Friday, June 24, 2005

Barbara Jane Reyes' "[ave maria]"

To read Barbara Jane Reyes' poem, "[ave maria]," go to Word Riot,



BARBARA JANE REYES received her undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, where she also served as Editor-in-Chief of the Pilipino American literary publication Maganda. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) at SF State University in May 2005.

Her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in Asian Pacific American Journal, Chain, Interlope, Nocturnes (Re)view, North American Review, Papertiger (Australia), Tinfish, Versal (The Netherlands), in the anthologies Babaylan (Aunt Lute, 2000), Eros Pinoy (Anvil, 2001), InvAsian: Asian Sisters Represent (Study Center Press, 2003), Going Home to a Landscape (Calyx, 2003), Coloring Book (Rattlecat, 2003), Not Home But Here (Anvil, 2003), Pinoy Poetics (Meritage, 2004), and forthcoming in Red Light: Superheroes, Saints and Sluts (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2005), and Graphic Poetry (Hong Kong: Victionary, 2005).

Her first book, Gravities of Center, was published by Arkipelago Books (SF) in 2003, and her second book, poeta en san francisco, is forthcoming from Tinfish Press (Kaneohe, Hawai'i) in late 2005.

For more information, please see and


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

As a poem, [ave maria] uses an approach that on the surface appears easy to mimic- what's to stop another writer from taking the Lord's Prayer and simply interspersing pop culture references and neo-blasphemies throughout?

Of course, that in itself could become as new a form as a sonnet or haiku, but let's assume there's more than just the antics of misbehaving Catholic schoolyard toughs at work here.

So, for a writer to make a piece like this attain a higher poetic quality, they must particularly struggle with care so that it says something new, and not just a tired rant against Catholicism and its influence on poor women minorities in colonized nations.

A writer would have to be firmly in control even while trying to let the language run free as the artistic impetus originally demanded.

The language and symbols need to be rich and vibrant without being excessively baroque.

As many casual readers will only get a fleeting encounter with a poem such as this, one wonders- assuming you're a relative novice to the poem's subject matter and the author's heritage- what SHOULD we know to get a deeper understanding of it?

At the minimum, I think an understanding of the ave maria in Catholicism is important and how it's structured and used.

I'd say the Hail Mary is one of the best known of the Catholic Marian prayers to Mary, mother of Jesus, aka Madonna. (Not the one from Detroit) and one of the few strongly female-focused poems in the liturgy compared to the way other Christian prayers, hymns and stories are recited.

No one really talks about the story of Esther or Ruth the same way we hear about Moses, David and Solomon for example. Paul of Tarsus, sure. But Dorcas? Who's that... etc.

The original Ave Maria is a pretty concise poem/prayer in itself:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.

And so, Reyes' poem is considerably longer than the original it's referring to, and descends unflinchingly into the world that is profane and particular.

[ave maria] shows how the imagery of the divine starts from a relatively abstract or revered towards the more basic expressions of the laity.

I don't necessarily see read the prayer as a condemnation of the people Reyes' is writing about.

I see it more of a call to appreciate the saints and sinners more concretely and less abstractly, as opposed to the language of "universal" prayers are often required to refer to a wider swath of people.

It can be read, of course, as "the angry poem"- look at this miserable world... but I think it can also be read as "see our miserable world, but don't turn your face away from it- see that we at least still have hope to want it changed..."

I'm glad we're looking at this poem. There's a lot of interesting things to discover within it.

I find the final use of the non-latin, non-english the most interesting and the most subversive, given the statement it makes about the imposition of language and culture, of missionaries, et al. things I won't get into.

And in not speaking the languages of the Phillipines, however, let me suggest that I wouldn't be too certain that what's presented is the verbatim translation or
the most formal way of saying it.

It could well be quite a subversive street phrase that's slipping by.

Perhaps it IS just a literal translation, of course, but the reason I remark that is when I draw upon my own experiences as a writer.

When I look at some of the work I've written, such "An Illumination of Toxins," the way I position words in Romanized Lao look like translations, but they're NOT.

In "An Illumination of Toxins," for example, I interspersed Lao folk proverbs and common sentences that were almost seemingly completely unrelated to the preceding sentences, unless you probe deeper for the connections.

Linguistically, I consider myself predominantly an Asian American writer writing in English who incorporates non-English words and Asian and Asian American themes into his work.

And from a craft and technical point of view I like working with Lao, Hmong, even smatterings of Thai and other Southeast Asian languages because as writers we shouldn't shy away from experimenting with different words to introduce into English.

Among the many different professional classes, poets in particular stand the most chance of introducing a new word from our heritage into the English vernacular that's more unorthodox and unconventional than, say, the name of a food dish, a spice or some mystical martial arts move.

I and others may never get Laotian to be an everyday language spoken in the Ozarks, but that doesn't mean there aren't elements that have roots in the Laotian experience that aren't worth adding in to the English vocabulary with the same ease that caucus, salsa or manga were brought into our idiom. The same applies to other Asian American languages.

But that's my review / soapbox. Other perspectives?

7:50 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Wow, this is a very, very comprehensive review! Thanks, Bryan!

8:15 PM  

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