Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚 (Lithic Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Tammy Bendetti
Fall 2017/ Lithic
In his third chapbook, Sam Roxas-Chua 姚gives us a hoarder’s inheritance of beauty. The writing swims with images of abundance: pearls, flowers, birds, fruits and the tongues that eat them. Rejecting minimalism and arch sarcasm, Roxas-Chua 姚 wields his imagery deftly, evoking not so much a sense of place as a sense of places. The action centers in the Philippines, but the focus swings to China, the United States, under the ocean, and even an alternate dimension where the speaker’s parents have not died:
in the back of the sun, a ship is coming for us.
Our father standing at the helm,
his arms raised, his hands
tugging on a parched moon—
on it is our mother,
her hair of stolen white silk
from glacier beds of Ursa Minor…”
The book’s universe is gorgeous and full of magic. Anything could happen, and many things have. Everything is hybridized, from languages to genders, and of course, the speaker himself. This multi-layered hybridization is no academic exercise, but necessary to describe a complex existence. The speaker misses his father, who was both tender and abusive. He examines faith and tradition, creating a sense of holiness while subverting religion. He steeps us in memory, but infuses it with the impossible in order to describe what it is like to be a child in the impossible world. The sensory richness in each line fills in the details so that we feel as though we are inside that mythic childhood, recalling it for ourselves.
Even this arsenal fails sometimes, however. Roxas-Chua 姚 acknowledges it. “I’ve quit/speaking to cranes,” he claims, “or to men who take/ the cilia/ out of my first language./ English is a ghost.” And yet, here he is, writing to us in English, making a spell to allow him to slip around his own rules.
This slim, elegant book is the crowded reliquary for a fever-dream religion. Roxas-Chua 姚 will not apologize for being too much. Instead of either/or, this is a world of and, and, and. It shows us a way forward that honors the past. Anything but colonial, it’s a way that celebrates depth and nuance—the future for our many-peopled Earth.
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