Saturday, April 02, 2011

What Do the Mango Trees Know?

In my Guam History classes this last month we read the poem below written by my pare' Julian Aguon, titled "The Mango Trees Already Know." The poem is written in the shadow of the impending military buildup to Guam, and is about how the warning signs, the possible dangers to our island and to the Chamorro people are all around us, but we seem to be incapable of doing anything to protect ourselves. Julian even discusses the death of his father to cancer, and forces an important connection between how Guam has become modernized and militarized since World War II and the alarming rates of cancer and disease.

I asked my students this past week "What is it that the mango trees know, that we don't?" or "What is it that they know, that we refuse to recognize?"

For me, in answering that questions, my mind quickly turns to the film The Happening, by M. Night Shamalayan. For those unfamiliar with the movie, people in the East Coast of the United States suddenly and without reason began to kill themselves. Without any warning, they become catatonic, like zombies and then find someway of killing themselves. By the end of the movie, after this has spread across several states, a theory is proposed that plants released a nuerotoxin into the air to kill humans, as a defense mechanism. The earth is responding to all of the damage that humans have done to it, and nature sees it has a significant threat and so it evolves in a new way to try and rid itself of it. At the film's end, people are dismissing this theory since the outbreak only happened in a certain area and not all across the world, but the final scene is in France where, with wind blowing through the trees, a crowded park goes quiet, with everyone becoming motionless and zombie-like, obviously affected by the same nuerotoxin.

Julian's poem has a local meaning, or a way of interpreting it which is specifically local, about the buildup and about how we on Guam have let so much die and seem willingly to kill off so much more, let it slip through our fingers, because someone promises us American dreams. His line about the breaking of our grandmother's mirrors leading us to not being able to recognize ourselves and the world around us is particularly haunting. It speaks to how easily one can lose something so strong and beautiful, and how if you allow too much to be lost, you can literally never realize how much you have given up. You become too detached from something that you can't even understand what was lost along the way, you can only capture it in some generic nostalgia which makes you pine for something, but keeps you from understand what has happened. In this metaphor, if your grandmother's mirror remains intact, it allows you to see yourself through her life, through her legacy, and how she might judge you and what you have done or let your life, or the world become. You see yourself as always haunted by her, by her choices, and how you may have chosen differently, tried to make better choices or perhaps made the same mistakes. With the mirror broken, you imagine yourself in the shattered glass, and you will always fill it, like some mystical Harry Potter artifact, with what you want to see. You will never let yourself see something which you do not want, and something which might judge you, might make you feel like your grandmother, or your ancestors are disappointed in you.

Knowing and acting are of course different things. Knowing the dangers, knowing that something potentially dangerous looms on the horizon is actually an easy thing to do, it requires almost no energy or effort. We all live with those things, in fact we can actually harvest quite a bit of identity from them. They are the grandiose gof dongaklo na things which we can use to prove that we are serious about things even if we aren't. We can use them to talk in a way which is larger than we usually think. They can be religious, they can be conspiracy theories, they can be philosophical frameworks, they can be scientific alarms, they can be kumekematai na kutturan natibu, but they give us a sense of meaning simply by believing them and not really acting on them. Overcoming that barrier, that difference is what divides most people from a few people. By those who watch as the world crumbles, enjoying the fact that they can talk about it as it does, and those who seek to someone stop it or change it's direction. Those "few" people go by a number of names one of the most commonly used on Guam being "activists."

But the closing lines of the poem end up changing the tone from something which is lamenting the changes which have and soon to take place, what will be lost in the process, to the lament of the activist, the discourse of those who try to push the masses and more times than not, fail to move them. His line about how we have fallen asleep in a prison-like bed of comfort and that we cannot, not even for the sake of the things we value most can wake ourselves up speaks to that.

But while every activist laments this, Julian takes it even further and moves into the angry frustration that activists sometimes feel about the world. He screams that it might actually be better for the world to go to hell. In terms of Guam, while Julian may be against the buildup because of the long and short-term damage that he feels Guam will have to endure because of it, the lack of action pushes his frustration over the top. It takes him to the point where it seems like nothing is real anymore, but that the world is simply dangerous illusions. People are so lost in these that they cannot even imagine how lost they are. Julian then argues, partly in seriousness, partly out of rage at the island's apathy, that it might be better to just hit reset. It might be better to just let the damage happen, let everything be burnt to ash, because at least the ash will be truth, at least what is left after the destruction will mean something. It may not be the pretty lies we want to believe, the fantasies and fictions that comfort us, but at least we can see what is before our eyes for once.

Such is the horrid trap of all activists. Is that disaster, tragedy, collective trauma are precisely the things you hope to avoid, yet they are often the only things which make your task possible.


The Mango Trees Already Know
by Julian Aguon

Last night I dreamt of tangerines and
my father, smiling.
Jumping, full of life, out of our
pick-up truck
on a drive to the
family ranch
to pick tangerines
from that tree
still green
still thick
in my mind.
My dad, before cancer, was
like those fruit:
bright and

The smell of his skin
left me years ago
though it stayed
for years
with my sister.

But those afternoons feel
so far away,
as if part of
another life. In Guam
so much feels so far,
so strange.
Violent distress grips
the ancients,
and the rocks themselves
They know that the
outsiders are coming to shatter
what’s left
of our
grandmothers’ mirrors
so that, when it is
we will not recognize
ourselves or
the ocean
or the rhythm of

How I fear for the kids
now growing up
that they will not know
how it feels to wake up to
roosters and laze long
away in
outside kitchens
with coffee and biscocho,
or love the sun
at the ranch, smelling of
fresh-cut grass and hard
work, letting
J.D. Crutch and the rain
falling on wood and tin
break their heart.

How badly I wish
we could
still be saved
by afternoons.

But the mango trees
already know
and all this pretending
is putting us in graves
before our time.

The truth is
we have fallen asleep
in a prison of soft bed
and can’t, not even for our children, roll over,
can’t even reach
to shake our lovers
and tell them:
“I smell smoke.”

I say
let the fire take it all.
the ash after
will smell better
than all this balm.

I pray hard these days
for a typhoon, for
something to blow down
these straw houses
of our illusion.

The truth is
those proud
of elation,
look languished
in the

1 comment:

Tamagosan said...

Stunning poem. My favorite line is:

How badly I wish
we could
still be saved
by afternoons.

He handles nostalgia --and many other things-- brilliantly.

Fantastic analysis, too.

I'm noticing mango trees in flower and even budding and I'm getting more and more excited for my first mango season on Guam. The fruit has special and mystical meaning ever since reading an I. Allende story years ago where I swear I could smell mango while the story unfolded...


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