Rooted in the experience of living in America as a queer undocumented Filipino, Documents maps the byzantine journey toward citizenship through legal records and fragmented recollections. In poems that repurpose the forms and procedures central to an immigrant’s experiences—birth certificates, identification cards, letters, and interviews—Jan-Henry Gray reveals the narrative limits of legal documentation while simultaneously embracing the intersections of identity, desire, heritage, love, and a new imagining of freedom.
August 16, 2013:
One kilometer from your
port of call, two ships collide
in the middle of the night.
The hull of the ferry Thomas Aquinas
is now a mouthless whale.
Children slept in her belly.
And there were others…
How do you weigh an ocean?
I have no poems for the Atlantic.
Or New York. Or Europe either.
I look westward:
from home to home.
On the plane, I ate cubed fruit from a plastic cup.
I drank true milk. I looked out the window
learned to pronounce my names
and how to spell them.
The only way to know a song is to sing it.
The only way to know the ocean is to swim it.
I cannot wait any longer for the tides to rise to me.
“As a Filipino-American conscious of his multiple identities and the trove of experiences and external forces that shaped him, Gray uses the unfettered landscape of poetry to release himself and others from the limitations that aggrieve undocumented immigrants.”
—New City Lit
“Documents opens every closet and drawer and says ‘search me.’ It says '[hide History].' It is a full disclosure and a redaction, a history and its endless revisions.”
—D.A. Powell, from the Foreword
“Jan-Henry Gray is a remarkable poet. His work makes visible the emotional and intellectual chaos of living as an undocumented queer man. His lyrical testimony fuses anxiety and yearning into an archive of familial history and self-discovery. His poems will help increase the visibility of those made invisible by our society. Gray is a resourceful poet. He transforms legal forms and interview questions into texts that reveal the dehumanizing power of language. Gray is a skeptical poet. Rightfully, he loathes borders and binaries, but he’s also aware of the limits of poetry. ‘Freedom from forms,’ writes Gray in a lyric essay near the end of Documents, which is ‘queer, dense, full of strange currents.’ The essay beautifully reminds us to always seek freedom from all kinds of constraints on our living and our thinking.”
—Eduardo C. Corral
“‘How do you weigh an ocean?’ Jan-Henry Gray asks while contemplating the distance between the United States and the Philippines, from where the author immigrated without documents. In this imagistically adventurous, formally experimental, and emotionally acute debut poetry collection, Gray weighs the distance from one location to the next. The brilliance of Documents rests within its ability to remind us that poetry is everywhere, from how ‘we breathe and cloud the windows’ to how ‘I lift my palms upwards, as if to say: Let us sing a song made up of a single word.’ I am so thankful for this book and how important it is for the literary world, especially the growing canon of migrant literary activists!”
“‘The Philippines is ghost-country,’ writes Jan-Henry Gray, in this gorgeous debut collection, and indeed, Gray's speakers can be thought of as ghostly, muted and aching for connection, in the specifics of place, in language, in poetry. These are poems of thwarted belonging, and the emotional consequences of institutional and social invisibility. Finely rendering emotional complexities and specific details of lives taken for granted or outright ignored, Gray's poems are documents of human souls aspiring to José Garcia Villa's aphorism and assertion, ‘have come, am here.’”
—Barbara Jane Reyes