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A Review of Luisa A Igloria’s Juan Luna’s Revolver. (this title will not be available until January 2009)

It is a wonderful time to be a fan of Asian American poetry. Often critically underinvestigated, the plethora of incredibly talented contemporary poets makes any oversight of this growing subgroup of Asian American literature simply impossible to ignore.

Luisa A. Igloria’s Juan Luna’s Revolver is a dynamic and explosive work. It is a collection that queries the place of contemporary Filipino American subjectivity as it collides against material histories that require excavation. What does travel and tourism mean in the contemporary moment, especially when placed up against the ways in which Filipinos were once employed as live exhibits at the 1904 Worlds Fair and Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri, or attended educational institutions in Europe as the ilustrados did? The idea of the Filipino as diasporic subject is clearly figured as the grounding politic of the collection. As the lyric speaker moves from one location to another, various poems situate the movement of Filipinos to all parts of the world, including those that came to America on Spanish Galleons, an artist who travels to France, the movement of the ilustrados to Europe, among other such trajectories.

Structured in four parts, Juan Luna’s Revolver begins first with Indios Bravos, where many of the poems take us to the concluding years of Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Igloria’s lyric speaker situates the mobile bodies that appeared during this time, including the Juan Luna, a painter known for his famous painting, The Spoliarium, a large life-sized depiction of the dead gladiators. A photo of The Spoliarium can be seen here:

The title of this section refers to the impression that Jose Rizal had of American Indians, while seeing Black Elk and others perform in Paris:

In that carnival standing in for the dusty frontier,
Rizal and his friends admired

stages battled and skirmishes, war paint
and feathered regalia. Why should we resent

being called Indios by the Spaniards?
Look at those Indios from North America . . .

Let’s be like them. We shall be Indios Bravos!

This fascinating lyric sequence situates an interracial politic (via Jose Rizal's appreciation of the "native" subject that far precedes many of the pluralist discourses that are appearing today.

At another point, it is revealed that Juan Luna, painter of the Spolarium, shot and killed his wife and his mother-in-law in Paris, for the wife's suspected infidelity. Later on in this poem, the lyric speaker reminds us Juan Luna was also the name of a Chicano individual who went on a killing spree in the United States; this nominal connection situates an interesting concatenation across groups colonially subjugated by the Spanish, an interracial connection made clear in Allan Punzalan Isaac's re-negotiation of American Studies in American Tropics.

The following sections continue to query mobile bodies, but the lyrics increasingly consider the vantage point of the lyric speaker, a contemporary figure who queries his or her place while having to interface with histories of subjugation and colonialism. In “Riddle,” a button is found in the floor of a summer vacation home, to which it is realized it used to be the way in which the masters of the house summoned servants from the basements below. Museums and artifacts abound in this collection. In one of the most moving poems, “La Americana,” the lyric speaker recalls a young woman as a child, the clear by-product of an American GI and a Filipina woman, who is ostracized for her blond hair and light features. The lyric speaker then considers this individual, called La Americana, against a portrait completed by Rembrandt, showing how one face might have substituted for another. Even given this similarity, changing the context of a person’s features necessarily alters their social standing and symbolic meaning. The collection ends with a sonnet series that challenges the reader to hopscotch across an entire century from the 1904 Worlds Fair to the contemporary moment in which the lyric speaker has traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia. The impression that the speaker grants us from these moments suggests that the passage of time forces one to look at the landscape more closely to see evidence of past history, of struggle and oppression. One does not necessarily need museums or exhibitions to understand the complicated planes of power and subjectivity that structure our lives. The lyric speaker only asks us to look harder and deeper into the “practice of everyday life.”

Igloria takes us on an amazing journey and Juan Luna’s Revolver joins the ever burgeoning ranks of my favorite poetry collections. I'm sure to teach it in the future!

To purchase the book or to find more information on it, please go here:


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