RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics
Editors: Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequeño Glazier
ISSN#: 1070-0072
Version 3.1 Summer 1994

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Decline of the West: Review of Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1993.
John Ashbery, And the Stars were Shining. New York: FS&G, 1994.

"Martinique is not a Polynesian island," writes the Carib bean writer and generally astute postcolonial theorist, Edouard Glissant, thereby doing unto Polynesia what he (no doubt rightly) claims others do to the Caribbean islands. "This is, however, the belief of so many people who, given its reputation, would love to go there for pleasure" (1). Yet the joke Glissant next reports hearing from a Martinican political figure would strike a chord for many residents of Hawaii who know better than to subscribe to the Visitors' Bureau portrayal of the state as an untroubled tourist paradise; "in the year 2100, tourists would be invited by satellite advertisement to visit this island and gain firsthand knowledge of 'what a colony was like in past centuries'" (1). Up until 1959, the year Hawaii became a state, it was a U.S. colony; many would argue that it still is. Hawaii's dependent economy, whose focus has recently shifted almost entirely to tourism, makes it more like than unlike Glissant's Martinique. The link between Hawaii and the Caribbean is--perhaps unbeknownst to Caribbeans--also cultural; Jawaiian music, or reggae performed by Hawaii musicians, affirms the (perhaps one-sided) emotional link between island regions; shortly after I arrived in Hawaii four years ago, I was astonished to hear a band of Hawaiian musicians singing earnestly about "the lost children of Africa." Bob Marley's melodies, and many of his political sentiments, can frequently be heard over Hawaii's airwaves, and one group, Roots Natty Roots, writes lyrics in Jamaican and not Hawaiian dialect.

Hawaii's culture, like that of Caribbean nations, is mixed: here the influences are Asian and European, indigenous and African (insofar as American culture is African American). Ronald Takaki argues that "we can be certain that much of our society's future will be influenced by which 'mirror' we choose to see ourselves" (17). Thus Hawaii is seen increasingly as a model for the multiculture that is developing in California and throughout the United States, but the history of that multiculturalism is replete with ironies similar to those found in the Caribbean. For sugar planters imported workers from many different cultures, not in order to bring them together in harmony, but to create a rather primitive system of "checks and balances." As Takaki, who himself grew up in Hawaii, reports: "The employers were systematically developing an ethnically diverse labor force in order to create division among their workers and reinforce management control" (252). Because Hawaii is a creole society, one can justifiably translate Edward Kamau Brathwaite's description of Jamaica onto the Hawaiian context: "'Creole' . . . presupposes a situation where the society concerned is caught up 'in some kind of colonial arrangement' with a metropolitan European power, on the one hand, and a plantation arrangement on the other; and where the society is multiracial but organized for the benefit of a minority of European origin" (xv). Only when it became clear that members of these various nationalities shared a grudge against the planters did they begin to join together in unions, rather than each striking on their own. The banding together of different ethnic groups in unions was also a first step toward changing the linguistic balance of power in Hawaii; Hawaiian pidgin (an amalgam of English, Hawaiian, and Asian languages) grew out of the planters' need to communicate demands to their workers. More recently, however--and within the last 15 years, for the most part--Hawaiian pidgin has been used in literature as a language of difference and of resistance against the "mainland" or "dominant" culture of the United States. Hawaii's literature has increasingly been written in pidgin, following the example of Milton Murayama's All I Asking for is My Body, originally self-published in 1975, a coming-of-age book about plantation life leading up to the Second World War.

This "local" pidgin literature transmits many facets of local culture more accurately than could standard English, which students use in school. The African writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o explains the significance of these two languages in another similar context: "Thus a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries" (15). Ngugi's emphasis on "orature" dovetails with Glissant's contention that local Caribbean literatures participate in a movement back from literate to oral cultures. "I am not far from believing that the written is that universalizing influence of Sameness," he writes, "whereas the oral would be the organized manifestation of Diversity," or multiculturalism. The literature of Hawaiian pidgin might well be described as an "orature," especially since standard English is the language of the schools and of business, pidgin that of social and cultural interchanges.

The writing of what is called "local literature" is, at least ostensibly, a form of resistance against Literature itself. Just as Ngugi's son once thought that daffodils might be something like "little fish in a lake" (in Harlow 37), Darrell Lum humorously relates his difficulties as a child relating to elements of the myth of Thanksgiving--its brown leaves, Puritan black hats, and Indians whose side he rather thinks he would take. As Ngugi writes in his essay "The Language of African Literature," "Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience" and "the child was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to himself" (17). While Hawaii students have no patent on disinterest in English or American literature, some of their reasons for disinterest are, I think, different from those of students (especially white students) in other places I've taught.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka writes poetry exclusively in pidgin; it is no accident that her first book is also published on tape, and that her Honolulu readings attract up to several hundred listeners, for hers is a spoken, not a written, language. Her speakers are, in the main, adolescent girls who live in an intensely "local" world infiltrated by the larger national culture. In her poems, standard English is not a desirable language for self-expression but becomes an upper-class affectation or power play; it is, to twist J.L. Austin's term, a "speech act" in which the speaker puts on the language as she might put on clothes, or make-up, or a friend. In "Tita: Boyfriends," Yamanaka has Tita describe her use of standard English to a linguistically less-sophisticated friend. The effect of these few phrases of standard English in the poem (and in Yamanaka's work generally) is one of estrangement; the language sounds affected, strained, and above all out of place, especially when she reads it aloud:

Richard wen' call me around 9:05 last night.
Nah, I talk real nice to him.
Tink I talk to him the way I talk to you?
You cannot let boys know your true self.

Here, this how I talk.
Hello, Richard. How are you?
Oh, I'm just fine. How's school?
My classes are just greeaat.
Oh, really. Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Oh, you're so funny.
Yes, me too, I love C and K.
Kalapana? Uh-huh, uh-huh. (42)
She then tells her friend how to make herself appealing to boys; the pun on "act" is crucial because it makes clear that the language of feeling (pidgin) is distinct from an artificial language of putting on airs to impress others:

'cause you dunno how
for make your voice all nice,
your face all make-up,
your hair all smooth and ehu,
your clothes all low cut,
and your fingernails all long.
You dunno how for act.
And you, you just dunno how for please. (43)
Yamanaka's speakers share the prejudices of plantation life, where even the layout of the sewage system emphasized a racial hierarchy. She (not her characters!) has been criticized by members of the Filipino community, for example, for poems like the first in her collection, "Kala Gave Me Anykine Advice Especially About Filipinos When I Moved to Pahala," which include the stereotype of Filipino men (most of whom camp to Hawaii as bachelors) as sexual predators:

No clip your toenails at night.
And no wear tight jeans or
Felix going follow you home with his blue Valiant
when you go plantation camp side past
the big banyan tree, past the sugar mill,
past the pile of bagasse, down your dirt road.
(The mock-up historical plantation in Waipahu, on Oahu, does nothing to downplay such stereotypes; the Filipino house contains a myriad of photos of sultry looking European actresses, whereas the Portuguese house has pictures of Jesus and the Japanese Buddhist house a modest altar. My guide, on showing us a Chinese religious area, termed them "superstitious.") Tita's advice, later in the book, concerns "Japs" and reveals the internalized prejudice of a local Japanese adolescent (the term "local Japanese" refers to an American of Japanese descent who grew up in Hawaii):

I wish I had double eye. [like Caucasians]

I tell you, my next birtday,
when my madda ask me what I like,
I going tell her I like go Honolulu
for get one double eye operation. (33)

Everywhere in the book plantation life mimics "dominant" American culture. As Glissant writes, "The pressure to imitate is, perhaps, the most extreme form of violence that anyone can inflict on a people; even more so when it assumes the agreement (and even, the pleasure) of the mimetic society. This dialectic, in fact, suppresses this form of violence under the guise of pleasure" (46). Especially prevalent in Yamanaka's world is the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s: in a poem set in the girls' room, Tita describes "one new Edgar Winter book cover"; in "Tita: User," she says angrily, "I no mo your Donny Osmond 8-track. / I hate Down by the Lazy Riva. / And I no mo your Captain and Te- nille tape either, / so get off it"; in "Prince PoPo, Prince JiJi," the speaker says, "Us, we eat our corn beef hash patties with rice / and watch Ed Sullivan"; Elton John music plays a part in "Empty Heart"; and another poem is entitled, "My Eyes Adore You." This last song becomes important in the story of a young girl's first sexual experience; her friend, WillyJoe, translates a line of the song into pidgin, "My eye adore you," as he croons to her in his yellow Datsun (evidence of another kind of colonialism).

Yamanaka's poems pull no punches; typically, they tell stories of sexual and verbal abuse from the point of view of adolescent girls. Again, however, one needs to hear the poems as well as read them. The most effective piece, to my mind, is "Parts," a poem I've heard her read on more than one occasion. It is organized according to body parts--the brain, the face, the eye, the nostril, the foot, the mouth, the ass, the crack. At each of the readings, the audience laughs at the first one or two sections of the poem; part of the laughter has to do with the fact of the poem's being in pidgin (an idea that is still new to local listeners who went to school to Robert Frost and other canonical Americans). Part is a reaction to the dramatic language of the pidgin speaker:

I get one
No ask me questions.
And no move.
First one
who breathe
going get
one good whack
with the fly swatter.
You. Cook the rice.
You. Fry some spam. (65)
(A mainland audience might laugh at the reference to spam, which is a popular foodstuff in the islands; the laughter here has nothing to do with the food, an honest part of the local diet.) At some point in the litany, however, the audience falls into an ashamed silence. The voice--it is a mother's voice--gets louder and more abusive, until words threaten to spill over into actual violence. The poem's final section presents "advice from a 14- year old friend" who counsels drug use as an antidote to psychic pain. The audience's discomfort comes from the way in which the poem forces it to participate in verbal abuse by finding the rhetoric amusing; the child's pain is thus met both with empathy and with horror at having participated in that abuse by taking it so lightly.

"The grass is green and tall / like amber wave of grain, cept green" (95) says a girl who has fled her violently abusive mother and gone for solace to a friend, Bernie, who runs a taxidermy shop (a shop that shows up frequently in the poems). The poem ends with the girl looking down on the plantation camp and her house: "Real small. / So small, I cover everything with my hands / and no see nothing at all" (96). These references to "America the Beautiful" and, less evidently, to "The Star-Spangled Banner," which depends so on the trope of seeing far, emphasize the strangeness, even inappropriateness of the American myth to Hawaii's plantation life. Fascinating then, to see that Yamanaka's work has caught on not only in Hawaii, but also on the mainland; Yamanaka has been widely published nationally. Strange also to remark that she has been in some hot water at home, not only for using ethnic stereotypes in her work (the idea of the unreliable narrator is not universally accepted!), but also for the pungency of her language and the sexual violence described in the poems. Yamanaka, who herself teaches intermediate school students and reads frequently to classes around the state, has been asked to submit lists of her work that she intends to read, so that administrators can request that she not read certain poems. Certainly some of this may be simple prudery--and the poems are strong--but much of it ironically engages a mechanism of power that is attempting to perpetuate itself, and silence a local language that has often been officially censored in the past. Behind Yamanaka's loud voices, though, are the sounds of reason and tolerance aiming to make their way through the din, as I hope school administrators, teachers, and students will soon realize.

Whatever the thematic limitations of Yamanaka's work, and I confess to a certain weariness with her adolescent speakers, it engages crucial issues, not just for Hawaii, but for the nation as it reluctantly becomes a multicultural society. The pain of this transformation--pain that is often self-inflicted--culminates in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, in a narrative about lovers who burn their own names on their backs with sparklers. After this act of curiously self-affirming mutual mutilation, in which words do literally become flesh, the female speaker has the book's last words. Surely this act reflects the ambivalences of pidgin speakers toward writing; if the act of naming has traditionally belonged to a cultural elite (such as teachers), then the act of self-naming is especially difficult and painful. But the last lines of the poem are most assuredly spoken, not written:

Ain't nobody
tell me
otherwise. (140)
I would not go so far as Glissant in imagining that we can here see "a kind of revenge by oral language over written ones, in the context of a global civilization of the nonwritten" (126). The new orality, if it can be so termed, is also largely controlled by the old powers that be (talking computers and MTV come to mind). But Yamanaka's fresh and honest and spoken poetry is important to Hawaii in its assertion of a local identity separate from the national one. It may also help teach others outside Hawaii about the pleasures and the pains of multicultural experience.

And then there was the time
when you just joked coming
up to me, laid your wrist on
my shoulder and whispered the news about
the Romans: They'd won again,
and, what was more to the point, done so
in an era that surpassed the age of the dinosaurs
John Ashbery, "Dinosaur Country"

John Ashbery has, for several decades now, opened his work up to a multitude of voices, although they all ultimately belong to him, or to his voice, or (at the least) to a loosely defined linguistic behavior that might be called Ashberian. I would like to think that the success of Yamanaka's poems on the mainland (not here, where Ashbery is, at best, ignored) is to some extent due to Ashbery's strong lead block. But I find it more interesting to brood on another question: how can a reading of Yamanaka shed light on Ashbery's work? In what ways does her work open his up to interpretation? Can we think of Ashbery, like Yamanaka, as an "ethnic" voice, a participant in American multiculturalism?

The answer is yes. I read Ashbery's latest volume, And the Stars Were Shining (at least in certain moods) as a colonial allegory, manipulated by Ashbery to his own ends. This allegory reads as follows: a famous American poet, wishing to write about his own inevitable decline and fall, uses his own position as an intellectual well-versed in European art, music and literature, to tell his story. The decline of the west is embodied (or disembodied) in the poet's decadence (or belatedness). In so doing, he reveals the extent to which Americans are still colonized by Europe, even as Europe ingests large quantities of American culture. And so Ashbery appropriates his own appropriation: "What! Our culture in its dotage! / Yet this very poem refutes it," he proclaims. He becomes an odd colonist of the colonial.

Ashbery's favorite trope is operatic; the title of his book, for starters, comes from Puccini's Tosca, though it may also pun on the star-spangled banner. But Ashbery's operatic allegory is apparently different from Edward Said's. In writing of Verdi's Aida, Edward Said argues that "Aida, like the opera form itself, is a hybrid and radically impure work that belongs equally to the history of culture and to the historical experience of overseas domination," further, that "the embarrassment of Aida is finally that it is not so much about but of imperial domination" (114). Apparently different, that is, unless the decline of western culture is somehow synonymous with its power. Western cultural power manifests itself first in its most decadent form, or so I thought recently when I looked off an ancient city wall in Xian, China and caught sight of a large KFC billboard. Or when I turned on my hotel TV and discovered MTV and CNN. In the postcolonial world, there is often no way to tell what is "authentic" and what imported; the confusions of the culture Yamanaka describes are evidence of the mixing of outside and inside language and cultures. (Local culture, it could be argued, is authentic only insofar as it is hybrid; its resistances to dominant culture are shot through with evidence of it. Dominant culture, then, is authentic only insofar as it is able to absorb local cultures.)

Both Yamanaka and Ashbery refuse to assert one authenticity against a myriad of imperial and imperious influences; Ashbery positively revels in them. And, in so doing, he comes close to the nineteenth century artist, as Said describes him: "The imperial culture mirrors itself in the artist's role as imperial creator" (116). In the aria "And the Stars Were Shining," Ashbery's title poem, the dying Cavaradossi sings (and writes) his farewell to Tosca: "And the stars were shining . . . the earth / smelt sweet . . . the garden gate creaked . . . / and a footstep brushed the sand." To which Ashbery offers a counter-song, one that has a close brush with the aria's sad sentimentality; there's more than a touch of hopelessness, too, mitigated only by Ashbery's humor, his inconclusive final metaphor of life as the tying of shoelaces:

Summer won't end in your lap,
nor are the stars more casual than usual.
Peace, quite, a dictionary--it was so important,
yet at the end nobody had any time for any of it.
It was as if all of it had never happened,
my shoelaces were untied, and--am I forgetting anything?
Whitman's barbaric American yawp owed a great deal to European operas, but his "Song of Myself" was nonetheless written in a distinctly American language. Ashbery, whose central subject is valedictory, subsumes himself in that inheritance some 140 years later, as if to suggest that the decadence of one tradition can be used as an analogy for the poet's inevitable loss of voice. Ashbery is not, like Eliot, seeking to put the eggshells of tradition back together again, but he is using them (as perhaps they are using him) toward an examination of America's continuing status as a colonial, creole, culture. To put a more positive spin on it, Ashbery points toward the existence of a world culture that is made up of the fragments of national cultures. Hence his comic apostrophe to the German historian in "The Decline of the West," some of which I've quoted earlier:

O Oswald, O Spengler, this is very sad to find!

What! Our culture in its dotage!
Yet this very poem refutes it,
springing up out of the collective unconscious
like a weasel through a grating. (46)
Whose is "our culture" in this case? Is the poet defending western culture, or is he satirizing it? Perhaps he is simply acknowledging his own status (this is best framed as a metaphor, not as fact) as a "creole" writer: "What is it, spring? I can't / / help being a little European," he writes, after one of his many allusions to opera (34). In this context it seems less odd to use Dr. Johnson as an authority in a poem entitled, "Spotlight on America": "Nothing like a big stranger in the dark / 'to concentrate the mind,' as Dr. Johnson said" (51). The poem's next reference is to those very American appurtenances, Venetian blinds. In another of his opera poems, "On First Listening to Schreker's Der Schatzgraeber," he positions himself between Europe and the furthest reaches of the American empire, in words that made this resident of Honolulu feel self-conscious:

The woman with the confused soul keeps calling.
Was gibt es? Now that you're in Honolulu you've got
to live it up
no matter what kind of grub they throw at you
on Main Street. O but my past is operatic
you see, the glitter, wind and shimmer,
all are in my bones. (58)
On first reading the liner notes to Der Schatzgraeber, one finds Shreker's words on finishing it: "End of the opera. 12 November 1918 (on the day of the declaration of the German-Austrian Republic and the union with the German Reich!)." It is, then, an opera historically associated with the dissolution of the Habsburg empire--a postcolonial piece, if only by a matter of minutes.

With his usual wit, Ashbery piles on examples of sentences that alternate between European (and occasionally Japanese) references and American ones. At times he translates between languages, or versions of them, as when he moves from American "hood" to English "bonnet" (26) (Yamanaka's spelling of "theatre" with a final English "re" seems relevant here) or quotes a French idiomatic expression, "dirty as a comb" (8) or uses words like "risible" that are more French than English (94). In "Dinosaur Country" he mixes his English essayists with K rations:

["]Now I'm on an island in a self-engrossed river
with the selected essays of Addison and Steele
and enough K rations to last till Michaelmas
and its daisies, which, incidentally,
bloom only for me." (60)
And from the title poem:
"The kitchen's not such a bad place,
if it's sinks you're after. Sure, Caruso was singing
somewhere behind the padlocked velvet door,
but if we stay--no, linger--here, the problem
will reverse itself. Tom and Jerrys all around." (94)

I would suggest that Ashbery's use of references is not dissimilar to Yamanaka's inclusion of Donny Osmond and Captain and Tenille in her poems about plantation life. Like Yamanaka, Ashbery acknowledges the influence of other (colonial) cultures on his work and his language. The death of the western empires that have given him language is analogous to his own loss of language and self. In "Works on Paper I" he writes:
What will he do with it?
You're looking at an empire that has lost its clangor.
You get there by dying. (30)

I do not mean to draw too strict or close an analogy between Yamanaka's and Ashbery's work, for there are certainly differences between the relative situations of the speakers of their poems (if Yamanaka's is a poor, abused, pidgin-speaking adolescent girl, then Ashbery's is an immensely learned, witty, middle-class, gay white man who rather enjoys much of his predicament). The difference then, is one of class, as well as gender. But it is also crucial to note that their languages are deployed for different reasons; Yamanaka, especially through her use of pidgin, resists inclusion in the (admittedly fluid) canon of American Literature. Of course, that very resistance may lead to her inclusion in future anthologies. Ashbery's resistances are more ironic; while he uses his own position as a colonial figure in And the Stars Were Shining, he hardly suggests a plan of resistance to it. Instead, he operates more like an unambivalent Derek Walcott (if such can be imagined), by embracing all the voices that course through him. Of course he has less need to resist dominant voices than does Yamanaka; after all, he IS a dominant voice. He would agree with Walcott who, in "The Muse of History," writes contra Glissant's attack on assimilation: "But the tribe in bondage learned to fortify itself by cunning assimilation of the religion of the Old World. What seemed to be surrender was redemption. What seemed the loss of tradition was its renewal. What seemed the death of faith was its rebirth" (42).

Works Cited

Brathwaite, Edward. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica: 1770-1820. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1989.
Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
Thiong'o, Ngugi wa. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1986.
Walcott, Derek. "The Muse of History." In Edward Baugh, ed. Critics on Caribbean Literature: Readings in Literary Criticism. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.