BOOK REVIEW: ‘Dry Nights’ By Pep Borja | 2021 | Paperback, $12 | Poetry, erotica | Available via InterLibrary Loan
Almost 4,000 miles west of Hawai’i, on the other side of the international dateline and situated as the southernmost island of the Mariana Islands, is the United States’ westernmost territory of Guam. Although Guam uses the US Postal service and houses military bases, citizens of Guam have little to no say in the wider American political movement. They have no votes in Presidential elections, and their representatives have no say on the House floor. In fact, Guam was simply “handed” over to the United States by Spain after the Spanish-American war; during World War II, the territory was captured by the Japanese and eventually re-captured by America, where it has remained a territory today. Guam is the home of the CHamoru people, who have been shut out of power in the United States.
The collection of poems “Dry Nights” by CHamoru author Pep Borja is a contemplative book focused on erotica and his feelings toward his unnamed lover. Borja divides the poems into three categories: 12 a.m., 2 a.m., and 4 a.m. In each, his work embodies lust, anxiety, and even mourning when the relationship is finally over.
In the first section, Borja relishes his lover. His longing and appreciation for her drips from the pen to the page, which oozes with his desire. In the short lines, the deep satisfaction of intimacy is given focus, thanks in part to his attention to the five senses. The poem “Precipitate” highlights the anticipation of the act. For Borja, bodies are not crashing against each other — instead they sigh and melt into their sensations.
Erotica — especially by male writers — often gets a bad reputation. When it’s heavy-handed and focused on overt sex and harsh language, it can be difficult to go through as a reader. However, Borja never oversteps his bounds; instead of centering the female body or the act of sex itself, he focuses on how his lover makes him feel. Borja writes about his desire like a craving that can never be satisfied, buried deep in his chest.
At 2 a.m., Borja’s thoughts go from a place of lust to the underlying anxiety before “goodbye.” Sometimes the goodbye is just for the night, but, as the next section nears, the goodbye becomes longer, until it is final. Borja is desperate to hold those sacred moments in the dead of night close, to dig into the flesh instead of letting it slip away.
In “Hungover” and “Ouroboros,” Borja takes on the spirit of the last call, but instead of the drinks ending, the time he shares with his lover comes to a halt, making way for the fundamental understanding and acceptance that the life she experiences is separate from his. Borja acknowledges that he was given her time and that she chose to go in a different direction due to his own actions.
The anxiety of investing your emotions in another person is palpable in Borja’s words. The way he references poems that appeared earlier in the collection feels the same way anxiety does — playing over and over in your head scenes from earlier in your relationship, reinterpreting them and looking for any signs you may have missed.
Borja’s relationship and anxiety seems to spiral toward disaster until, at 4 a.m., it finally strikes. There is the loss of not only his lover, but also of the future he imagined for the two of them. And that is the most devastating loss — all the dreams and future nights in warm Guamanian air that he would have had with her.
As Borja reckons with this personal loss, the act of healing in “Dry Nights” reads as fake and inauthentic compared to the naturalness of the old relationship, because his sadness is so pervasive that any attempt to truly move on feels hollow. Borja portrays the decay of the relationship, a longing for what was and then finally the grief. He ties this grief into the high rate of suicide in Guam and the way unhealthy coping has personally affected him, mingling with the many different types of losses he’s experienced.
Through his journey, Borja is always mindful of the language he uses about his lover. There is no domineering energy or phallic symbolism. I never got the impression he wanted to conquer this mysterious woman. Instead, Borja treats love and lust as decolonization — free from the trappings of respectability by white Western standards.
Through the lens of puritan respectability, desire is often loaded with guilt and treated like something that should be hidden away in the dark. Instead, Borja shines light on sexuality and treats it as a human emotion that can be quite beautiful. There is no stigma toward it, and Borja shows how pure it can be, rather than something sinful and dirty.
Borja sees desire from a Pasifika lens — through cultures that, before colonization, weren’t tied down by western religion, and where women held equal standing. Often, when it comes to erotica and sexuality, holdovers of patriarchal Christianity have affected generations of Indigenous people who were forced to conform. It is refreshing to see poetry from a man who is fighting against that. His poems show how Borja observes his lover as a complete person who makes her own choices. Even if those choices hurt him, Borja still treats her lovingly and without resentment in his memory.
There is a certain amount of raw bloodletting required to be open and vulnerable. This humility and acceptance of how all-consuming Borja’s feelings are makes “Dry Nights” feel relatable. There’s no anger at the now-gone lover, but instead an appreciation and a longing for the experience they had. Despite the loss and the pain, it is a miracle in itself that two people are even able to meet across the vastness of time.
And, to Borja, that miracle is worth giving himself into. This belief is summed up best by a few lines from “Canoes,” my personal favorite poem in the collection: And I’d give anything/ To be close to anyone.
In the end, Borja immortalizes his emotions and his relationship with his lover through one of the most sacred forms of art — words — especially for Pasifika people, who value the oral tradition of passing memories. Although the implication at the conclusion of “Dry Nights” is that the relationship is long over, the remains live on this page and in Borja’s memories.
The journey that Borja takes the reader on is an authentic, gorgeous and rewarding experience. Unlike many poetry books, there was no pretentiousness. Borja speaks about sex, desire and heartbreak with authenticity that will resonate with many readers — wherever they are in their own dry night of life.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the May 25-31, 2022 issue.