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(Feeling) at Home in America with Craig Santos Perez

This week, as the fourth in a five-part series of blog posts on “what home might and might not mean,” Camille Dungy explores an excerpt from Craig Santos Perez’s poem “ginen understory.”

 ginen understory

(second trimester)

[you] and i walk to our community garden
plot in mānoa // when do they douse glyphosate

along sidewalks \\ genetically modified crops
are developed in hawai’i because the tropics

yield 3 times annually // syngenta, dow,
monsanto \\ how will open air pesticide drift

affect our unborn daughter, whose nerve
endings are just beginning to root // the organic

seed packets in my pocket sound like a toy rattle \\
do profits from cattle feed, ethanol, and corn syrup

justify evacuating our schools when they spray
nearby fields // does growing their “perfect” seed

justify our birth defects \\ [we] dig and plant,
dirt under fingernails // what will our children

justify our birth defects \\ [we] dig and plant,
dirt under fingernails // what will our children

be able to harvest in this paradise of fugitive

—Craig Santos Perez

From [lukao], Omnidawn 2017

Craig Santos Perez’s work often describes the local and domestic. In the case of “ginen understory,” an expectant couple walks toward, and works in, their community garden. But these domestic conversations happen in the midst of global conversations. The poem is set in Hawaii, a state whose complicated connection to American history has as much to do with the archipelago’s strategic military placement as it has to do with the agricultural profitability described in this poem. Guam, the “protectorate,” which is Perez’s native home, has an equally complicated relationship to America. Perez’s super title for this series of poems uses a Chamorro word. This introduces a word from Guam into a poem otherwise composed in American English (with the exception of some Hawaiian place names and some Latinate chemical compounds.) The word “ginen” in Chamorro means “from, since.”[1] So, the poem, and its series, become something of an origin cycle. Origin stories are always both personal and communal. Since we have come from this, the poem seems to posit, here’s where we might be going.

Side note of interest to me: in my first search for “ginen: meaning” online, I discovered this detail from another island in another archipelago: “Ginen is a specific Haitian name for the ancestral home of enslaved Africans by European colonists or European barbarians.”[2] So, in Haiti, too, “Ginen” can refer both to an idea of origin and to an idea of the implications one might derive from an understanding of one’s home.

When I think about Perez’s work, I often think about metonymy: “the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant.” Think garden as home, think home as nation, think nation as identity. Now think what happens when any of these specifics, these details, these small things are compromised. Perez writes into these questions in this poem that is both comfortingly domestic and terrifyingly complicated in its scope.

Though in many ways the poem seems simple, direct, it also seems hard. (What’s going on with those slash marks? Why am I forced to think about the terror of all these birth defects in a poem about a happy expectant couple?) He looks at the local, the specific. For example, Perez explained to me, “I wanted a form that would capture a shortness of breath (a ‘chokepoint’ poetic form) that I often felt as anxiety/worry about being a new parent in these precarious times… I felt like the caesura created by the slashes (// or \\) would embody a kind of wave-breath or tidal breath to capture that chokepoint feeling.” So, he pays attention to the small details (punctuation, image, narrative transitions, language of choice). But those specifics blur. They get exploded. They get mutilated. They go underground. They camouflage themselves. And then the poem seems simple again. Then we have to pull back out and look at the big picture. The poem—and the series from which it comes—presents a series of telescopic and microscopic views of his home/our world. His home becomes a metonym for all of our homes, but his home is also, on closer inspection, uniquely his.



This blog post is based on Camille T. Dungy’s talk “(Feeling) At Home in America,” given at Poets House in fall 2017, as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season in which six poets were asked to provide close readings of five seminal poems (6 x 5 = 30).

Camille T. Dungy’s debut collection of personal essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (2017), winner of the Colorado Book Award. Her other poetry collections are Smith Blue (2011); Suck on the Marrow (2010), winner of the American Book Award; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). In addition, Dungy is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009). She has received fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose, and she is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Posted In: Close Readings