The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil
Gaudy Boy LLC, Singapore, 2019. 67 pages.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
If You Can Walk to the Gangplank and Be Still
In the early days of empire, it was customary to find crew members in seafaring vessels known as supernumeraries (sobresalmiente). Neither soldiers nor technical experts, they might have been added to provide extra functions apart from the regular staff. These included mapmakers, botanists, geographers, even astronomers. The task of documenting new territories fell to them.
Italian scholar and explorer Antonio Pigafetta, hearing of Fernando Magallanes’ spice expedition that took him to the Philippines in 1521, decided to sign on as sobresalmiente. Pigafetta made extensive observations on the weather, flora and fauna, the people they encountered, their language and clothing. These wound up in his book Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation of the World, first published in 1524).
There are indigenous counterparts of European sobresalmientes: the 16th century has records of war vessels called caracoa, and they plied southern Philippine waters close to Mindanao and the Moluccas. They carried not only rowers and soldiers, but also poets. “[The poet] was neither rower nor warrior, yet he decided where the prow should point. His own thoughts knifed through the immense sea of his solitude, though the waves kept him company. In him was rower and warrior; he himself was a double-decked vessel of grace and irony. He was far back, yet he provided direction. At times the caracoa lost its way. No matter. The sea would still be there, and the shoals would still be duly recorded.” (Caracoa, Philippine Literary Arts Council)
Lawrence Lacambra Ypil seems to have naturally slipped into the role of the caracoa poet in The Experiment of the Tropics: Poems (chosen by Singapore-born, Ireland-based poet Wong May as co-winner of the inaugural Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize). The deceptively slim volume casts a wide gaze, the scope of which Ypil describes in a July 6 interview with Clint Holton Potestas as “our history, the experiment of colonialism, the experiment of the American period [in the Philippines].” The poems return to those moments before the encounter with (recorded) history, insisting there was something, rather than nothing, there:
A dam is built in Bolocboloc and it is called progress.
…a jet of water falls into a pool
and creates … a spectacle out of an altogether natural thing.
~ “There is a River”
Pictorial vocabulary is historically connected to vocabularies of power (“snapshot” dates back to at least 1898, and relates to the use of a sniper’s or sharpshooter’s rifle). Thus, Ypil’s inclusion of early 20th century photographs of Cebu during American occupation (from the Cebuano Studies Center, University of San Carlos) is strategic and intentional.
In the title poem, the poet laments the devolution of countries and cultures assigned to the category of “the tropics.” It recalls the paradoxes of imperial imagery that cast “the tropics” as a locale of lush and unspoiled sensuality; yet also a lawless wilderness whose people are primitive, slothful, and undeveloped:
“As a nest among the trees As a garden among the bigger garden of the sea
…across the experiment
that was the tropics: A riverbank made private
Acquisition That American thing”
The photograph on the page facing this poem is titled “Recuerdo, baño, Bolocboloc, Barili, Cebu, Dec. 19, 1927” (Perez Studio, Barili). On the left are two girls dressed in some kind of school uniform. A man in black bathing trunks and a woman in a traditional saya or dress complete this picture of bathing at the Buhisan Dam in Bolocboloc. The dam was built in 1911-1912, in the early part of the American colonial period—a scant decade after nearly 600 people were killed in a cholera outbreak linked to the lack of potable water. The people in the photograph are standing next to a tank of some sort, which when struck by a metal rod could act as an early warning system for residents to evacuate their homes in the event of flooding.
Coupled with poems in which the poet often favors a method of syntactical development based on negation—“No minstrel without a hat./ No shoe without a leg crossed”—the pictures enhance the theme of irreparable violence inflicted by colonial history. Motifs of erasure and substitution are generously deployed throughout. As natives learn imperial languages, they unlearn indigenous ways. As indigenous geography is “tamed” by systems of land classification, new tensions based on class and private ownership are created. Every Indio is cloven from every other Indio. The poet mourns the ambivalence that comes with such historical legacies. In “There are Fourteen Ways,” the speaker describes “[two] kitchens: one dry;” and an aunt who performed domestic services for a household that only knew what it was like to be served: “She began each morning with hot water./ She lived on a diet of fish./ There was a chair but she didn’t sit on that.”
In “What is the Erotic,”
“…someone else’s labor levitates you off your bed to the breakfast table where, voila, the food is served, and later back in your room, voila, you find your bedspread flattened, the shirt pressed, your socks folded on the bed’s edge, is what makes you sing in the morning.”
How to escape the oscillating circuits of history? Perhaps there is a clue in these lines from “There is a Chair but No One Sits:” …if you can walk towards the gangplank/ if you can walk towards the gangplank and be still.”
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