“As a Filipino-American conscious of his multiple identities and the trove of experiences and external forces that shaped him, Gray uses the unfettered landscape of poetry to release himself and others from the limitations that aggrieve undocumented immigrants.” New City Lit
Rooted in the experience of living in America as a queer undocumented Filipino, Documents maps the byzantine journey toward citizenship through legal records and fragmented recollections. In poems that repurpose the forms and procedures central to an immigrant’s experiencesbirth certificates, identification cards, letters, and interviewsJan-Henry Gray reveals the narrative limits of legal documentation while simultaneously embracing the intersections of identity, desire, heritage, love, and a new imagining of freedom.
About the Author
D. A. Powell is the author of five collections of poetry, including Chronic, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Repast: Tea,Lunch, and Cocktails. Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
momma takes aim. leans into the machine. types
my first social security card. her third try. early,
I learn how to lie on forms.
Across the Pacific Ocean
To stand still
is to sink in sand.
Swim past the buoy where the guard can’t see.
In the photograph that you show me every holiday
we have the same conversation about
eating guavas on the beach, the black sand, and
when when when I will go back.
Painted blue and slate and
white from corner to corner,
the ocean extends past
the canvas edge. I hang
it backwards to see
the art behind the art.
At the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
100 years ago, people met
there and nowhere else.
It was here
where we learned how
to be naked around other bodies.
At dawn, gulls command and will the day.
Then, the machinery of the city
its beaming commerce burns off all fog.
The ocean brings it back. She cannot sleep.
August 16, 2013:
One kilometer from your
port of call, two ships collide
in the middle of the night.
The hull of the ferry Thomas Aquinas
is now a mouthless whale.
Children slept in her belly.
And there were others…
How do you weigh an ocean?
I have no poems for the Atlantic.
Or New York. Or Europe either.
I look westward:
from home to home.
On the plane, I ate cubed fruit from a plastic cup.
I drank true milk. I looked out the window
learned to pronounce my names
and how to spell them.
The only way to know a song is to sing it.
The only way to know the ocean is to swim it.
I cannot wait any longer for the tides to rise to me.
Maid Poem #2
We were shown how to eat with our hands, how to pick the meat between bones, how to feel for the small slivers hidden in fish, how to gather food with four fingers and push it into our mouths with our thumbs.
There were no knives at our table, those were kept in the back kitchen, with the maids. They ate when we ate. They stayed back when we went to church, to tend to the chickens, to care for the youngest, always sick.
We knew their names, the smell of their skin. Shame I can’t name them now. My mother remembers them all and each, which maid was paired with which child and which one (only one) would come with us when we went to the mountain to ride horses in the fog.
Crush, Supermarket, California
It’s easy to
fall in love
grocery store boys
the one with the
tiny coffee cup
pants & cotton shoes or
the impossibly pale
fish boy who smiles
when he says I’m
from Alaska. Your
of a boat
ocean floor, you
him poems & he
will explain the code
in the constellation
no fish, sailing
as you two do,
listening to ice
What People are Saying About This
“Documents opens every closet and drawer and says ‘search me.’ It says '[hide History].' It is a full disclosure and a redaction, a history and its endless revisions.” D.A. Powell
“Jan-Henry Gray is a remarkable poet. His work makes visible the emotional and intellectual chaos of living as an undocumented queer man. His lyrical testimony fuses anxiety and yearning into an archive of familial history and self-discovery. His poems will help increase the visibility of those made invisible by our society. Gray is a resourceful poet. He transforms legal forms and interview questions into texts that reveal the dehumanizing power of language. Gray is a skeptical poet. Rightfully, he loathes borders and binaries, but he’s also aware of the limits of poetry. ‘Freedom from forms,’ writes Gray in a lyric essay near the end of Documents, which is ‘queer, dense, full of strange currents.’ The essay beautifully reminds us to always seek freedom from all kinds of constraints on our living and our thinking.” Eduardo C. Corral
“‘How do you weigh an ocean?’ Jan-Henry Gray asks while contemplating the distance between the United States and the Philippines, from where the author immigrated without documents. In this imagistically adventurous, formally experimental, and emotionally acute debut poetry collection, Gray weighs the distance from one location to the next. The brilliance of Documents rests within its ability to remind us that poetry is everywhere, from how ‘we breathe and cloud the windows’ to how ‘I lift my palms upwards, as if to say: Let us sing a song made up of a single word.’ I am so thankful for this book and how important it is for the literary world, especially the growing canon of migrant literary activists!” Christopher Soto
“‘The Philippines is ghost-country,’ writes Jan-Henry Gray, in this gorgeous debut collection, and indeed, Gray's speakers can be thought of as ghostly, muted and aching for connection, in the specifics of place, in language, in poetry. These are poems of thwarted belonging, and the emotional consequences of institutional and social invisibility. Finely rendering emotional complexities and specific details of lives taken for granted or outright ignored, Gray's poems are documents of human souls aspiring to José Garcia Villa's aphorism and assertion, ‘have come, am here.’” Barbara Jane Reyes