pass the bottle of sea water


thanks to those who commented on the post below. NaBlogWrMo is so hard. my hands hurt and my spirit weakened. it’s so hard to blog everyday–to find space and time and inspiration. i was so close to quiting today but your comments fuel my fire. keep them coming as i cant do this without you!


as promised, i shall write a bit about mr. baker’s second poem, “commission”, which can be found here (please read first). the title itself echoes “mission,” and the poem describes different kinds of commissions: the poet commissioning memory (kind of nice first line to the poem “where memory divided like the first language”), god commissioning the speaker to “labor in [his] fields”, the US commissioning Michael Leahy to engineer an air-strip in 1944 in papua new guinea, Leahy commissioning natives to build an airstrip, the natives commissioning a young boy to fly and report back, and finally the speaker himself commissioning love to pass to the world.

although this poem is far more complex than “chimbu wedding,” it still suffers from a certain blindness (ironically caused by baker’s nostalgic gaze). for example, baker doesn’t talk at all about why the airstrip is being built…doesn’t mention at all the colonial power struggle between the US & Japan that is occurring throughout the Pacific at the time. nor does he implicate Leahy in this struggle. this passage is sickeningly blind:

[…] When the brush
had been burned, the ground raked, the workers locked
elbows and danced to flatten the earth.

We think that good things are coming out of the sky,
mothers told their children,
and the dance was to bring the good things down.

really mr baker? how much did the native workers get paid? in your figuration, they are dancing to bring the good things down–they must have been so grateful that i bet they worked for free!

furthermore, who is the italicized voice? who is your ‘informant’ massa baker?

this is kind of personal to me since my grandfather was just 15 when the japanese invaded guam during WW2. he spent those years in a labor camp and guess what he was forced to make: an airstrip. but this time, so the Imperial Army could attack the US. mr baker, even though you have the power to make the natives dance in your poem, i assure you that neither my grandfather nor any other of the men from his village who were rounded up at dawn and taken to the jungle to build an airstrip all day locked elbows and DANCED to bring the good things down! i assure you that his mother did not tell him that good things were coming from the sky if they DANCED.

baker’s romanticized ideation continues:

A boy of ten was chosen to fly to the coast so he could
return and tell what he saw. Do not eat their food
or you will go mad, his mother told him

He saw white buildings, the sea and boats at anchor.
He took food when it was given and ate thinking
Now I will go mad.

He asked for a bottle to carry some of the sea.
He saw a horse, thought it a massive pig,
and laughed to see a man carried on its back.
He asked for a cutting of its tail.

this is the most absurd thing i’ve ever read. does anyone really believe that grown men would let a 10 year old boy do this? does anyone really think any native would have been allowed in an airplane for a romantic vacation to the coast? do you really think a 10 year old boy would be so poetically romantic as to ask for a bottle to carry some of the sea or to cut part of a horse’s tail? mr. baker, you are a damned fool.

ok i know, it’s poetry and anything’s possible right. but c’mon. baker is so blinded by what’s poetically possible and his desire to have dancing natives who shit themselves one moment and then send their 10 year olds on poetic ventures the next that he has fails to capture the complexity not only of the indigenous people but also of the colonial context these people live in.

oh god, but this is the real kicker:

Returning home, he told what he’d seen.

The people didn’t believe, so he gave them the bottle,

which they passed, gravely tasting the sea.

They touched the tuft of horse hair, and the boy’s
uncle wound it around a stick for a totem of healing.

this is so completely laughable that it’s really no longer offensive. maybe the next i meet with the pacific islander commission at Berkeley i will bring a bottle of sea water and we can gravely taste the sea. just like the young native boy mistook the horse for a giant pig, whatever judge chose to publish this book mistook drivel for poetry. damn i gotta go because a plane just flew over my apartment and i think i just shit myself. must be an indigenous thing.


6 thoughts on “pass the bottle of sea water

  1. this is a fascinating and important engagement craig. i often wonder if this shouldn’t actually be the type of tone to use in reviews, whether denigrating or respectful. why do we formalize it? formalizing is often necessary, but also this register is refreshing. keep it coming!

  2. some more developed thoughts, of the moment:

    i don’t think it’s “drivel” : i think “ideation” is precisely the right word here.

    it actually reminds me very much of Saint John Perse, and the way Aime Cesaire then tears apart this ecstatic, entirely epiphanic register to show what is under it.

    so what we see here is someone attempting to write in the mode of the Western lyric where that mode shows itself to be the most blind: at the forefront of the historical encounter.

    but here’s the clincher: this “epiphanic”, ideational mode seems to represent, for Baker as for Perse, a certain veracity regarding their own experience.

    that is, in their experience of “foreigness” – invader-foreigness, but foreigness nonetheless, though anyone correct me if this seems wrongheaded – they go in for the exoticizing, ideational tendency.

    this is maybe not massively problematic *in itself*. but that Baker doesn’t in any way *question* this ideation is strange. is he just so emotionally and autobiographically attached to this particular type of poignancy – his own memory, his own experience, this particular ostranenie – that it becomes difficult for him to see why his telling of these things, in this way, would appear to others as imbued with a deep historical and identitarian unreality?

    we certainly can’t just say “his experience is his experience” and leave it at that. why didn’t he question more the compass and orientation of such ephemera? why does he remain so much in his own singular perspectives, which are inextricably linked to purely autobiographical, instead of communal, foregroundings?

    that said, i don’t think the poems are “bad”, certainly not technically. they are ideologically worrying and tend, as you point out craig, toward extrapolation, fantasy, and myth.

    Now, Myth is perhaps fine, if it is recognized as personal and limiting, problematic and partial: in short, if it is myth which questions its origins and contexts.

    Myth which does not do this is ineluctably, and immediately, Ideology.

  3. thx nicholas. yeah, the tone in my reviews usually are more formal. maybe i will try a more refreshing approach when i do have time to write reviews again 😉


    will comment on your other comment in a new blog

  4. Your parody yesterday was insanely good.

    The blog title is Skip’s The Signifying Monkey.

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