The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil / Gaudy Boy Imprint / 2018 / 72 pages.
It is difficult to unpack the impact of imperial power from culture. Some facts are historical: Asian cities like Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore were once occupied by foreign powers. However, to assume that the word “once” signifies a freedom from imperial influence in the present is to ignore the lingering effects of being occupied. These invisible influences on language, culture, architecture, and style are facts in themselves, if only overlooked. In The Experiment of the Tropics, a collection which grapples with the legacy of colonial rule, these facts are held up for examination. Written by the poet Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, this collection sets out the question of what it means to recuperate a language and build from it something new.
The struggle of legacy is outlined in the collection’s titular poem, “The Experiment of the Tropics.” Originally published through the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, it questions cultural identity, showing how difficult it is to describe a nation whose culture has been indelibly affected by Western influence. Ypil’s imagery shivers between the naturalistic and the imperial, itself an experiment with the lyric:
The central porticothe color and the texture of
A solid collonadeInday’s silence
Which was her sense of water flowing across the experiment
that was the tropicsA river bank made private
A theater of night guards…
The progression of images here is surreal but assured, heading from the concrete to more natural representations of the Philppines as Inday, a young girl. As it dives into the abstract, Ypil shows how natural spaces have been occupied and transformed, and even the invisible is brought to light. While the issue of American influence is weighty, the poem maintains a delight in its own fragmented voice. As Ypil names objects associated with the metropole, he retains a light-hearted irony: “The American thing / The good old good / Cheese and grape.”
A lyric ode to the history of early-twentieth-century Philippines during American colonial rule, The Experiment of the Tropics intersperses poetry with photography drawn from the archival collections from the Cebuano Studies Centre of the University of St Carlos. The language of the lyric finds compatibility in the photographic medium: in its expression of personal feeling, in its concentrated images, harmoniously arranged and expressed to a private audience. The lyric has a freedom to remain free from the narrative, and this is a benefit Ypil takes advantage of. His associative, dreamy verse allows us to be introduced at any moment to a new topic:
To the extent that someone else’s labor could subsume itself
into a patch of color
so it became by defaulta petal
when looked at from afar…
(“The Extent to Which Someone Else’s Labor”)
These poems hone their acute observation, and we cycle between panoramic expanses and more astute studies of detail with ease. The mastery of the lyric form demonstrates Ypil’s quick grasp on the slipperiness of language, whose understanding is necessary to unpack the deceptive qualities of language itself, a legacy of colonial occupation and subsequent barrier to expression. In his thematically heavier poems, Ypil unpacks the compromise many have to go through in order to exist in society, namely the burden of having stereotypes applied onto their bodies:
No minstrel without a hat.
No shoe without a leg crossed.
A hand was where a mancould lean his cheek
against a window ledgeand look over a field
while another clutched his throat
(“No Minstrel without a Hat”)
While the image of the clutched throat introduces violence to the poem, that same image is couched, poised between gripping tight and letting go. Rather than spell it out deliberately, Ypil places his trust in his readers, confident in their understanding.
A thematic concern of the second section, Ypil recognizes that the alignment to cultural stereotypes is not a failure, but often a deliberate strategy for relief, allowing oneself to position “in relation to who I could become / so the wave of another sea could press on me differently” (“The Extent to Which Someone Else’s Labor”). More crucially, Ypil suggests that to live with that burden does not necessitate succumbing to it entirely. In counterpoint to the forces which restrict us, Ypil calls readers to exist despite the burden of colonial language. In “Where is the Goddess”, Ypil finds beauty in the smallest of details, searching beyond its culturally determined definitions: “In the chink of a cup / “In the outline of an arm seen briefly by slant of light.”
Yet, to define The Experiment of the Tropics as solely post-colonial in nature is to negate the more personal themes in this book, and its exploration of erotic potential and queer desire. In “A Hankie in the Breast Pocket”, Ypil’s ekphrastic response to a portrait of a young man appears unable to resist the desire to project the personal onto an unknown object. In a brief two-line stanza, “the hand of his lover reaching / from across the bed to part his hair”, Ypil breaks into fantasy, investing the photograph with longing that stuns and steals the breath. While the poem attempts to reorient back to its original quasi-objective tone, towards the end of the poem the subaltern voice of desire once more intrudes:
If only the tight lapel of that steel rose
pierced his heart – Oh grace of some yesteryear
romance of someone far he was thinking of
with his lips pursed. If only the wood etching
of the chair would leave a mark on his palm.
The lingering on the image of lips pursed and a palm marked is imbued with erotic potential, and the inclusion of queer longing into this collection overall is both political and personal choice. While it may be an uncomfortable truth for some, homophobic legislation still lingers today in former colonies as a remnant form of discrimination carried over from colonial rule. To designate a photograph as evidence of queer life, then, resists interpretations of history that claim homosexuality is a modern innovation, and Ypil’s language of photography and the lyric finds a beautiful synergy with the coded eroticism, performativity, and drag aesthetic of queer life. In the poem “What is the Erotic”, Ypil submits a manifesto for queer desire – in its bravery, voyeuristic pleasure, and delight in dressing and undressing of the body. He grounds the principles of erotic desire in language that evokes both the biblical and miraculous: “Water from a rock, river from a jug.” Longing is framed in the language of visual analysis – to develop insight out of details as subtle as a smile.
To develop such a lilting, spare touch to imagery requires a deep and abiding love towards what one writes about. Ypil, in his lyric voice, delights in the visual, layering of images in a way that traces out pathways to understanding. Towards the end of the collection, Ypil turns that love towards closure. In “Farewell Goodbye but Not Really”, the speaker asks us to imagine ourselves as “on a stroll merely / as in a game of kings and queens / where you closed the flower / (Walk.).” The poem defers its closure by using enjambment and imagery, the result of which is a constant frustration of narrative logic. Unlike the collection’s opening poem, “There Is a River,” which opens up the visual realm to attentive portraits of geography, social relations, politics, and cultural norms, “Farewell Goodbye but Not Really” anticipates the oncoming end and chooses defies it. That the syntax confuses is not cause for annoyance, but an opportunity to remember that there are always further possibilities for interpretation and possible delight.
The collection does eventually close, and it ends with the poem “A Parade Was a Way of Walking.” A poem of celebration, with music and doors thrown open, Ypil comes as close as he can to exhortation in the lyric form. Closing with “A parade is a way of walking around a town without leaving,” he reminds us to stay vulnerable to new forms of seeing, of thinking, of acting. We find ourselves, at the end, with a book that has only revealed a part of its secrets to us. Woken from a dream, we open our eyes to a world that seems a little more beautiful. Whether through a photograph or a poem, it begs to be remembered, and so we go. In the meantime, The Experiment of the Tropics waits for us to return, should we need to sharpen our eyes.