Shopping at the local Costco last month, I staggered in a stimuli-induced stupor across an improbably large display of enticingly cheap bananas. Bending around nearby shoppers, I reached down to extract a hefty bunch, which I added to my growing pile of Goldfish crackers, granola bars, and various carbonated beverages. As I moved on to the sample chips and salsa, I considered the bananas hardly at all.
I recalled this experience recently while reading banana [ ], a new book of poetry from Seattle-based author Paul Hlava Ceballos, winner of last year’s prestigious Donald Hall Prize. As the title indicates, Ceballos is very much concerned with the banana: its significance as a commodity of American empire; its cultivation as an instrument for the subjugation of Latin American people; its deliciousness as a source of pride for the same. But Ceballos is also interested in language: the ways the “neutrality” of official communication can obscure profound violence; the process by which the “objectivity” of journalistic reporting can sanitize unspeakable horror.
Ceballos’ banana [ ] is divided into three parts: two sequences of individual poems, many of them Ecuadorian décimas (an oral form developed by Black artists in northwestern Ecuador), bracketing a longer section composed entirely of language borrowed from other sources (CIA documents, Hollywood movies, botany textbooks), each containing the word “banana.” By combining disparate texts, Ceballos links intersecting histories: his own family’s with that of the banana trade in Latin America, European colonization in the Americas, and experiences of other immigrants in the United States. Who gets remembered and how, Ceballos seems to ask, and to what extent can subverting the language of colonization create new meanings, new histories, new pathways for remembering?
In one of the book’s early poems, “CBP Statement on Agent Involved Shooting [Verb?] in Hidalgo, TX,” Ceballos rewrites the journalistic account of a fatal shooting in Texas. The phrase “
was involved in a use-of-force incident” becomes “[shot a person].” The words “ The incident occurred” are changed to “[The State employee freely shot the unarmed man].” But Ceballos isn’t satisfied with simply adding specificity to a bloodless, euphemistic report. Instead, his additions grow more lyrical as the poem progresses. The word “ subject” transforms into “[Language emptied of meaning is a haunting].” The person who “ sustained a gunshot wound” and died “[enters here a domestic American archive].” By contrasting these opposing idioms, Ceballos shows how certain kinds of language can be prisons, vacuuming whole worlds into their void.
“CBP Statement on Agent Involved Shooting [Verb?] in Hidalgo, TX” is only one of several poems that memorialize immigrants who have been killed by the U.S. state. And if the poems themselves amount to a kind of archive, it is one that seeks to extend their lives, not to erase them. Ceballos’ mother herself immigrated to the United States from Ecuador, and several poems, including the moving “Irma,” recount the challenges of growing up in a household where “every dinner was lentejas and huevos” and “platanos sizzle[ed]/so sweet and so brown,” yet his mother’s language was minimized so her children would more easily assimilate. “She cut her native tongue to protect her kin,” writes Ceballos. “What I get mezclado/are words she never said.”
The word “mezclado” translates here to “mixed up” or “confused,” but it can also mean “mixed together” or “blended,” and this latter definition, I think, provides some insight into the nature of Ceballos’ project as a whole. By “mixing together” reflections from his childhood in California with meditations on the origin of the banana, elegies for the victims of U.S. government violence, and poems written from the perspectives of Incan kings and queens, among many other sources and texts, Ceballos makes the argument for a continuum, for connection, for many parts of a single, still unfinished story. “An accent is a spirit/summoned by a candle in the mouth,” he writes in “Irma.” “It depends on every/war, every foot-worn path.”
Nowhere is this assertion more evident than in the book’s middle section, a 40-page collage of words and images drawn from dozens of incongruous sources. Depictions of the massacres of unionized banana workers are juxtaposed with marketing materials for Hollywood movies. First-person narratives describing the working conditions on banana plantations are situated next to sources that speak of military coups and covert operations. Government documents are erased, distilled down to their sinister essence. In one poem that spans several pages, each line consists of two words, all ending with the word “banana,” and each taken from a different source: “scale banana/wound banana/can banana/make banana/a banana/wound banana/seem banana/smaller banana.” Read horizontally, the passage offers one meaning. Read vertically, however, it provides another: “Scale can make a wound seem smaller.”
The wounds of empire. The wounds of exploitation. The wounds of immigration. The wounds of assimilation. “If culture’s root is care, it matters/the object of care is visible,” Ceballos writes in the book’s opening poem. How can one be expected to care about something they cannot see? How can they see if the relevant knowledge has been obscured? Ceballos’ book seeks to intervene in our collective ignorance, to illuminate dark chapters of our interconnected histories. His artwork challenges us to look more closely at the fruit occupying our grocery stores and breakfast tables.