This is where it begins, Merlinda Bobis.
This poem is a celebration of the power of storytelling to connect Asian-Australians to their ancestral and cultural heritage, and thus provide them with a more complete sense of self. The opening epigraph establishes that the poet will speak in her ancestral languages, ‘Bikol, Pilipino,’ and her adopted one, ‘English,’ forever ‘over and over again.’ Here, Bobis immediately locates herself amid the hybridisation of cultures and identities that occurs as a result of emigrating to a foreign place. The first three stanzas contain the same content, but the first two are written in Bikol and Tagalog respectively.
From there, Bobis recalls stories told to her by her grandparents of ‘the crab-stealer / hiding under the bed’ and ‘the lady in the hills / walking into his dream.’ The poet conveys the confusion she felt as a child listening to these stories.
Indeed, the recurring phrase ‘This is where it begins,’ which after its first appearance is prefixed with the uncertain terms ‘But’ and ‘Or,’ reflects the poet’s obfuscated sense of identity, which is of course repaired throughout the poem as she participates in the storytelling.
That sense of confusion is furthered when the poet’s recollection of her mother practicing for her college exam becomes merged with other stories told to her by her grandparents:
‘Or, this is where it begins.
Mother reviewing for her college Spanish exam:
Suddenly also under my skin, long before I understood
‘Eyes': how they conjure ghosts under the bed,
‘Lips': how they make ghosts speak,
‘Hands': how they cannot be silent.’
Here, we see again the distorted sense of self experienced by the poet as a result of being uprooted from her ancestral and cultural heritage be embodied by the structure and content of her poem.
Bobis then uses imagery to convey the power of storytelling, ‘Story, word, gesture / are all under my skin.’
With the final three stanzas of her poem, Bobis ruminates on the philosophical and emotional dimensions of storytelling, before affirming its restorative power and its capacity to repair lost connections: ‘Eyes, lips, hands conjoined: the umbilical cord restored.’
Cultural assumptions examined
The power of nostalgia and memory to form a more complete sense of self
Though this poem ultimately affirms the power of nostalgia and memory to allow an individual to form a more complete sense of self, it nonetheless spends a considerable amount of time depicting the uncertainty from which that individual is seeking escape, or a resolution to: this is most clearly evident in the repetition of the line ‘This is where it begins.’ The poet’s repeated use of the words before different situations indicates their inability to look into the past with any certainty. Of course, that confusion is resolved by the poem’s end, by which point the persona has walked us through a recount of their mother’s and their own lives.
The turbulent process and equally disorienting consequences of assimilation
The persona’s confusion and distorted sense of time and place is a direct result of the turbulent and disorienting process of assimilation: they have been uprooted from their ancestral culture and heritage, and so have lost their footing and ability to locate a stable identity. The existent disconnect between the persona and her ancestors is reflected through the reflective tone used as she recalls childhood experiences: it is clear that there is no possibility that such encounters could happen again.