ilog /isa/: a circumcision at bedtime my father liked to trace the rush of the tenejero river into my homeland dreams I crouched on the shore & watched the leeches lurch the gnawing soil a foot from my not-yet-callused toes upstream boys bawled at the quack doctor’s cleaver before he shoved guava leaves into their mouths magnguya ka chew until mush dumura ka sa titi mo the rouge river has no shamans not any more just urologists or whom to play up your pain binata ka na di ka na supot the boy becomes man between my legs & asks if adulthood had to hurt and I spit these leaves at the rawness of an unhooded penis — from barangay: an offshore poem (Buckrider Books, 2021, used by permission)
This poem requires a bit of translation before we really begin. But it doesn’t take much work to situate ourselves – Google Translate is sufficient. Adrian de Leon is one of a number of immigrant writers from the Philippines who have emerged in recent years, so we’re working mostly with Tagalog here. In this case, “ilog” is the word for “river,” the title of the poem. If you had the book in your hand, you’d be able to flip the page and notice that this poem is a series with four sections, and it wouldn’t take you long to figure out that “isa” is simply the number one, signalling the opening section of the series. So we have a longer poem entitled “ilog,” or “river,” whose first section is called “circumcision.”
If you were hoping that “circumcision” is a Filipino word for “splashy water” or something, though, I have some bad news for you.
Once we get to the poem proper, we begin with a moment of tenderness, a father tracing “the rush / of the tenejero river into my homeland dreams.” In my mind I imagine a father drawing lines on his son’s back while he falls asleep, a physical tenderness. But it could also be a narrative tenderness, tracing stories of the river into his son’s imagination. It’s notable that a poem about circumcision begins with a moment of affection between father and son, so we are located in love before we approach the more fraught subject to follow.
I couldn’t find the “Tenejero River” online, but Tenejero is a region of the Philippines around two hours west of Manila (again, thanks internet), and I’m pretty confident that this region is the setting for the memories being evoked. The title of the collection is barangay: an offshore poem, and “barangay” is a word that means something like “municipality” but also “neighborhood.” Feel free to connect to the official Barangay Tenejero website and learn all about it.
So we have a boy being reminded by his father of a specific region in his former home, especially a moment on the river. The next line, “I crouched on the shore & watched the leeches lurch,” is wonderful bit of music-making – all those ch and sh sounds evoking the water, or perhaps the damp soil at its shore. But I’m not sure exactly who’s speaking – is it the father, telling a story as a way of “trac[ing] homeland dreams”? Or does the father’s story about the river remind the boy-narrator of an event that occurred when he (the boy) was so young that his feet didn’t yet have callouses? That second reading feels more likely to me, though the possibility that the father may have a similar memory hovers in the background – either way, the boy with uncalloused toes is not yet ready for what’s happening upstream.
As a Jew and a father of boys I’m not going to get into a big debate on the merits of circumcision. It’s an old practice and one that is very meaningful for a lot of cultures and peoples, including my own. I’ve learned that in the Philippines, as in many Muslim communities, the ritual usually takes place around when boys reach puberty, rather than when they are infants. It’s worth pointing out, then, that Filipino men who have undergone this ritual will have memories of it that a Jewish man (who is traditionally circumcised when he is only 8 days old) will not. There’s a tension developing in the poem between manhood, pain, ritual, and memory that I will return to shortly.
But however we feel about circumcision in general, it seems clear that the version of it being remembered in this poem was brutal. That phrase “quack doctor’s cleaver” is especially potent because of the abrasive sounds of the repeated hard consonants – because we naturally crush the o at the end of “doctor,” the phrase reads like a brutal row of consonants – DoCTRSCLeaVR. And holy moly, a CLEAVER? REALLY? Yikes. Even the way the doctor “shoves guava leaves into their mouths” suggests that the person performing this ritual lacks even a modicum of empathy. Aren’t there mothers around to celebrate the rite of passage? If a boy’s entrance into manhood is ritualized to include pain, does it also have to include such cruelty? We want to say no, that this is a backward, even barbaric version of the practice, and there’s an accompanying temptation to fall into a paradigm of the “old world / new world” that makes me suspicious. The poem is prepared to deal with this topic, but we have a detour to make first.
The next line starts and ends with phrases in Tagalog, with an English translation of the first phrase in the middle.
Ok, I need to pause on this subject for a minute. Recently there was a bit of a dustup online over how obligated a poet should feel to include translations or explanations of non-English words in their poems. An excellent young Canadian poet, Isabella Wang, uses Mandarin in her work, and made a bold statement on Twitter that “Readers, especially white readers, are *not* entitled to footnotes / explanations / direct translations of non-English words.” There was a reaction to the statement online, ranging from pearl-clutching to outright racist, and then a ferocious counter-reaction from Wang and her supporters. (Pro tip, by the way: do not pick a fight online with Isabella Wang. She’s better at internetting than you are, and her friends will skewer you like a marinated portobello mushroom.) One notable point was that when a poet uses phrases from French or Greek, there’s no similar backlash – see T.S. Eliot.
Underneath the knee-jerk reactions, though, is an important question about clarity in poems. How much of a poem should be available to us at first reading? What does it suggest when poets deliberately use language that they know will be foreign to many of their readers?
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a big fan of embracing my confusion when reading. Getting all the answers, especially on a first look, is not necessary for me to fall in love with a poem – in fact it’s often a sign the poem won’t stick with me. So, for example, when I’m not sure above if it’s the father’s or the son’s memory about crouching on the shore, my first response is to follow each possible answer as a way of expanding the possibilities in the poem, rather than get frustrated that I don’t know the “right answer.”
On the other hand, I do prefer when a poet leaves me some bread crumbs to follow, to suggest questions to wonder about, or a gesture towards a subject so we can learn more on our own. In Isabella Wang’s case, part of what makes her poems’ use of Mandarin interesting is that she herself is no longer as fluent as she’d like to be, so the way some of the characters remain untranslated suggests the same sort of disorientation that her poem’s speaker is faced with in the language that she is supposed to feel is her own. It’s a demonstration of distance that we are compelled to share with her. In other words, the confusion is part of the point. To me that’s interesting even if I don’t dig down to translate every word or character. Besides, in the 21st century, it’s such a simple thing to search Google Translate – or whatever other platform you prefer – to answer questions when they come up. Is that too much for poets to ask of their reader?
Ok, rant over.
In this poem, the placement of the English suggested to me that “magnguya ka” means something like “chew until mush” but the other phrase, “dumura ka sa titi mo” is left unstranslated. My first read-through I left it at that, and kept going. There was enough there for me to wonder about why chewed up guava leaves are a part of the ceremony. When I returned to the poem and wanted to dig a bit deeper, I was granted another gift — Google Translate reveals that the second phrase, “dumura ka sa titi mo,” means something like “spit on your cock.” (I will shamefully admit that I got a small adolescent thrill from getting Google to use the word “cock.”) But while I was online I also learned that guava leaves have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, so chewing them and then spitting them onto one’s penis is conducive to healing. The quack doctor, while brutal, also gives some good advice.
This is how the poem complicates the “backward old country” scene above. In the next line, “the rouge river has no shamans not anymore just urologists,” seems to suggest that the speaker of our poem has had what we can probably call a less traumatic experience than his older peers on the Tenejero. (The Rouge River, by the way, is in Scarborough, in the eastern suburbs of Toronto.) And I can’t help but see a bit of humour in the word “urologist,” which is so clinical and absurd after all the musical care that has been taken with language until this point. But also notice that “not anymore,” which reminds us that there may have once been “shamans,” or their equivalent, practicing rituals by the Rouge River. Whatever cruelty the quack doctor practices with his cleaver, it’s not genocidal.
And it feels like the shaman’s voice echoing across the ocean that suggests the chewed guava leaves which the speaker “spits at the rawness of an unhooded penis” in the final line of the poem. Are chewed guava leaves better for promoting healing and protecting the area from infection than some urologist-prescribed ointment? I have no idea. Does it matter? Absolutely it does. In this poem, the guava leaves are an essential part of the ceremony that reminds the speaker of what the ritual is for: not just to mark his passage into manhood, but also to mark his emergence as an adult in his community, even in its diasporic context. Guavas, especially with leaves attached, are not always so easy to find in Canadian grocery stores, so someone had to make sure there were some on hand — perhaps the father, who has not been mentioned since the first lines of the poem, but whose presence lingers. Who would have made the arrangements with the urologist, who would have insisted on this ritual at all?
That’s the question that is left unresolved in this poem, the central question about the value of circumcision: or as the poem puts it, why “adulthood had to hurt.” On the one hand, entering adulthood (male, female or otherwise) inevitably will include pain – the burden of responsibility, the pain of loss, the whole catastrophe of grown-up life. On the other hand, couldn’t there be other, less invasive ways to usher a young man into his community? The image we are left with, of a young post-procedure teenager in the suburbs chewing guava leaves and crouching over to spit the mush into his own penis, is hardly one that evokes an ideal of acculturated manhood. Are these humiliations essential? Should they continue? Will the speaker of this poem, if he is one day blessed with a son, prepare for his Tulì in the same way that his father did?
Last point: forgive me, but I want to think for a minute about the sound of the word “penis.” It’s always struck me as an ugly-sounding word, though I’m not sure why – there’s nothing wrong with “Venus” or “peanuts.” Maybe it’s the hiss the word ends with. Or maybe, when we have so many other, more evocative and lively words for the male genitalia – in every language on earth – “penis” feels like a concession to the assimilated, “appropriate” man the speaker is being asked to become. I doubt that he would trade the sterile procedure he’s undergone for the quack doctor’s cleaver, but there’s something unresolved between the world of the river and the shaman and chewed guava leaves, and the “unhooded penis” that he now possesses. He will tend that wound for the rest of his life.