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Camouflage: Alex Alviar And Jorie Graham Reflect On "Passing"

Mariana Cook

"When I meet strangers deep in rural white settings, perfect and polite English rolls easily from my face and I watch their eyes and brains appraise me," writes Alex Alviar, who teaches at Salish Kootenai College and with the Missoula Writing Collaborative. "Where is he from? Indian? Tourist? Mexican? Their eyes are like fish in the murk considering the fake fly tied and cast through the ripple before them. What is he? Can we trust him?

And so, I have learned how to listen and ask questions about branding parties, about sleepless nights spent calving, about haying and moving irrigation pipes. I have never done any of these tasks.

But it’s not just how I speak, but what I say through my body. I've learned when to dip my brow and chin in a friendly nod, when to mirror their postures and lean back in ease, when to wave subtly with just a slight lift of the fingers off the top of the steering wheel when passing each other on a dirt road, so that I become nothing special, nothing odd in this landscape, not a threat, but someone who belongs here, even if I may well be one of the first Filipinos in Montana.

The locals have grown used to me and regard me as one of their own. Most of the time even I believe it. Even I forget that I am a constructed fly, cast ever so carefully into the currents of this place.  And so, here I am, part of the landscape. And you cannot cast me out."   

Alviar pairs his reflection with a poem by Jorie Graham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996.  Graham’s poem, “Reading Plato,” parallels Alviar's observations about how he inserts himself into a majority Caucasian culture. On the surface Graham’s poem is about fly fishing.  On another level, it contemplates what is real and what is unreal.

"Reading Plato"

This is the story
of a beautiful
lie, what slips
through my fingers,
your fingers. It's winter,
it's far
in the lifespan
of man.
Bareheaded, in a soiled
speechless, my friend
is making

lures, his hobby. Flies
so small
he works with tweezers and
a magnifying glass.
They must be
so believable

they're true-feelers,
quick and frantic
as something
drowning. His heart
beats wildly
in his hands. It is
and who will forgive him
in his tiny
garden? He makes them
out of hair,

deer hair, because it's hollow
and floats.
Past death, past sight,
this is
his good idea, what drives
the silly days

together. Better than memory. Better
than love.

Then they are done, a hook
under each pair
of wings, and it's Spring,
and the men

wade out into the riverbed
at dawn. Above
the stars still connect-up
their hungry animals.
soon they'll be satisfied
and go. Meanwhile

upriver, downriver, imagine, quick
in the air,
in flesh, in a blue
swarm of
flies, our knowledge of
the graceful

deer skips easily across
the surface.
Dismembered, remembered,
it's finally
alive. Imagine
the body

they were all once
a part of,
these men along the lush
green banks
trying to slip in
and pass

for the natural world.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 8/3/16 and 2/8/17. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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