Reyes, Barbara Jane. Invocation to Daughters. San Francisco: City Lights, 2017. 86 pp (paper). $14.95.

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Reviewed by Soleil David

Barbara Jane Reyes’ fifth poetry collection Invocation to Daughters (City Lights, 2017) is a missal for Filipino women, one that uses Western poetic forms to utter an unapologetically transnational feminist poetics. In this collection, Reyes pushes against Spanish and American influences, the two patriarchs that have kept the Philippines abject for much of its history. The poems subvert Western tradition through the use of those same Western traditions, all while bringing in multiple languages, as well as ruminations on Filipino and Filipino-American culture.

“Daughters, let us create a language so that we know ourselves, so that we may sing, and tell, and pray,” Reyes writes in the first of five poems also titled “Invocation to Daughters” (pg. 4). This new language is a hybrid of English, Tagalog and Spanish, most successfully employed in the poem “FAQ”:

People will come to understand what they want to understand. Those who know una significado es ilusyon (o delusyon), ang intindi ay simaron, they know liminaridad. The ones who demand understanding en una lengua, the ones who demand una kortada ng dila, the ones who request una violencia de la media lengua, intolerante. They really want obediencia. Di ba? They want me to be their mono. Mga suplado. Reklamo-reklamo. Xenófobo. Ako po ay sigurado. (pg. 1)

Spanish, of course, is the second most common language in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Reyes now lives. It is also the language of the conquistadors who held dominion over the Philippines for 300 years, before the Americans came, bringing English with them. In writing in the three languages, Reyes pushes against cultural powers that demand hegemony, therefore creating a new language of resistance for transnational Filipino-Americans.

The poems in the collection take on the forms of prayers, gospels, psalms and odes, again nods to Spanish rule, which brought a particularly conservative strain of Roman Catholicism to the Philippines. Anaphora and repetition are heavily used throughout, creating a soundscape of echoes, the ringing acoustics of a congregation in church. The poems “She Is” and “Prayer on Good Friday” are sonnet crowns, again heavily using anaphora, so they reinforce the repetition and the echoes in the collection. The incantatory quality of these poems may run the risk of slipping into mindless ritual, but the subjects of these repeated incantations are not a patriarchal Catholic god. Rather, these poems center female struggle and bring to light particular Filipinas who were victims of patriarchy. They are repeated incantations for daughters to wrest power back from the fathers.

Both sonnet crowns deal in female struggle as in the lines from “She Is” (“But what if she could speak. Then you would know/ She never feared you”) and so do the poems “Mythos” and “The Gospel of Juana dela Cruz”—Juana dela Cruz being the Everywoman in Philippine cultural discourse (pg. 22). Several poems praise and eulogize Filipina victims: Mary Jane Veloso, a human trafficking victim who was sentenced to death for smuggling heroin into Indonesia (her execution was later stayed); Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman who lived near the US army base in Olongapo City in the Philippines, who was drowned in a public toilet by a Marine Sergeant after he found out she was trans; and Norife Hererra Jones, who was murdered by her estranged husband in Monterey, California. The scope of where these myriad acts of violence take place makes an argument about the global nature of patriarchy, how women are safe nowhere. The four poems about these women are grim, but they take on celebratory tones. They are in praise of martyrs, as in this stanza from “Psalm for Jennifer Laude”:

Draw a picture of your own heart’s double chambers, its perfumed twinning atriums. Catalogue what is not theirs. Praise your life-hunger, the body a trans gression, rapid vessel coursing beyond know. Praise you, trans cendent binabae, glamour deeper than the coroner’s Y-incision. (pg. 45)

These poems, by taking on forms that the Catholic Church reserve for god, Jesus and the apostles (all men), make a case and a plea for the women’s immortality, lives after death.

The poems in this collection are unsparing in their righteous anger, attacking the patriarchs with a remarkable stamina. The poem “An Apology,” is where the generalized psalms and gospels find specificity. Dedicated to Norife Herrera Jones, it apologizes to her about the relative lack of response from the Filipino and Filipino-American communities to her murder: “We should have recognized your name    as kin…/ We should have   thundered, so/ your spirit   would know   its way   home” (pg. 46-47). There was very little media attention paid to the 29-year-old victim, who was beaten unconscious and then shot and dismembered a few days later once her 74-year-old husband-turned-assailant realized that she wasn’t going to wake up. Norife Herrera Jones then becomes a real world example of what the poetry collection is about: a woman victimized by a man old enough to be her father, then just as quickly forgotten, as in the lines from “Apocryphal,” which say, “Just give it time and everyone will forget her./ Just give it time, and there will be a new one just like her” (pg. 43). A grim conclusion, but one that Reyes pushes against by rescuing the names of the women from obscurity.

Near the end of the collection, we find poems that eulogize Reyes’ father, who passed away in 2015. The poems portray a complicated relationship. In “We Are,” Reyes writes, “When you ask me if he was a good father, I will tell you, it is true he wanted sons” (pg. 60). But in the poem “The Day,” she ultimately reveals it to be a relationship that, if not rooted in fierce love, is at least marked by respect:

1155pm I remember holding the dove’s warmth in my palms. I was still, it was still, it was waiting for me to unlace my fingers. There, the horizon above a young oak tree, mustard flowers, poppies, and autumn snails, the dove’s gentle bones pushed off my palms, into the orange quiescence of the sun. This is how I said good-bye to my father—shouting his name at the sky. (pg. 67)

The eulogies seem at odds with the rest of the collection, which draws distinct lines between daughters and the patriarchs. That is until one reads the lines from “We Are” where the speaker and her siblings, all daughters, are gathered around their dying father, stroking his hair. In the last line, the father says, “Maganda pala pag purong babae.” I had no idea how beautiful it is to only have female children. At the end of his life, the father is shown to be capable of realizing something that to him, would have been beyond incredible. Thus the two eulogies serve to echo the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Mass, where the priest reads the biblical passage of Jesus’ transubstantiation into the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In this part of the collection, Reyes is making an argument for the patriarchs’ capacity for their own transubstantiation, a chance for a change that is truly radical.

Invocation to Daughters is a rallying cry disguised by the hypnotic lull of the Catholic mass, as if saying that the masters’ tools are precisely what are needed for the masters to pay attention while their house is being dismantled. Isang bagsak.

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SOLEIL DAVID
’s poems have appeared in Santa Ana River Review, Cleaver Magazine, and The Margins, among others. Born and raised in the Philippines, she received her B.A. with high distinction in English from the University of California, Berkeley. She has received fellowships from PEN America, VONA, and from Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is currently an MFA candidate in poetry.