The Poetry Project

Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory (Omnidawn, 2010, 2014, 2017)

Review by Timothy Otte

Each of Craig Santos Perez’s four fulllength books uses the same title— from unincorporated territory—with an additional subtitle distinguishing each of them. While each can be read without the context of the others, the shared title positions them within the same project, so reading them together compounds the scale of the project Perez has undertaken. They reference, reframe, and revise one another, in a postmodern project with a sense of history—poetic and otherwise. The recent reissue of the first book, from unincorporated territory [hacha] alongside the newest, from unincorporated territory [lukao], it is possible to begin assessing them together, along with [saina] and [guma’], a decade after the project began. (This review will use the bracketed subtitle when referring to individual volumes.)

Perez’s project is complex, layered, and shifting. It’s a work of activism, history and archiving, and through it all, a carefully composed work sensitive to a poetic history. Just as each book is positioned as part of a larger work, so too is each poem. In [hacha], every poem is titled “from”: “from tidelands,” “from aerial roots;” “from ta(la)ya.” Like the books themselves, the poems are excerpts from longer works, even if they can stand on their own. In the second book, [saina], Perez introduces a new word, “ginen,” which functions in the same way. By [guma’] and [lukao], “ginen” is used in every poem, with the exception of a prose series called “from the legends of juan malo (a malologue).” This shift feels typical of Perez’s project: a word, phrase, image, or fact, or story is introduced and then returns later in new contexts until it’s simply a given.

Perez’s work with typography and layout further compounds his postmodernist leanings. Employing everything from struck-through text, footnotes, gray (rather than black) text, bold text, italics, and unconventional punctuation, these poems are explosive on the page, surprising the reader at every turn. Open to almost any page of these books to find an example, but the opening of the series, the first poem in [hacha] works well:

“goaam” ~

“goam” ~

“islas de las velas Latinas” (of lateen sails ~


“guana” ~

“islas de los ladrones” (of the thieves ~

—“from lisiensan ga’lago”

From this opening, Perez signals to the reader that there is unlikely to be a tidy narrative. Or rather, the narrative will operate in a different way, dispersed it throughout the books, avoiding the tidy beginning-middle-end construction of the dominant canon.

But Perez isn’t simply attuned to the page as space; he is attuned to language itself and to the “traditional” formal elements of lyric poetry. Take the following from [guma’]:

remember just
at dinner

the power
goes out—

a length of

mom lights

—“ginen sounding lines [date: 8/8/93][epicenter: 12.982° n 144.801° e][depth: 59km][strength: 8.2]”

The poem tumbles down the page, no more than three syllables per line, words breaking to accommodate the form: “dad care / -fully por- // tions fish.” The poem’s central theme is memory (“remember just”) and the final image is of fish scales and broken picture frame glass shimmering in the light when the power returns after an earthquake. It’s a poem in which the form enacts the image and the earthquake that precedes it, syllables and broken words mirroring the fish scales and broken glass.

From unincorporated territory is an archival history project and a postmodern poetic project, but it also builds on Perez’s activism. While recording the history, language, and stories of a colonized people is a form of activism in itself, Perez has also participated in more traditional activism. The standout series in [saina] is “from tidelands” which includes a brief poem set in the middle of the page (the first section is four words long), with a footnote at the bottom of the page with its text struck through. A note in the acknowledgements explains that the struck through text is Perez’s testimony given in front of the United Nations Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee), given in October 2008. The move to recycle his own testimony into a poem is a postmodern one, and the choice to strike through the testimony perhaps a nod to the futility of bodies like the United Nations and the importance of speaking to them anyway.

Throughout the series, these formal experiments become more ambitious and more deftly rendered. Reading all four books in order is akin to watching Perez discover a form (the tentative [hacha]), experiment within that form ([saina], which is, at times, too loose), perfect the form (the taut, furious [guma’]), and then transcend it ([lukao], fierce, but introducing an element of joy). The Omnidawn edition of [hacha] includes a new preface by Perez, situating and introducing the project. It’s not necessary—the book stands on its own—but it is welcome. Perez’s extrication of the word “from” in the titles of the books and poems is particularly enlightening:

“I” am “from unincorporated territory.” From indicates a particular time or place as a starting point; from refers to a specific location as the first of two limits; from imagines a source, a cause, an agent, or an instrument; from marks separation, removal, or exclusion; from differentiates borders.

The poems consider, enact, and deconstruct all of these meanings and more.

[lukao] begins a shift in Perez’s project, moving into the future and, perhaps, some hope in a way that the previous books haven’t. The birth of his daughter Kaikainali‘i (addressed, throughout, as “[neni]” is certainly a factor, and her birth and Perez’s wedding factor heavily in this new volume. The series “ginen Ka Lāhui o ka Pō Interview” is the project’s most overt example of docupoetry, telling the story of Kaikainali‘i’s birth as well as the births of Perez’s siblings and Perez himself in the words of Perez’s wife and parents. At the end of “ginen Ka Lāhui o ka Pō Interview” there is this telling moment:

[neni]: (gurgling/baby talk). [me]: (Speaking for daughter)
“Now, let me tell you what really happened” (laughter)

There’s a gesture toward a future in which Perez doesn’t have to speak on behalf of his family, which begins in the interview form of the piece and ends with. The laughter, too, moves toward a kind of hope.

The final piece in [lukao] is the first time in all four books that a poem isn’t broken up into multiple sections. “ginen Mahalo Circle, 2013-2015 (for Brandy)” is nine pages long and features a litany of thanks (“mahalo”): for food, for the earth, for people. The piece is not without its sadness and anger (“Mahalo saina and kūpuna for planting as many trees as you could while everyone around you was dying”), but at its heart the piece is jubilant. That joy and turning, if only slightly, toward the future, give [lukao] and this whole project a new sense of urgency and weight. As always with an ongoing project like this there is the danger of gimmick, the danger of sameness, the danger of the project turning shapeless or falling apart. Perez seems to have embraced these risks and is now moving full-tilt into the unknown with them. As readers, we should hope his momentum takes us off the map, too.

#255 — April/May 2018