Friday, November 16, 2018



ESL, OR YOU WEREN’T HERE by Aldrin Valdez
(Nightboat Books, Brooklyn, 2018)

Yaaassss! Do I ever love ESL, OR YOU WEREN’T HERE by Aldrin Valdez! And color my enthusiasm particularly robust because, frankly, I was leery that I would not care for it. That is, I broke a rule not to read blurbs ahead of the poems—thus, I opened the book thinking identity is an old story (which is not to say it shouldn’t continue to be parsed but, in art, the bar keeps rising for that not-been-done-before assessment). Thus, I was relieved to almost immediately (second page) come across masterful imagery. With relief, I anticipated that the poems I was about to read will display a prowess of language. And prowess they revealed, such as this excerpt from “Tagalog” that made me re-read to savor:

“The skin on her callused heels is a map of broken streets & syllables…”

Since ESL, OR YOU WEREN’T HERE is partly about the immigrant experience, “broken syllables” is as much a reality during immigrant attempts to assimilate, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. So much is controlled or affected by language and it’s appropriate to privilege that element as much as “broken streets” for purpose of beginning this collection’s narrative.

I’m struck not just by the lush, evocative diction but also by how it’s clearly earned (versus, I suppose, merely imagined). In “The Albularyo,” for example, there’s this excerpt (click on all images to enlarge):

There’s a tendency among many Filipinos to slang-icize Western brand names to articulate various objects or acts. For example, “Kodakan” means to take photographs. Valdez’s use of “Colgate” is not mere metaphor for the referenced inability of the persona’s relatives to accurately identify the persona’s disease. The insertion of Colgate is a vestige of colonialism such that the word’s presence also raises the issue of whether a Filipino can ever be at “home” in English, can ever fully/successfully assimilate (or pass for), or (should) become fluent in a language whose relationship began through colonialism and imperialism. It’s a complicated matter, as complicated as the disease referenced in the poem whose identity can’t quite be revealed.

Logically, there’s a grief and a grieving throughout the collection. In part, this relates to how the persona had to leave his grandmother behind in the Philippines when his family emigrated to the U.S.  This person wasn’t just a grandmother, though; this person also was de facto his mother. For his actual mother first emigrated ahead of him—she didn’t see, thus raise, her son for the eight years that she lived in the U.S. This trauma is not just personal but political: the Philippines has one of the largest diaspora populations, with overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) a major source of support to the Philippine economy; in 2011 (last year cited by Wiki), OFW remittances exceeded U.S. $20.1 billion. Such is the backdrop to the book’s title, ESL or You Weren’t Here—“ESL” for the persona starting his days in the U.S. and “You Weren’t Here” as regards the mother-grandmother who meant so much to him.

The other side of the story, of course, belongs to the parents who had to leave and left their loved ones behind. Thus—and it’s telling that the first poem opens with this—

Nanay once joked that when it came time to move to the U.S.
she’d beg the pilot to turn back. Or she’d jump out of the plane

                        swim back to Manila.

The grief simmering throughout the collection occasionally wells up to be more pronounced. Such peaks no doubt rely as much on the reader’s subjectivity and, for me, such a keening arose in “During a brownout” with this stanza:

Think about it: strangers unearthing the corpse of your pet to eat it. How do humans become like this? Well, here’s one of my theories: poverty further impoverishes—poverty can make many of us behave more brutishly. So much of the Philippines’ potential (from its natural resources, from its hard-working people, from its intelligent people, from its English-speaking people…) has been squandered such that its pockets of poverty reveal realities that belong more in dystopian fiction.

What’s also intense about “During a brownout” is how it need not have borne its title. The dog-pulutan, the child’s fear of being hit by a father’s belt, the gossips, the ghosts—none of these need be related to an electrical brownout. Referencing a brownout, then, creates another layer. Brownouts occur far too often, which sadly means that the elements noted in the poem occur far too often. The all of it is a sorrow like “love like a parent’s voice—so close/ in your ear             on the phone                        overseas.”

Another key element to ESL or You Weren’t Here is of the queer immigrant’s coming of age. Valdez’s treatment is nuanced, replete with self-awareness, gentle … most of all, gentle.  Like these nuanced

It’s hard to avoid the fact-ness of colonialism.

Imagery, I stated earlier, is this collection’s strength and let me share some examples which are both textually vivid and visually handle the page effectively.

Towards the end of the book, Valdez writes:

The above doesn’t merely combine the elements of concern—not combine so much as collide.

There’s so much more in the book than what I’ve addressed. For a bildungsroman that freshens up the identity narrative, learn this collection’s second language. Do yourself a favor and be there for it.


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects (GR). She loves books and has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her 2018 poetry collections include HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago, MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION: A Poetry Generator, TANKA: Vol. 1and ONE TWO THREE: Selected Hay(na)ku Poems which is a bilingual English-Spanish edition with translator Rebeka Lembo. Forthcoming is WITNESS IN A CONVEX MIRROR which will inaugurate Tinfish Press' "Pacific response to John Ashbery." She also invented the poetry form “hay(na)ku” whose 15-year anniversary in 2018 is celebrated at the San Francisco and Saint Helena Public Libraries. More information about her works is available at