"Whether a child actress or an undocumented immigrant, I had always lived more than one life at once," Janine Joseph explains. From a childhood in TV commercials in the Philippines, she came to California with her parents on tourist visas in 1991, and the family stayed — overstayed, although she didn't realize it — settling first in Riverside and then in Arizona.
Those events shaped her first book of poems, "Driving Without a License" (Alice James Books: 100 pp., $15.95 paper). The young poet discovered that she was undocumented only when colleges refused her financial aid. Nonetheless, she found paths literary success.
First she attended Riverside Community College, and at a writers retreat in 2003 she met the future U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. That year she transferred to UC Riverside, following up with graduate programs in writing in New York and Houston.
Joseph had almost finished the sheaf of poems that became her book when, back home for Christmas in 2008, she and her father were rear-ended at a stoplight. The resulting concussion had "severe effects for months and years," memory loss among them.
You can find all these events in "Driving Without a License," but Joseph has made them into arresting creations. In its sometimes headlong, always exciting lines, the poet, her friends and her family (known by initials — S., J. and so on) pretend, evade and hesitate their way through the stages (dating, driving, leaving home) that are supposed to govern American lives.
In "Always Hiding" she pretends to own — as American teens are supposed to own — a car: "say my car is parked/ over there,/ behind the dumpster,/ where the tree is/ in the way." The next poem communicates fears about immigration enforcement, filtered through children's gossip: "I hear they raid when you're naked/ In bed Packed like a sardine."
She discovered poetry in high school through Sylvia Plath — "her muscular language reminds me of Tagalog," Joseph says when we correspond by email. Her parents had split up and her mother disappeared; she later turned up in the Philippines, mentally ill. "Because she, too, had overstayed her visa, she isn't able ... to visit us when she gets better," Joseph explains. "I haven't seen my mother in over twenty years."
Joseph's poem "Liquor Lot" honors but undermines conventional teen concerns about fitting in: If you're underage, she's asked — while holding up "my wallet/ with its empty slot" — "what good is it then … to be legal?" Cast in clear, careful free verse, this poem and some others meet instructional goals: They show how it felt to be someone like Joseph and what undocumented girls, in particular, can go through.
Yet they are fictions based on her story, not documents: They're too careful, too ironic, too self-aware for that. "Facts," the poet says, "are what I included in my immigration paperwork."
Poems are something else. They are inventions, and "Driving" is nothing if not inventive, the more so as it moves its young protagonist forward into adult life. A set of linked sonnets applies, to the interviews and legal tests that precede legal residency, the forms and tricks traditionally reserved for romantic love: "It is just an inspection./ There is nothing you need to know by heart." "Wreck," about her concussion, is a ghazal, the Persian and Urdu poetic form in which many lines end the same way: "Janine, your head might have hit something in the car. Come to/ and quickly. Opening your eyes might take hours. Janine, come to." The struggle to see life clearly, to isolate telling moments, gets stranger still when remembering anything has become a chore, when it's work to retrieve the same idea (like the word at the line's end) again and again.
Yet the book itself is no chore: It stands far apart from most first books, and from most books of autobiographical or narrative poetry, for the unpredictable vigor in its rhythmically irregular lines, especially in its depictions of youthful adventures. The poet takes us along with her, her friends, her boyfriend, "Junkyarding Through the Great Moreno Valley" or "packed and map-marked outta Ocotillo Wells": When their car breaks down in the desert, "you tore the straps/ from my work apron to make a stopgap belt/ that spun the engine on fire … And no search party for me … I started pushing." Their suddenly life-threatening situation — stuck in the desert with a car on fire — echoes those faced by the desperate people who trudge, each day, across a nation's border.
Another poem dominated by automobiles, called "Where There's Smoke," imagines Joseph's life as a road trip, a "sudden switchback of borders"; there's no destination, no linear plot, just remembered desire — "I was interested in it and doing what with it,/ I didn't know, but wanted it, and wanted it/ fast." Other poets with rich life stories lay everything out right away; Joseph speeds and skips around instead. She has lived in five states and four time zones: This year she'll leave Utah to teach at Oklahoma State University. Yet her book keeps coming back to Southern California. Roads, highways, commutes, the myth of the open road and the technical language of auto repair pop up throughout: "I dated someone who was a car aficionado," she recalls, but "I would have drifted from car culture entirely had I not been involved in a car accident. … Now the cars will always be there."
Her changing legal status shaped parts of her work. "I was a poet in hiding and as a result wrote poems with a speaker always in hiding," she says of the poems written before 2006, when she became a legal permanent resident. She also felt distant from other Filipina American writers who could be open about their immigrant backgrounds: "Being undocumented made it so I found reading those literatures frustrating and isolating. I certainly don't feel that way now." A poem called "Ayala Alabang, Philippines" (the title names a barangay, or district, south of Manila) portrays a literal tornado of childhood memory: "Was it night when it rained mudfish,/ bangus and tilapia — and did all that fish dart down like flint?" Another poem recalls the broad comedy of a child raised on "coconut juice, mango juice and water," one who appeared in Filipino ads for cheese, coming to America and gorging herself on "the mild, oh god the grade A,/ vitamin D milk. No one knew what it was doing to me." Her newest poems, though rarely straightforward, have opened up.
If you come to "Driving Without a License" for immigrant stories, family stories, childhood stories, Filipina stories and coming-of-age stories, you will find them, transformed by a fast-forward imagination. "There's quite a bit of my life in that book," Joseph confirms, "but … I don't even think of the speaker … as being 'me.'"
If you want to see formal variety or syntactic verve, you'll find them too, at almost every imaginable speed. If you want acerbic commentary on the American immigration apparatus, on a culture that says she belongs and yet doesn't belong, you'll find that too: If Joseph ever has a child, she quips, "my child/ will be called an anchor/ with hands at its throat." (The brutality of the mixed metaphor helps make her point.) You'll also find lighter language play and even puns: "Extended Stay America." ("Filipinas love puns," Joseph says). But you'll find rare intelligence about what it's like to tell just part of your story, to know that no life can be wholly explained or revealed, that something of her story — of anyone's story — will always remain to be told.
Burt's books include "Belmont" (poems) and "Close Calls with Nonsense"; Belknap Press will publish "The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them" this fall.