Steven Marks

Dan Featherston
26 Islands
primitive publications (c/o Mary Hilton, 1706 U Street, #102, Washington, DC 20009), $4

Dan Featherston's 26 Islands is a contemporary abecedarius, a primer which demonstrates far more than the moral instruction and alphabet learning of the traditional model. Put simply, Featherston's 26 verses expose the working out of the relationships between language and the reality of perception, conception and power, especially in a situation where a foreign language supplants a native language. At the same time, he shows how language cannot help but adapt to the consciousness of living on an island, as well as to the events of history. The fourth verse, "D is for Doorways," is a particularly strong evocation of these relationships. Here is the entry in its entirety:

D is for Doorways

like sail's swath, cloud scud & dawn

horizon's first fiction:
circumference.

On an island surrounded by an ocean, we are far more acutely aware of circumference and its instances the swath cut by a sail at sea, clouds scudding at the edge of the sky-bowl, and dawn emerging into the frame of now all of which happen on a more apparently 360-degree horizon. The horizon seems to mark the farthest extent of what we know, so that what lies beyond is fiction, a doorway to what we don't know, to realities we will express in language. So, horizons make for stories, language-events, fictions. But this circumference is also another type of fiction. The native Hawaiians' reality did not stop at their horizon not in their past, not in the years of colonization, not now. This fiction, however, is an accepted reality necessary for the work done under the rubric of "the white man's burden," of colonization. What can an inferior language, composed of what the missionaries deemed as only the five vowels of English and seven of its consonants, express that the 26 letters of the conquering language can say so much better? One of the many ironies in Featherston's chapbook is that it contains an excess of fourteen letters, one of which is the "D" whose entry is cited above. Nevertheless, even within the reality of an alien letter, Hawaii and its first language adhere. This is readily apparent in the sixth entry, "F is for Fathom":

Every picture book shows a hero
suckled by porpoises.
In "fathom"
swarms of teeth & fins.

In this verse, we begin with the European, colonial view in which primers introduce young readers to the heroes of its culture, indeed to a culture (like many) in which heroes, exploration and conquest play a large role. But the next line introduces what could be a native, folkloric element, certainly something more likely to be in the realm of island dwellers and only a story (or fiction) from some place far away to dwellers in European countries. The result is that "fathom," an English word comprised of Ts and Fs not found in the Hawaiian alphabet, is defined not as a linear measurement of depth, but as "teeth & fins" (Ts and Fs) native to the islands, without losing any sense of depth and wonder.

This is only a small example of what Featherston's chapbook treats. As a ghostwriter myself until recently of business books, I have some inkling of what it feels to have language stolen from me. What is interesting, as I continue a project in which I cut up and collage the books I ghostwrote, is that I can use the imposed language of supplier certification, quality control and teamwork to decenter itself. In 26 Islands, Featherston shows just how empowering this can feel.

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