45). A three-hay(na)ku poem is particularly mysterious:

copper coin
drowning its wishes

exploding seeds
illuminate like crayons

kept saying
hole won’t go (42)

Without connectives, we do not know whether a metaphor brings together “sun” and “copper coin” or whether the poet’s imagination just metonymically joins them. The possessive adjective “its” could refer to either or both. Further, what are the thwarted “wishes” of “sun” or “coin”? Are these tropes of devaluation? After the first hay(na)ku’s downward motion, we encounter the radial, “crayon”-like flowering of “fireworks” in the second, then a report of someone’s assertion of an odd tenacity. From the last hay(na)ku’s vantage point, earlier images of “drowning” and “exploding” can be considered illustrations of a process of the presentation of a gap or absence, which includes the absent-ing of a presence.

The third section of Not Even Dogs, “Cities,” begins (a little like a reverse hay(na)ku) with “Tenth City” and goes all the way down to “First City.” A few of these are considerably longer than the book’s other sequences. Taken as a twenty-eight page whole, the section can be considered a
hay(na)ku long poem. Occasionally, one might detect brief allusions pointing to a particular city, but Priego meditates more generally on “what cities/ do to people” (82) and for them.

This section includes some imagistic allusions to power relations played out in cities. For example, there is a reference to “savagely conquered territories” (88), indicating the founding violence of some cities, and another to the “monster” of gentrification: “I/ used to/ play baseball in// cornfields/ now condos/ with tennis courts” (82). However, most of “Cities” is devoted to an exploration of how the city becomes an object for the expression of people’s fantasies, an index of their fears and longings. “Tenth City” invokes the city as a panoptical concretization of Fate: “you are everywhere// like/ a weary/ fury deciding futures// of/ those who/ live within you” (83). Both alienation from the main action of “the/ city where/ life goes on// as/ if we/ were not all// freezing” (100-1) and its opposite, identification with an erotic component—“the actual// feeling/ of belonging/ even if never// like/ a stranger/ finding his home// like/ an other/ finding his love” (102)—feed into this powerful sense of environmental determinism. Priego displays the force (even, at times, the charm) of such urban fatalism while also suggesting how people make cities into ghostly fictional constructs reflecting their own anxieties: “under/ the wealthy/ fantastic urban landscapes// of/ non-existent cites/ that are not// &/ could not/ but still are” (84). This is not T.S. Eliot’s “unreal city”; elsewhere in the section and book, Priego implicitly questions social underpinnings of urban manifestations of wealth, as the conservative Modernist would never do. In fact, one intriguing aspect of “Cities” involves a simultaneous awareness of the city as embodiment of democratic potential and as a locus of struggle and torment for the poor:

the rain
we ran from

witness your
humid and sensuous

of brotherhood
with the world

those who
struggle for hope

gloomily sing
to survive you. (87)

Aside from its potent articulation of social contradiction, this passage demonstrates how Priego amply exploits the hay(na)ku sequence’s formal potential. The form requires an interesting set of enjambments, so that phrases, clauses, and whole sentences are distributed variously. In the example above, not only does the poet stretch a substantial part of a long sentence over five tercets but he allows different kinds of words to end the first, second, and third lines. As for the first lines, two “ands,” two prepositions, and one noun appear. In the second lines, we see two nouns (one concrete, the other abstract), one possessive adjective, a conjunction, and a verb, while in the third lines, there is a preposition, an adjective, two nouns, and a pronoun. An examination of opening words in each line would produce similarly diverse results. Thanks to his ability to put line-breaks (and, at times, caesuras) at different points in a sentence, Priego manages to write about one hundred pages of hay(na)ku without falling into monotony. This is impressive.