Finding the Bones in Immigrant America

aimee suzara

In her new chapbook, Finding the Bones, poet Aimee Suzara writes about a Filipino migrant family, their place in the Philippines and the U.S., as well as the relationship between the “sending” and “receiving” country. The scope is simultaneously expansive (geographically and historically) and intimate as she asks the reader to constantly move between countries, to grasp the present by understanding the past. Divided into three sections, Finding the Bones digs through the materials of an unnamed narrator’s personal and family story, while discovering ancient layers of sedimented life, creatures that bear some eerie semblance to us. Suzara’s poetic excavations complicate the relationship between “hard science” and supernatural activity and re-member their artifacts into new life forms.

finding the bones suzara_aimee_cov

In the first part, “Manifest Destiny,” we are presented with multiple layered destinies that continuously unfold across numerous planes of time instead of the singular Manifest Destiny of history books. In “Manifest Destiny 1980,” westbound migrations take place not in canvas-covered wagons or horseback, but in a shiny red Saab on a paved road. The journey of a young Filipino family, including a 4 year-old girl, is layered over the westward push mandated by Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Meriwether Lewis and the Discover Corp in 1803. Sometimes Suzara reveals these parallel journeys, and sometimes she mashes the narratives jaggedly into each other, such as in her cut-up-style “Science.” Here, the narrative about the found skull of a native American man is mosaiced with the narrator’s story about her own skull that was warped at birth, as well as text about racial classification based on skull structure. Together, the narrative shards form a kind of strange, kaleidoscopic composite body that evokes the eeriness (if not horror) of desecrated human remains, and the racial legacies of obsolete practices in western science.

In “Possesions,” the chapbook’s second part, the technologies of empire and US conquest of the Philippines are dissected for us to inspect. Suzara uses primary sources to reveal the role that measuring, inspecting, exhibiting, and naming played in disciplining colonial subjects. In “Suture,” Suzara combines historical documents from 19th century British observers and the names of Filipinos on live display at the St. Louis world Fair with the narrator’s experiences. Yet “Possessions” also evokes the supernatural, pressing on the multiple meanings of the word. A possession can be defined as control over property as well as domination by something else such as an evil spirit, passion or idea. Suzara stitches together disparate parts into a new being that highlights the monstrosity of colonization and construction of race.

Hands sew together what does not belong. /One day, it will heal into something unrecognizable

In reading Suzara’s carefully constructed depiction of empire, the reader is simultaneously taking an inventory of empire’s residue on father, mother, and daughter—the “cowgirl-Material Girl’s” desire to have freckles, dimples, and pale, white skin. In “Tiny Fires,” the ancestors reproach Americanized migrants and colonized Filipinos and a daughter searches for her mother.

By naming the family members father, mother, and daughter, Suzara invites us to sift through our own narratives to find the bones that will tell us or testify to their (and our) unspoken histories.

Aimee Suzara has been sharing poetry and multidisciplinary performance since 1999. Her play, Pagbabalik (Return) appeared in festivals in 2006-7 and she is working on her second, A History of the Body, both supported by the Zellerbach Family Foundation. Recently, she collaborated with Amara Tabor Smith and Deep Waters Dance Theater for the food-justice themed dance theater piece, Our Daily Bread. Her poems appear in several journals and anthologies such as Kartika Review, 580 Split, Lantern Review, Walang Hiya: Literature Taking Risks Toward Liberatory Practice, Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees and Poets (Lit Noire Press) and her chapbook, the space between (Finishing Line Press). She’s been featured as a spoken word artist throughout the SF Bay Area and nationally, including at Stanford, Mt. Holyoke College, Portland State University, and UC Santa Cruz. An advocate for the intersection of arts and literacy, she is a creative writing lecturer at Cal State University Monterey and leads workshops in poetry and performance for youth and adults.