The poem “This is Where it Begins” by Merlinda Carullo Bobis traces a journey back to her origins because as a child, she didn’t have ample access to literature written in her native language. The importance of storytelling and the influence of oral traditions in her culture to root one to his/her identity surface the poem.
Merlinda Carullo Bobis is a Philippines-born Australian writer whose work usually caters to immigrant experiences amidst the conflict of identities.
This is Where it Begins | Summary and Analysis
The poem is composed in first person and suggests the poet’s own close affiliation with it. The speaker thus can be assumed to be the poet persona or any other woman she chooses to speak through. It’s a free-verse work of art with no definite stanzaic divisions. The poem also includes both English and Filipino languages.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 1-2
Once upon a time in Bikol, Pilipino, English —
we tell it over and over again.
Following the classic tradition of storytelling, the poem begins in the “once upon a time” fashion. The em dash acts as an intrusion where the speaker opts to pause and convey the repetitive nature of a story she often hears. Her Asian-Australian identity and immigrant status recount the fact that the stories passed on to successive generations in both her native tongue Bikol and the adopted English. The plural pronoun “we” renders a sense of community that the art of storytelling facilitates harbour among the people living in a country far from their homeland.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 3-8
Digde ininagpopoon. Anum nataonako, siguro lima.
Si Lola nag-iistoryamanongodsaparahabonninkasag
Dito itonagsisimula. Anim nataonako, siguro lima.
Si Lola nagkukuwentotungkolsamagnanakaw ng alimango
nanagtatagosailalim ng kama.
The speaker injects her native Filipino language into the poem to prioritise her native cultural identity over the culture she adopts in the host country. The translation for these lines in English follows in the next set of lines.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 9-12
This is where it begins. I am six years old, perhaps five.
Grandmother is storytelling about the crab-stealer
hiding under the bed. Each story-word crackles
under the ghost’s teeth, infernal under my skin. I shiver.
The speaker asserts the certainty of the beginning of her cultural identity. The non-reliability of memory couples with the innocence of a child who is unsure about her age, a confusion that mirrors her in-betweenness of two identities- the native and the immigrant. The grandmother is narrating a story about the “crab-stealer hiding under the bed” which sends down a frightening sensation all through the speaker’s body. The expression “each story-word crackles under the ghost’s teeth” is an ingenious take on the storytelling skills of the grandmother with her dialectical inflections who here is also addressed as a “ghost” (metaphor) to highlight the past and ancientness she represents in the contemporary age. The speaker’s fright is not just limited to the haunting effect of the story. The ghost of the past, age and culture she is not quite familiar with also haunts her. There is also a reference to religious imagery when the speaker experiences “infernal” under her skin to suggest the hellish nature of the tale she is listening to.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 13-18
But perhaps this is where it begins.
Grandfather teasing me with that lady in the hills
walking into his dream, each time a different
colour of dress, a different attitude under my skin.
I am bereft of constancy, literal
at six years old, perhaps five.
The looming sense of uncertainty about the origins of her identity compels the speaker to trace the beginning to her grandfather’s story which narrates a tale about a “lady in the hills” but differs each time. This story is comparatively light-hearted. One can interpret the “different colours of dress” in lines of different ethnicities inhabiting the Australian continent. The speaker feels betrayed as there is a lack of constancy in the story, the constancy she craves to establish her true identity. The repetition of the word “perhaps” affirms the self-doubt burdening her conscience and the phrase “under my skin” traces the altering effects on her.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 19- 27
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.
Like a game, the speaker is contemplating the apt choice from a series of options and ponders over the possibility of her beginning through her mother’s college years when she is preparing for her Spanish exam. Contextually, the inclusion of Spanish in the school and college curriculum owes to Spain’s invasion of the Philippines in the 16th century.
The language is again unfamiliar to the speaker who experiences irritation as she’s unable to comprehend the words “Ojos,” “Labios” and “Manos” which stand for eyes, lips and hands respectively. Observe how the three together form the art of storytelling. The eyes open the gates of imagination and manifestation of the tale being recited; the lips utter the contents of the story in its just imitation of the character being talked about and the hands through their gestures support that imagination as well pens down it.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 28- 31
I remember too Father gesturing, invoking
once upon a time. This is where it begins.
Story, word, gesture
all under my skin. At six years old, perhaps five.
The speaker recalls her father attempting to narrate a story that would possibly answer her queries through his gestures. The continuity in the repetition of “under my skin” and her age now undergo a change in meaning. The former articulates the absorption of the stories she is a recipient of right from an early age. The stories flow in her blood. The latter put a thrust on her young age which contributes to the formative years of a child’s upbringing. Everything she lets herself be exposed to will shape her personality and mentality.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 32-41
And so this poem is for my father, mother,
grandmother, grandfather and all the storytellers,
the conjurers who came before us. They made us shiver
not just over crab-stealers hiding under the bed
or a lady uncertain of her garb. They made us shiver
also over faith, over tenderness.
Or that little tickle when a word hits a hidden
crevice in the ear. Just air
heralding the world or worlds that we think
we dream up alone.
The speaker dedicates the poem to her family and to all the storytellers who possess the ability to craft magical stories. She is not applauding them for their skills. Rather, ironically enough she points to the contrasting effect such stories inflict on young children like her. The stories not only evoke a range of emotions but also shackle their belief system due to the unfamiliarity of various cultures and languages.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 42-47
No, storytelling is not lonely,
not as we claim—in our little rooms lit only
by a lamp or a late computer glow.
Between the hand and the pen, or the eye and the screen,
they have never left, they who ‘storytold’ before us,
they who are under our skin.
The craft of storytelling is not a one-man job as the speaker asserts. The source that supplies a writer the material to pen down a story using paper and a pen or a computer never allows him/her to be alone even if the writer is working alone. The writer, like in this case the poet herself becomes a carrier of the tradition despite the irritability and confusion the early storytellers leave the former with. The use of anaphora in the last two lines for the word “they” emphasises the everlasting presence of the previous generations and their influence on the present life.
This is Where it Begins | Analysis, Lines 48-52
Perhaps they even conjured us, but not alone.
Storytelling, all our eyes collect into singular seeing,
our lips test one note over and over again,
our hands follow each other’s arc, each sweep of resolve.
Eyes, lips, hands conjoined: the umbilical cord restored.
The stories are an essential element contributing to one’s present identity but not the only one. Through the cultural unification of the stories, a community view things with a similar perspective. Thus the tales enable people who migrate to different parts of the world to reconnect with their motherland once again symbolised through a child’s connection with a mother by the means of an umbilical cord.