(Landing Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Jenny Clay
On my first reading of All of Us, I was unsure which poems belonged to Adrienne Jansen and which to Carina Gallegos, as there were no names attached. The content of the poems is similar, although there is a difference in tone.
Jansen set up the Creative Writing Programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, and has helped migrants learn English over many years. Gallegos grew up in Costa Rica before moving to New Zealand, and has a background in journalism and developmental studies. Their book was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
I read all the poems before reading the Introduction. This was in February this year. I mention the time period as, after 15 March 2019, the poems have another resonance, another layer.
The first poem of the collection has the same title as the book, and begins:
once upon a time
all of us here
were one of them there.
The poems are about ‘here’ and ‘there’, about immigration and transition, translation and interpretation, meaning and dissonance and, sometimes, about meeting points. The introduction asks, ‘Where did these poems come from?’ Gallegos writes from experiences shared with her by those from refugee backgrounds. As a migrant herself, she found some of the stories easy to relate to.
Adrienne Jansen writes from two perspectives — her own, and those of migrants and refugees, telling their stories without taking on their voices. Jansen says elsewhere that, for her, writing poetry is about paying attention.
The Introduction clearly distinguishes between the work of the two poets. Gallegos doesn’t like capitals and doesn’t use them, while Jansen does. Gallegos connects issues of authority with capitals, although she is comfortable with full stops and commas. Jansen sees punctuation as signposts. They both retell stories in an accessible way.
Sometimes, there’s a possible dialogue between the poems. “hearing aid” by Gallegos is next to “Mary” by Jansen. In “hearing aid”, a teacher and pupil talk loudly to each other in their own languages, with each wondering if the other thinks they can’t hear him/her.
Jansen’s poem on the opposite page finishes with the following lines:
Listen, all of you, to her name.
It is strange and beautiful.
It means golden fruit.
‘No’ you say,
‘I will not call her by that name.
I will call her Mary.’
A similar idea is present in the poem “Naming”, where a name of many parts is reduced to something easy, simplified to fit within the dominant culture. Rather than attempting to understand multiple names, which can reveal complexities that reflect who the person really is. That language can be used as a limitation is also shown in the poem “Conversations”. Here, a man who has studied literature, speaks many languages, and has survived a war, says a refugee is ‘a very small and flat thing’, one who is given secondhand coats. A new coat would be out of context. He asks, ‘When will you take your foot off me, so that I / can stand up and be myself again?’
Many of the poems show differences in understanding of language, such as “Lost in translation” by Jansen, and “read” by Gallegos:
‘it says here’
the man in blue
points to a trail
like black ants
lined up on paper,
‘that you can read.’
In the poem, Luis knows that he can read many things: tropical rainforests, the medicinal use of plants, the notes of a song, ‘her adobe brown face / the space between her brows’, and ‘the silence between / one gust of wind and another.’ But when the man asks him about the trail across the paper, Luis doesn’t know:
on your page
Yet in “The English class”, there is sometimes ‘a moment when / a sound becomes a meaning’, a shared meaning. Phoeun brings lettuces in exchange for lessons. When asked if she grows the lettuce, she says, ‘Yes, I grow it.’ And an ‘Ah!’ follows.
There are other conversations within the book. An example is two prose poems by Jansen. One is a medical certificate, titled “To whom it may concern”, for a school student from Columbia, who missed days at school. Later in the volume is a reply, “To Dr O’Conor”. And still later, a poem by Gallegos, “medicine”, which appears to be in the voice of the girl herself.
Many of the poems are about different experiences in similar situations. In “christmas”, previous Christmas eves were filled with ‘lights / flickering day and night’ and everything ‘charged / with celebration’. This is a contrast to the Southern Hemisphere, where the days are too long and bright for Christmas lights, and with ‘too much silence’. In “kitchen”, the staccato gossiping about women, all called ‘ana’ — ana sofia or ana maria — and what they have been up to, comes before a dinner conversation. However, the conversation focuses not on the refugee intake, but on the weather — ‘let’s hope / it doesn’t rain.’ In “boat”, Gallegos contrasts the image of a ferry on ‘cook strait’ with a fishing boat carrying hundreds on board in the ‘java sea’ — ‘heavy with hope / the boat starts to sink.’
There are efforts to bridge gaps between cultures. A New Zealand student, who likes a new Columbian girl at school, learns about the music he believes she is listening to in “cha-cha-cha”. When he tries to impress her with his knowledge of Columbian music, she replies ‘I like k-pop’ ‘from south korea’, and offers him one of the buds from her ‘wishbone wires’. Even when the assumptions are wrong, attempts to understand can be rewarded.
This is a book of contrasts, of two voices trying to encompass many voices, languages, glimpses of being other, of bridges and precipices, of differences and difficulties, yet also with points of connection. I would thoroughly recommend All of Us for the poetry and insights it offers.