MARILYN by Amanda Ngoho Reavey
The Operating System, 2015; 126 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
In April of 2015 in a short essay on the work of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, poet Amanda Ngoho Reavey asks: “How do you discuss a body of work that functions beyond language through telepathy?” A body, in Reavey’s description, is a collectivity where words are somatic, where the information they communicate exceeds what they signify. Building a collective out of her own history, and living that history as embodied practice, is the locus of MARILYN, Reavey’s first book of poems, released by The Operating System in December of 2015. MARILYN records Reavey’s synthesis of what it means to have a relationship with the history and culture of the Philippines, where she was born, and how to negotiate her ongoing somatic relationship to that history.
The poems are framed by Reavey’s first return since childhood to the Philippines, in 2011, and by what she encountered there: “I did not like traveling alone in Asia. Because they expected my skin to be my culture,” (24) she writes. The poems seek a more exact articulation of the relationship between the body and its history than Reavey is offered by others. Writing that relationship is, for Reavey, necessarily somatic, and therefore in conversation with the larger body of her work. On “Ngoho’s Apothecary,” Reavey’s blog on plant medicine, energy work and healing, she writes in a recent post, “Decolonization is Radical Healing:” “how do you reconcile the practices of your ancestors, the practices of where you are from, and the practices of where you are living, which may or may not all be in the same place? Decolonization re-presented as radical healing. Because healing, I am learning, is exactly that.”
In the poems, as in her other work, embodiment is the primary process by which Reavey takes up decolonization. The scale of the poems is somatic – poems written for people who can be touched and heard. In the same blog post, Reavey notes: “I feel like the people who read this, I actually talk with on the phone.” Having never spoken with Reavey on the phone, reading her writing feels like a gorgeous collapse of scale. What she’s thinking feels urgent and careful and necessary for any reader, but it has in mind the people in the room, or the ones proximal to it, within the phone’s reach. It also has in mind the difficulty of accounting for all of the rooms Reavey has occupied, and her physical distance from the rooms of her ancestors. Upon establishing her field of readers, she continues: “Between the shit, I've been working on joy. Radical joy. Actually, everything feels radical right now.” Reavey’s project is governed by the scale of the human, which is simultaneously species and single body in her work. Her scope is part history, part observation, and part the somatic slippage of dreams.
Reavey works on the scale of the body to systematize her divergence from a governing logic that is not her own. In “Three Experiments Toward Existence” an essay for The Volta published last February that includes excerpts from MARILYN, Reavey writes: “My wanting is not the grid’s wanting.” When she speaks generally about the practice of emigration, she also reflects on her own life: “For an emigrant a desire line is a kind of violence that masks loneliness” (11). As a project of anti-memoir poetics, one that takes the space of dreaming and longing and wishing as a somatic practice in conversation with what has been lived, it carries echoes of Bhanu Kapil’s work.
In the recent post “Sequence for a Postcolonial Present: Decolonize the Commons” on Jack Kerouac is Punjabi, Kapil’s blog, she asks: “How do you decolonize a lineage? How do you decolonize the ways in which the institution was initially—by people no longer living—dreamed?” These questions are at the heart of Reavey’s writing, which also wonders at how institutions are lived in the body. If decolonization is healing, how can lineage itself be healed? What results from that healing? How is the healing of the self homologous with the process of making lineage belong more to the self and less to its institutional frame? What is produced after a lineage is decolonized?
Kapil’s presence is important to MARILYN, which began as Reavey’s MFA thesis in 2014 at Naropa, mentored by Kapil, and has origins in Kapil’s Experimental Prose course that occasioned the book’s early work. Kapil’s own work is also important to the poems, particularly her 2011 collection Schizophrene, which provided methodological suggestions for Reavey. In a 2015 interview for The Conversant with The Operating System’s founder and managing editor, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Reavey quotes from Schizophrene by way of describing her own practice, “I became obsessed with ‘light touch,’ she says, or ‘touching something lightly many times’ (61).”
Later in the interview she describes MARILYN as, in hindsight, a work of “ethnoautobiography,” and of reading Jurgen Werner-Kremer and Robert Jackson-Paton’s work on the subject and finding their definition resonant for her own practice. Ethnoautobiography as defined by Werner-Kremer and Jackson-Paton is: “a visionary and imaginative process that grounds itself in time (smaller and larger planetary and celestial cycles), place (ecology, history of place), history (stories and myths), ancestry, and stories of origin and creation.” Reavey goes on in the interview to pose questions that have resulted from her own practice of ethnoautobiography, and those that reflect the central questions she addresses in MARILYN, including: “Is it possible to appropriate your own birth culture if you didn’t grow up in it or weren’t raised with it?”
In her post, Kapil, too, asks a number of questions, one of which echoes particularly within MARILYN. Reavey’s book is especially stunning in its exploration of the archive as a project of the present. While several degrees of the past guide the arc of the book, it is Reavey’s articulation of what to do with the past, how to embody it, and how to find a present within it, which makes up the book’s dominant temporality. Within that process of finding and building a present is Kapil’s question, which MARILYN takes up in many of its poems: “How do you grieve and dream at the same time?”