Flood Damages by Eunice Andrada / Giramondo / Sydney, Australia / 2018
Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages is a forceful debut poetry collection that explores narratives of diaspora, family and heritage, the brown female body, religion, language, and sexuality. As the title suggests, these themes are brought together by the recurring imagery of water.
Throughout the collection, water is at once ever-present, ever-flowing, life-giving and life-altering. It is present in “skin, dusted with pacific salt” (“last days of rain”) and in “the ocean, surrounding us like a reminder” (“second coming”). It is flowing as a “roiling carcass of ocean / making ragdolls of our foreign / limbs” (“(because I am a daughter) of diaspora”). It gives life – “stormwater-blessed children / baptised in ruptured sky” (“last days of rain”) – and also alters it forever: “There is the unrelenting deep and the uncertainty of return” (“second coming”).
In the poem “second coming,” Andrada reveals her unique connection to water through heritage and language: “the name for the people she had come from translates to where the water flows down” (emphasis in original). For Andrada, the water is not only in her blood, it is her blood, is her body. In this way, heritage and history become things held in the body like blood, as Andrada’s poems make evident. Her history and heritage, which include that of her homeland the Philippines, appear through Ferdinand Marcos as nurse, a photo album full of captions and white space, and familial figures: a mother, a father, a brother, a grandmother. Like water, they are ever present; like tides, they weave in and out of the poems.
Andrada’s histories and heritage aptly manifest themselves in the physical body. There is sickness in the form of lupus – “one of my mother’s multitude of mothers” (“novena for sickness”). There are skin allergies that betray her body’s foreignness (“Marcos conducts my allergy test”). There is the violence that is inflicted on the body (‘first creation’), and the scars of a body’s becoming (“bedtime stories for my stretchmarks”). In the context of inheritance and bodies, the appearance of blood is “no coincidence” (“honeysuckle”) – blood is both “memory” (“for my womb”) and “the truth of the body” (“for my womb (reprise)”).
The truth of Andrada’s body is that of a female body, a female body of colour. It is a body “in the context of black hair, brown girl, unfair and lovely” (“poem in which I,”). A body that comes “from women / who didn’t choose their bodies” (“habeas corpus”). In this brown skin, Andrada confronts the colourism rampant not only in the Philippines, but in much of Asia, a stain left by colonialism (“alternate texts on my aunt’s lightening cream”). But despite this collection’s keen awareness of the systemic injustices that surround her skin colour and gender, Andrada owns her brown body unapologetically – it is “a colosseum / breaking into applause” and a “deity in the dark” (“honeysuckle”). Likewise, the female body and feminine sexuality are also celebrated unapologetically, as “miracle,” as “cure,” and as “true north” (“ode to the dark cunt”).
Where there are wounds, there is also healing. As Andrada reclaims her heritage, so she reclaims a home lost to diaspora. The titles of the three sections that comprise this collection – namely, “flood damages,” “pilgrim sweat,” and “water birth” – do not only further the motif of water, but also demarcate a cyclical journey (or one might say, pilgrimage) seemingly undertaken in reverse: it begins with an end (damages), and ends with a beginning (birth). This sequence is strikingly migratory in nature, denoting a departure and an arrival.
The first poem in the collection, “a series of half-truths about drowning,” begins with a wound. Death soon arrives, unheralded but somehow expected. However, despite this song of loss and longing, we are left also with hope:
I stand in the ocean and cradle
the loss of us. Here is the gash that tears wider
as you tell its story. The people drink in the water burial
then rise, light as before.
The collection’s middle, marked by pilgrimage, contains poems that recall Andrada’s origins, narratives of family, and “draft instructions for when I leave”: “walk into a nameless ocean / remember me differently / when the salt dries.”
“recognitions,” the final poem of the collection, presents us with a new beginning. Seeds are planted “in shallow soil.” In this new country, the speaker and her grandmother carry their accents, their language, their ways of being. There is the shadow of fear when they converse:
in the carriage I wait
for someone to tell us
to go back to where we came from
But as Andrada reflects on the effects of displacement, there is recognition and acceptance:
I will only find my mouth
its own country snarled
As the above lines express, the lived experience of displacement as explored in Flood Damages is not adequately contained by the construct of borders. If language is a border, it is one that Andrada crosses without fear, eschewing the bounds of English and white Western colonialism. Although written mostly in English, words and lines written in Tagalog pepper the poems, sometimes with a translation, sometimes without. This act of defiance takes on increasing significance in the poem “rearrangement,” where the speaker reveals “the times I mangle her mother tongue” while speaking to her mother.
Andrada’s defiance of borders is further evident in her poetic form, as she flouts the confines of traditional formulas in favour of free verse and white space. One exception to this is the pantoum “preparations.” Despite resisting prescriptive writing, Andrada’s poetry as a whole is replete with ritual, prayer and ceremony. Several poems bear the title of novena (“novena for sickness,” “novena for fidelity,” “novena for my mother’s collarbones”) and pay homage to a Catholic prayer ritual while also evoking other references to religion in the collection.
A poem of particular note is “last days of rain” in the first section of the book. Made up of nine stanzas and spread across seven pages, “last days of rain” makes ample use of white space. The poem grapples with memory and forgetfulness, rhythms and ritual, leaving and arrival –
how familiar it was to mute the smell of burning
how silent it is when we begin to forget
thirsting for oceans that will not know
Beneath the words, a sense of something missing, something like “secondhand anthem / passed into a prodigal tongue.” There may be “reprieve from the smoke,” but there is no redemption.
Andrada’s poetry is confession and prayer. It is remembrance and eulogy, love letters for self, for kin and country. Thematically cohesive and formally innovative, Flood Damages is reminiscent of the haunting and captivating poetry of Safia Elhillo, while also representing a singular new voice in Asian Australian poetry.
This collection is the scar left by diaspora – home is made a gaping wound, language made a border. In the end, all that remains is water and flood damages.