The Sealey Challenge: All Heathens

Marianne Chan's ALL HEATHENS, black & gold & burnished red, in front of golden flowers, green foliage, & red brick.
All Heathens

Marianne Chan’s All Heathens came today because the font was too small to come tomorrow, or any other day when I must fit poetry around my workaday life: because I am dyslexic, and my neurons don’t fire right, and I can’t read small font when I am tired and under stress, but All Heathens is such a wonderful title, and its cover is so beautiful, and I wanted to read it so much it ached, but I knew I could never do it during the week. And so All Heathens and I spent this Sunday together, and it was all I could have hoped, and more.

Columbus isn’t here, not directly—Columbus never made it to the Philippines, any more than he ever made it to the mainland United States—but coloniality is very much a presence, in the leitmotif of Antonio Pigafetta, in the play the narrator directs, complete with somebody’s white husband playing Magellan, and somebody’s son playing the guy who will kill him: folklore history, played out yearly, the past brought to the present because the past is always here. (And so are the dead, another theme throughout All Heathens.)

Chan claims identities here, exploring self / family / other in its iterations and its locations, the spaces and tongues that make us who we are, even if we can’t actually speak them. She understands Bisaya, even if she can’t quite speak it. Family is navigational lodestone, trailing history throughout the poems of All Heathens, reminding us of whence we came.

History tangles with family and religion throughout All Heathens, spilling out into the present, ghosts walking among the living, Pigafetta popping up now and again, sometimes going by Tony. (And how often do we reduce colonizers to a nickname? It feels monumental, to me: stripping Pigafetta of his mystique, turning him into a guy named Tony.)

All Heathens isn’t quite as closely historical as, say, Eve Ewing’s 1919, or Patrick Sylvain’s Underworlds, but it is both history and cultural studies, and it is poetry, fierce and tender and beautiful, claiming self and space and land—the United States, parts of Germany, the Philippines—unbowed before the weight of coloniality and racism and sexism, though those ugly threads are as present here as in so many of the books I have read thus far this Sealey Challenge.

The font was small, and sometimes hard to read, and I never could have done it during the week: but All Heathens is a beautiful marvelous bit of poetry, and I am so glad I had the chance to read it today.

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