In Imago, a finely-realized first collection of poems, Manhattan-based Joseph Legaspi looks back through the gates of adulthood at an Eden-like childhood in the Philippines. But these free-verse narratives are not simple, sugar-coated, or — for all their use of the word “I” — self-centered; their delicate surfaces give way to reveal a world that is primal and visceral. Legaspi wrestles with severing and connecting, violence and love, and his place between homelands and among family members living and dead.
The title poem, which opens the book, is representative of many of the poems that follow. Like all the poems in the first three of the book’s four sections, this one takes place in the Philippines — the final section is set in the United States — and begins, “As soon as we became men / my brother and I wore skirts.” It’s one of three poems about the ritual circumcision of the twelve-year-old speaker and his brother. It’s also one of Legaspi’s many poems about violent but necessary loss.
In the world of the barrio, neighbor children gather to witness a sow being bred to a boar, “her wail as much a part of us as the morning air” (“The Sow”). Legaspi describes blood trickling into a bowl as the speaker’s uncle teaches him to kill chickens (“Killing a Chicken”); boys stomp on a bat until it is dead, for sport (“Bat Hunting”). Suffering and violence are part of life, but life is ultimately good; the brothers’ circumcision, though painful, allows the boys, by week’s end, to “possess the potential” of their father (“The Circumcision”), and “like monarchs . . . enter / the gardens of [their] lives” (“Imago”).
And while suffering is expected, it happens within the comfort of an extended family and community. In the poem “Imago,” as the speaker and his brother wear skirts, their mother boils guava leaves. Soon she will “bathe [his] penis with the warm broth” and wrap it in gauze. The speaker will consider the other boys who will sit on such stools, the other grandmothers and mothers who will soothe them. In another poem, the speaker remembers how his grandmother was once nearly killed by a soldier, as he calculates how much she still owes on her cemetery plot (“My Grandmother, in Increments”). And in what may be the book’s most joyous moment, the young brothers buy the family’s daily bread (“The Bringers of Bread”): “we bask in the clean scent / of newly baked pan de sal, providers that we are. / We press the brown bags to our hunter’s / breasts and let the warmth seep between our ribs.” But the poems in Imago, while memory-oriented, never end with the self. Even a poem like “Poem for My Navel” is not navel-gazing as much as it contemplates on the speaker’s connection to and separation from family and homeland.
Legaspi is a former student of Sharon Olds, and his poems share her direct tone, her frankness about the body, and her interest in family relationships. Legaspi’s diction and occasional bent towards surrealism, though, remind me of Pablo Neruda, another poet in exile. Neruda is present in Legaspi’s affectionate ode to his father, “The Socks” (“Dear socks, don’t lead me astray,” he writes), and in the collection’s final poem, “Sleep,” which contains otherworldly phrases like “Skeletons rattle their bones beneath the earth” and “The roosters roar, laying their eggs.”
The poem “Sleep” comes just after the book’s final section, in which the family emigrates from the Philippines to America, “the land cut like a massive slab / of steak” (“Departure: July 30, 1984). Here, seven adults squeeze in a two-bedroom apartment, severed from the life they know. Memories (and poems) of the homeland take on a haunting, dreamlike quality, and the new country is surreal as well. The book ends as it begins, with Legaspi’s speaker finding his place among his family, this time his dead ancestors, far away: “Others follow: grandmother, aunts, cousins, uncles, grandfather. / I wait for the secrets of the dead to drip out of their mouths, / I wait to ride the fiery, galloping horses.”
Joseph O. Legaspi
CavanKerry Press, 2007