Midlife is a fraught time for poets. Now at a remove from the intensity that brought us to poetry in the first place, typically working one or more jobs and feeling the impending nearness of death, we often struggle in our writing to convey the complexity of all that confronts us. But in his latest book, My Favorite Warlord, Eugene Gloria is able to do precisely that. Born in Manila, raised in San Francisco, and now, many years a resident of Greencastle, Indiana, Gloria’s Asian motifs in the new book allow him to take on ancestry and identity in those cusp years between 40 and 55.
The title poem invokes the sixteenth-century Japanese warlord Hideyoshi to portray the poet’s father as he was as a young man and then later, afflicted with dementia. Other poems, such as “Panda Wok Garden Takeout,” draw on stereotypical characters—rickshaw drivers and Shanghai gangsters—as well as The Five Chinese Brothers in the once-popular children’s book, imagining the bodily costs of the characters’ macho exploits: “You have to wonder / how . . . the one who drank the sea / managed to keep it all in” (65).
The book shuttles between warlords and dreamers, between samurais and the printmaker Hiroshige or the haiku poet Basho. The angry characters allow Gloria to give voice to the mute frustrations of midlife, the energy bottled up with nowhere to go, and also to the sustaining rituals of work and care, as in this portrait of his “generalissimo” brother, a delivery driver in San Francisco, who is “like a monk”
in his task of ironing; memorizing the highway,
his routes from the south then north of the city,
wrestling with fog at four in the morning,
the steep streets and narrow alleyways at noon,
the great citadels of money, and the cargo he will
deliver with the agency of a bullet’s lethal business. (58)
In the dreamy characters, we find something else: models for the consolation that art can bring, no matter how remote the twenty-first-century self might seem from these passionate ascetics. In the prose poem, “I Envy Basho’s Solitude,” we see the busy teacher-poet Gloria looking to the haiku monk for a connection to interiority: “I love how in the story that I am reading, Basho sits down on his hat and weeps bitterly till he completely loses track of time. In twenty years I will be seventy; ten years from then, I’ll be dead. Basho . . . praised the thistle in his travel sketches . . . . When clouds break into stones and strong winds take the pilgrim’s hat, . . . Basho and the thistle sustain themselves with . . . a cloudburst of stories from their mutual ancestry” (64). This excerpt is the key to the book: Gloria at midlife seeks stories of “mutual ancestry” to render quiet moments that are almost beyond naming. I read this book white-knuckled, holding on for dear life.