Dear Ma, How Can Poetry Speak to Our Migrant Experience?

Creative Criticism by Leanne Talavera

I ’ve come to realize, Ma, that arrivals and departures are very chaotic in their order. The frenzied organization of one’s life under a 30kg suitcase limit. The back-and-forth between a pen, and a passenger form, and a passport. The panicked movement of feet that shuffle from check-in counters to immigration officers to boarding gates.

It was all bureaucratic anarchy.

I’ve always wondered, Ma, if you ever felt the same—as a young woman who first entered the ordered chaos of a migrant’s life; leaving behind lolo and lola, your ates and kuyas, never really knowing when you would get the chance to see them again. Yet in the times I remember asking you about your early days of moving abroad, it was as if language had failed to do it justice. Much like the migrant herself, your answers felt neither here nor there. They came through you in chunks of English that were hard for the ear to digest. But now as a migrant myself, I understand why such experiences broke down your words. For how can one speak of a past, with a tongue that did not live through it? How could concrete, static speech capture the essence of a woman in constant motion and continuous cultural flux?

And inevitably, Ma, language failed me too, as a daughter of a migrant who soon had to contend with her inherited impermanence, and her own undefined spaces. Clipped blocks of language and expression never quite described who I was—or at the very least, the fragments of who I thought I was, yet to be adequately pieced together.

I remember, Ma, the time I realized there was beauty in incompleteness. That was the time I was in university, encountering poetry more often than I ever did before. Of course, I’ve always crossed paths with the Wordsworths, the Elliots, and the Dickensons. But in university I soon discovered Asian-American poets: the Ocean Vuongs, the Patrick Rosals, the Aimee Nezhukumatathils, and the Franny Chois.

Ma, I will be the first to admit that when I first discovered my affinity for American poetry, it seemed ironic, in an equally comical and anti-nationalistic way.

I was a Filipina, who seemed to find solace in the artistic words of the colonial tongue.

But what I nevertheless loved about the Vuongs, the Rosals, the Nezhukumatathils, and the Chois I met in studying poetry was that they often did not feel like they were very American to begin with. These voices who I found new comfort in were all Asian-American poets, and what I’d come to see in them was the liminality I struggled to express. They didn’t know, Ma, who they were, or where they belonged, or what to call themselves; and there was beauty in their language of enjambment and fragmentation. Their poetic forms became the language I learnt to describe myself with—a task that both our languages fell short of doing for so long.

Ma, when you returned to the Philippines for the first time since working abroad, how did that feel? If you were anything like me—stepping off a plane after 4 years of university, moving across continents—then it probably felt like you were more so passing through rather than coming back. For the first time in a long time I had no definitive plans of leaving the Philippines, and the stasis was as unfamiliar to me as the country itself was, beyond the airport walls. I recalled Sara Ahmed’s words as I crossed the threshold to the arrival gate:

the experience of leaving home in migration is hence always about the failure of memory to make sense of the place one comes to inhabit, a failure that is experienced in the discomfort of inhabiting a migrant body, a body that feels out of place. The process of returning home is likewise about the failures of memory, of not being inhabited in the same way by that which appears as familiar.

In other words, if all I remembered was movement, how could I find belonging in stagnation? What kind of memories was I “supposed” to have, Ma, to not feel so out of place? These were questions I asked myself intermittently. And for quite some time I didn’t know how to approach them, until I revisited the comforting resonances of Asian-American poetry—this time in the form of Jennifer Huang’s (coincidentally titled) Return Flight.

It was first interesting to note, Ma, that contrary to its title, each section of this tripartite collection begins with a “Departure”. In her first “Departure” in particular—a poem that seems to begin in media res of a flight—Huang’s language oscillates between present and past tense, switching between a subject who is leaving and one who is being left. Her line “I am learning to fly before I speak”, is juxtaposed against its succeeding past tense of “Learned to fly before I speak”. “Before I could speak, I was left behind” she continues. “What I couldn’t express, was left behind. / I leave behind the things that don’t belong / To me”. It is almost as if, Ma, a migrant body is a dichotomous thing: we are simultaneously leaving something and being left behind.

Huang’s explorations of what it means to leave and be left takes various forms in her subsequent “Departures” and other poems. But what became especially striking to me, was how prevalent memory is in all of them. Memories, of a Taiwanese immigrant family across generations. Memories, of a Taiwanese history and homeland Huang wasn’t born into and didn’t grow up in. Memories, of a childhood and coming-of-age so distinctly marked by Taiwanese traditions, yet so difficult to comprehend in their relationship to Taiwanese identity. And much like myself, Ma, there are moments in which Huang questions her own familiarity with Taiwan as a place, treading a thin line between experiencing and interrogating her memories of it.

In “Layover”, for example, an encounter with a 7-Eleven clerk is recalled where the speaker is told “Taiwan is written all over your face”; like a map, the speaker soon notes, “I apparently can’t hide”. When the speaker arrives back at her house and eats a snack, a more distant memory suddenly resurfaces and manifests right across the page: of eating “tsua-bing / and ai-yu / to cool the / climate— / everywhere, / bodies / sweating / into one”. “Layover” ends with the speaker questioning herself, “Do I do, to Taiwan, / as the man does to me”. It leaves one asking if an identity can be determined—and to some extent, categorized—by such minutiae memories. Do you think, Ma, such memories grant one access to a rooted identity?

I’ll be honest. There isn’t really anything I took away from the collection that I would confidently categorize as definitive, or as an answer to my existential predicaments, Ma. But towards the end of Return Flight, Huang inserts “Drift”. What begins with a confessed desire to write a poem about intergenerational patriarchal violence and “ancestors changing their last name to / Guang”, ends instead with the poem choosing to become one of everyday memories. Of “dad’s beet face when he has exactly one drink”, or of “mom wafting prayers as / she stirs ribs and radishes and cauliflower in a pot for hours”. Memory turns into ritual with traces of tradition, “of crusting salmon with miso and / putting it in the convection oven”; and manifests itself in “objects passed / down: Beanie Baby, moonstones, tarot deck, calendula oil, coffee grinder, / cactus”. A connection with Taiwan and Taiwanese identity throughout the poem isn’t necessarily established with a grand familial claim to place and belonging. Instead, the poem chooses to explore Taiwanese connections through the little memories that flit by and reemerge in the little details of our lives.

Perhaps, Ma, that is what memory and belonging should ultimately boil down to. Perhaps it is only a matter of choice.

Ma, do you remember when lola died? It was 15 minutes until the start of my morning class in Berlin, when you and Dad called to tell me the news. Of course, I cried. It was hard to do so in a restroom with passing university students. But that day I learnt something life-changing about what it means to be a migrant, and a migrant faced with the death of a loved one: you crave some form of tangibility in your mourning, and the guilt you live with due to your physical absence is as painful as the death you need to process. Josiane Le Gall and Lilyane Rachédi in their study of transnational bereavement write that “the death of a loved one in the country of origin augments the sense of loss and absence associated with the act of migration… it symbolizes all the losses related to migration and reminds them of the impossibility of getting back the time spent away from their homeland”. Indeed, Ma, even two years after lola’s death, I am left wondering if the guilt I feel for my absence is the price I pay for my decision to live elsewhere.

Admittedly, unlike other existential moments in my life, my first instinct after lola’s passing wasn’t to look towards poetry. Surprising, seeing as I found so much comfort in Asian-American poetic voices. But when I recently chanced upon Victoria Chang’s The Trees Witness Everything, I couldn’t help but think about my own relationship to loss, and if it was possible to even have one as a migrant. In The Trees Witness Everything, nature, life, and death are explored through poems mostly written in short Japanese forms, collectively called wakas, and titled in correspondence to poetic works by W.S. Merwin. In the multiple ways Chang’s poems interact with one another and build from each other, one is granted access to a myriad of ways life and loss can be perceived and processed. There are especially poems in her work, Ma, that grapple with the experience of transnational grieving.

In “Rain Light”, for instance, Chang poses the direct question of what to do in the face of losing a loved one, in this case a mother. The mother figure is metamorphized through light, and the speaker claims that while they do possess “rented light”—an allusion to a mother preserved in memory that lives after death—”all that’s left is a search-/ light shining in the / wrong country”. In the end, Ma, the speaker, not too unlike myself, is left looking for their departed loved one from a physical distance far-removed. And while poems like “Rain Light” touch upon grief across a geographical divide, poems such as “Migration” allude to the notion of return due to a familial death. “How quickly blood moves” notes the speaker, “When someone dies, it settles, / fills in spaces perfectly, / as if always there”. There’s this desire to displace your material absence in times of loss. To try to return and fill the voids in the places you left behind. Chang had put into a poetic voice the complexities of my grief as a diasporic body, and she did so by stripping her words bare and allowing them to stand for themselves.

But Ma, as preoccupied with death as I’ve been, reading The Trees Witness Everything reminded me that death cannot exist without life, and throughout the book Chang directly paints the two cycling from one to the other in perpetuity, much like the cycles of the natural world. Chang chooses to end The Trees Witness Everything with “Love Letters”, a longer poem consisting of multiple tercets that, above all else, brim with the emotion of hope in its many different facets. “Let me tell you a story / about hope”, the last stanza goes, “it always starts / and ends with birds”. Birds, I can’t help but think, who move from place to place, who are never truly static where they are. When lola died, Ma, all I could think of was how much being a migrant meant losing. But maybe Chang is making a point here.

Maybe the stories of migrants are just as much about hope as they are about loss.

Leanne Talavera is an MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University. She loves history and literature, and is particularly interested in reading historical and postcolonial fictions. As a creative writer, she mainly likes to explore themes of identity, womanhood, and migration.

Works Cited 

  • Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.
  • Chang, Victoria. The Trees Witness Everything. Copper Canyon Press, 2022.
  • Huang, Jennifer. Return Flight: Poems. Milkweed Editions, 2022.
  • Le Gall, Josiane, and Lilyane Rachédi. “The Emotional Costs of Being Unable to Attend the Funeral of a Relative in One’s Country of Origin.” Transnational Death. Edited by Samira Saramo et al., vol. 17, Finnish Literature Society, 2019, pp. 65–82.

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