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We Howl, We Witness, We Testify: A Review of Barbara Jane Reyes’s Invocation To Daughters

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Invocation To Daughters by Barbara Jane Reyes

City Lights Spotlight Series No. 16. 2017.

Review by: Carla Sofia Ferreira

Content warning: sexual assault; physical violence

“Daughters, let us create a language so that we know ourselves, so that we may sing, and tell, and pray,” beckons Barbara Jane Reyes in the first of her five poems in the “Invocation to Daughters” suite. Reyes masterfully creates a book of poems as prayers wrested from patriarchal bearings, and spoken in a daughter tongue. If we see a poetry collection as a body of work, then Reyes uses hers to reclaim women’s bodies, and in so doing, reclaims the language of scripture and gospel as her own boundary-breaking language of resistance.

Throughout Invocation to Daughters, Reyes breaks the borders of language, as seen in “The Gospel of Mary Jane” and the poem suite, “Orayson,” which braid English, Tagalog, and Spanish from line to line. Reyes, a Filipina American poet, is acutely aware of how any standard language is set in place by systems of violent power; she subverts this with lines that defend against easy translation and thus resist colonization.

As the poet writes in “FAQ,” the prose poem which opens the book: “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?” The violence of “una lengua,” one tongue, is that it demands “una kortada ng dila,” a cut tongue: violent commodification of any experience that has not been standardized. This form of colonization demands translation as homogenization. Reyes resists this at every turn, instead repurposing both languages of the oppressor (English and Spanish) and native tongue (Tagalog) to create a language for her poems that does not bow to any demands of “obediencia,” that does not become any “media lengua,” an intermediate tongue, but a defiant dance of many tongues.

In Invocation to Daughters, Reyes recreates language as a call to community and as call to protest, or collective action. The very structure of the book echoes this call for gathering, as seen in Reyes’s multiple sonnet crowns and poem-suites. She gives us poems whose aims can be best described by the closing poem of the sonnet crown, “Prayer On Good Friday”:

This lyric-making me, now a dazzling we—

We howl, we witness, we testify

We stand firm, and you cannot break us

We are raw nerves, and we are fire. We rise

And in writing we restore our lives.

The “me” of the poet becomes the “dazzling we” of community, of sisters; like the poems in this suite, we are called together to “howl / witness / testify.” Within this strength of community, “we stand firm” and like a phoenix, we become “fire” only then to “rise.” That last line speaks so beautifully to the aims of the collection: “in writing we restore our lives.” Reyes will interrogate this hope in writing’s ability to restore later in the book, but what remains unwavering throughout is her faith in “we.”

We see this faith in collective action in one of my favorite sonnets, “Bitches” which posits “So what if you call her a bitch, who cares?” The power of this “so what” is predicated upon the communal force of a sisterhood that rises up to defend a woman under attack: “What if we all could / Stand with her, what if we all could fight back, / Yes defend our sister against assault, / Each one of us so capable, who knows.” Reyes uses her poems to envision a world in which no woman is alone “against assault,” and her focus is not, as mainstream narratives would paint it, on the perceived weakness of those victimized, but instead in the gathered strength of “each one of us so capable.” She does this while reclaiming the traditional form of the sonnet and the English language; both are linguistic traditions enforced through white patriarchal systems of power. To then use the sonnet crown to speak out against the assault of women further resists this violence. It also replicates within its very form— sonnets coming together to form a crown— the communal action of women defending women the poet invokes.

While language as violence is a key centerpoint of the collection, Reyes also directs our attention to the physical assault of women’s bodies, most particularly in the three poems: “Psalm for Mary Jane Veloso,” “Psalm for Jennifer Laude,” and “An Apology,” the final poem of which was written for Norife Herrera Jones. All three women are Filipina victims of violence; Veloso is on death row for presumed drug trafficking in Indonesia whereas the violence suffered by Laude and Jones was fatal. Laude was a trans woman killed by her partner, a former US Marine Corps private officer, and Jones was killed by her ex-husband.

Again, the question from “Bitches” returns: “what if we all could fight back”? These poems are an attempt to do so, to not remain silent and thus complicit within violence against the bodies of Filipina women specifically and more generally, the assault women of color and trans women face at horrifying rates. Again, Reyes skilfully turns to language as defiance even while recognizing its limits, as in “Veloso” when she writes, “When the mouth is taken, how may the mouth even try.” These poems do not attempt to speak for the women Reyes writes of, but instead focus on the work of praise, the anaphora of the word “Praise” itself tying together her “Psalm for Mary Jane Veloso, and of bearing witness, as we see in “Psalm for Jennifer Laude.” In this latter poem, violence against language becomes violence against the body, mirroring the violence experienced by trans women, often denied their accurate pronouns and their own bodily autonomy: “This (mis) trans lated bakla mis cast a cheap hooker, whore, a ladyboy, a grave mis carriage.” The translation is a mistake: the identity of the woman denied and thus rejected and “mis cast.”

The man who kills Laude sees her body as “a grave mis carriage” when the miscarriage is his own wilful misunderstanding, leading to her death. Still, Reyes “praise[s] your life-hunger, the body a trans gression”: etymologically, to translate means to “move across;” at its roots, to transgress means the same, “to step or go across.” The connotations of both words are, however, quite different in contemporary usage. Again, Reyes skilfully plays with the boundaries of language: it is the man’s choice to mistranslate Laude’s identity that results in the transgression of his murder. “The body” as “trans gression” rather than “transgression” is simply a body in motion, a body that steps over inadequate binaries and into a whole self.

Again, in “An Apology” for Norife Herrera Jones, we can see the title of “apology” working in two ways: a defense of Jones and also a request for forgiveness:

We should have raised our voices for you.

We should have raised all hell for you,

whetted our teeth and talons, as blades,

as spears. We should have thundered, so

your spirit would know its way home.

As I read over these lines, ones I have returned to so many times, I think not only of Jones; I think of the children who have died at the border and of an America that appears more distracted than enraged. We should all be “raising our voices;” instead, so many remain silent. What works powerfully in this poem is the silence as what is not actually there: “the voices,” “teeth and talons,” “blades,” “spears,” and how “we should have thundered.” These are objects and actions of defense; given what did not happen in light of Jones’s death, we can now turn only to apology as a request for forgiveness, which may not be what we deserve. This poem, however, is Reyes’s attempt to break the silence; as in “Prayer on Good Friday,” it howls, it witnesses, it testifies.

Women’s testimony is often shrouded with questions of “credibility,” a buzzword echoing in so much of the news coverage of Trump’s most recent accuser of sexual assault. This question of credibility is an old weapon levied against women survivors; we have seen it with Anita Hill in the 1990’s and more recently, with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in 2018. Despite the fact only 230 out of 1000 sexual assaults are reported, with only 2-10% of reported assaults proven false, there is an enduring mythos that women frequently falsely accuse men of sexual assault for their own personal benefit. Reyes addresses this in the preceding three-part poem “Apocryphal,” another dual-meaning title. Here, she includes the etymology of “apocryphal”: it is at once defined as “false; spurious” and at its Latin and Greek roots, “hidden.” Reyes writes the common responses faced by women who do speak out on assault in “The Gospel of Comments Section”:

For some reason, I do not believe her.

She better have proof; I need it. She’s making a money grab. She’s an unskilled worker, and she should quit complaining. She’s lucky to have a job at all.

For some reason, her story is doubtful to me.

She’s lying; I’m not buying. She was not a captive, she could have left. She’s like every other Filipino, finding the easiest way to get rich quick and stay.

The juxtaposition of the non-italic and lines mirrors a translation: we see the polite veneer of language covering up what is really meant, the comments that fill the space beneath online articles. Reyes looks specifically at the racist boundaries of credibility: people of color are less often believed, especially immigrants who are accused of “finding the easiest way to get rich quick and stay.” As if an accusation were ever an easy process for a victim and as if undocumented immigrants are not most at risk should they choose to report. Reyes ends the poem with her third section, “Response,” which acts as both history and fortune: “Just give it time, and everyone will forget all about her. / Just give it time, and there will be a new one just like her.” It is this societal amnesia that Invocation resists.

Among the many hypocrisies Reyes exposes is the culture of obedience women are inculcated into, which then expects them able to defend against unwanted physical advances and guilty if they don’t. In her fourth “Invocation To Daughters,” she reminds her readers, “Daughters, the word, ‘no,’ has been pried from our jaws. We will wrest it back, and guard it, and wield it as our sharpest tool.” So many of these poems are a “no,” a “no” to disbelief in women’s stories, a “no” to silence in the face of violence, a “no” to patriarchy.

After creating an entire collection that uses language to dismantle the patriarchy, I think a less talented poet would struggle to then meaningfully integrate several elegies for her own father with whom as she writes in “We Are,” “we quarrelled epic.” However, Reyes deftly does just that, both with “We Are” and with the expansive poem as schedule, “The Day,” in part documenting the final day of her father’s life. It is in this poem of reclaiming loss that Reyes questions the power of what poetry can recover, what poetry is capable of at all; she is not unaware of its limits, leading to these breathtaking lines, vulnerable and strong at once:

Sometimes you are broken. Poetry won’t fix you. Poetry can’t fix you. It doesn’t have lungs to give you its air. It doesn’t have hands to stitch your parts back together. To make you tea. To drive you home.

Poetry can’t “stitch your parts back together,” but these poems do the work of holding together so much loss. I first heard Reyes read this poem in September 2018 at Writers With Drinks in San Francisco; in April 2019, I heard her read at Grace Cathedral in the same city. In both cases, to hear Reyes read these lines felt like a sacred moment of grace, simultaneously an acceptance of brokenness and a repairing. But as always, Reyes is, to use her own word, “unfuckwithable,” the only poet in the group daring to say “fuck” in a church, which I, along with the rest of her audience, appreciated. I feel it speaks to the poet’s ethos: taking back the sacred for the ordinary, blurring the borders between the profane and holy.

We see this most powerfully in the final poem of the collection in “Wisdom’s Rebuke,” which begins with a Biblical quote where “out in the open wisdom calls aloud.” In a workshop led by José Olivarez, the poet discussed the politics of translation and asked of poetry that incorporates multiple languages, like his own and that of Reyes’s: who has the burden of explanation versus who doesn’t? Throughout her writing, Reyes rejects the burden of explanation, of translating for readers who would want simple explanations for her many tongues.

“Wisdom’s Rebuke” is a manifesto of a writer and a woman who will not be fucked with, who is not here to explain for white male readers; this is, after all, a collection of invocations addressed to and for daughters. This is a response to another audience, arguably the only poem not addressed to her principle audience of daughters, in which she affirms: “I am not the polite little colored girl you are looking for. You did not fashion me in your image.” Again, Reyes returns to religious imagery, the idea of God “fashioning [humans] in your image,” but here she rejects deference to a white audience’s idea of her. As she goes on to say, “You don’t get to explain me. You are not the standard by which I judge my own worth. You don’t get to draw my boundaries.” Reyes refuses translation and it is here that the beauty and rebellion of her work lies: in the face of so many who would exclude writers of color, Reyes stays writing her own lines, drawing her own boundaries.

Or more concisely: “Fuck your tender fences and applause.”

Carla Sofia Ferreira is the daughter of Portuguese immigrants and a teacher from Newark, New Jersey. Author of the chapbook Ironbound Fados (Ghost City Press), her poems and book reviews, recent and forthcoming, live in such lit communities as Glass, Cotton Xenomorph, The Rumpus, and The Denver Quarterly. She has received fellowships and scholarships from Winter Tangerine's workshop at Poets House, Rad(ical) DreamYard Poetry Consortium, and the Sundress Academy for the Arts.

*First statistic taken from the RAINN website; second statistic from the 2010 study, “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases” by David Lisak, Lori Gardinier , Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote (Link here: **Olivarez was asking these questions in response to Tarfia Faizullah’s essay, “Against Explanation,” definitely worth reading to further explore these ideas of poetry in and against translation.

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