“Without Names” by Jeff Tagami is a dark composition set in rural Philippines. It presents a family that deals with seemingly mundane things in the morning that shifts into something sinister after dark. The poem grows in three verses, each one building from the last in crescendo fashion. The cacophony of images creates such a dissonance that hurls the reader deeper into the mystery of a rural family. It climaxes as a murky water of experiences, illusions and disillusions, unraveling the strangeness of simplicity.
It begins its tale at a yard owned by the family. Immediately the reader’s attention is pulled by the image of overgrown weeds. But the poet doesn’t simply state it as overgrown. Instead he uses the verb choking, creating a sense of menace, ominously starting the poem. This scene builds the image of a neglectful family, one that won’t even bother to take care of their own property. It can also mean that there is something eating away at the family, something that they cannot control.
The scene widens into that of a father taking care of supper for the wife and kids by killing a goat. Around the yard are the children, minding their own business. There is no indication of time but it can be assumed that it’s morning because the father would need sunlight to see what he’s doing. From afar, it looks so quaint – rustic and simple. But upon closer inspection, there’s an underlying tension. The stanza is replete with images of sadness and pain.
The slaughtering of the goat is told in graphic. The words slit and jugular allow the readers to imagine exactly how the father is doing it. The goat’s hooves are mercilessly tied together, not just with any abaca rope but with wires. The way it’s said makes it seem so cruel, to the point that the goat is compared to firewood, turning the animal into an inanimate, unfeeling resource. But the father’s intentions are good. He only means to feed his family at night.
While the goat perishes, its cries are but a whimper. What’s interesting is the comparison between the goat’s cries and the sister’s sigh. It creates tension between the two because both are feeling the same pain yet they are two different things altogether. Although the sister doesn’t experience the murder of the goat, she shares the longing of moving out. The image of her hugging herself brings a melancholy to the reader. Her dream of Blue Hawaii brings into perspective the feeling of being ensnared by the trappings of a provincial life. Her dream consumes her, preventing her from hearing her siblings’ giggles.
Her siblings, one of them the persona, are on the porch. They provide a grating tension between the goat and their sister’s cries with their child-like laughter. Two images juxtaposed, one trapped and the other free, give the family depth and drama. The siblings’ laughter is lighthearted and the poet doesn’t waste time to banish their innocence. The brother quips, “Let [the dog] lick your dick.” The seemingly innocuous laughter suddenly becomes charged with obscenity. The first verse ends at this point. What first appeared to be a rustic scene, through the use of imagery, has transformed into a playground where pain, suffering and obscenity are muddled together with good intentions and innocent minds.
The crescendo continues with the second verse, this time the focus is outward from the family previously mentioned. The reader is introduced to the farmhands. They are people who are hunchbacked. They are men and/or women, who have worked all their lives that they’ve turned ugly and their backs have tipped down to the earth that they till. Their description also makes them seem defenseless, weakened from the stress of toiling under the sun all day.
The poet continues the motif of graphic descriptions by explicitly describing the scene of the farmhands working. The images are strong and deliberate: lifetime hauling of irrigation pipes, squeezing of the goat entrails clean. The word lifetime used to describe the hauling of irrigation pipes traps the reader and the workers in an infinite loop of labor. It’s indicative of the cyclic life that people experience there and explains why their bodies have deformed. The second image brings back the father and the goat from the previous stanza. Only this time the goat is nothing but its guts, splayed all over for the farmhands to clean. The image is macabre, dirty and uncomfortable. It only goes to show the powerful imagery the poet employs. By now, the stench of the farm comprised of the rancid remains of the slaughtered goat and the gaunt bodies of the farmhands permeates around the reader.
Further along, the scene transforms into dusk. The place is alight with camaraderie and joy for finally finishing a hard day’s work. Around the fire, the farmhands are seated while enjoying the fruits of their labor. It’s a pleasant break from all the things that have been happening.
But some things are amiss. They are all squatted and eating with their fingers. The family who employs them doesn’t even bother to give them seats, tables or cutlery to use. Going back to the weeds in the beginning of the story, and now the brash neglect for the farmhands, it reinforces the image of a family that has the tendency to mistreat their possessions. The farmhands are eating the sweet meat dipped in blood and they drink the green bile for long life. From a lively campfire-like setting, the scene shifts into something much more sinister and much more chilling. The sweet meat and blood are images intended to show retribution, strength and revolution.
The second stanza expands the influence of the family and the farm to the farmhands. Strong images that are grisly and disturbing paint a scene of mystery behind the seemingly normal happenings. As the story takes flight to the last and final verse, the reader is led deeper into the darkness.
It begins at night. Hidden beneath the glory of the morning is the truth – a truth that is haunting. Past details lose their identity as they are devoured by the strangeness of the night. The goat, murdered and disemboweled, reappears in a state worse than before. It is a smouldering pit and charred horns. It follows the foreshadowing in the first verse: the goat drunk on vinegar, hoofs wired together like a bundle of firewood. The words smouldering and charred connotes violence and hatred. It wasn’t enough that it be burnt – it had to be charred, almost as if it were burned repeatedly.
The sister who was introduced in the beginning as a hopeful dreamer realizes the reality of her situation. The image of her rolling down her bobby socks imbibes a sense of defeat and resignation. Blue Hawaii is but a dream and so she will dream of it in her sleep. These two details, the burnt remains of the goat and the girl’s banal pre-bed ritual, create an obscene contrast of life inside and outside of the farmhouse. The reader is forced to see them side-by-side, inviting a feeling of claustrophobia, uncomfortable and sickening.
The scene returns to the past brothers but this time they’ve grown into six siblings including the persona. Despite their number, they’re fitted inside one bedroom. They’re bunked meaning that there isn’t enough space for all of them to sleep in mattresses so they are forced to use bunk beds. The farmhouse seemed so vast in the start – with it having a yard, and farmhands working around it. But now it’s as if it has shrunk in the night.
In one bedroom are the father and the mother of the persona. They’re about to make love. As the father [undoes] his trousers, the mother echoes him by slipping off her dress. She does it with gusto because she wants another daughter. Her wish creates tension with the reality of her already having six sons and a daughter all crammed in one room. Scattered throughout the poem are images that relate negligence and abandon and this final one, the mom’s neglect for the number of her children, finally completes that idea of a family who thrives in ignorance.
Outside the shrinking farmhouse is a beautiful image of strawberries. Lush and delicious, they are ripe and bountiful. They are so many that they surround the house like an ocean. But something so picturesque carries an ugly truth. The poet describes them drowning the family. The strawberries, to be as lush, as delicious and as ripe as they are, require an intense amount of work. The image succinctly depicts how beauty needs to come from hardship.
The three-verse poem ends in a deafening silence where all that can be heard is the father’s whispering. Above all the weeds that choke the yard, the murder of the goat, the sister’s fantasy of Blue Hawaii, the brothers’ crude laughter, the farmhand hunchbacked, eating meat and drinking bile, the sinister night, the charred horns, the shrinking farmhouse, the crammed kids, the mother’s ignorant wishes – above them all are the father’s hoarse words: “It is so good, so good, I forget my name.”
“Without Names” by Jeff Tagami is a poem wrought with mystery that dares to investigate the simple life of a family in rural Philippines. It delves into murder and necessity, simplicity and change, influence and ignorance using provocative imagery. It traps the reader in a web of illusions that fall on top of the other until they all are all whisked away by the pervasive night.