Jan-Henry Gray



On his first day in a new country,
he walked from water to water, as if to test the boundaries.

—Jennifer S. Cheng

                                         feels like it allows for greater breadth/depth…I'm curious, what does the form free up? I'm not certain. I used to think that poetry=freedom. Freedom out of the sentence, proper grammar, or reasoned reasoning. I used to think that a poem, more than other types of writing, allowed for leaps, disjunction, mystery, even magic. I thought that the poem was the best (and cheapest) way to create collage. There's the poem as machine. The poem as sketch. As document. As a walk. As a conversation with oneself. As writing that cannot be paraphrased. There was a lot that drew me toward poetry but, being immersed in it, I've begun to grow fatigued. I've learned that writing poems is possible and possibility diminishes exploration. When I arrive elsewhere, say, to the essay, I feel at play. I feel like I have come upon new toys with no instructions. I wander. I hold at an idea longer. I think freer. I don't look for the exit door as quickly as I would in a poem. It lets me explore the wildness that I initially found so exciting in poetry. So, in that sense, our trajectories are similar, just going in opposite directions. Exhausted, the essay brought me to poetry. And for you, exhausted, poems are bringing you to the essay. Then, there's the artless essay, the dreaded personal statement. The last one read: I intend to contribute to the seldom-told narrative of living as an undocumented Filipino-American whose path to citizenship is tied up with another politicized modern moment: the legalization of gay marriage. As a corporeal intersection of both undocumented and queer identities, my body is seen by many as unnatural—a site of horror, a target of the phobic. As such, two major threats loom over the project: the risk of sexually transmitted diseases on the gay male body and deportation for the undocumented non-citizen. For many who share my unique position, the desire for state-sanctioned citizenship is analogous to the cure for HIV, two statuses that are, for now, locked in a utopian vision—objects on the horizon. It often feels like I am swimming or at least orbiting and poems feel like I am pausing or resting. Water is the medium, the texture, the space, the weight, the motion/emotion of your writing/thinking. Would you agree? Is that too tidy? Your work is attuned to water and being close to it (or, better, being inside it) is important to you. Sure, we share the desire to never be too far from it. There's a fear of being landlocked. The rhetorical shape of the sestina, say, is a six-bursted star. The thinking is circular, essayistic. How does one describe the urgent approach to an object? If there is an unknown object (x), the movement toward that object is circular. Much like how a DOG approaches another animal it has never smelled before. The DOG circles, smells, susses, forms an idea, decides, barks, or walks away. x=why (bad joke). There is space between the hands. There is space between the hands and space around the hands. There is space around the hands and space in the room. There is space in the room that surrounds the shapes of everyone's hands and body and feet and cells and the beating contained within. There is space, an uneven space, made by this pattern of bodies. This space goes in and out of everyone's bodies. Everyone with lungs breathes the space in and out as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands in and out as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands in and out. Juliana Spahr's poems do this. Hers is a patient poetics that insist. Patient persistence. Oh, that's what I was originally thinking of with the notion of swimming or orbiting that you mentioned: a giant essay that interrupts (or cleaves?) into the book. Cleave means to separate and to bring together. To yoke. To it: I'm thinking of this essay I want to write as...Essay as Ocean. Not necessarily in a geographic, landscapey way but weirder, queer, dense, full of strange currents with different temperatures, something immersive, at times panicky, the feeling of losing oxygen but delighted by the sight of strange objects that litter the ocean floor. An oasis of sight. Geography textbooks and all of that richly descriptive language. How can anyone read about the unseen formation of volcanoes or the glacial creation of lakes and not feel connected to the Earth—capital E? Essay as a vast, limitless, edgeless, impossible-to-keep-in-one's-head-all-at-once phenomenon. Essay as a way of breaking up the rest of the poems that surround it. I wanted to offer a break, a reprieve. Freedom from forms. In Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip writes "Some—all the poems—need a great deal of space around them—as if there is too much cramping around them, as if they need to breathe."  In the first of Nine Stories, a man touches the tender sole of a boy's foot. The boy runs out to the water then disappears. There are certain words to describe certain waves. Fugitive. Objects are not fugitive, the waves carrying them are. I've flown over the Pacific Ocean once—when my family moved to California when I was six. I've had my cards read, also only once, with the CHARIOT card blocking one thing from another. It was many years ago and I was maybe drunk and worse, the boy reading me the cards was someone who I was so stupidly in love with that my brain broke when we were together. I was all heart. He pointed his finger to the CHARIOT card and said something about how there must be something locked in with the migration when I was six, something that still needed unlocking. He was right. He married then divorced his then-girlfriend and now he has two kids who he sees a few weeks out of the year. She lives in Texas and he lives in San Diego with his now-boyfriend, some man who, I'm sure, I hope, he has told stories of me about. Only some of that is still true. I arrive on the page, messy and edgeless. Sometimes it starts with a scrap of language from the day, a draft of an email, some harmless question I foolishly answer. I'm trying to write this thing about the ocean. Or, better, I'm trying to write this thing from inside the ocean. Do you feel like you have seen the island sinking? Yes, I feel it sinking inch by terrible inch. On the anniversary of his mother's death, my husband brought flowers to the ocean—where she is. Today is November 4, 2015 and her grave is somewhere underneath the dry grass of South Dakota, where she was born. Once, when we visited, our rental was the only car in the lot. Past the chain-link fence was a no-name interstate.  Sometimes, a car passed. There was a slight breeze. Leaves shook in the trees. I walked inside the sound of those leaves, around the cemetery, and stopped on another family's plot, their name large on every stone: BLOOM. There they were, all together: mother and father, daughter and son. And a few inches away, the sons and daughters of those sons and daughters. I thought of all the writers of obituaries, the hands that built coffins, and those who carved stones. We bought flowers that day from the only shop in town. The old Dakota couple who ran it out of their home were nice enough. I used their bathroom, washed my hands with their soap, and we thanked them on our way out. Two boys, rings on their fingers, buying flowers in a strange town. We got in the car, didn't turn the music on, let the car's hum lull us back to ourselves. We held hands and didn't stop until we got back to the air-conditioned hotel, curtains closed, and drank wine in plastic cups. Legend has it that James Tate decided to be a poet when he crossed out the word MOUNTAIN and wrote the word VALLEY. Just like that. I just wasn't myself. I couldn't enjoy it. I didn't know how to be. I thought that a city like Chicago, big city as it was, would be different. I had no clue how deeply segregated it was. But, I also know you have to leave it before you can write about it. James Baldwin and his American blackness in the Swiss Alps. Have you written about your time in Iowa? Sure. But not in any artful way. I tend to look further than that for inspiration. I don't know, how much of the Philippines can you write about? All of my fantasies are set elsewhere: Spain or Iceland or Greece. There are always small swaying boats and lights strung up above tables and old men with hairy knuckles pouring me purple wine leaning in to me because we have grown old at the same place and the same time. There are fish and fisheries, oysters and oyster shells made to cup the ocean's liquor. I will spend days shirtless and happy with the wet sand drying on my feet, the fire in the fire pit patiently awaiting its duty. When my family looks at photos from the wedding in Italy they don't think about why I wasn't there. It's their uncomfortable conversation, not mine. No one wants to talk about paperwork or changing legislation. It's been 31 years of waiting for documents. That is that, I say. Until it no longer isn't. My brothers have been to Mexico, Italy, France, London, Cuba, Canada. You'd love it there and there and there. I stare back and say nothing. It was my first year at grad school when I began waking up in the mornings with a weight pressing down on my chest. That was the year I began carrying small objects around with me whenever I left the house as a way to fill up the sunken cavity: small spoon, penny, pink paper clip bent but not broken. Further down, there is an important system of deep ocean circulation. This circulation of deep ocean water occurs because of differences in water density that arise from differences in salinity and temperature. This water movement is referred to as thermohaline circulation. Ocean water will become denser, and thus sink, if its salinity increases or its temperature decreases. This happens in high-latitude ocean areas where the water is cold and salinity increases when sea ice develops (the dissolved salts are not taken up in the ice when water freezes, so the salinity of the remaining water increases). The list of objects on the ocean floor is inexhaustible: language, tea kettles, dominos, plastic kazoos, birth certificates, terra cotta pots, typewriters, rosaries, faceless coins, light bulbs, epigraphs, one mahogany bed post, gold door knobs, dictionaries, zebra costume, Hanukkah candles, cassava, castanets, ligature, mannequins from Asia, cables, chords, bricks, scrap of chain-link fence, hooks, shark carcass, shop keys, teeth, unopened can of paint, the color orange, jar of honey, rusted chainsaw, chopsticks, cameras, hard drives, a no-name map, a mirror pointed skyward.
horizon—a permanent humiliation on the act of arrival
horizon—a permanent humiliation through the act of arrival
horizon—a permanent humiliation to the act of arrival
A boy inspects the foamy edge of a wave with his toes, puts down his toy bucket and rushes out into the water. He swims to touch the horizon. There, he looks over the edge. He points down, looks back and says, another world over there! From where I am, the boy disappears.






"EXAQUA" borrows its title from the "Notanda" section of M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!. The epigraph is from the poem "How to Build an American Home" from House A by Jennifer S. Cheng. She and I emailed each other and her portions of that conversation are in italics. Except that Juliana Spahr part, obviously. If possible, read "EXAQUA" before, after, or while you look at Hiroshi Sugimoto's [photographs of the ocean].