ESL or You Weren't Here
ESL or You Weren't Here
Poetry | $16.95
paperback, 112 pages, 6 x 8 1/4 in
Publication Date: 2018
ISBN: 978-1-937658-86-1

An exciting debut collection of poems that presents a portrait of the poet as witness to, & healer of, their child self

ESL or You Weren’t Here tells the story of a queer Pinoy who immigrates to New York in the 1990s in order to be reunited with their parents. What follows is the poet’s awakening to the legacy of American imperialism & colonialism in the Philippines, and to the experience of living between languages, cultures, temporalities, and genders—untranslatable. ESL asks the reader to bear witness to embodied histories of forced immigration, separation and abandonment rooted in patriarchal racism.

Aldrin Valdez knows memory like a compass knows direction. Their handling of truth lives in the texture of loss and the gesture of pausing. One detail explodes into ecstatic, painful orbs of both longing and resisting amidst homes and languages blending. Valdez asks parts of a whole for space to think. The results are not memories fully constructed for accuracy, but images pushing language to bend into experimental portals. Italics set on words stretch with suspense in the ongoing questions of queerness and diaspora. Each time Valdez’s poems enter the page, the lines embrace movement. They change the layout in carefully choreographed moves, shaking the space of a book of poems. ESL or You Weren’t Here becomes a palette for the visual merge of the past re-articulated through embodiment.ARIEL GOLDBERG  

Aldrin Valdez tells it slant in poems that speak “a scream muscle, throat & trill”: “my grandmother was my mother,////sounded so queer growing up/I had to translate the story of shame &/ that my American friends could/understand my Tagalog trauma”. Sagad with “faggotry in the fuschsia of {their} brain,” the vroom-eared, valiant bakla speakers—Aldrin, Aladdin, Purple Gender, They-child—of these experimental elegies splinter and stammer, mourn and desire in forms that absorb the ways we 1.5ers Flipically will remember the P.I.  “O—to let my mouth/be a site for feeling!” these poems declare, finally, channeling Orpheus while dreaming of the moon and singing their hearts out to Mariah Carey “phaeton-like, staring at the Manila sun/ though they could see more than its yellow haze”. It's finally here, I can celebrate, the Pilipinx immigrant bildungsroman I’ve been waiting to read my whole life. —PAOLO JAVIER

On a deep personal level, Aldrin Valdez’s debut book of poems delves into my own beautifully tortured, torturously beautiful upbringing in Manila: its wonder, humor, imagery, confusion, and nostalgia. Then, from within, its pages fan out airing the mysteries and dichotomies of a queer immigrant body, purple gendered, paradoxical. I marvel at the collection’s tangled grappling—as with the constant negotiations between Tagalog and English, the definition of motherhood—and the process of omission and possession. Being also a visual artist, Valdez is pliant, imagistic, creating collages and giving expert shapes to poems that twist and turn in their churning relocation. But through it all, at the heart of it is a pursuit of connection, of totality: “In this body,/as it meets your body, there is a rhythm/like knowing and unknowing.”—JOSEPH O. LEGASPI

Aldrin Valdez’s ESL or You Weren’t Here is that rare book of poems that unfurls a story while also offering lovely, satisfying poems page by page. There is so much love here, so much tenderness, so much beauty, which doesn’t mean the book isn’t also full of grief, probing, protest, and alchemy. Valdez has written one long song I’m honored to hear.—MAGGIE NELSON


"Aldrin Valdez’s debut poetry collection, ESL or You Weren’t Here (Nightboat Books), traces the coming-of-age of a young bakla in Manila and Long Island. Valdez is no stranger to the political, resurrecting histories born in the bodies of their grandparents through several poems in the collection. In “Photograph” the speaker describes their great-grandmother in a vertical grave that gives way to the revelation, “my grandfather fought alongside Americans against / the Japanese but was not granted the / citizenship he was promised until his / 70s, after my grandmother had died / from cancer in Manila.” Whether recounting English as “the gray foot of an elephant protruding / from [their] mouth,” or circumcision as a ten-year-old child, “I miss my foreskin. / Not its added length / but its petal-ness,” it’s painful to encounter the speaker’s watchful, gentle nature thrown up against harder figures and institutions. A sexual assault becomes a synesthetic flashback, “Purple-Gender as still-life, thus: spread open, shorts down, // life distilled to an image repeating.” The reader can’t help but be transformed by proximity to these monumental events. A gifted visual artist, whose work reckons with displacement, Valdez defies the container of genre by engaging the page as a canvas—the polyptych results, electrifying. We first met while studying with Maggie Nelson at Home School Miami in 2016, and quickly bonded over the autobiographical nature of our work."—Sarah Sala, BOMB
"There’s a tendency among many Filipinos to slang-icize Western brand names to articulate various objects or acts. For example, “Kodakan” means to take photographs. Valdez’s use of “Colgate” is not mere metaphor for the referenced inability of the persona’s relatives to accurately identify the persona’s disease. The insertion of Colgate is a vestige of colonialism such that the word’s presence also raises the issue of whether a Filipino can ever be at “home” in English, can ever fully/successfully assimilate (or pass for), or (should) become fluent in a language whose relationship began through colonialism and imperialism. It’s a complicated matter, as complicated as the disease referenced in the poem whose identity can’t quite be revealed."—Eileen Tabios, Galatea Resurrects

"A queer Pinoy immigrates to New York and awakens to the long legacy of American imperialism in the Philippines—Colorlines, The Race-Focused Books We're Reading this Fall

Playlist from ESL or You Weren't HereVerse

Excerpt from ESL or You Weren't Here in Asian American Writer's Workshop publication, The Margins