May 26, 2020

A critique of "Yes" by Denise Duhamel

First, let me preface this by saying that I am seeing this in isolation away from the collection of works that this is a part of (The Star Spangled Banner), and that I'm neither a poet nor a trained critic of literature. With that said, I grew up in a Filipino immigrant household that was packed with three families before my immediate family got our own house, grew up around mostly Filipino norms with an American backdrop, and have had to (and still do) contend with my identity as a complex intertwined web between being Filipino and being American.

With all of that said, here's the poem I'll be breaking down below. Read it, digest it, ruminate on it, etc.

According to Culture Shock:
A Guide to Customs and Etiquette
of Filipinos, when my husband says yes,
he could also mean one of the following:
a.) I don’t know.
b.) If you say so.
c.) If it will please you.
d.) I hope I have said yes unenthusiastically enough
for you to realize I mean no.

The first line being separate from the second and third lines reads to me like how I hear every other white guy express their opinion: with utter confidence that their opinion is Objective Truth. The book is a real book, meant as a guide for travelers who want to visit the Philippines, but when the phrase Culture Shock is set back against the rest of the book title, it reminds me of the unfortunate reality that that's how we're interpreted in the US, as a Culture Shock that demands to be tamed and interpreted via a step-by-step guide book.

The next couple of lines talks about the different ways that tone works in the Philippines. This works the same way in many other languages, including English - one of the inside jokes for Seattleites is that a "Seattle yes" means "no" most of the time.

You can imagine the confusion
surrounding our movie dates, the laundry,
who will take out the garbage
and when. I remind him
I’m an American, that all his yeses sound alike to me.

It should be noted that Nick Carbó (Denise's husband at the time) has resided in the United States for quite a while at this point. He's also well known for elevating Filipino-American poetry in the United States and writing a lot of works of poetry that's garnered a lot of attention as well. Perhaps there can be a feminist bent to interpreting these lines: it inverts the relationship of man-talking-about-woman when said woman happens to be a well decorated person in their own right. However, the assertion that she's American belies that interpretation; her declaring that she's American is clearly in contrast to the observation of Filipino-ness that has occurred in the previous couple of lines. Despite the fact that the Philippines was a US colony for several decades, despite the fact that most Filipinos are fluent in both Tagalog and English, despite the fact that Filipinos have fought for the US several times over in order to prove their American-ness... the husband is reduced to being interpreted by a guidebook on how to interpret a "yes."

I tell him here in America we have shrinks
who can help him to be less of a people-pleaser.
We have two-year-olds who love to scream “No!”
when they don’t get their way. I tell him,
in America we have a popular book,
When I Say No I Feel Guilty.
“Should I get you a copy?” I ask.
He says yes, but I think he means
“If it will please you,” i.e. “I won’t read it.”

The post-colonial project continues in the domestic household.

“I’m trying,” I tell him, “but you have to try too.”
“Yes,” he says, then makes tampo,
a sulking that the book Culture Shock describes as
“subliminal hostility . . . withdrawal of customary cheerfulness
in the presence of the one who has displeased” him.

Yeah, this behavior also exists in American culture. Another reference to the husband as interpreted by a fucking guidebook.

The book says it’s up to me to make things all right,
“to restore goodwill, not by talking the problem out,
but by showing concern about the wounded person’s
well-being.” Forget it, I think, even though I know
if I’m not nice, tampo can quickly escalate into nagdadabog
foot stomping, grumbling, the slamming
of doors. Instead of talking to my husband, I storm off

Yeah, maybe talk it out next time.

to talk to my porcelain Kwan Yin,
the Chinese goddess of mercy
that I bought on Canal Street years before
my husband and I started dating.

Couple of things:

  1. Is she an Asian fetishist?
  2. Does she write for the New York Times?

The icon is cheapened many fold by centering herself in everything, in its relation to everything else that has happened in this poem, in the (presumably) white narrator in this poem, etc. And of fucking course she got it from Canal Street. Every white person's indulgent story that's told over everyone else's story almost always features Canal Street as if they were explorers in a foreign land.

“The real Kwan Yin is in Manila,”
he tells me. “She’s called Nuestra Señora de Guia.
Her Asian features prove Christianity
was in the Philippines before the Spanish arrived.”

This is probably the only couple of lines that I could relate to. There's a tendency in Filipino culture to claim a lot of things as decidedly Filipino, even if there's a much more complex story behind it. This is probably true for a lot of cultures though, so I don't know if this is really insightful at all.

Yeah, so that's my rough and tumble critique of this poem, which, honestly, makes me pretty angry - orientalization of Filipinos and Asians in general, reducing us to behaviors in a guidebook and taking it as objective fact, etc. I know that the poet has re-read this poem and sees it as an ode to making love work - for what it's worth, her marriage to Nick Carbó ended in 2008 - but I can't divorce (heh) the idea of making this fictional relationship work out with the orientalization and subsequent dehumanization of the Filipino subject on the other end of this poem.

Maybe a more careful reader can offer better insight here than I can, but looking online a bit, I haven't seen any (if there's any) critique from the standpoint of being a Filipino-American reading this. If anyone comes across such a critique, feel free to link it below.