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Exploring the Backlist: Jan-Henry Gray's DOCUMENTS

Hi readers! Join our summer interns as they peruse over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In this post, Em D. looks at the book Documents by Jan-Henry Gray. 

"Across Legal Records and Remembered Recollections"

Jan-Henry Gray’s Documents, a recent publication from 2019, explores what it means to be undocumented in America. Jan-Henry himself immigrated to the United States with his parents from the Philippines when he was six, and later learned of his legal status when he was a minor. As a working class family, obtaining legal immigration status is like an impossible obstacle course, taking years and money that are just not available to be spared. Gray went 12 years working in the restaurant business before receiving his BA from San Francisco State University, and lived undocumented in the US for more than 32 years of his life. 

In the foreword, D. A. Powell writes; “….these biographical facts are the supporting architectural elements upon which the house is built.” Gray writes of himself, of his family's stories, and those around him to show the realities of immigration, the obfuscation necessary at times, the ever-present barrier, and the complex challenges that come with the legal system.

Much of Gray’s poetry uses specific legal documentation language. Whether through troubling legal forms, rewriting their language, or exploring particular moments through lyrical gestures, the main focus is to regain agency of one’s personhood. By modifying legal language, Gray strips down formal documents into their base of communication in his poem titled “I-797-C”: 
resident alien 

      how much does he make 
your husband must come with you 
      what’s his mother’s name 
we may videotape you 
      where did you buy your rings 
bring an interpreter 
     what are his siblings’ spouses’ names 
in a sealed envelope bring 
     what’s his father’s name

Cutting and splicing directly from the Notice of Action request and mixing with the in-person interview questions, this poem begins to reveal legal inconsistencies and invasions of privacy, all under the name of immigration status. How much can be lost while still upholding one’s personhood in the eyes of the state? In what world do these questions indicate intent to immigrate or receive a green card? Can these questions truly narrow a person into a simple, checkable box? 

In “I-797-C,” the reader notices a queerness that flicks back and forth as Gray begins to illuminate the other aspects of his life. We are presented with his queerness as an attack, being asked such an abrasive question about his partner on the second line, “how much do you have sex” and what that means for the legality of his request. While Gray later explores his love for his partner, the first glimpse the reader gets of his queerness is through a microaggression that is lumped on top of his undocumented status. It’s a legal question to his character, a secondary aspect to continue the erasure of his personhood and aggravate the dehumanizing power of language. Yet as readers, we can recognize these malicious microaggressions, which hone Gray’s point, exposing the intentions behind this invasive interrogation.

While much of this is about Gray’s own experience, there is a sequence of “maid poems” that are interwoven throughout the book. Written between first and third person, much of these highlight a more universal loss of being undocumented, and the weight that falls upon those who are most disadvantaged. The care that maids are expected to give towards the families they are working for is often more than what they can give their own, and is seen in “Maid Poem #6: Proscenium”:

It’s hide-and-seek, peekaboo, tag, house, and fort. The maid is deaf to their play. She holds a red carpet at arm’s length and whacks it with a broom. The dust catches the sunlight and falls to her feet. The girl is playing dead, a pacifier in her mouth. The boy stands above her with his toy gun. He puts his cold foot on her belly. The girl wiggles free and curls into the corner of the sill. She’s done. He sticks his tongue out, smears a circle with it on the window, looks across the courtyard, and sees me.

Simply put, the maid is more concerned with a pressing job than with the children around her. Who is this ‘me’ at the end of the poem? It could be interpreted almost like an invisible child, one hidden in plain sight, or maybe another maid working alongside the woman. It could be an experience Gray has had, or a universal experience of being brought to a mother’s workplace as a child. Playing with pronouns, someone is missing from the scene and only three of the four characters are being observed by the first-person character revealed at the end. The maid is completing a task, the children are ignoring her while she ignores them, and the first-person character is watching all of them while staying invisible. Regardless of intent or play, the hidden bodies within menial work are what should be observed here, as their invisibility implies what physical visibility means for the lives of the caretakers. Hiddenness is doubled through traditional ‘women’s work,’ hyper exemplified by the outsider relationship the children have with the maid, as these are not her children, but could be part of the family she works for. This disparity is finally witnessed when the children look across, outside, to make eye contact with the first-person character. 

While family is at the center of the maid poems, the final iterations of Gray’s poetics lean once again into the legality of families within the US. Following a very self-reflective prose poem, Gray begins to revise formal documents by inserting page numbers of the poems he has already written as an answer. With a rendition of a child copying their father’s handwriting into sentences and a beautiful, lyrical response to the birth certificate, Gray finishes his collection with four poems titled “Immigration and Naturalization Services.” These poems linger between rewritten, revised, and repetitive action. The first two are the most similar, but as the poems continue to stretch, the reader wonders how many times this family has attempted to go into the building, whether it is the same family at all, and if that makes a difference. The nerves of the poems build with Gray’s poetic skill as finally, the scene is laid bare with grief, doubt, sorrow and a little bit of hope: 
You don’t know how to say it. You speak in the language you are learning to master. The doors of the building open. You watch as the others exit. Then, another word approaches.


Gray’s pointed and contemplative method to documenting law with poetic language ties beautifully into his personal life, as the two cannot be untangled from one another. The undocumented community has been so long ignored and underrepresented, and Gray successfully makes visible his experience as an undocumented queer man in the US. 

Em is one of the summer interns at BOA. He is going into his last semester at The New School in Manhattan, NY, studying literature and creative writing. Much of his writing and interests involve queer studies, documentary poetics, and experimenting with lyrical forms of poetry. 

Documents is available in the BOA bookstore and is 20% off through Sept. 10, 2021.

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