Documents by Jan-Henry Gray
BOA Editions, 2019. 92 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
On October 18, 1587, Pedro de Unamuno, captain of the square-rigged galleon, Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza, reaches the waters off the central coast of California and stops before completing its journey in Acapulco a month later. Unamuno documents the presence of eight “Indios Luzones” (Luzon Indians) among members of his crew dispatched to explore the area over three days. The translated passage in his journals reads “…at about ten o’clock in the morning, I set out on this exploration with Padre (Fray) Francisco de Noguera and the twelve soldiers and eight Luzon Indians with their swords and targets.” (Henry Raup Wagner, Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century, San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1929)
This date is commemorated as the “first landing” of Filipino bodies in northern America; however, the 1852 California census records in the Ancestry Library Edition database of the San Francisco Library yield the names of at least five individuals citing Manila or the Philippines as their birthplace. One was a seaman, two were laborers, one was a cook; the other two did not list their occupations. None of them—Philippine-born or not— would have had to carry a visa stamped for entry; nor would they have had to sit for an interview or fill out immigration forms upon arrival in America. When their presence is described as “documented,” this simply means that someone had bothered to write about them.
Jan-Henry Gray migrated with his parents to the US when he was six, only learning later in life that he did not have legal status. He completed his education through the DREAM Act, going on to earn his bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and his MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. In Documents, Gray writes poems as documents that scour history and the present moment to record more than just passing traces of immigrant bodies and stories, including his own. D.A. Powell says in the book’s Foreword: “Documents opens every closet and drawer and says search me.”
What we find is that there can never be a single piece of paper or process that can hope to render identities more right or fitting or give some lives more validation than others (Latin documentum, lesson or proof; or docere, teach, instruct; 17th-18th century). Sifting through and repurposing a variety of forms both legal and poetic, the poet asks:
“How do you weigh an ocean?”
Gray refuses to romanticize the all-too-familiar trope of the immigrant writer finding freedom in the unshackled possibility the page supposedly represents. The lives of individuals existing without documentation (even after being granted status) are always shrouded by a limbo they cannot shake:
“you are the sound inside
a sleeping body
a family of six
a car stalled
the hazards blinking
we never don’t look over our shoulders
every form, a trick question
every map, a trap street….”
Even before the body’s experience of any physical arrival, the sense of subjection to historically predetermined characteristics seems locked into place. In a series of “Maid” poems, there’s a keen sense of how his narrator identifies more closely with the help in the Manila home. The maid is a kind of non-citizen, occupying an indeterminate status – living in the house but out of sight in the garage, responding only to the summons of her employer, given the care of children they practically raise, though she won’t be able to claim this:
“She is waiting for stormcloud, homecoming, miracle, or for one
of the naked boys to run toward her, their open mouths full of blood
“The queer body, the brown body, the immigrant body… Who gets refuge on these shores[?]” Jan-Henry tries to imagine a different world: one in which these categories should not matter, one in which the maids can “…all/ … eat together./ In the big room,/ not in the kitchen;” where they don’t have to “…clean up./ On a Sunday./ After church.”
In the book’s rippling and lyrical sequence of ten prose poems called “Exagua,” Gray articulates most clearly the nature of his desire for a world no longer governed by conventional labels, constraints, and quotas. To the constant pressure immigrants face when asked to prove who they are and what gives them the right to be here, he erects a resistance modeled after water’s unapologetic depth and fluidity:
“Water is the medium, the texture, the space, the weight, the motion/emotion of your writing/thinking.
“It was my first year at grad school when I began waking up in the mornings with a weight pressing down on my chest. That was the year I began carrying small objects around with me whenever I left the house as a way to fill up the sunken cavity: small spoon, penny, pink paper clip bent but not broken. Further down, there is an important system of deep ocean circulation…”
With the breath of 10,000 horses, with hawkers of cassava cakes, with sleepers in siesta hours and hoarders of palm sugar, he knows the only true archive of our humanity is in the moments we press the ungovernable details of our existence more sharply against questions meant to erase or level them out. Imagine these answers, in contrast to the aridity of Yes or No:
“…don’t mention citizenship
talk about love, how you got married for love”
“Today was mackerel, nets full of them.
Silver as Christmas tinsel, their fins a foil origami in the sea.”
~ from “I-797-C Notice of Action
Request for Applicant to Appear for Initial Interview”
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com