Barbara Jane Reyes and Italics

The use of italics as seen in “”To Love as Aswang,” “To  Be Prey,” “To Sing Surrender and a few others that alternate lines of italicized and non-italicized text gives her poems polyvocality. When I read the poems that employ this style, I find myself assigning the parts that are and are not in italics to two different speakers. As I read the poem in my head, it sounds similar to the call-and-response form of prayer we do at synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, where the rabbi reads one line of prayer in non-italicized font from the prayerbook and the congregation answers by reading the next italicized font in unison. Usually, the part the congregation reads is some sort of response or affirmation to what the rabbi has just read. Unintentionally, I read these poems that way. In my head, I heard the voice of my rabbi reading the non-italicized font and the booming voice of my congregation answering in italics. So for my reading, there were two types o polyvocality at play: the two voices demarcated by italics, but then also the multiple voices reading the italics in unison. I do not believe it was Reyes’ intention to necessarily have the non-italicized text be a singular voice and the italicized text be a chorus of voices, but it is my reading nonetheless. If this class has taught me one thing, it is that that is legitimate!

However, it is valuable to look past my first, immediate reading of her use of italics and explore the idea of other meanings, and maybe even what her intention was (although we have had many interesting discussions about how much this matters in our reading of poetry). In “To Sing Surrender,” the italics come off more as a whisper, as the unbearable subtext to the more palatable non-italicized words. In the beginning of the poem, the italics emphasize the contrast between what is italicized and what is not: “The purest girl, such warm, sweet cake” and then immediately after: “In the movie, she is gang-banged in a van.” Perhaps here the italics indicate a change to whisper, because what is said in the italics is too horrible to say out loud. Throughout the poem, however, the content of the non-italicized text becomes more violent until the non-italicized and italicized texts are pretty much at the same level of violence: “Pommeled, crushed, the heart surrenders” and then “In the movie, her many parts discarded.” Another possible explanation for the italics is that they differentiate what is happening in the background (in the movie) from Reyes’ emotional reaction to it. The stifled cry and pommeled and crushed heart described in non-italicized font belong to both the woman on the screen but also to Reyes as she watches what is happening to her.

In “To Love as Aswang” and “To be Prey,” the use of italics seem to serve a different function. These poems are formatted differently than “To Sing Surrender” in that they consist of two columns of pairs of italicized and non-italicized pairs of text, whereas “To Sing Surrender” was only one column. In these two poems, the left column employs italics and the right does not. There are multiple ways to read them: you could go left, right, left, right, left, right etc. or you could read the left column down vertically and then the right. In both poems, there is a lot of repetition within the columns: in “To Love as Aswang,” every stanza in the left column starts with “with” and in the right with “The Filipina is.” In “To be Prey” the left column again always starts with “with” and the right with “blame the Filipina.” You experience repetition no matter how you read these poems, but a different type. Either you get “With…with…with…with…the Filipina is…the Filipina is….the Filipina is….the Filipina is” or “With….the Filipina is….with…..the Filipina is….with…..the Filipina is.” And you either get all the italics in the first half of the poem or evenly dispersed throughout. I am having a harder time assigning meaning to the italics in these poems than in “To Sing Surrender.” I am not quite sure what they do here, except to break up the rhythm of the text and emphasize certain phrases. Perhaps that is all they have to do.



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One Response to Barbara Jane Reyes and Italics

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Fantastic exploration and good careful paying attention to the expectations, affect, and change of affect as the italics combine with other elements of the poetry.


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