barangay /an offshore poem by Adrian de Leon (Buckrider Press, 2022)

My closest neighbours in Edmonton are from the Philippines and I want to gift them this moving lilt of a long poem (despite the titles this is how such a work reads to me with its motifs & repetitions). I feel a bit frustratingly out of its cultural sphere of comprehensibility as the Philippines rarely crosses my mind much beyond the fact that I attended a Philippine-rich high school in Vancouver, unfortunately prior to our current era where individual cultures have become more truly celebrated. But when it comes to poetry and even literary fiction I’ve never felt my ignorance of subject matter is as much of an impediment as it would be, say, in non-fiction. The ear is almost all and that’s how I enter a text (the text enters me).

The title of de Leon’s book barangay is the name for a pre-colonial Philippino outrigger boat, a word resonating like a diasporic sigil or knell throughout the fragments, the sound itself a coracle that floats the reader through time & space, injustice & beauty. Not only are many pieces titled “barangay,” but others are hauntingly called “dung-aw,” or mourning chants and trace grief as a “strange unending pause” as we pass the landscapes of loss: “here is the shoreline/of the famished cemetery./ here are the waves/of the slaughterhouse./here are archives/in our stars” (o the exquisite alliteration in the final image!) Although the mostly lower-case pieces with their skeletal lines ache with a sense of cultural thieving, the repetitions of key touchstones, and especially the root word “barangay” (recalling Tim Bowling’s Tenderman series to me), enact a thread of conjoining, the seam of a healing scar or as de Leon poignantly writes, “Something/umbilical in an age of fracture.”

The sequence is punctuated by a stirring erasure text and several photographs of black & white beaches, where the ocean appears to course in & out beyond colonizations, while every cell & salt grain is impacted, regardless, by dominance and homogeneity, whether of the Spanish or Catholicism or other proscribed and hopefully former normalities. The estuaries of lyrics and a brief filmic script grounded in the Rouge Valley surge into the tributaries of the later homages to place & language: On Tagalog, On Scarborough, On Rouge. There are no conclusions here, however. As the asterisk connotes “a translation” and then “for the time being.” A migrant net of singing for the lost & the now.

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