My Urohs, Emelihter Kihleng, 2008
- Federated States of Micronesia, #2
- Borrowed from SF Library
- Read January 2017
- Rating: 4/5
- Recommended for: Serious young moralists
I appreciate the insularity of this poetry collection, which makes few concessions to an international audience. It’s true that there are explanatory notes (for which I was grateful), but Kihleng’s primary concern is with Micronesian, and specifically Pohnpeian, identity (Pohnpei, as I probably should have mentioned in my last book review, is one of the four states that makes up the Federated States of Micronesia). The first half of the collection focuses on how that identity relates to “Likio” (“Outside”—any place that isn’t Pohnpei), while the second, “Sapw Sari” (which Kihleng defines as “an old saying used by Pohnpeians to describe the spiritual power of the island, which literally translates as sacred land”), loosely refers to a return to the native land and is more concerned with family, ancestry, relations between Micronesians, and the island of Pohnpei itself.
The first poem in the collection, “Linda Rabon Torres,” addresses a woman from Guam who shot and killed a 14-year-old Chuukese boy in her “backyard jungle” (Chuuk is another of the states in the Federated States of Micronesia; Kihleng doesn’t explain what a backyard jungle is, but I take the phrase pretty much at face value); in “Destiny Fulfilled,” a rumination on the poet’s friend who serves in the US army and on Micronesians killed fighting American wars, Kihleng writes about Jimmy Mote, a Marshallese man who was wrongfully imprisoned when he applied for a North Dakota ID card. She mentions names and events as if assuming her readers will either be familiar with the material, or else take the time to learn on their own. This confidence, this refusal to cater any more than absolutely necessary to a non-Micronesian audience, makes the poems surprisingly good ambassadors for Micronesian and Pohnpeian culture.
If I were to criticize, my main quibble with this collection is that sometimes the poems feel like prose that’s been chopped up into short lines. Some people might say that that’s essentially what free verse is, but I think poetry has a certain undefinable quality that distinguishes it from prose, and that quality is lacking in some of Kihleng’s pieces. “Micronesian Diasporas,” while a fascinating insight into the lives of Micronesian immigrants and exiles, is particularly guilty of this. It is, as described by Mark Nowak on the book jacket, like a “Human Rights Watch labor report refashioned in free verse.” I’m not sure this is a good thing.
However, Kihleng’s book is an intriguing, deeply felt collection of poems. Like all the best poetry it explores questions that are at once uniquely personal and, at the same time, universal.