NAMES ABOVE HOUSES by OLIVER DE LA PAZCRAIG SANTOS PEREZ Reviews
Names Above Houses by Oliver de la Paz
(Southern Illinois University Press, 2001)
In an interview on Boxcar Poetry Review Issue 8, Oliver de la Paz describes his conception of the parable as a story form: “It’s a compressed narrative that offers instruction, though often the instruction is subject to interpretation and thus, to misinterpretation.” Names Above Houses, de le Paz’s first collection, explores the possibilities of the parable form through the character of Fidelito, a young boy who wants to fly, and his parents, Domingo and Maria Elena.
Flight becomes a powerful symbol throughout this book, representing, at different times, migration, escape, adventure, metamorphosis, and magic. To ground these various flights, de la Paz deftly tells these stories through narrative prose poems, with short, simple clauses establishing the main unit of rhythm from which he often takes his own lyric flight.
Names Above Houses opens in a recognizably magical realist “village”, complete with the village crazy man, anthropomorphic insects and rodents, and the strange occurrence of mail tearing itself open and spreading throughout the village to reveal one villager’s habit of discounting melons in exchange for marmosets. Usually I wince at the exoticizing of cultural memory through the magical realist touch, but de la Paz narrates with sparse language and a casual tone, giving the tendencies of the village a more natural feel:
When Fidelito’s first tooth fell out, his mother threw it on the roof so that the rats would find it. They were up there searching for coins. Evenings on the tin roof, their nails clicked like hail—they were always up to something: gambling, counting money. The change in his mother’s jar once filled the glass to the mouth. Now she swore she had seen rats with silver disks between their teeth. Still, the old women in the village who muttered about refusing dark fruits and curing tetanus with the ends of a cephalopod, the plastic part of cuttlefish bone, said rats were lucky. They told her to throw her son’s first lost tooth on the roof for them to find. When the new tooth grew in, it would be strong like the rat’s. (3)
Fidelito, forced to move from the comforts of the village where anything is possible (possibly a mythic village in the Philippines), travels across the Pacific to the American States. In describing this flight, de la Paz strips away the magical, without abandoning its magic, to capture the banality of travel:
The fasten-seat-belt light flashes and the boy, pressing his hands to the walls, locks himself in the bathroom cubicle, draws his knees up to his chest with his arms, and squeezes his body into a ball.
He misses so much. When he turns on the faucet to drown the sounds of the engine, he passes Guam. When the diaper-changing board falls on his head, he’s missed Hawaii. The mouths of volcanoes jaw at the plane as it passes while the bags in the overhead bins huddle together. (18)
Flight, in this poem, is a painful migration. I sympathize with Fidelito’s desire to hide in the confined space of an airplane bathroom for he doesn’t know where this flight will lead him. The small gesture of turning on the faucet is a powerful touch by de la Paz, who recognizes that these small moments can be infused with emotional impact. Since I am from Guam, and also moved from Guam to the American States at a young age, it was striking to me that de la Paz includes my homeland in this poem. In my own limited readings, this is only the second time I have encountered “Guam” in a poem by someone not from Guam (the other is Robert Duncan’s “Uprising: Passages 25”). In both cases, Guam is represented as simply a place to pass, either a migratory passage from Asia to America, or in Duncan’s case, a military passage from the U.S. military bases on Guam to Asia (during the Vietnam War). This is not meant to indict either Duncan or de la Paz for their superficial representations of Guam, but merely to displace, for a moment, the hegemonic representation of Guam as simply a site of passage for others.
When Fidelito reaches America, life becomes a struggle to maintain the magical. De la Paz captures this tension quite beautifully in the poem “School Years”:
They last long for Fidelito, who is not of the earth. With its alphabets and loose-leaf, sheets of construction paper, oranges, blues, lunch boxes, crepe paper, papier-mâché, the teacher talk and rasp of chalk, long division, multiplication, pronunciation, spelling and quelled hungers at lunch hour, the recesses of chase the girls/boys catch-as-catch-can, freeze tag, war with rubber balls and big red welts the size of baseballs, war with a deck of cards, war of pencil breaking, or tether ball, kick ball, being goof balls in back near the coat racks, learning to cuss and whistle at the same time, saying Jesus, Mary, Joseph, holy, holy, holy…Lord, the girls who dare each other to kiss Fidelito, as he sits in the corner, dazed, watching birds in the frozen light. (25)
The list of objects and experiences from his school years becomes transformed by that last moment of “birds in the frozen light”. De la Paz’s move from the quotidian to the magical shows us how the imagination can still instill magic into the everyday—something many people no longer have faith in (Fidelito, as de la Paz mentions in the interview, is a diminutive for Fidel, meaning Faith). Fidelito has faith in his dream to fly; however, in the poem “Fidelito Takes Flight up a Ladder”, he quickly realizes that there’s “Nowhere left to go” (28).
In addition to Fidelito’s own discomfort in his new country, his parents—Maria Elena and Domingo—suffer from a similar alienation. For Maria Elena, “the world is no longer her own” (38), and even though she has “the house she wanted”, she seems to long for “the ghosts from the streets of her childhood” (39). For Domingo, his transition from fisherman to channel-surfer is tragic. In “Domingo, Too Old for Fishing”, de la Paz creates an incredibly touching scene where the magical realist technique truly captures Domingo’s emotional state:
Hangs his net from the tallest tree in the backyard, much to the neighbors’ dismay. All night, wing sounds and the sad cries of trapped birds resound—
The ground turns a bleached white from droppings. There is no escape from the smell. Even Fidelito, stuck in the net, wants to come down because of the unbreakable stench.
For weeks flocks rule the neighborhood, until Domingo, tired from noise and sleepless nights, cuts the tangled ends of the net. The black-winged mass of the net rises, begins to fly southward.
Fidelito, without his father knowing it, is woven in with the birds. He hangs to a corner of the flock-quilt and dangles far above his town. (42)
Domingo continues to deteriorate: a blood clot leads to the amputation of his leg and the gradual disappearance of his eyes, hearing, and memory, and finally, to his death. How the family deals with his death is haunting and absolutely heart-breaking. Domingo’s shoes, for example, walk on their own, and every time Maria Elena “puts them in the closet to forget”, she finds them “huddled at the foot of her bed by dawn” (62). Fidelito’s response to his father’s death is equally sad:
Fidelito is a small thing, but exaggerates his size by putting on his father’s dress shirt backwards. Arm holes empty, the sleeves hang like limp wings. Fidelito steps outside in the fall air and runs fast, observing the sun following […] Fidelito runs that way, feverish, sad, and armless. (65)
Names Above Houses is a tale about one family’s difficult passages—a story that anyone who’s ever migrated to a new land can relate to. Oliver de la Paz narrates with grace and attention, experimenting with the possibilities of the parable to incorporate the magical and the real. The flexibility of his prose is impressive, and his images are almost always striking. In the poem, “Domingo’s Advice for Fidelito”, the father warns his son about the dangers of flight, particularly that Fidelito will “miss finer things: chairs and beds” (45). As if taking Domingo’s advice, De la Paz keeps his eye on these finer things in his poetry. Attention to the everyday, however, does not betray the magic of the imagination: “Close attention to things makes them strange” (53). To me, the “instruction” of Names Above Houses is to have faith in Fidelito, in the magic of life, which will give us faith in surviving and singing life’s difficult passages:
Let us sing what can be carried.
Let our songs be of hand-carry and Balikbayan boxes.
Let our worries be of constant singing. Praise our worry.
Let our singing be constant passage. (16)
Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guahan (Guam), has lived in California since 1995. He is the co-founder of Achiote Press and author of 2 chapbooks: constellations gathered along the ecliptic (Shadowbox Press, forthcoming 2007), and all with ocean views (Overhere Press, forthcoming in 2007). His reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, Jacket, Rattle, How2, Slope, Octopus, and Traffic, among others. He blogs at blindelephant.blogspot.com.