Refracting the Gaze: A Review of Aimee Suzara's Souvenir | Abigail Licad

Souvenir by Aimee Suzara
WordTech Communications, 2014 (96 pages)
ISBN: 978-1625490636

The speaker of Aimee Suzara's first poetry collection Souvenir functions as historical excavator as she carries out archival research in a modern-day museum and digs into her own family history. Launching her project is the 1904 World's Fair where over 1,200 indigenous Philippine uprooted tribespeople were put on display for American visual consumption and entertainment following the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines from Spain. Taking her cue from Jacques Lacan whom she quotes in the book's epigraph ("I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others

there.), Suzara takes a hard look, not only upon a series of systematic exploitations, but also upon the interlocking systems of Western grand narratives and mythologies that effectively imposed a state of objecthood upon the Philippine people and their nation. Later in the book, as she draws parallels between U.S. imperialism's invasion of the Americas and her own family's move westward, Suzara's speaker posits new possibilities for self- and collective-identification removed from hierarchal constructions.

Although much of Suzara's work aims to frustrate and destabilize the subject-object dichotomy that the act of gazing produces, it is important to note that her collection does not merely turn the gaze around and make the object look back. Rather, through the use of an immigrant-descendant speaker implicated in both Filipino and American cultures, Suzara seems more interested in testing how the simultaneous experience of being gazed at and gazing builds the precise locus of tension where the binaries of subject-object can be dismantled and where culture can be better seen and understood through multifocal, nonhierarchical lenses.

In the book's very first poem "Objects & Artifacts," the speaker sees her "ruddy face reflected in the glass" and proceeds to ask herself: "And which is the ghost: this colonial woman headless, eyeless in her eyelet dress, or me, gazing back?" As the speaker proceeds to walk around other encased displays and "imagine herself there" trading places with the depicted objects, she finally asks:

If I were there:
1904, a souvenir:
Which suit would I become?
Which number?
Such indeterminacy drives the speaker's investigation into the collisions and intersections between American and Philippine histories into which her familial narratives are also interwoven. The collection is divided into four parts or "Exhibits": Exhibit A: The Philippine Reservation, Exhibit B: Anthropology, Exhibit C: Science, and Exhibit D: Objects & Artifacts. Exhibits A and B focus upon the historical and collective cultural machinations that enabled and sustained the World's Fair. Exhibits C and D deal with its legacies as it relates to the speaker's family and formative years.

Suzara unpacks the binaries created by the act of gazing. In "Possession," she explores the tensions that exist in between opposing reactions and notions elicited by the American objectification of Filipinos: disgust vs. delight, curiosity vs. rejection, and consumption vs. waste, savage vs. civilized, victim vs. victimized:

At the Philippine Reservation

We roast dogs for your fancy:
the sacred turned to gluttony.

The act of cooking a dog
over a contrived fire pleases you
even as you are disgusted
From collapsing these oppositions and presenting them as emerging from the same impetus, Suzara suggests the irony in Western gazers' inability to see themselves in the "barbarism" they claim to witness among Filipinos, and how this failure of recognition effectively becomes the utmost form of inhumanity.

But at the same time that it oppresses, Suzara betrays how Western imperialism is reliant, dependent upon indigenous peoples as a crutch in order to buttress its own sense of dominance and superiority as the speaker admonishes in "Suture":

[…] Something
tells you to stop looking,
but you are spun: sutured
to your subject.
From studying American objectified treatment of its "souvenir" tribespeople brought back from conquering the Americas, Suzara goes on later to trace her own family's geographical trajectory from New Jersey westward "for fabled Dream to manifest." As both racial descendants of the World's Fair tribespeople and cultural inheritors of the Western grand narrative of frontier invasion, the speaker and her family occupy an oscillating position as both object and subject. As both spawn and perpetuators of American imperialistic culture, they are in a unique position to remake the dynamic that characterizes the meeting and confrontation between peoples.

On the one hand, the speaker and her family find themselves adopting the Western, mythicized, romantic notion of the explorer seeking out new lands where one may reinvent oneself, as shown in the poems "Manifest Destiny 1980," "It was cherry pie," "Fun on the Frontier," and "My Dad, the Filipino Cowboy" where the speaker narrates family's early history in the United States. On the other hand, despite the strong desire to emulate the qualities and exploits of the "American" frontier hero, a creeping, nagging awareness of its true impossibility always eventually caps their ambition, as the status relegated them by their darker skin color renders them as perpetual foreigners who must always feel "apologetic."

Still, despite this imposed sense of otherness, Suzara's speaker shows how the very ability to alternate or adopt points of view of both the gazing, myth-making frontier subject or/and shamed object can create a third space where hierarchal dynamics give way to multifocal approaches at identity- and culture-making so that no side completely dominates. What develops instead is an acute capability for continuous negotiation and interrogation.

Perhaps the richest illustration of such capability can be traced through a comparison of two poems — an early poem called "Norms" that depicts white men mimicking tribal dancing and a later poem called "My Mother's Watch" that describes the mutual sense of surveillance experienced by the American speaker and her mother among Filipino marketplace vendors. In both poems, the "native" Filipino is portrayed simultaneously as both objects gazed upon by foreigners, and subjective agents playing into American preconceptions and stereotypes in an act of indirect resistance.

In "Norms" where Igorot tribesmen exaggerate the movements in their "pretended tribal dance" and fake applause for the white men who join them, the speakers explain how their ostensibly conciliatory demeanor affords them basic daily survival while an incipient rebellion simmers:

We play the stage like actors
who know our script by heart;
we laugh at your hypocrisy
and keep our selves intact;

And so we squat and aim our spears
And eat the dogs you bring us;
Until the day we may return
We'll play the savage circus.
In "My Mother's Watch," market vendors deploy a similar strategy of false obsequiousness toward the speaker and her mother during a homeland visit, primarily through their "shift in tongue" where
They quickly switch
from Pangasinense of Ilocano
into Tagalog
Taglish, and finally English
Bili na kayo! Yesss Ma'am, Sir…
Positioned as Filipino Americans surrounded by Filipino "natives," the speaker and her mother quite palpably feel the market workers' suspicions, their "recognition of us like spies." This is in sharp contrast to the white men's complete oblivion toward the plotting of dancing tribesmen in "Norms." Suzara seems to present this possibility for multiple sympathies as a possible alternative to shape cultural intermingling, a new space removed from subject-object dichotomies.

In the similar way that an attorney would present the results of legal discovery to a court, Suzara's speaker too seems to be exacting claims against U.S. imperialism through the staggering amount of research behind her work. In sectioning each part into "exhibits," Suzara further evokes how addenda in legal documents support legal arguments that ideally lead to judicial reforms that improve human life and interaction. The main difference, of course, is that while legal arguments must be fully formed and overdetermined, Suzara does not so much establish claims as she does unpack the contradictions and ambivalences of the Philippine-U.S. encounter. Suzara demonstrates in Souvenir that such a process need not be a power-play, but of one mutual recognition and understanding.

Abigail Licad is editor in chief at Hyphen, an Asian American culture and politics magazine. Her book reviews and poetry have appeared in The Critical Flame, Borderlands, Calyx, and Smartish Pace. She received literature degrees from UC Berkeley and Oxford University. Lately, she has been reading everything by Arthur Sze, Carl Phillips, and Tarfia Faizullah.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761