Talk Stories

A Drag Queen Named Pipi and Other Poems: Fagogo ma Solo by Dan Taulapapa McMullin. tinfish press, 2006. 21 pp., Staple Bound. $9. Reviewed by Craig Perez.

To enter Samoan-American poet Dan Taulapapa McMullin's poems is to swim deep within the unspeakable dangers and vibrant life of Moana, the literal and figurative ocean. According to legend, one day Moana swallowed all the land and the sun did not rise. Then a fisherman named Tagaloa (the Samoan name for the Sun God) arrived from under the stars in a paopao, or small canoe, and invited Moana into his boat:

                She poured in as a flood

                Still she could not fill the small canoe

                And she was rocked gently as a baby girl

                sleeping in the keel

                rocked gently in the nameless ocean

                nameless again.

The rhythmic collision of vessel and ocean mirrors the encounter between reader and poet, and poet and poem. It expresses McMullin's broadest purpose, which is to subvert the ordinary in order to reveal deeper truth. This intention is communicated in the subtitle of this collection, "Fagogo ma Solo," which refers to a mythical storytelling intended to turn the everyday world upside-down. McMullin's subject matter - transgender sexuality, cultural memory, migration - necessitates such a method. Throughout the collection, he challenges traditional narrative without abandoning narrative tradition. Although many of the poems can be paraphrased, their rhythms and shifting currents can only be felt in the breath of the body. The conjunctures of storytelling, myth, fairy tale, and song give this collection a unique, even oxymoronic resonance, both aggressive and submissive.

McMullin's poems rest easily in the realm of paradox; in fact, it is the state of paradox that seems to inspire them in the first place. The poems find their origins in being without origin - they are rooted within the postmodern predicament of being rootless. It is only within such a realm that the story related in the poem "Jerry, Sheree, and the Eel" could easily be told. Here McMullin skillfully plays with dualities of gender, race, and poetic method, interweaving "talk-story" with the meta-narrative impulses of a postmodern storyteller:

                 Jerry always stays in the kitchen,

                 that's what fags in American Samoa do:

                 take care of the very young,

                 the very old, and stay in the kitchen, cooking

                 and washing dishes [...]

                 Now, this part of the story I made up:

                 one day

                 a missionary gave Jerry an eel to cook

                 but Jerry knew it was a sacred eel

                 and was rather taken by it

                 so he kept it in a rain barrel full of sea water

                 as a pet. A sacred pet.

                 This other part's real again:

                 every once in a while

                 Jerry puts on a bright frock,

                 beats her face and catches a taxi to town.

                 Pago pago!

As the poem continues, Jerry becomes Sheree and decides to form her own club called the "Daughters of Samoa." She grows her hair long, dyes it red, and gets a job as an executive secretary at a college. Meanwhile, the sacred eel grows as tall as a coconut tree and chases Sheree through all the villages of Samoa. This poem (like many of the other poems in the chapbook) refuses to "stay in the kitchen," shifting from the real to surreal, from Jerry to Sheree, from dirty dishes to bright frocks. This continual subversion opens the possibility of new meanings and accentuates the strangeness and humor of the marginal. McMullin aspires to the intense strangeness and immediate beauty of the fagogo ma solo in poems that embody transformative migrations, subversive displacements, and revelatory thresholds. In addition, his willingness to write beyond "what fags in American Samoa do" powerfully opens the representations of Samoan sexuality.

In addition to writing poetry, McMullin also makes films and installation art, paints, and tells stories.  His command of multiple media is apparent in "‘O Kaulaiku," which creates a cinematic effect through a creative use of the visual and the polyvocal. The characters, Tasi, Lua, and Tolu, are husking coconuts when Tasi convinces them to explore a forest filled with cacao, breadfruit trees and songbirds. It sounds enchanting, but Tasi also mentions that there are "tiresome vines," battlements, old land mines ("with the imperialists' complements"), shattered trees, and giant bees. Beyond that, Tasi says that there is an old temple where people danced long ago. Lua is afraid, claiming the place is forbidden and that the ancestors used to eat people. Tolu is not afraid of anything ("except when someone is standing in the distance") and thinks it might be fun. When they finally decide to go, it is so dark that Tasi lights a lamp. Lua complains that the light doesn't make him feel better, especially since he hears the forest talking. The poem ends in a strange, lyrical chanting ("Circle. Circle. Circle. // The air is turning round with bats. // The moon is here. ///  Circle. Circle. Circle // Circle. Circle. Circle. // The moon!"). The poem guides us into its dark places, where we witness the premise of beauty, the effects of colonial displacement, and the diasporic communion of variable voices. As we circle the poems with our attention, the poems encircle us with their hands holding our attention. In this momentary embrace, traditional storytelling coupled with experimental techniques creates a tidal movement that transforms our experience of the world. At the end of story's embrace, Moana departs the small canoe only leaving a collection of shells (pipi means shell). McMullin offers us these poems (shells-in-drag) knowing their voices will resonate from Moana and surround us even here, where the one moon is.