Tula by Chris Santiago
Milkweed Editions, 2016, 102 pp.
(Winner of the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry selected by A. Van Jordan)
Reviewed by DM O’Connor
And a new ear is needed, a new music to reconcile their distance,
When a person leaves their birth-country, a lifelong search for belonging begins. Culture is lost. Language become a longing, a series of distant sounds, even melodies, without context, like magic spells whispered before effects are known. If you are an immigrant, emigrant, or migrant, refugee, or offspring of one, you know this dreamlike yearning as well as your own name. If you are Chris Santiago, you etch these threads into an arresting symphony entitled Tula. In the poem “Gloss” this urge becomes a wave on the page:
So many words for lullaby as English has for wave—
hili also envy
lulay island prayer [may you still]
[may you strengthen]
[may your thrashing turn to heft]
As delicate and alluring as the Filipino characters (known as baybayin, an alphabet that predates Spanish colonization) that title the nine sections, Santiago’s incantations are minimal, enigmatic, and layered in tradition. Imagine Wittgenstein channelling Rilke to search for genetic secrets with only a distant vowel system as decoder.
In “Audiometry,” the first poem, the speaker calls himself “a citadel—soundproof. A repository.” In the second poem entitled “Tula” (14 poems are eponymously titled Tula), Santiago encapsulates the collection’s thrust and unattainable destination:
An immigrant’s son
I have ears like the blind.
Music comes easily;
night frightens me.
Home late from hospital, she comes to my door—
I fake sleep.
She sings a soothing song
in the language I never learned:
prayers against rain.
Catalog of mythic birds.
As many names for music
as English has for theft.
Using them I invent
A country with only two citizens.
The word I choose for mother
sounds like the one for dreams.
By turning the concept of mother-tongue, mother-country, home, into dream, Santiago captures the immigrant’s torment. The constant nagging of being labelled one thing in one country and another at home while never feeling any sense of belonging anywhere. A fugue of “inbetweenerism.” The hunger for your grandmother’s cooking and your cousin’s laugher is cut short by not even being able to count in their language.
The power of Tula comes not in the nostalgic look homeward, a trap that often creates melodramatic ballads ripe for popular radio, but in the sustained seeking that creates a new song, combining both cultures. In “Where the Fathers Wait,” this idea is described better:
night, in another world, where
a door opens & your name
is called & all at once you aren’t cut off anymore
from the rest of the world: you are
the rest of the world.
The word “tula” appears throughout the book as talisman. A long cross-culture definition is given as prologue: a Toltec capital, a Mongolian birdsong, ironworks in Russian, slang for cock in Chileno, in Sanskrit—Libra, in “Tagalog: an aporia. Mother tongue: a poem.” As the collection progresses, the word becomes cipher. An anchor to the search, a breadcrumb on the mountainous path, a navigational star on the night sea, a reason to continue.
Structurally, lyrically, linguistically, anthropologically, Tula is a collection that intrigues and entices. Yet, the real force comes from the sense that the page is listening. The use of white space, combined with sparse lines, and musical imagery, as if a composer is sitting in a garret window, barred from the world, studious and meditative, repeating the self-instructive mantra, “listen better, listen better, listen…” Perhaps the idea of soundproofing the citadel is how and where the magic begins.
Like Rilke, like Miles Davis, like a child holding a seashell to an ear for the first time, Chris Santiago’s Tula captures this eternal migration some call life, with the natural beauty of the wind blowing notes in tree leaves. Let us pray Santiago is still at the workbench listening and more music is in the air.
what we said to you each night
you fold it in your hand
it cools keeps
even far out of earshot
in a chirring shoreless continent
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.