Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus
Tinfish Press, 2010
Reviewed by Janna Plant
“The Dumb-Tourist Antidote”
I lived on O`ahu from 1996 through August of 2009. During that time, I spent many hours on the 52 Wahiawa Circle Island bus that features prominently in Gizelle Gajelonia’s debut collection of poems, entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus. I also worked with tourists, giving them my own version of a tour, the beach by horseback at the Turtle Bay Resort. Tourists are such parasites, and I never wanted to be one myself again. Bumper stickers saying things like, “If it’s Tourist Season, why can’t we shoot them?” and “Slow down. This ain’t the Mainland,” directed the residents’ communal bile at the entity of the tourist, a being that could not truly engage in a conversation. When tourists asked me, “Where do the natives live?” I answered by offering a list of books. I felt that, if I ever wanted to travel again (yes!), I needed some way to not feel like the dumb-tourist, vampiring away at a body that I did not truly respect. To O`ahu visitors, I suggested Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawai`ian Nation to 1887 by Jonathan Kamakawiwo`ole Osorio, anything by Haunani-Kay Trask, Hawai`i’s Story by Hawai`i’s Queen, and Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture by Lee Tonuchi, among others. If I were still circling the loop trail, providing my memorized commentary, Gajelonia’s text would be included. If you want to experience some of the grit of O’ahu, not just the pre-packaged version that the Hawai`i Visitors and Convention Bureau would offer, read Gizelle Gajelonia’s book and ask questions. She infiltrates the dream and lets some exhaust in.
Using the bus as a metaphor, she routes through languages (English, Filipino, Pidgin H.C.E., and Hawai`ian), geography, history, American poetry, as well as the polarity between perceptions of Hawai`i and the realities. The title piece, the first of the book, revises Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Of the thirteen poems in the book, seven of them are revision poems, five of those are such American canonical classics as Stevens’ aforementioned poem, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” and most notably, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” While it is not essential that the reader know the originals, familiarity with them does increase the richness of her art. The intertextuality, in some cases, polarizes the contrast between the American base of the revised poems and the Hawai`ian base of Gajelonia’s poems.
From T.S. Eliot:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Real Unreal City
Under the gray vog of a winterless dawn,
A crowd flowed over Waikiki Beach, so many,
I had always thought Hawai’i had fucked so many.
Waikiki is unreal in the sense that it now exists solely as a performance space for commodified culture, for tourists to pose in their simulacra photos—“Caught candidly frolicking on the beach in Hawai`i!!”--, for Dog the Bounty Hunter, for pimps and prostitutes, for the drugs that lubricate all of it. The beach itself is not even real. Manmade soft sand is brought in, and continually gets pulled out to sea with the tides, suffocating whatever coral is left after the tourists trample it. Later, Gajelonia haunts the space of Eliot’s poem with the voice of Lili`uokalani, Hawai`i’s last queen, who was overthrown by American businessmen. Her ghost illuminates “The Waste Land,” of modern-day Hawai`i. Gajelonia occupies the space of these canonical American poems, performs a parasitic gesture on them, and inserts her own references to them. This echoes the overthrow, annexation, and eventual Statehood of Hawai`i by America.
As problems sprung from that, so do problems—though few--spring from this text. The parasitic gesture is not maintained throughout the text, as she does have six (very strong) poems that are not intertextual. Also, two of the revised poems are from fellow Hawai`i writers Jill Yamasawa and Eric Chock. But as this is indeed a metaphorical bus route that we are on—one that transfers people from one place to another--the translation from their experience of O`ahu to her experience of O`ahu does seem fitting. The island has many personalities.
Language also has many personalities. In pidgin (Hawai`ian Creole English) words that appear to be English are not. The usages migrate and spelling migrates. For example: “den” is the English, “then;” “bus” or “buss” is “bust-up,” which means messed up, either from drugs, alcohol, or a well-place punch in the face; “one,” is akin to the English “a;” and “never” does not mean the English “ever never,”—though sometimes it does—but mostly it refers to a specific time. An example from “Nana on theCurb”:
The bus driver never see her waiting/so he leaves without herIn this instance, this specific instance, the bus driver drove past her. Also, the word “like,” is sometimes a shortened form of the English, “Would you like to?” As in, “Like oof?” that refers to sex. No glossary is given here, so for the outsider there are many iterations that will be lost, but this is very much like an actual ride on TheBus (enjambment emphasis due to the actual logo painted on the buses). One must immerse themselves, grab at context, ask questions, and keep observing.
My (very subjective) problem with the text arrived in “TheMongoose.” Gajelonia discusses a route through the North Shore and lists the beaches in an order so jumbled that I had to wonder why she did it. She also refers to Happy Trails Hawai`i as if that is an establishment that the bus route actually passes—(thrillingly) describing the sunset as shining off “the horses’ manes/like passion orange guava juice.” But I must defer here to art’s tweaking of fact in the service of a more supreme fact. Be sure to stop and appreciate “AllBusiness,” and “DearGod: A Prayer in Six Parts.” These poems interrogate grim realities of consumerism, domestic violence, drug use, teen pregnancy, and the fight for the simple joy of jumping off the rock at Waimea. The book’s design opens with the first page stating, “Depart,” and the last page staying, “Arrive.” One does feel that they have been on a journey, arriving after some bit of transformation, the mind stimulated, the heart enriched. This tour must be taken.