To Identify
the
Demon & Ally

A Review of Barbara Jane Reyes'
"To Love As Aswang: Songs, Fragments & Found Objects"

April Joseph


Barbara Jane Reyes
To Love As Aswang: Songs, Fragments & Found Objects
PAWA Inc. Publications, 2015
83 Pages | ISBN: 9780976331681
Price: $15.00 | Purchase Here

 

To hold space for Barbara Jane Reyes’s To Love as Aswang,[1] is to enter the performative, the imaginary, to not merely serve as witness to Pinay culture, but to participate in the alchemical process of poetics.

Reyes opens the throat with an epigraph from Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: “It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak. It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break.”

We begin at the heart of the alchemist with Reyes’s first poem, “To Piece the Heart.” The fragments within “belch forth fire,” daring the reader to touch the shadow-side and refrain from looking away from the violence of silence. To Love as Aswang reveals the shame of “worthless women” and “furied bitches” to transform the myth of Aswang.

We, holy whores of compassion
[...]
We, black haired aswang
[...]
We, a moonless song

As I embark on this journey, encountering Aswang, I am reminded of La Llorona,[2] the myth of the weeping woman who struck fear into my childhood—warning me to never stay out too late at night or else La Llorona could come for you. La Llorona poses the question: How did she come to be this way? What drove her to weep, to madness? Similarly, Reyes asks these questions of Aswang.

Reyes’s songs, fragments & found objects are an homage to loss that calls my attention to the cover of To Love as Aswang: the tree of life and the “Ouroboros.” These ancient symbols lend themselves to the esoteric and the realm of the dead and regeneration. I turn the pages and feel Reyes’s use of “we” signals the acknowledgment of ancestors: their devastation and resilience.  

We heal, we counsel, we elevate
[...]
We give, we return, we free
[...]
We reverse invisible, we rise
[...]
We always, in verse, emerge

Here we get the sense that Aswang is emerging from the fire—a phoenix spreading her wings “To Remember Something from Long Ago,” exposing the atrocities of colonization that have “grabbed her legs and held them apart.”

 

They blindfold us, they handcuff us         We sing the poem of the breaking body

 

While Reyes’s poetry sings the songs of the (Filipina) “breaking body,” we are confronted with the residue of what is left after devastation. Reyes’s text demonstrates the broken body as split-selves, multi-verses that sing the text. And all at once, “we” are again reminded of the invitation to bear witness and participate in this poetic ritual. I consider Tracie Morris’ thoughts on the “breaking body.”

The ruptured/disrupted body, the body in trauma, as the site of trauma, disassociates. We shift our memory’s perspective, of where we are when we recall it. We become “out of body.” Like the many recounts of near-death experiences, the traumatized body feels petit morts as a constant hum. I do mean that in a gendered, sexualized way too. The disrupted, caught up breath implies a body in a “stressed” state. The mind, I think literally is beside itself.[3]

Reyes demonstrates this split with the placement of the text—signaling alternate voices that express how the mind and body process trauma. “To Return a Heroine” answers the question, “Since I was raped, how can I ever be erotic again?”[4] I consider how Reyes’s words, “We return” speaks to Akilah Oliver’s The She Said Dialogues: Flesh Memory, an investigation of ancestral trauma and the power of ululation.

Flesh memory is more than just memory, it’s the way we re-invent scenarios and worlds and languages and images to transcribe what we see, what we feel, what we think. It’s a language that’s activated in our bodies. Flesh memory holds actual experiences, it holds imaginary experiences, it holds memory that may or may not be a direct result of what we’ve lived.[5] 

Reyes takes up Oliver’s work with To Love as Aswang—poetry that recognizes our culture’s shared memory, a fractured bloodline that links us all to a story of suffering and emergence from the fire. The very title dares the reader to reimagine the Aswang, a cultural symbol that is demonized, recognizing and reinterpreting the Aswang’s love as all-encompassing and unconditional: “To Love as Mother and Aswang.” The decolonized culture within the text strikes a chord: we have, for far too long, ostracized the monster that is within us all.

Since To Love as Aswang includes “songs,” I began singing the verses. I could feel the way the sounds reverberated in my body.

 

My voice lives in a mason jar
 

We split ourselves in half

We call the self back to the self.

Please hear me.

 

To Love as Aswang is a sodalite stone for the throat chakra: freeing the voice to be heard. In “Sound, Memory and Dis/placement: Exploring Sound, Song and Performance as Oral History in the Southern African Borderlands,” Angela Impey examines “sound as a form of agency, suggesting that the act of remembering or disclosure through music-making may contribute towards the empowerment or ‘re-voicing’ of a people whose histories have been silenced by discriminatory political processes.”

Is this writing—“songs, fragments and found objects”—taking up, tracing ancestral memory, an effort to heal the dead, the living; is this the way to speak to and remember the dead?

While we conjure the dead, we create space for an investigation into the poetics of shame. I am reminded of Bhanu Kapil’s writing, “Shame may be fatal,” encouraging readers to confront our own sites of shame, discovering ways to work trauma through the central nervous system.

Reyes’s work calls us to consider Filipina or Pinay culture through the lens of shame. As an ethnically mixed woman of color, I consider my own shamefulness and how I have managed the process of allowing shame to move through my body so that it is not stuck in my skin.

Reyes draws my attention to news headlines that continue to stay within my memory—replaying in nightmares. Reminding me of how far too often, I glance at these stories from a faraway place where I mistakenly consider myself safe or removed from such acts of terror and hopelessness. We are reminded that these events happen every day, all around us, next door.

 

Cyberbullied for months, called slut and whore

This is a 12-year old Filipina in Queens suicide

 

Raped, a 28-year old Filipina maid drank insecticide,

She jumped, she was pushed, told she was weak suicide

 

The words called me to read To Love as Aswang and practice Lama Tsultrim Allione’s “Feeding Your Demons”—a translation of an ancient Tibetan practice, Chöd, taught by the eleventh century yogini, Machig Labdron. “Feeding Your Demons” allows us to call forth the demons that we carry in our bodies, providing a safe space for compassion to arise in the form of an ally.

As we return to the alchemical processes that are underway in To Love as Aswang, I am drawn to the notion that the mind can dream up the antidote to poison. Communing with the demons and allies is part of the process of “Feeding Your Demons.”  

I sit with the shame demon, I become the shame demon. I ask the demon what it needs. I answer as the demon: To be heard. To be loved. Unconditionally. The Ally in this case is an ancestor that Reyes summons.

Daughter of Esperanza Luna, Patron Saint of the faithless.

To Love as Aswang calls me to Howl. “To Remember” and “To Spend and Be Spent” resembles Allen Ginsberg’s influence, demonstrating Reyes’s ability to reframe the Beat generation’s mantra to “dream the New American self.” Just as Ginsberg saw “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked…” Reyes re-mixes Howl to revive Aswang, to ignite the culture and to begin manifesting the shift needed to not merely survive, but to thrive in the face of hopelessness. To Love as Aswang is the call of the generation to become the revolution.

 

I saw the best poetas of my bloodline dig into themselves, starving for

rice, scaling, treading, aging

 

I’m with you in our homelessness

Where we cross the Pacific, dreaming up our new American selves

 

Dreaming a new self signifies the embodied practice of memory and narrative. To Love as Aswang is the “howl” of “flesh memory”—a siren song that lures us to look deep within to recover the narratives that have been erased or buried alive. Those who are haunted by the past, or ancestral trauma, narrate re-constructed histories, and re-consider sound as a tool, method, or strategy for healing. By re-examining (cultural) biases and signifiers of identity, we can begin to re-write ancestral memory and forge a path of non-duality. Through narratives and sound as a form of agency and empowerment, the traumatized body is allowed to re-shape and re-imagine the experience; the silent traumatized voice can be re-voiced.

 

We break, we resist
Our bodies are evidence

[...]

We commit to the page, we must
Our poems are evidence

[...]

We bleed, we speak
Our venom is evidence

 

Barbara Jane Reyes’s work comes full circle, as the cover would suggest, the Ouroboros, or “tail eater,” “returns.” The Aswang is transformed from demon to ally—reminding us, Aswang will protect us, will help us, will pledge to us, and all we need to do to access the ally is “To Spit Fire.”

Aswang is an agent of decolonization, embodying the ability to recover the memories we hold and the way our bodies integrate trauma. This collaborative effort to call out the familiar, culturally demonizing myth cultivates a true understanding that reveals and attends to the ghosts that haunt our roots. Reyes’s work is a bridge that Aswang resides over, not merely to sing the horrors and atrocities within Pinay culture, but to invite us all to stand on the bridge together, as witness, to be touched and transformed by the fire.


[1] “The Philippine Aswang is a mythic, monstrous creature which has, since colonial times, been associated with female transgression, scapegoating, and social shaming, known in Tagalog as hiya. In the 21st century, and in diaspora, she manages to endure.” Barbara Jane Reyes, To Love as Aswang, San Francisco: PAWA, 2015.

[2] “The Woman Who Cries (Spanish), a spurned mistress of Mexican legend who drowned her children and was fated to eternally seek their recovery.” Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek, in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Eighth Edition, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, 1131-1139. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

[3] Tracie Morris, “grateful sounds the body,” Bombay Gin 39.2, 43-50.

[4] Akilah Oliver, et al, "Sacred Naked Nature Girls," interview with Coco Fusco, Bomb 52 (1995), October 30, 2008, http://bombmagazine.org/article/1884/sacred-naked-nature-girls (accessed February 15, 2016).

[5] Akilah Oliver, et al, "Sacred Naked Nature Girls," interview with Coco Fusco, Bomb 52 (1995), October 30, 2008, http://bombmagazine.org/article/1884/sacred-naked-nature-girls (accessed February 15, 2016).


ABOUT GUEST WRITER:

april joseph is a poet, performance artist and writing instructor from East. L.A., California. She earned her MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. Her poetics have appeared in The Lune, Bombay Gin, Galatea Resurrects #24 and Gesture. april studies the counterpoetics of space which informs her life-long practice of healing ancestral trauma. april is currently working with Astrology Heals where she engages with the multiverse. You can find more of april at bodyfulspace.com.


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