by Eunice Andrada
Published September 2021
For her 1993 work Lick and Lather, the artist Janine Antoni created fourteen busts in her own likeness. From a mould of her head and shoulders she cast seven life-sized replicas of herself out of chocolate, then seven more out of ivory-coloured soap. The resultant sets of almost-identical busts depicted Antoni in sharp, fine detail: eyes closed, hair slicked away from a low, heart-shaped hairline, lips with a barely perceptible downward turn. Once they were complete Antoni lovingly, languidly erased her features from each of the busts by gently licking and nibbling those made from chocolate and bathing with those made from soap. Afterward only the suggestion of herself remained, each statue masked with a smooth, newly-indistinct face that could belong to anyone.
It is almost impossible, once you know how it was created, to regard Lick and Lather without a visceral shudder. The knowledge that the sweet, variegated surfaces of chocolate have been soured by Antoni’s spit lies on the outskirts of disgust; there is an almost shameful intimacy in considering how the artist bathed like a loved one the busts made from soap. Yet the work is also immensely appealing in form, mass, and material: viewers often try to touch, lick, or bite the busts.
With TAKE CARE, her second poetry collection for Giramondo, the poet Eunice Andrada evokes this same shuddering appeal, this same can’t-help-myself pleasure mottled with unease. The collection is divided into four sections named, in sequence, ‘TAKE’, ‘COMFORT’, ‘REVENGE’, and ‘CARE’ which are laced loosely together by the common threads of rape culture, migration, colonialism, and climate change. In other hands the same themes could feel ungainly: in Andrada’s they are portals into different times and places that she explores with without sentimentality.
Like Antoni, Andrada crafts work that both invites and disquiets her reader, exploring the generative and destructive potential of small, ritualised acts of care. As in Lick and Lather, faceless women are shaped by habitual, seemingly insignificant acts – of joy, of grief, of comfort – inflicted and received, and their forms are never final.
Like most creatives of colour, Andrada is almost always introduced with a prefix. As described by herself and others she is a Filipino Poet, a Filipina Poet, an Illonggo Poet, an Asian Poet. In ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ she grapples with this tendency toward identity ascription:
Most days I don’t look at the nature
of subtle animations and label them.
I try: my Asian swimming,
my Asian insomnia, my Asian speechlessness,
my Asian exhaustion – I keep labelling until
the words run clear.
Since 2018, a Facebook group titled Subtle Asian Traits has ploughed a narrow and increasingly desolate furrow for content: blandly ubiquitous things like strict parents, studying for exams, and enjoying bubble tea are characterised as essential, categorical ‘Asian Traits’. Andrada’s ‘subtle animations’ – insomnia, speechlessness, exhaustion – depart from the group’s glib and gleeful tone, and from its attempts to establish collective identity. The relatability of Subtle Asian Traits on Facebook is predicated on a silent ‘our’: our shared consumption patterns, our shared taste in music or food, our shared alienation from our immigrant parents. By contrast, Andrada’s list is individualised, repeatedly punctuated by ‘my’. In the same dry, dispassionate tone she continues:
I log out and leave my apartment in outdoor
tsinelas to take out the trash. When I return,
I wear my home tsinelas.
Exhausted by expectations that all our work beautify our racial traumas or offer profound commentary on personal resilience, many writers of colour simply want to write about the everyday and offer no explanation or avenues toward deeper meaning. In dedicating a stanza to her tsinelas (Tagalog for ‘slippers’) without presenting a translation, Andrada lives that dream.
Throughout TAKE CARE, this disinterest in didacticism drives Andrada’s reflections on the Philippines and Filipinos. She offers no dates to anchor the historical events she evokes in the ponderous and achingly sad poem ‘The Yield’; doesn’t explain why, in ‘Vengeance Sequence’, ‘Empires shut down in a tantrum’ when ‘Filipino women stop working’. When Tagalog words appear, as they frequently do, they are neither italicised nor translated, appearing in the middle of English passages so they are read in the same voice and cadence. In ‘Pipeline Polyptych’, a muttered threat of physical violence is concealed in just this manner: ‘she / mutters under her breath, / bato ko to sa mukha mo.’ This slippage is faithful to how Tagalog is often merged with English, manipulated into the non-regionally specific dialect of ‘Taglish’. To those unfamiliar with the language, I imagine passages like the above are purely aural exercises, inscrutable and pleasing in their plosiveness.
Writers of colour are often expected to play the generous tour guide: to provide insight into idiosyncratic cultural quirks; to gift readers with cute factoids about our motherlands or teach them phrases to gleefully repeat the next time they meet someone who speaks the same language. Andrada refuses all of this, and TAKE CARE will not double as a guidebook to Filipino culture.
At the same time, existing knowledge of Filipino history and culture renders the collection in sharper detail, centring Filipino readers. ‘Comfort sequence’, which opens ‘COMFORT’, the collection’s second section, evokes particular disgust if you recognise the ‘2:30 speech’, that isquoted and struck through like this –
I was angry
that she was raped. ButShe was so beautiful. I should have been the first. What a waste.
– as the words of the current Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. Similarly, the ‘slow pour’ of greetings evoked in ‘Repatriation’ is molasses-sweet if you’ve ever watched overseas Filipino workers tearfully flying out of Ninoy Aquino Airport for months or years of service, deployed but not conscripted.
Yet under capitalism and the patriarchy, where worker suffering and sexual violence are ubiquitous, these specific references can be substituted with their general likenesses: a different misogynist in power, a different war-time history of depravity, a different forced farewell. Andrada’s ability to excavate the universal from the particular is honed and paired with a disarming gift for understatement. Deftly she pairs the profound with the banal, collapses generations-long timelines into tightly-controlled stanzas, explores liminal racial identity without a hint of indulgence or self-pity.
Restraint is one of Andrada’s sharpest tools, and it shapes the collection’s often spartan diction. In ‘I write the poem’, she is frank from the opening declaration that she is writing, ‘The poem where he is intent / on a doom I already know’. Even as she evokes a sense of ritually revisiting the poem’s subject (how else would she ‘already know’ the outcome?), Andrada sidesteps melodrama to create a horror that feels unnervingly quotidian. Later, she describes the scene of her escape like a Jeffrey Smart nightscape, stark but picturesque:
Caught in the maw of an orange streetlight, the vehicle
half-opened, like the last stutter
of a cricket’s unshackled wing.
Andrada provides only enough detail to situate the reader and define the vignette’s outer edges. Terror hovers shapelessly in the darkness. Counterposing the gloom is Andrada’s sardonic humour, on full display in poems like ‘Subtle Asian Traits’, ‘Duolingo’, and ‘Don’t you hate it when women’. In the latter she is co-conspiratorial; don’t you hate it when women, she asks:
coast on the high seas of their depression
are in each other’s gaze
no longer products of myth
sleep safe on the late train
sleep the slumber of the wicked
In the absence of question marks the sequence is more meditative than interrogative, a ponderous, best case scenario to-do list. Andrada longs for both the fantastic (to ‘coast on the high seas’, to sleep ‘the slumber of the wicked’) and the simple: to sleep safely in public; to own one’s feelings; to be seen, clear-eyed, by other women. Each small act, she posits, affronts the sexist and colonial cultures that work every day to deny us of them. The desires escalate as the poem progresses, and at its climax Andrada writes of women who:
Kill the cop
living rent-free in their heads
demolish the altar built on their backs
The consonance of ‘kill the cop / the colonizer / the capitalist’ is suitably aggressive, and read aloud is staccato, percussive, explosive – the way Tagalog sounds when spoken quickly. The sudden aggression transforms the preceding, mild acts into ones with the cumulative power of destruction: the altar is demolished not by one decisive action but rather by a sequence of actions taken over time. A mass erased through careful licks and loving lathers.
Elsewhere in TAKE CARE, Andrada does not ‘walk away’ from the demolition site but chooses instead to dwell. In ‘Vengeance Sequence’, the re-enlivened hair of a dead girl returns to haunt her murderer’s hometown. With the breathless clip of fireside horror, Andrada describes how:
For weeks now, the town
can’t drink the water, or bathe, or boil it clean.
The people let their faucets run to free thousands of clumps
of her black hair. They stare at the wet thudding
of inky urchins in their sinks. One by one,
the tangles of hair gather strength. They stand
on their legs like newborn spiders
Between the spatial and temporal indistinctness of ‘for weeks now’ and ‘the town’ and the ghoulish imagery of clumps of hair ‘thudding’ repeatedly into the sink and standing ‘on their legs like newborn spiders’, the canto reads like an old wives’ tale, whispered by one generation to the next. True to genre, it imparts a lesson: the promise of revenge is life-giving. ‘Vengeance Sequence’ ends with the dead girl following her hair, rising from her watery resting place to get even with the man who put her there.
Read after ‘Sexual Assault Questionnaire: Describe your hair’, this ending feels like justice delayed. In this earlier poem, Andrada explores at length the semiotics of hair as both a symbol of femininity and a cursed object of female preoccupation. She explains:
On average, women spend 1.5 years doing their hair
with their unique combination of scorched shape
-shifting, chemical colouring
Fissures crawl up the length of my hair
to prove its tolerance.
Hair is something over which to obsess, even if this obsession ultimately destroys it. ‘Doing’ hair means scorching it, chemically treating it, causing one of ‘sixteen kinds of breakage’; the more that is done to it the more ‘categories of damage’ appear, and the higher ‘fissures crawl up the length’ of the shaft. Knowing this, Andrada continues nonetheless to ‘coil [her] crown into unforgiving shapes’, caught – like so many – in the trap of loving something ephemeral and with the power to bring harm. In the poem’s final stanza:
A poet asks, what feminine part of yourself did you split
off clean so you wouldn’t be catcalled?
In self-defence classes, instructors often caution women against wearing hair in ponytails, lest would-be assailants have something easy to grab. Alongside attire, makeup, and shameless existence, hair is one of the things women are told make us complicit in our own violation. As a solution, Andrada suggests ‘split[ting it] off clean’. Sporting a ‘buzzed head outside the library’ she breaks this pact of complicity and disengages, however briefly, from the fruitlessness of maintaining a dying appendage. Later, when the hair returns, it has a life of its own.
Janine Antoni recently revisited Lick and Lather, describing it as ‘cleaning the body with the body’ in a video for Art21. Over footage of herself bathing one of her soap likenesses, Antoni muses that ‘both the licking and bathing are quite gentle and loving acts – but I’m slowly erasing myself.’ Where is the line between diligent cleaning and obliteration?
This tension between care and erasure underpins the entirety of TAKE CARE, throughout which Andrada recreates versions of herself and buries them in different times and places. The pleasure and pain that surface in her poems evoke a ritual necessity: one has the sense that, like the routine acts of feeding and cleaning the body, Andrada writes not always because she wants to, but because she has to. In ‘Instead of finding water’ she admits to being occasionally absent-minded in her compulsion, confiding:
I am a forgetful maker
I was going to make
I was going to make myself
Yet it is precisely the way Andrada veers away from leaving a lasting, static likeness of herself that makes TAKE CARE so enchanting. Ultimately, she retains full control over every act of erasure, omission, and destruction, and this control gives her power. In this way, Andrada can share testimony of some of her most painful, personal experiences, but choose exactly which parts of herself to reveal and which to remain hidden. Look, she invites her reader, look at how skillfully I can create all these perfect likenesses of myself. And watch as I destroy them all.