I am currently writing a poem that I’ve tentatively titled, “Rules for Ladies.” It’s a long prose poem, 18 pages and counting. I thought I had let go of the prose poem, but I picked it up again while I was teaching Sesshu Foster’s City Terrace Field Manual, and discussing with my students what makes a prose poem a prose poem. It was great to revisit Foster’s work, and remember what he said during one of his readings a few years ago at City Lights Bookstore. Something about avoiding or eliminating the “cuteness” of enjambment, i.e. not allowing gimmick to overtake form and function. Just writing the poem, letting the lyric or narrative be. And so then, as I return to the prose poem, I think about what characteristics of poetry we maintain even when we’re not breaking lines — music, repetition, figurative language, compressed language, et al. And then, what does the density of prose serve in the poem.
I thought about this a lot when I was writing my first book, after/while reading Truong Tran’s Dust and Conscience, and then Within the Margin, which took the idea of the long poetic line, of the unbroken poetic line, beyond the confines of a single page and then beyond the confines of a set of facing pages. That line just kept going, comprising the entire book. It was refreshing to reconsider all of this, after writing what I think of as more palatable poetic lines in For the City That Nearly Broke Me, and To Love as Aswang. Here, I say “palatable,” to mean more straight forward, more easily, visually and musically identifiable as poetic lines, after I’d read a lot of Juan Felipe Herrera, especially the litanies in 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.
How does the prose poem form serve the content of “Rules for Ladies.” The repetitions, “A lady must always…” “You would be pretty if…” These are the litanies we hear throughout our lives as girls, young ladies, as women that our society continues to violate, objectify, repress, infantilize. There are so many rules for correct appearance and correct behavior, many of which are contradictory, most of which are absurd. You can’t do anything right or good enough. And then it’s compounded by social expectations stemming from Filipino patriarchy and internalized oppression. The more you try to comply or adhere to unrealistic social standards, the less human you feel. Not only is my lady poetic persona already feeling hideous and animal-like, not only is she feeling consumed, devoured by others, but now a ghost has made her way into this work as well.
I’m taking language from an old school Filipino text, Tomas and Pilar Andres’s Understanding the Filipino, which among the many cultural artifacts and phenomena it addresses, states plainly Filipino gender roles and responsibilities without a hint of irony. It’s an explanatory text, directed (I believe) at a Western audience. It’s meant to alleviate East/West cultural disconnects.
I am also taking language from fashion and beauty advertisements. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at or reading fashion or beauty magazines. I don’t think my sanity could take it right now, though I certainly will. Soon. But the language in the advertisements — for example, the daily emails I receive from Sephora and Ulta! — are great. How much money do we spend on fashion and beauty treatments, and whose standards of beauty are we trying to meet/fulfill. There’s this tendency to think we are doing the empowering #selfcare thing, being beautiful for ourselves to feel good for ourselves. We say we’re feminists, but there’s the insidious presence of Euro-hetero-dominant, patriarchal aesthetic preferences, which inform our standards of beauty for ourselves. And of course, this rabid desire to preserve youthfulness. I am in my mid-40s. I have smile lines, crows’ feet, and gray hair. I have no children. If I am not useful to the patriarchal order, then do I become invisible?
What prompted this poetic project is Miss Universe. Of course Miss Universe. One question: Can I personally have nothing against Pia Alonzo Wurzbach, can I still admire her and think she’s stunning and gorgeous, and still be a feminist, and critique beauty pageant culture, and standards of beauty, its ties to colonialism and neocolonialism. Is that too irreconcilable a contradiction? As she is the current, ultimate icon of beauty, I think she embodies contradiction. I think we all do, perhaps as a survival tactic.
In a previous blog post, I asked for Pinays’ participation in “Rules for Ladies.” I am so glad and grateful to be receiving such terrific responses. I am not surprised that these other Pinays and I have all had these, “You should…” “You should not…” rules and ultimatums leveled at us. And failing to meet these numerous, unrealistic expectations, we are at fault for not trying hard enough.
I don’t know how to end this work. I don’t know when it will feel done. I am just writing it.
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of To Love as Aswang (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2015). She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the SF Bay Area, and is the author of three previous collections of poetry,Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Diwata, which received the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry.