on “Phantompains” by Therese Estacion

Armor by Odilon Roden (1891) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Phantompains by Therese Estacion
Book*hug Press, 2021

For my feet, for my fingers, for my Uterus
All I can offer is a memory
they were full
they were ecstatic
& in flux
(“Eunuched Female V”)

So ends Phantompains, the debut poetry collection by Therese Estacion. There is a sense of finality to these lines, an act of looking back that is a form of grief that is part of the healing process. At the same time, reading these lines makes the hand want to flip over the book and open it once more to the untitled prologue-esque opening section, where medical salvation from a rare and deadly infection was coupled with a form of dehumanization, of looking at the body as an assemblage of parts, “–dead bits cut off/ –dead bits deemed/ “biohazard”: waste.”

This cyclicality in Phantompains challenges the idea that healing is linear, that it requires a temporal removal. In the pages of the collection, time is not chronological but rather fleets from the recent past to the more distant past of a childhood “spent between Cebu and Gilhungan, two distinct islands found I the archipelago named by its colonizers as the Philippines,” Estacion’s bio informs readers. The course that Estacion charts for her reader leads them through personal and cultural memory, not as a way of bearing her soul and moving on, but as a way of confronting forms of loss and suffering that initially seem too expansive for words to contain.

The sections in Phantompains lend themselves to this multifaceted exploration of memory-as-healing. “Abat/Monsers” reads like a modern bestiary-turned-memoir, where the fear of the monstrous is turned into a way of questioning the construction of monstrosity. Focusing on childhood memory and family, the “Blood and Absence Flows” section reads a bit like an interlude, a flashback or the haunting of memory that arise as a defense mechanism as Estacion asks, in “Ama&Apo,” “You are gone, gone and what is left?/ Our diasporic hearthache.” “Got Sick” moves the reader into a post-surgery present as the poems search for firm footing as they are divided between past and future, between “dreams [of] a/ pair of complete hands, alien to me” (“Hands”) and the “phantomfuture,” “wondering what it might be like for me as I/ age and become more fragile” (“report on Phantompains”).

“A Task” and “Eunuched Female” similarly locate themselves in the “after” but here Etsacion’s use of style creates another temporal ripple. The visceral and sensorial “Thinking about things again: misery during leg amputations month” in “A Task” is heightened by the blank page and floating words, spliced with slashes as if untethered, like when “the gyno says/ good thing you won’t/ have uterine cancer/ great. one less organ/ in my body revolting/ against me.” “Eunuched Female,” meanwhile, recalls the allegorical tone in the way the figures of Eunuch Female (EF) and Lover (L) move through a narrative space that is rigid, report-like, pushing the body in a search for love and pleasure. Looking back is a way of looking forward for Estacion, as it is not a question of forgetting or “leaving behind” but of tracing the contours of a new body and shaping it through a network of family and culture, a health care system that supports and fails in equal measure.

The autobiographical tone of Phantompains reads a bit as a form of grounding the self in moments of pain, recalling the way books or films include a line where an injured character is told to “hold on” and retain consciousness, remaining in this world. In Estacion’s poetry, language and culture serve this function, particularly in the “Abat/Monsters” section. The smooth integration of the Visayan language gives the poems an oral quality, as if two voices are simultaneously talking and translating the words. In connecting the monsters from Filipino cultures to her surgical procedures, Estacion is not so much drawing a line of kinship as much as a search for comfort in the familiar. Thus,

when katong na matay ko sa I died in August
I swear I saw something like an agta At the foot of my
hospital bed a form with no eyes
He said to all the devils that came
Ayaw Pag Ari Do not come here
Ayaw Pag Hilabot Do not touch

The poem “The ABG (Able-Bodied Gaze)” is a culmination of the forwards and backwards momentum of Phantompains only here, Estacion’s thinking about disability, trauma, and healing are tied up into the ongoing problem of disability being treated as a spectacle. The poem opens with “Itwatches, alwayswatches,” signalling to the reader that Estacion is simultaneously commenting on but also diminishing the power of the able-bodied spectator. Not only are they relegated to the pronoun “it,” but the use of italics and the compounding of words to form a single conglomeration, the rushing of letters accompanying the stalking and prying as “It/ follows&follows&follows &watches&watches/ &watches.” Estacion dismantles the idea that disabled people have been stripped of individuality and agency by their condition, a myth that Phantompains disproves through its refusal to settle and accept that there can be no “after.” Although the poem ends with a seeming defeat for the speaker—“Itlooks up at the sun feeling absolved/ It’sbored of me already”—Estacion comes out on top through her subversion of language. It is a victory rooted not in conquest or assertion of power but in a vital critique of ongoing preconceptions that equates health with social significance and value.

What does it mean to find solace? There is no clear answer within Estacion’s poems, if only because Phantompains itself is a question that echoes back in response. Arising from a deeply personal space that the reader is lucky enough to be allowed into, Estacion’s debut speaks to the strength of remembering, demonstrating that to relive also means to live, to create rather than simply to find strength (and sometimes even humour) in what might otherwise seem as an unbreachable dark corner of one’s life.

Review by Margaryta Golovchenko.

Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a settler-immigrant, poet, and critic from Tkaronto/Toronto, Canada. The author of two poetry chapbooks, her individual poems can be found in Menacing Hedge, Lon Con Magazine, Acta Victoriana,Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and others. She has written literary and exhibition reviews for publications including Canadian Art, Peripheral Review, Cornelia, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan. She is an incoming student to the art history PhD program at the University of Oregon. Margaryta can be found on Twitter @Margaryta505.

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