Thirteen Ways of Looking At TheBus
By Gizelle Gajelonia
Tinfish Press, 2010
Reviewed by Lily Nazareno
“Depart.” This is how Gizelle Gajelonia’s collection of poetry, Thirteen Ways of Looking At (small a here) TheBus, commences its journey. It is both a kind invitation and an urgent call to come away with her on her rides through Hawai‘i, with TheBus as her medium. Hawaii‘s local residents and workers have relied on public transportation for decades, and this collection may fairly be considered the epitome of Hawai‘i’s own, local brand of literature. Gajelonia’s poetry stops through such topics as perseverance, Hawai‘i’s cultural diversity, and the ills of consumerism, with Gajelonia as our poetic chauffeur.
The title of the collection and the corresponding title poem is a parody of Wallace Stevens’ classic poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking At(small a here) a Blackbird”; however, one does not need to read Stevens’ poem to be able to drink in Gajelonia’s. The poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking At TheBus” is an apt and mildly derisive observation of the local community’s perseverance. Its sixth section reads:
Late afternoons filled TheBus
With academic and corporate drones,
The shadows of their feet
Paraded down the aisle.
Traced in their shadows
A call to apathy.
This particular stanza is a reference to Hawai‘i residents’ dependence on TheBus for their education and career, albeit with a somewhat dissatisfied attitude. In the lines of the twelfth stanza,“Nana is moving / TheBus must be coming,” Gajelonia brings to the reader’s attention how the local elders have become accustomed to this daily mode of transport; they know and accept the patterns of work and travel, in order to keep up with the turmoils of everyday life.
The poem “A Bus Hay(na)ku” arrives at the heart of the collection, and is written entirely in Tagalog, a Philippine language. Gajelonia provides an English translation adjacent to the poem. Its diction may sound very plain, but perhaps it is this frankness that allows the reader to picture the honesty and integrity that empowers Filipinos to work in Hawai‘i.
sa wikang aking
u ta n.
in the language I have
The sparse placement of the words in these last two paragraphs visually depicts how she had been forgetting her language, prompting her to take the actions to change that, by writing in Tagalog. The speaker writes while observing other bus riders, many of whom are Filipinos commuting to and from their jobs. The speaker also worries what these Filipinos think of her, not wanting to lack that “hardworking” characteristic—the poem is of a younger generation observing an older generation. “A Bus Hay(na)ku” is a simple, sincere observation of the typically hard-working nature of the Filipino immigrant community, as well as an attempt to reinvigorate Gajelonia’s own Filipino roots.
Further along this poetic voyage is the piece “Bustainability”. At first read, its title sounds like an environmental message concerning Hawai‘i’s TheBus. A closer evaluation reveals that the poem is a deeper critique of the state government’s actions—or, rather, inaction—that the speaker feels have impact on only a select few local residents. In the lines “How come dey get the fancy bus? How come we / gotta ride the old kine brown bus?” the speaker clearly expresses disappointment that the richer neighborhoods seem to receive better privileges than “da ghetto North Shore side”. Commerce and wealth do not, apparently, trickle down fairly, despite the expectations of social equality. The title “Bustainability”, therefore, alludes not to an economic sustainability, but to a cultural one. It calls to allow all cultures to coexist as equally and as peacefully as possible in the eyes of the government.
“He Do Da Kine In DifferentVoices”, inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, is the penultimate poem in the collection. Separated into five distinct parts, it is a genuine and richly articulated account of Hawaii’s local cultures clashing with the western world’s commercial interference. It describes a “Real Unreal City”, a reference to “The Waste Land”’s line, “Unreal City”. The speaker toys with the idea that the land of Hawai‘i is, metaphorically speaking, being prostituted. The reality is that this has negative impacts for Hawai‘i as a whole. The lines in part III of this poem mention that people come to Hawai‘i for the “experiences that will entice the traveler”—yet what is most significant is that there is no apparent benefit for the resident, only for the people who travel to Hawai‘i. This metaphor of taking advantage of the land is extended through the last stanza of the poem’s fifth section. It states, “Thinking, with my people behind me, / Shall I sign the proposition handed to me?” It refers to Hawai‘i’s land reluctantly changing hands, after its monarchy fell. Eliot’s poem concludes “Shantih shantih shantih”, a chant that he translates to “the peace which passeth understanding”, or a peaceful departure. In her own poem, Gajelonia pens “Aloha ‘oe, aloha ‘oe, aloha ‘oe”, a poignant farewell and conclusion signifying that, after Hawai‘i loses sovereignty, it will never be returned to its original state.
My only qualms with Thirteen Ways of Looking At TheBus include the fact that some of Gajelonia’s word choices are quite heavily pidgin, such as “ainokea” and “bumbai” and may be difficult to understand for those completely unfamiliar with pidgin. Some readers also ought to be forewarned: this collection of poetry contains a few instances of strong language and profanity. Of course, this is not without the purpose of accurately portraying every facet of Hawai‘i’s diverse people.
As a whole, this is the kind of poetry collection that is worth more than the sum of its parts. Though each poem could stand on its own, as a collection, one could not exclude a single poem from it and still consider it to be as cohesive and thorough. Concluding this ride through 35 pages of Gajelonia’s memoirs, the final page of the collection features the iconic, horizontal gradient stripes of TheBus. There is only one word on this page, befitting of the prolific and illuminating road that Gajelonia had lain. It is a simple notice of what the reader accomplishes by experiencing this poetic vehicle to its fullest: “Arrive.”