Edited by Robyn Cadwallader
Eunice Andrada is one of many Filipino Australian poets who are together developing a distinctive, emerging presence in the national literary scene. The voices are diverse, with other writers including Merlinda Bobis, Angela Serrano, Ivy Alvarez and the late Ramon Loyola. Andrada, herself, has won awards for her poetry and performed it internationally. She says that her poems are ‘born of a struggle of negotiation’ over what to say and how to say it. Her debut collection, Flood Damages, sees her adapting her presence as a performer to the page, a medium which inherently offers less direct control over conveying the intent of an author’s meaning. Nonetheless, Andrada shows that she can take on this added degree of difficulty and successfully negotiate her new medium.
In his essay, ‘Phenomenological: Musings on Contemporary Filipino Poetry’, Loyola notes that current Filipino poetics is, among other things, steeped in ‘narratives about personal struggles with and the experience of diaspora’[i]. Just as the image on Flood Damages’ cover — the sculpture ‘Sampaguita’ — is a reconstruction of the Philippines’ floral emblem (Jasminum sambac) from an artist’s perspective, Andrada similarly reconstructs her own sense of Filipino identity. What we see in Flood Damages is a composition including a diverse number of elements. Among these are issues dealing with what language communicates, as well as signification via the body, family and culture.
Andrada casually swaps, at times, between English and Tagalog. Loyola notes in his essay that in Andrada’s poem ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, the self-conscious use of the indigenous language of her homeland questions the nature of her self-alienation. This is also demonstrated in the poem ‘rearrangement’ where, while in conversation with her mother, Andrada notes:
she is patient when it takes me
a few moments to say things like hinihingal
I disfigure the words in my mouth
until I too deliver them in new bodies
when we speak, it is all accent and
she translates and reconsiders
saturating one language with another (70)
The assertion of identity is simultaneously the recognition of the boundaries of its presence. Language, and its intelligibility, confers a mutual sense of presence and absence. Another, succinct, example of this can be found in an untitled piece, where Andrada offers a weighted parody of the existential problem of a tree falling in the forest:
if you tell your children
the story of how you came here
in a language you don’t understand
did you arrive at all? (17)
Throughout Flood Damages, Andrada’s self-consciousness becomes incarnate. However, she moves beyond a corporeal solipsism as she explores the terrain of identity. The innate sense of heritage is earlier expressed in ‘for my womb’ with the physically internal organ becoming a metaphor for mitochondrial inheritance. One’s inheritance in this sense, also involves both the duty and trauma which are carried with it. The poem, ‘for my womb (reprise)’, for example, evokes miscarriage:
and to think because of a pill
I will be the only daughter to lose
this is the season
my body is convinced I am with child
this is the season for leaving
when I hear a call of mother
escape a bruise full of mouths (78)
We see, also, in ‘novena for her sickness’ — a poem that features the treatment for skin rashes caused by the disease, lupus — Andrada utilising a ‘Lady Lazarus’ perspective of her own body as medical specimen. According to the journal Australian Family Physician, lupus is a disease that is more common and severe among Indigenous Australians and descendants from South East Asia. Additionally, it is nine times more common in women than men.[ii] With this in mind, the poem becomes not just a statement by Andrada about herself, but a subaltern class.The spacing aptly matches the effects of the condition upon the skin, and allows the reader to follow her exploration of it and its metaphors:
O lupus, don’t look at me
like you looked at her —
one of my mother’s multitude
of mothers — as though
I, too, were a constellation
of open wounds (13)
Here, Andrada invokes the disease like a profane god in a loosened rendering of the novena, a formulaic, Catholic, devotional prayer. Given that religion, particularly Catholicism, is deeply a part of Filipino culture, it too is reconstructed from her perspective.There are other novenas throughout Flood Damages, which are highly imbued with personal experience of suffering, doubt, yearning and faith. One sees this in the poem, ‘novena for fidelity’, and its acute focus on the uncertainties and personal insecurities within a relationship. Elsewhere in the collection, the title of the poem,‘last meal before deportation’, carries its own echoes of the Last Supper. The narrator even notes a last request of collective faith:
I know my mother would have told us
to hold each other’s hands
as she prayed in two languages (81)
Flood Damages is loaded with the violence of Andrada’s own experience and those around her. Yet, in articulating the injuries suffered physically, there is an affirmation of a resilient presence, as is shown in ‘the prophet forgets her name’. Here, the ironic tone neatly deconstructs justifications, particularly of a religious kind, of patriarchal violence:
He speaks of an end
I am not part of
The prophet erases me
from scripture (69)
Resistance to erasure may be found as well in Andrada’s references to skin colour. The poem ‘alternate texts on my aunt’s skin whitening cream’ (44) decries the desire to lighten the skin, viewing it as a legacy of colonialism and the impact of tourism which both esteem the power of white, Western hegemony. Ironically, the poet is admonished by her mother for the relative darkness of her skin, yet her mother is unable to escape the labels of ‘dirty immigrant, illegal, TNT’ which, we later see in ‘last meal before deportation’, lay behind her mother having to leave Australia.
In Flood Damages, Andrada has managed to replace vocal rhythms with careful poetic meter, crisp lines and an adept use of spacing to control flow. The stanzas of ‘a series of half-truths about drowning’ convey a sense of lightness and floating with their trochaic pattern, creating a dreamlike or unreal quality to the experience of the death of a close relative.
In ‘Habeas Corpus’ the lines broken across the page appositely reflect the shattering experience of violence a friend has suffered:
& show me the riot of scar tissue under your belly the
darling carved into your jaw we come from women
who didn’t choose their bodies (15)
Again, the spacing here allows the reader to enter the poem, and meditate on its phrasing thus creating an impact which, together with its irony, is powerful whilst eschewing any sensationalism. Similarly, we find in ‘soft departure’ that the longer breaks between lines offer the reader a chance to pause on what is being said and share in the pain of the imminent deportation of the poet’s mother:
she had trained
as a singer
tells me to croon
wait for her return (32)
By contrast, the poem, ‘Prescription’ (59), with its sole, recurring line, ‘believe him when he hurts you’ denies a point of entry for the reader. Read aloud, it has the resounding sound of alarm that accompanies an instance of immediate, emotionally painful regret. On the page, however, its minimalism offers the reader too little to engage with. One might compare it, instead, with ‘alibi’ which carries a succinct description of wreckage and physical harm within a relationship:
offer my blood as an easy alibi
for the broken door, the vase, the picture frames
my wrists. (25)
And yet this is the only real flaw in this debut collection. Importantly, it can be seen as a testament to how much Andrada has been willing to experiment, something which — however one might interpret the results — demonstrates a distinct desire for authenticity. Andrada confronts the reader, but not without a strong sense of humanity that is intrinsic to her witness. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a glossary of Tagalog words and phrases, but then, given that one of the central themes is alienation, it probably shows a monolingual English reader how the barrier of language can work both ways. In learning another language, a new world awaits. Flood Damages is a mapping of a journey between worlds. This has meant taking personal and artistic risks. These, in turn, are what make Flood Damages important stuff and illustrate why the work of Andrada and other Filipino Australian writing are deserving of greater recognition.
[i]Loyola, Ramon, ‘Phenomenological Musings on Contemporary Filipino Poetry’, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 March 2018.
[ii]Apostolopoulos, Diane and Yin-Bun Hot, Alberta. ‘Systemic lupus erythmatosus: When to consider and management options’, Australian Family Physician, Volume 42. No. 10. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. October 2013.
86 pages. $24.00
Ben Hession is a Wollongong based writer. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry Review, Verity La, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? His poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’, was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry Prize. He has reviewed poetry for Verity La and Mascara Literary Review. He also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.