Kali’s Blade by Michelle Bautista
(Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2006)
The gura Michelle Bautista’s Kali’s Blade is a dense and genre-defying collection comprised of haikus, couplets, prose poems, excerpts from personal emails, reproductions of personal ads, a short play, essays with analysis of Bautista’s own work as well as poems by guest authors, and even a song to the tune of The Sound of Music’s “I Am 16 Going on 17.” Each text is rife with the self-reflections of a lover, father, daughter, anonymous user in cyberspace.
Kali’s Blade is broken into three sections: Year of the Sheep, Year of the Monkey, and Year of the Dog. There are two “pre-chapters”: “Kali Poetics” and “Truth Be Told.” The front and back covers are illustrated with images of a woman resembling the author. On the front, the word “myth” is circled where the figure’s brain would be. There are images of the kali blade throughout the pages, seemingly placed at random. These images reestablish the connection Bautista has made between martial arts and poetry, “between destruction and creation, since these two are intimately linked” (1). Bautista argues that “the same skills [required in both kali and poetics] produce completely different yet related results.”
The Filipino martial art kali, also known as escrima and arnis, is a sport originally intended to fight Spanish invasion in the Philippines. It emphasizes sword and stick fighting; the basic skills were taught to most villagers so they would have some measure of protection in battle. Traditionally, kali was not “flashy” or “intricate,” but as Bautista has incorporated it into her lifestyle she focuses on the “sight” and “sensitivity “(1) that translates from sport to poetry.
Bautista is a writer who is clearly fascinated by the written word. In “15 Days of Seeking A Filipina,” she uses language that has already been composed but dramatically alters its context and content by rearranging and essentially playing with the type. “I am only using what the world has already given me,” Bautista writes in the essay titled “Kali Poetics” (5). “By not adding any words of my own… [it] demonstrates how the piece is both the author’s, yet not.”
manila > men seeking women [help] [post]
keywords: all personals casual encounters erotic servicesmen seeking men men seeking women misc romance missed connections rants & raves strictly platonic women seeking men women seeking women (34)
Bautista uses a venue that has become familiar in the modern world (the news forum) and combines it with the personal ad, an idea which has been around for years. This combination in and of itself is not particularly exceptional, as postings on the internet for “Christian Guy Looking for Marriage” (35) are probably not so rare. What’s interesting about Bautista’s usage of these ads in Kali’s Blade is when they are considered in the overall context of the book. “15 Days of Seeking A Filipina” is preceded by “60 Going On 70,” a song about a young girl forced to become a “fucking’ machine” for someone old enough to be her grandfather in order to support her family. In this context, “15 Days of Seeking A Filipina” is no longer about men seeking companionship or pleasure, but a sinister ode to misogyny and colonizing the female body. Kali, as a martial art, literally is a tool these figures can use to protect their bodies.
The poems in this collection often start with a quote or inspiration from another author’s work. In “How To Battle A Wind Goddess,” an excerpt from a performance by Maiana Minahal is quoted (in what appears to be a hail to José Garcia Villa’s comma poems) before Bautista begins her own story. She also cites Thomas Fink and Barry Schwabsky (whose collection Opera: Poems 1981-2001 was also published by Meritage Press) as artists who have influenced her work. “I have often taken the narrative approach to poetry to create a storyline for the poem” (1) Bautista explains. She will begin with quoting an inspiration poem, and build it into a convincing, original ekphrastic poem. We can read this method as inherent to the process of Asian American poets, in its thematic conglomeration of two distinct identities. Sometimes, her works reflect the Filipino American perspective, “That Island,” a woman with sexual power in “Pressure Point,” a young Flilipina girl in “60 Going On 70,” even herself, the kali gura in “Kali Poetics.” Kali’s Blade successfully crosses international borders and boundaries, just as the different genres of writing cohere to this original narrative.
Katherine Levy is a student at Macalester College.