SECRET ASIAN MAN by NICK CARBOCYNTHIA ARRIEU-KING Reviews
Secret Asian Man by Nick Carbó
(Tia Chucha Press, Chicago, 2000)
Was it Joseph Campbell, Jim Carrey, or Peter Gabriel who said a mask permits you to show what you truly are? (Peter Gabriel). Ang Tunay na Lalaki (Tagalog for “The Real Man”) serves Carbó well as the alter ego or mask through which he can express the truths of being an Asian man in America. Along the way, Carbó uses Lalaki, a pop icon in the Philippines “somewhere between Mr. Clean and the Marlboro Man” as well as many other names from popular culture to portray America as a land of glaring, glib, and preconceived notions. These icons could be seen as identities too defined to accommodate nuances of existence. Carbó’s complex use of the word “real” plays on our notions of what it means for a man of color to exert a presence in this culture. Finally, playing on his own biography, Carbó lets Lalaki find an artistic marriage in which Orpheus creates a ménage a trois with artist wife Sally: All must be shared. The poems vary from sturdy tercets, to faux found poems about Sally’s CV and Lalaki’s sleep apnea study. Lalaki even attends a workshop and his homework serves as the most abstract and dizzyingly playful of the volume. Carbó’s work is fun, accessible, full of transformations, and more genuine than a sanctimonious and distraught set of poems on outsiderdom could ever be.
The mix of proper pop culture nouns and Tagalog emphasize the contrast between Lalaki’s inner life, and the outer culture in which he finds himself, as well as giving the poems satisfying sounds. Secret Asian Man, or Lalaki, wants to,
“ride/the back of a carabao and bolt
up Madison Avenue screaming
like Tandang Sora or shout
hala-bira! hala-bira! hala-bira!” (15)
He’s not cowed or tempted by the culture around him, and seems to want to be as joyful as New York’s streets, even on his own terms, i.e. with “bad behavior” (15). But he notices soon that his hair has grown to make him look like “Tonto in the Lone Ranger” – signaling an unwilled assimilation. The transformation from one icon to another reminds the reader of the common experience of being mistaken for a member of another culture (Are you Hawaiian? Are you Mexican?), and the way Lalaki’s hair seems to betray him is a moving moment. By using these pop icons, Carbó avoids striking a received tone of indignation or nostalgia for a homeland; instead, he achieves a kind of slightly bittersweet humor and short-hands paradox.
La Virgen del Pelo Mojado isn’t safe from this funny/sad use of icons – his mother sends a wooden statue of her meant to help Lalaki find a good “American wife” (39). Joking about the novenas anxious mothers might request in their son’s honor, Carbó brings Lalaki into serious territory: Lalaki himself takes the wooden statue and “places her on the mantle piece, and begins/to arrange the flowers he bought…” (39). Lalaki’s religious gesture might be a new thing for him, might be a forgotten tradition. Driven by his desperation to find a woman, the poem gives a well-placed distraction from the hectic storm of icons, AOL sluts, and video nemises Lalaki must face on the street.
Although the icons help Carbó comment on set notions of cultural identity-- and he seems to be saying they are ridiculous, ubiquitous, unrelenting -- the word “real” has an indeniable importance in this work that counters and complicates the pop noise. In “Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Sips a Frothy Cappuccino,” the young Lalaki meets up with Orpheus who announces, “I’ve recently traveled to Manila through a poem by a poet named Nick Carbó.” (29). Here, actual poet and Lalaki collide in the reader’s mind, reminding one of mortality, the finite, the trace of the real within Lalaki’s escapades. The concept of “real” crops up during the course of this narrative series as a counterweight to the created ad icon at large in New York City. Meeting Carbó, Lalaki exclaims, “No shit! You’re a real person!”(49) un-ironically surprised for himself, but ironically surprised for the reader.The scenario allows Carbó to announce outright how the persona of Lalaki is helping him live out fantasies, albeit through the Western figure of poetry, Orpheus. But the reader doesn’t get the feeling Carbó is caught up Orpheus’ potential to be grandiose. Instead he uses Orpheus as the personification of the place where the pressure of the real on the imaginary creates poetic impulse.
The concept of the “real” becomes rich in the prose poem “Assignment” that chronicles Lalaki’s Hello Kitty industrial espionage assignment. He thinks about being Hello Kitty’s bodyguard, and thinks “All the children are crying and he realized this is real, this is not a stunt dreamed up by the toy companies…” The children’s hysteria about Hello Kitty doesn’t touch on reality per se; plastics, shipping, tired workers assembling Hello Kitty clocks, but rather on the reality of the love for Hello Kitty as an icon being real -- not just a publicity stunt (88). Lalaki’s exclamation about what is real, then, is a way for Carbó to draw an outline around the kind of reaction cultural figures receive. The reader can’t help but be reminded of the way old ladies might say an Asian girl, “Is so pretty like a China doll” or enthuse in some manner that seems to have no relation to a personal identity. Hello Kitty almost gets kidnapped by something dressed as a Power Ranger, and fortunately, Lalaki saves the day and the poem from becoming too heady (89).
Lalaki’s espionage job requires him to pretend to be married. Here, true reality and fantasy mix as the five final poems of the book, prose narratives, seem to hint at Carbó’s real life. Lalaki’s wife, a successful artist named Sally, films him, objectifies him, (“20 minutes – brown nipple/20 minutes – brown butt cheeks” (71) and finally catches him in his undercover assignment with another woman. Naturally, I don’t mean to imply marital strife is part of Carbó’s real life, but the notion that he feels Other, and a true feeling of remaining incognito in the success of a spouse, rises to the poems’ surfaces. Lalaki reminds Sally: “…you met the real me, the real man before I applied for this job. You’ll always have the genuine article at home and for the rest of your life” (92). The convergence in the final poems of Sally and Lalaki with Carbó and Denise Duhamel provides a wink to the audience that the married icon and his wife are just playthings representing the trials of shared artistic lives, some survived with love as in a good marriage, and deeply understood at a remove. With a wife whose success must surely at times feel like it eclipses his own, Carbó proves his own security to Lalaki, or his own reality in disguise, and to reader when he ends the book by wishing his creations and himself the best: “My wife Denise has wrapped the gift. We want to give them (Lalaki and Sally) a good life” (“Epilogue” 96).
On the cover of Secret Asian Man, a man with chartreuse skin, a trenchcoat, and automatic weapon immediately casts this titular persona as a protagonist, not simply an epithet, and Carbó follows through, letting his poems chronologically outline the life of Lalaki with playful and sometimes sad outlines on exclusion, and honesty about the challenges of the artist’s loves.
Cynthia Arrieu-King is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati and an echocardiographer. Her work is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Pilot Poetry, and Court Green.