Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚
Lithic Press, 2017. 96 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
Poetry as Apocrypha
In folklore, myth, and fairy tale, the story of abandonment is one of the most common expository starting points for development: a baby or young child is given to an agent other than its biological parents with specific instructions—to leave her in the middle of the forest to die, to kill him by some means, to bring the child to some surrogate. In the latter case, often, the foster parents become enamored with the child: as in the Japanese tale of the bamboo cutter and his wife, who find the moon princess Kaguya-hime in a stalk of bamboo and raise her as their own.
In real life, babies are given up for adoption for various reasons: the parents are too poor, the mother is too young and feels helpless, the child is considered illegitimate. Regardless of the plot details, in story or in fact, the condition of abandonment or early orphaning marks one for life. Thus, the child constantly, inexplicably looks at the moon with deep sadness and longing; and the foundling revisits the front stoop of the convent, or the tree under which he was left.
Though not all the poems in Sam Roxas-Chua 姚’s Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater are on the subject of adoption, the book’s dedication is “to those abandoned at birth.” In the poems, readers will find many magical and dream-like elements that swirl like red threads and silk filaments around questions of difference, belonging, and identity. Their underlying question is the same: Am I wanted, am I loved?
In many cultures, there are strong social and cultural taboos around speaking frankly and openly of certain subjects:
“You wanted that story to hem
my lips together….
Never to ask
why nests would fall when we walked
through the jungle to beat a papaya
with cudgels of chants.”
As someone who came to know only much later in life who my biological mother really was (I was raised by her sister), I understand first-hand what it’s like to live with the sense of secrets swirling around, of others whispering about knowledge they have of you that you don’t—and how these can exert a kind of mesmerizing power on the unconscious. Like Sam, “I have two mothers in the shape of two sepals, two slippers….” (“I am a Fallen One, the Venom in the Nectar”)
From the same poem above, the speaker declares both his deep love for and dedication to the memory of the adoptive mother, at the same time that he enacts the restlessness of not being able to pin down his origin story. He goes through her dress pockets— “looking for a letter you said/ you would leave me”— and recalls
“On my first birthday,
you bit my lower lip
so you would have a story
to tell me about not being yours—
how I came out of a woman
who was nineteen in the Philippines.
And how she left me in the cradle
of a tree limb, unwrapped.”
What, then, does one do with the immensity of both the love and the longing? Despite feelings of being thrown into a condition of simultaneous hyperinvisibility and hypervisibility, the body, the heart, and the mind struggle to keep afloat. In “A Beast in the Chapel,” the speaker tells us too of additionally suffering his father’s censure for being queer:
“Several times I hid my name
behind my ears
when he called me Bakla!”
And then there are additional forms of abandonment, exile, and adoption: as when people leave one home or one country for another; or, whether voluntarily or by necessity, have to learn and unlearn languages and native tongues. The poetry in Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater takes all these experiences of marked-ness, these states of being set off and apart, and fashions out of them an intricate and beautiful mythology perhaps more indigenous to the self.
What is the role of coincidence, of accident, versus intention? The poet has
“ …learned to eat things,
rocks, caterpillars, an occasional acorn.
I learned how to tap on tree roots
and look to my fingertips as a map,
study the web-like imprints—
those silk prologues that trace back….”
Apocrypha (from the Greek ἀπόκρυφος, apókruphos, meaning "hidden") are the ancient texts found in some biblical editions between the Old and New Testaments whose provenance and therefore authoritativeness are considered inconclusive. Despite their non-canonical status, nevertheless, the Preface to the 1560 Geneva Bible holds them to be significant in that “…as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of … knowledge [and] history and for the instruction of godly manners” so that readers are not left “…utterly destitute of teachers and means to confirm them in the hope of the promised Messiah.”
In this beautiful and haunting volume, the poet dreams up gills to survive the depths, turns wounds and stigmata into windows through which light can pour; turns to the promise of multiplicity so that one can “write a poem/ with seven heads” and, in all stories where ugly creatures turn into swans, one can study the “red egg, the new epistolary—/ born of sky and melody.” (“Apocryphon of the Swan”)
In “Call of the Second Coming,” the poet instructs: “Use this as light.” And in so doing, we pick up the red threads and walk the labyrinth back into our own selves.
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