In the opening poem of Decade of the Brain, Janine Joseph describes “the vehicle still leagues away from rescue.” She is telling us the story of her own traumatic brain injury, and she is giving us a version of The Odyssey, where the brain is the vehicle against which “the churned / rocks looped their sound until her brain / felt like the surf.” The brain is a physical organ and it is the engine transporting the Homeric galley and, perhaps, it is also the Homeric galley itself. We enter Joseph’s latest work with a reminder that the poem is a kind of technology, a durable record.
I’m interested in how Decade of the Brain is not a first telling nor a retelling of Joseph’s accident. Her debut collection, Driving without a License (2016), was nearing completion at the time of the collision. In this first book, the poem “Wreck” introduces us to the narrative of the car crash, and in the ghazal form, we see how Joseph begins to construct an interior discourse between the lyric I and a double of the speaker. The speaker of the poem calls out to “Janine” as an encouraging and threatening alter ego, concerned with the “Or worse” of what “They might find in your body scanned blue and red,” the colors not of a medical scan but of nationalism. It’s this distinct gap between “I” and “Janine” that lays the groundwork for Joseph’s new collection. Like “Wreck,” these poems question the accident, but they do so by surveying an accumulation of information about Janine, the very records which the speaker of the first book exists without as an undocumented immigrant.
Decade of the Brain confronts the limits of documentation and the personhood derived from these documents. These are texts that engage with the author’s own subjectivity, with poems like “Intake Form,” which designs a malleable record:
Slowly I filled the form
My torso scored in order
Joseph denotes the italic “X” of signature, but also the undefined constant that is assumed as the self, imposing a mark on the body. The speaker takes on a narrative with two beginnings (“what a hook I was / doubled in the beginning / In the beginning”): one that starts “upon impact” and one that is assumed. Within the context of Joseph’s first collection, readers might also consider the speaker’s new beginning as a citizen who has grown up excluded from America’s many systems and services, one whose medical history “was an unidentified coastline” suddenly penned on the map.
In “Intake Form,” the lyric I circles the undefined as the speaker confronts the reality that she is not alone in making her own body. Her self-image is subjected to the imposed double that others make in place of her. From the racist neighbor in “Tell Me of Paradise” who “was not seeing me-me, but me / doubled, doubling” to the health care worker in “The Specialists” who contorts the speaker’s body as he defines it (“I guess you don’t tan if you’re a colored”). The imposed image manufactures the horror of a body pieced together from other psyches, “their current in me, a Frankenstein monster.” In these poems, the question of personhood, of humanity is not rhetorical. It’s a question that engages with American history. Since the adoption of the Constitution, personhood in the United States has been a unit of data. The Constitution mandates that every decade, the United States count the “whole number of persons in each state.”
So what happens when the state fails to acknowledge personhood? In Driving without a License, Joseph documents an odor of suspicion ingrained in the language of the state: the “I” of the poem resists becoming the “wrenching anecdote,” “the public charge.” She insists on a self who is self-defined but also made vulnerable by the act of speaking: “if I am not who I say I am I may subject me / to permanent exclusion.” The italics here reference news headlines and terminology from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), but the exclusion is by no means limited to a single government sphere or news cycle.
Consider the most recent decennial census, which was overwhelmed by arguments to both record and exclude undocumented Americans. Trump’s presidential memorandum in 2020 called for the complete exclusion of “illegal aliens from the apportionment base.” This is not the first time the United States has discussed apportionment as a measure of how we value a human life. The Constitutional Convention’s three-fifths compromise counted only three of every five enslaved persons toward a state’s legislative representation and taxation. When we debate counting undocumented Americans, we are not debating their eligibility for citizenship nor their status as constituents of a census-designated place. We are debating their personhood. As stated by Circuit Judge Wald and District Judges Gasch and Parker in their 1980 ruling, “The language of the Constitution is not ambiguous” regarding the counting of “whole number of persons” for the purpose of apportionment. So why, then, this ambiguity?
With “In the Ecotone,” Joseph explores the gap between state designation and human experience. This poem was first published in The Georgia Review’s Spring 2020 issue focusing on the U.S. census. The title’s “ecotone” refers to life between two communities, as well as a space that can support life not found in either of its bordering habitats. With “In the Ecotone,” Joseph halves the poem at the moment the speaker is divided from her father. At this divide, she is already a citizen and he is not:
As we were split into different
lines I said to my father en route
to take his Oath of Allegiance
See you on the other side
The “other side” is citizenship, the promise of belonging and wholeness. We know the speaker is already a naturalized citizen familiar with the physical architecture of the exhibition hall. But she, too, crosses uneasily. “Wholly I walked but imagined / I fizzed or interfered made a sound / like static between stations” having once “been from / form to form to form.” Joseph describes the bureaucracy and dissociative process of naturalization, one that records the fact of citizenship but not the sentiment of home. It is not the state that stabilizes the speaker’s sense of self, but the father who makes “with his fingers the sign / of peace meaning two as in / And then there were two or / as in And now two more.” Her father counts them both. With his hands, the father crafts a distinct wholeness and belonging, even within the same architecture that distorts the speaker’s sense of self.
In “Mapping Subjectivity,” which appears in the same special issue of The Georgia Review, Emily McGinn brings our attention to the formulation of state data, and its potential for distortion. It is possible for the state to count and not count a population. McGinn explains that “The categories and the data collection change, but not the humans whom these categories represent,” and in between these collections of data, we can see a dissociation between the information we record and our lived experiences.
In the spring of 2019, as a public services librarian with the Marion County Public Library in Florida, I organized a community forum with census employees from the Atlanta office. The plan, as census staff explained, was to conduct the first entirely digital census, and we needed to get an early start, especially in rural areas where the library would be essential for internet access. Already, the news was flooded with questions about citizenship and immigration and how much information from the census becomes public record. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, both census and library staff had to adapt quickly with limited resources while maintaining public confidence. During the brief two-week period that my library system closed to the public except for curbside service, I helped pull computers into our headquarters’ lobby so that residents could still complete the census with staff assistance. Like all library staff, I had my special keywords handy to describe drop-down menus on phones (click the hamburger!) and to bypass difficult physical aspects of using a computer (we can press enter instead of double clicking!). As a librarian, these weren’t entirely selfless efforts. Only a few years earlier, my library system was able to expand using a Community Development Block Grant, funding designated by the census count. I had as a result already reaped the tangible benefits of the census.
Questions I heard in my own community:
What if I don’t have a computer or can’t use a computer? Patrons without computers were encouraged to use a phone number provided by the Census Bureau. And patrons without a phone were encouraged to ask for help. While our library system provided courtesy phones, these phones could only make local calls. So we had staff members and computers on hand, even during portions of the pandemic when the library was closed, to facilitate the completion of the online census for patrons who might not have phone or computer access. It wasn’t until later in the census roll-out that talk of the paper questionnaire returned. When paper surveys appeared in March of 2020, like many rural library staff, I was relieved. Working with patrons over the phone, it’s much easier to answer census questions (babies do count as people!) than navigate government websites. But the return of the paper census didn’t offer a greater sense of confidence for new Americans filling out the census.
Can someone tell which neighborhoods house undocumented immigrants? Well, no. In part because the question did not make it onto the 2020 census. However, while data from the census does not show information on a house by house basis, information is relayed for census blocks, and in some highly populated areas like a city, a census block may resemble a city block. In the 1940s, it was the 1940 census that allowed for the internment of Americans and American residents of Japanese ancestry, so it isn’t surprising that even immigrants who know the value of the census may choose not to report. (In researching the 1990 census of my hometown, I recently noticed that my own family never filled out the census. Despite our annual multi-vehicle carpools to the Santo Niño festival, there are no Filipinos recorded in Kingstree, South Carolina, in 1990.)
Against the assault of misinformation and assumptions about our own humanity, how can we center the self? How do we safely enter the record? It’s these questions that turn us again toward the poem as an exploratory vessel.
In “Erasure,” fifteen years after the accident, Joseph utilizes torrin a. greathouse’s Burning Haibun form in order to study the record from a neurological consultation a year and a half after her accident. Through the erasure, Joseph excavates a facsimile of her own voice and her symptoms:
In the original text, the healthcare professional leaves a note about Joseph’s credibility, as if in opposition to the document as a whole, “She is however completing her PhD in Literature and works as a counselor [sic].” It’s this tone we revisit in the poem’s final haiku:
She began feeling
She apparently suffered
She is however
Joseph leaves the reader with a difficult syntactical structure, however being a conjunctive adverb and a term of contradiction—a way for the health care worker to separate the trauma of the brain from the accomplishments of the brain. Largely reserved to unspoken prose, however lingers as a point of resonating disjuncture between the poem and the original text.
There’s something deft in how Joseph aligns multiple renditions of the self in opposition to the erroneous. The literal error we see in “Erasure” belongs not to the poem but to the record (notated in the quotation by “[sic]”), and is erased through the process of the Burning Haibun. With “Self-Portrait with Memories,” the poem is also corrective but in a way that recalls McGinn’s warning about data’s potential for distortion. Joseph juxtaposes Facebook Memories from the decade following her 2008 car accident. The poem takes the shape of a chart, each “ON THIS DAY” populated by input from the digital source, so that Joseph reshapes her digital footprint into a matrix that might relay the absence of content, a vessel that amplifies lost language. As readers, we must navigate a text written by two Josephs—the initial content of Janine Joseph from 2008 to 2018 and the contemporary context of Janine Joseph who authors the poem.
In both of these poems, I am curious about what the past version of Joseph is willing to say and what is withheld—at first from the record, and now from a future self. As Joseph explained to the Los Angeles Times in their coverage of Driving without a License, “Facts . . . are what I included in my immigration paperwork.” Hers is a familiar kind of distrust. Through the inclusion of this voice, Joseph’s poems become multivocal, safeguarding and safeguarded by a younger self. Immune to institutional efforts to discredit an individual, the poem is able to render the plainface language of dreams alongside bodily records, so that the conjurings of the brain become factual input. Facts, in this multivocal text, become a kind of resistance. They remind me of Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis’s “The Citizenship Question,” in which Davis recognizes the danger of expression and the greater danger of passively accepting state designation as the replacement for expression: “If hiding your depression is vital to citizenship, let me not only name mine, but also describe it a little.” Davis then proposes an alternative. Like Joseph, he looks to the poem as a form of witness alongside concrete, measurable steps toward social change. Addressing the Hone Tuwhare Charitable Trust and the first writer’s residency in the home of a Māori poet, Davis suggests how literature might offer a more complete account of personhood while also making clear the need for funded, community generated and supported art. “To listen to their poetry,” he says, “I want that to be part of my answer to the citizenship question.”
Near the end of Decade of the Brain, in “The Night Before You Are Naturalized,” we see a change in perspective as Joseph pulls the aperture wide to deconstruct her role as a writer, someone who may choose to make a record for themselves and others. Now the speaker must create wholeness for her father when the terminology of the state might replace humanizing syntax:
I might write a poem titled like that magazine’s tagline—
They’re Just Like Us! for example. Or a poem set here,
against the partition, where I erase you by calling you
ALIEN RELATIVE in every instance where the “you”
appears and I disappear behind THE PETITIONER
There’s something bittersweet in Joseph’s address. Unlike poems from her first collection, the speaker is set apart from her family. She also has the opportunity to shape the record, to choose how she and loved ones become visible to others. The possible supposition of a state-declared relation is ultimately rejected for the intimacy of the second-person address. And yet the performance of the ALIEN RELATIVE and THE PETITIONER is not painless. Joseph shows the vulnerability of the body literally fractured, “your front flipper tooth suddenly chipped in half,” the multiple layers of repair (the tooth removed, replaced, broken and fixed), as the speaker must “figure it out.” Joseph has inverted their roles from “In the Ecotone,” the daughter now using her hands to “fix it. And I do—with a needle and a glue, I bond it.”
I’m interested in the difference between a fixative and a bond and the way a bond is an oath and a fixative is a stabilizer. It is possible to bind something we cannot make stable, like home, like the body; we can sign our names to a place. It is possible to use intimacy as a tool against alienation, where the direct address is a conscious decision to recognize how we view ourselves, our bodies and our connection to others. The poem is a conscious act to stabilize the disoriented self and to do so through an internal compass. Joseph disregards what makes her speaker credible to the state. By giving up the language of THE PETITIONER, Joseph abandons the authority of the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who may ask the government to bestow belonging. Instead, the speaker illustrates the immediacy of her care.
Much as with the title of the collection, Decade of the Brain (borrowed from George Bush’s 1990 Presidential Proclamation 6158), Joseph’s poems inform readers of a political edict and then present a lived decade. They are, in fact, different decades. And we must navigate the context of that shift and accept the validity of memory and the self, even as the self might half and double into a multiplicity of selves. When we transcribe the literal, when we navigate the written artifact, what we write is inherently incomplete, approximate. Like metaphor, what we describe is replaced by what we have written. In a poem from her first collection, Joseph describes this gap between the narrative of the poem and its source:
Now, a true story: Once I had a dog that was pregnant for years
with a tumor. I fed her bibingka by hand until she lived. And she lived
until I put her down. Curled at my leg
is another dog. He is a poem that rhymes with her
in another language.
The dog is a memory and she is not; she has become, as the title suggests, “Ars Poetica for the Dog.” The structure that houses the dog is revised, the memory is recalled and handled by its owner in English (“I pet it in English”), but the emotional core of the poem is an attempt to capture the gaps in experience and translation. Like the dog who hears the familiar “Ikaw ang cream of the crop. This, it got,” I am fed by a manufactured intimacy, even if the fullness I feel is supplemented by my own memory.
The poem’s work then, is in the ecotone, and sustaining that liminal space, but is it a viable one? Joseph’s “Abecedarian” demonstrates a mastery of one language while showing the attenuation of another, but the space she crafts is in motion, literally up in the air as she is transported from one city to another:
undermined. Even their memories, my memory devours into this
vanisher language. How does anyone do anything, I stop asking
when I board the plane. In this life, I exist awake until the altitude change
exhumes me. Where did she go, where did I go in that rest. I’ve heard it’s
xenoglossy, what happened next: I heard through the pane, faint as
zodiacal light, her voice in the air beyond where the body went down.
The poem offers a little miracle in the final couplet, an improbable restoration. At the end of one language, we’re given the return of the other, a sudden xenoglossy, to speak in a language unknown to oneself, except here, the voice of the self is externalized, “her voice in the air beyond” distanced and brief, as if memory, too, lives in the cultural ecotone.
A confession. My own poems are more multilingual than I am. I have a lot of excuses for this, including education trends in the nineties, my family’s desire for assimilation, fears about drawing attention to the mixed (citizenship) status of our household. Since the 1800s, the census has asked questions about English proficiency. Beginning in the 1980s, the census began phrasing this question in terms of proficiency: “How well does this person speak English (very well, well, not well, not at all)?” My mother, surrounded by English speakers, wanted me to be able to answer singularly and clearly, but if we are taught primarily to express our credibility through English, what tools can we return to, to escape that embedded Anglocentrism? As a mixed-race writer, if I imagine my lexicon as inherited entirely from my white parent, I think I would disappear on the page. Written in white, I would be illegible to myself and the Filipino household I grew up in. For me, the poem is a tool for cultivating resilience through a lexicon that is particularly resistant to assimilation, a word I first thought meant forgetting.
In the epigraph for the title poem, “Decade of the Brain,” Joseph cites a disconnect between the designations of the state and the designations of a community: “The boundaries of a CDP have no legal status and may not always correspond with the local understanding of the area or community with the same name.” The purpose of the census-designated place (CDP) is to identify data for a geographic area. The poem goes on to explore the record (personal and otherwise) to make room for a fuller self who can feel attachment to geography and community. More importantly, “Decade of the Brain” shifts questions of credibility on to the record.
I love how this poem is enriched by Joseph’s previous work, which—if it does not preserve the same memory—preserves the weight of her early years in the United States. In her first collection, Joseph’s “Landscape with American Dream” winds like the Pacific Coast Highway, filled with blind turns. The speaker comprehends legitimacy as a cognate for safety. She knows physical exposure is not the limit of her vulnerability: “see how I coast and carve / and fault my rootless cart.” Despite her ease of movement, she faults her “rootlessness.” When we return to the “rootless cart” in “Decade of the Brain,” it is in the past tense. The roads themselves are familiar “graveled roads like these.” In the past tense, Joseph’s family is already American:
1991. My first fall in the decade of understanding
and discovering our selves as Americans.
The poem becomes the credible record, “we exist only in the count, / our bodies a record of a place absorbed / by ink. But I was witness.” As the last poem in the collection, the poem validates Joseph’s poetics as a space of human habitation. To take charge of the record is necessary to our wholeness, an act that distinguishes witness from memory and holds room for both.
*An essay-review of Janine Joseph’s Decade of the Brain (2023; 100 pp.; $18.95) and Driving without a License (2016; 100 pp.; $15.95), both from Alice James Books, New Gloucester, ME.