Digging Up the Bones: Depictions of Otherness in Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes’ Gravities of Center

Digging Up the Bones: Depictions of Otherness in Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes’
Gravities of Center
reviewed by Loren Kleinman.

Originally published in Sidereality Volume 3, Issue 1 (2004)

Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes. Gravities of Center. San Fransisco: Arkipelago Books Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-9713423-9-3.

“Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies,
met unexpectedly on an overgrown
path when each had been thinking of
something else: a clearing blow to the gut.”
—Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”

“When each thing is unique in itself,
there can be no comparison made…. There is
only this strange recognition of present otherness.”
—D.H. Lawrence, “Democracy”

“These are not scars; you have not given these to me” (51). Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes’ Gravities of Center portrays an intimate representation of the self. Writing from the perspective of a twenty-first century Pilipina American, Reyes recognizes the challenges of understanding identity. Her collection suggests important questions on what it means to be the “other,” or the challenges of keeping her Pilipino culture alive in an Americanized landscape. Reyes asks: What does it mean to be Pilipino, American, me? What is home? How do we claim our sense of self? She asks her audience, “[How] do I draw you inside and keep you warm. . ./between our two worlds” (37)?

In Gravities of Center Reyes is defining or securing a self; she provides us a portal into Pilipino identity; while trying to declare her own. In the poem “Images of Loss” Reyes’ writes (17):

the manila of my imagination i have learned to mourn my birthplace in no
longer understand that place where I wish to pay homage thoroughly
colonial i no longer know how my words flow my language now fissures you
offer up words and worlds nectar for your little sister who grieves images of
loss
 I cannot remember I cannot regret what i cannot remember

It is here that we see the most urgent affirmation of “otherness.” By excluding caesura and creating an elliptical prose-like text, Reyes makes a compelling psychological statement against the “colonized others who are marginalized by imperial discourse” (Definitions of Othering, par.4). She cannot grasp the whole of her past; cannot feel her blood touch her skin. Reyes cannot understand or “remember” the worlds or “words to construct a . . . Home” (17). In a sense, “Images of Loss” reflects a lifetime of despondency or disconnection towards her past, her culture. How she wishes she could reclaim just enough to speak. But she admits she can only imagine a small part of that identity, and it is her job as a poet to try to imagine that self. She declares that “‘poets have no home, they live in words’ — this uplifting/evasiveness to the inevitable question of locating home” (18).

Another important and relevant idea of “otherness” is its place within community, or community and the other. Reyes explores community as colonization or the transformation of her Pilipino community into a generic space. In “Notes from a Forum on the Pilipino American Historical Context of Urban Development,” Reyes says (15):

gravities of center, encroachment, adaptation
communities of absence, collections, edges
. . . amassings, villages
gestures of extravagance, perspiration, city
properties of appreciation, condominiums, suburbs

I think, she suggests that within the bounds of community one sacrifices the self for sameness or unity. How community is built upon the principle of a shared self. It is literally, one for all and all for one. This is a conflicting notion, since Reyes desperately tries to return to her roots or her home as well evoking questions of their distinctiveness. On one hand she seeks that missing Pilipino past, she has a desire to rejuvenate all of its richness, texture, and flavor; and on the other hand she wants to individualize the experience. For her it is a place that “remains on [her] fingers,” “a place both fearful and redemptive, a place almost of myth” (14, 68).

In “Sonnet for my Punk Rock Boyfriend,” Reyes suggests an alternative side to “otherness.” The other as lover. What does it mean to love? Who are we when we love? What happens to our self when we love? She shows us that we become “craziness and mayhem,” “tough as nails,” “alternately loud” (69). Her poem demonstrates how we view the other — our lover. How we describe in order to connect ourselves with them; how we try to dig out character; how we try to make that love apart of our own self. Reyes suggests that love can be a metamorphosis, from two to one; there is no “other, “only one.

“I have been tenderly cautioned . . . to worship and guard memory fiercely for even the most comfortless of these have given me flight” (72). Reyes’ Gravities of Center is an extraordinary testament to the self, and how the self is shaped from the experience of “otherness.” Her work is sharp and intelligent, defining and shattering. Although Reyes describes this based on ethnicity, I think she also makes this topic accessible and universal to everyone. She shows us that ever burning question; that ever silenced scream that creeps into our bodies: Who am I? Reyes tells us to go find our selves; to find our own tongues; to bring them back to life.