alchemies of distance (poems)
by Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard
Review by Tarisa A.M. Matsumoto
No one will ever accuse Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard of being timid or resigned. Instead, she is a warrior, an image often evoked in her collection of poems “alchemies of distance.” It is this mood of power and critique that drives Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s poems forward, and if you do not appreciate the forms of modern poetry or the Black Arts Movement, then Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s writing may seem awkward and stiff:
…our ancestors tears
wch you swill w/each meal
can you not see you are drunk w/
their blood/ you belch suffering/
& death on the sad, fetid shore…
(from “medea of the islands”)
However, hers are poems that wake us up to the ways that others view us and our country. Sinavaiana-Gabbard looks at the United States from the outside, as the warrior image of Nafanua, a Samoan goddess who fends off invaders. Analogies abound with this idea. Is she the Third World fighting colonialism by the West? Is she the United States trying to undo the foundations of conservatism and isolationism displayed by our government? Is she a writer trying to survive in a world of supermalls and reality shows (see her poem “death at the christmas fair: elegy for a fallen shopper”)?
Despite the many connections that can be made, the clarity of Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s poems would be lost if it were not for her introductory essay, “a kind of genealogy,” my favorite part of her book. In the opening pages, Sinavaiana-Gabbard describes her journeys and the experiences of her family as a way to prepare readers for the poems that follow. It may even be that Sinavaiana-Gabbard is preparing herself to find “a single thread [that] stitches through all those distances, leave-takings and arrivals somewhere else.” In the introduction, Sinavaiana-Gabbard conjures Nafanua saying that “she carries the ancestors with(in) her; they’re riding in the boat” that she is taking to the world of light to defeat her people’s enemy. In this way, Nafanua’s ancestors are never lost. This is where Sinavaiana-Gabbard is leading, to a place where nothing leaves and where her collective experience comes out onto the page. Still, this journey is described more clearly in the introduction than the poems. The introduction is where I find the most engaging ideas, where Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s wisdom shines.