“After all this, you still ask me how it is I arrived at the poem,” Reyes’ writes in her latest collection, Letters to a Young Brown Girl. In the age of social media and the attention economy, Reyes encourages young brown girls to find themselves sufficient both as writers and as an audience. This collection offers an exercise in legitimacy with Reyes’ signature insight into liminal spaces culminating in a call to action for young writers.
These are poems about what we give ourselves, rendered in language to assure the young brown girl writing in America that she is not alone. What is a mixtape if not a love letter that confirms we have all existed in the world, and we have been listening, perhaps together? We have not been living apart from one another. Here is work to assure us that what we give ourselves is necessary, because “none of those poems were for them, di ba?” For the BIPOC community, so much of living in America is answering questions, an implied indebtedness to white hosts. Reyes outlines the questions that have been asked; the terminology using:
not ‘who,’ which indicates personhood or personified thing, but ‘what,’ as in concept, as in phenomenon, as in the object you already believe the ‘we’ is.
She will not answer them. Instead, she offers back the glossary. After all, what is the glossary’s purpose, particularly in a work of poetry, if not to define – because it is assumed a woman of color’s meaning is unclear, her purpose then, otherwise occupied. Reyes inverts the gaze inherent to the glossary’s form, reflects it against the white “you” for whom the glossary was designed. In doing so, she suggests that the colonial gaze knows its own flaw. The “you” knows who they are when they use “not ‘who,’ … but ‘what’” to define a people.
Reyes moves us past interrogation because there is so much more to be said than what has been asked of us. And there is so much more a young brown girl needs to hear when she fears no one is interested in what she has to say. If “Elders tell her patience will saint her,” if we are instructed that time and silence will buy our goodness, we must consider the economy of the poem. How does it manufacture time and sound? Reyes offers the poem as a conduit to the loób, our inner selves. Her speaker turns to the self as an endless source:
I held so much unrequited sweetness. I want to say I was waiting, but I don’t know what I was waiting for. So much ache. So much breaking. I want to say so much about silencing and time.
Reyes presents prosody in terms of the music we know (the multiplicity of how music amounts to time) and in terms of our own experiences, to make the world about us because the world is about the young brown girl. Why shouldn’t it be? We have inherited a long history with language where “Our kin build beautiful, soulful somethings from a whole lot of nothing. Our kin forage, and from what is deemed low, cultivate light.” Note how Reyes conducts us towards cultivation. Her poems are concerned with the catalyst for creative impulse. Her work resists popular demands for the trauma narrative expected of marginalized peoples:
If they see your scars, they will want you to present every terrible detail. Serve these to them with the banquet you have prepared. Let them savor the fragrant steam of you…
While this collection addresses issues of race and gender, these are served alongside “the banquet” of self-determined craft. As a primer for young writers, this collection offers so much compassion and generosity. No one else will give us a heritage of “looping penmanship in berry scented ink.” Reyes lays out the materials we’ve denied or shamed ourselves for having:
Nineteen-year-old girl living on Top Ramen and minimum wage, remember how you blew a whole paycheck on a Waterman Laureat mineral blue fountain pen, and tender purple ink, how you transcribed your finished poems into the matching hardbound, violet marbled journal edged with gold leaf.
If these are the tools of the imagined, established writer, then it matters to put them into a different hand. Reyes’s “Dear Brown Girl” poems admit to a literary world of locked doors and suggest another of new spaces, warning, “A couple of things about that room. They don’t want you in it. It’s true. But it’s also true that it’s a pretty whack ass room.” Like our speaker, we are encouraged to refute definition, to create space for our future. She has “no identity to sell; what is mine is precious to me.” She is the legitimate auditor of her own work, and so, too, are the young brown girls reading this collection. We have the facilities to study and revive the work that came before ours, the out of print and undervalued who make us “marvel at how low and few the parts are required for making masterpiece.” These are poems that demand action. And while they are not waiting for our response, these poems require their readers to ask more of themselves, because we are capable of more. If we have been told to be silent, “What happens when you pay attention”?
Reyes suggests that we examine ourselves and the “loób, where there is potential for our cells to grow something other people, we ourselves, do not expect.” I’m ashamed to say that all my life, I thought “loób” meant to go back, to the interior of Nanay’s house. Loób was where I left the keys to the shed, my winter coat, my umbrella. I knew the command to return but not the “unmapped places.” Here is loób as a personal trait, a demand inward. This is where Reyes leads us, to tell us “I don’t think that we should stop making art from our loób,” and to ask us if we will continue.
Asa Drake is a Filipina American writer and public services librarian in Central Florida. She has received fellowships from Tin House and Idyllwild Arts and was recently announced as one of the winners for the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest. Her most recent poems are published or forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Epiphany and The Paris Review Daily.