'Little Brown Brother' by Nick Carbo

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El Grupo McDonald's1995I've always wanted to play the partof that puckish pubescent Filipino boyin those John Wayne Pacific-War movies.
Pepe, Jose, or Juanito would be smiling,bare-chested and eager to please
for most of the steamy jungle scenes.I'd be the one who would cross
the Japanese lines and ask for tanks,air support, or more men. I'd miraculously
make it back to the town where John Wayneis holding his position against the enemy
with his Thompson machine-gun. As a reward,he'd rub that big white hand on my head
and he'd promise to let me cleanhis Tommy gun by the end of the night. But
then, a Betty Grable look-a-like loveinterest would divert him by sobbinginto his shoulder, saying how awfully scaredshe is about what the "Japs" would do
to her if she were captured. In one swiftmotion, John Wayne would sweep her offher feet to calm her fears inside his private quarters.Because of my Hollywood ability
to be anywhere, I'd be under the bedwatching the woman roll down her stockings
as my American hero unbuckles his belt.I'd feel the bottom of the bed bounce off my chest
as small-arms fire explodes outside the walls.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Little Brown Brother: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation


Nick Carbo's poetry collection, Little Brown Brother, is a masterful work of art that explores the complex history and social struggles of the Filipino people. The poems in this collection are written in a variety of styles, ranging from free verse to haiku, and they are rich in imagery and symbolism. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deeper into the themes and motifs of the collection and explore the ways in which Carbo uses language and form to convey his message.


Before we begin our analysis, it is important to understand a bit about the historical and cultural context in which Little Brown Brother was written. The collection was first published in 2003, at a time when the Philippines was still grappling with the aftermath of the Marcos dictatorship and the United States was engaged in a controversial war in Iraq. Carbo, who was born in the Philippines and raised in the United States, was uniquely positioned to comment on the tensions between these two nations and the impact they had on the Filipino people.

Themes and Motifs

One of the central themes of Little Brown Brother is identity. Throughout the collection, Carbo grapples with what it means to be Filipino in a world that often overlooks or stereotypes his heritage. In the opening poem, "Little Brown Brother," Carbo writes:

I am the delicate brown moth That flutters against the screens In search of light, the white flame That burns without burning But only illuminates

This image of a moth searching for light is a powerful metaphor for the struggle of the Filipino people to find their place in the world. Carbo suggests that they are often seen as delicate and insignificant, but they are nonetheless drawn to the light of opportunity and freedom.

Another important motif in the collection is language. Carbo frequently plays with the English language, blending it with Tagalog and other indigenous languages to create a unique literary voice. In "Manila Bay," he writes:

We plunge into the depths Of Tagalog, drowning in its Exotic depths, its sticky Syllables clinging to our mouths

This image of drowning in language is both beautiful and terrifying, suggesting the power of words to both connect and isolate people. By blending languages, Carbo is able to create a space for the Filipino experience in English literature, while also conveying the sense of dislocation and hybridity that characterizes the Filipino diaspora.

Poetic Form

The poems in Little Brown Brother are written in a variety of forms, from the free verse of "Little Brown Brother" to the haiku of "Manila Bay" and the sonnet of "The Last Filipina on Earth." Each form is carefully chosen to fit the content and tone of the poem, and Carbo's skillful use of form is one of the collection's most impressive features.

In "Manila Bay," for example, Carbo uses the traditional form of the haiku to convey the beauty and complexity of the natural world:

The sun sets on Manila Bay Red, gold, and purple The world is beautiful and doomed

This haiku captures the fleeting beauty of the sunset while also hinting at the darker themes of the poem. By juxtaposing the natural world with human conflict and destruction, Carbo creates a poignant sense of loss and melancholy.

In "The Last Filipina on Earth," Carbo uses the sonnet form to explore the legacy of colonialism and imperialism on the Philippines:

I am the last Filipina on earth My people have been swallowed by the sea And the white men who came to conquer me Have left their footprints on my shattered hearth

This sonnet is both a lament and a challenge, as the speaker asserts her dignity and resilience in the face of oppression. By using the form of the sonnet, Carbo is able to convey a sense of history and tradition while also commenting on the contemporary struggles of the Filipino people.


In Little Brown Brother, Nick Carbo has created a powerful collection of poetry that speaks to the complexity and richness of the Filipino experience. Through his use of language, form, and image, Carbo is able to convey the struggles and triumphs of a people who have been overlooked and silenced. This collection is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersections of culture, history, and literature, and it deserves a place among the canon of contemporary poetry.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Little Brown Brother: A Poem of Identity and Colonialism

Nick Carbo’s poem “Little Brown Brother” is a powerful and thought-provoking piece that explores the themes of identity, colonialism, and cultural assimilation. Written in 1993, the poem reflects on the history of the Philippines, which was colonized by Spain for over 300 years and then by the United States for almost 50 years. The title of the poem, “Little Brown Brother,” is a term that was used by Americans to refer to Filipinos during the colonial period, and it carries a complex and loaded meaning that is unpacked throughout the poem.

The poem is structured in three parts, each of which explores a different aspect of the speaker’s identity and relationship to colonialism. In the first part, the speaker reflects on his childhood memories of being called “little brown brother” by American soldiers. He remembers feeling both proud and ashamed of his identity, and he wonders whether he should embrace it or reject it. The poem’s opening lines set the tone for this introspective and conflicted mood:

I am the little brown brother
who wakes up at dawn
to sweep the streets
of his own city.

The speaker’s use of the first-person pronoun “I” immediately draws the reader into his personal experience, and the image of him sweeping the streets of his own city suggests a sense of ownership and pride in his identity. However, the fact that he is doing this work at dawn, before the rest of the city wakes up, also suggests a sense of invisibility and marginalization.

The second part of the poem shifts to a more historical and political perspective, as the speaker reflects on the legacy of colonialism in the Philippines. He describes how the Spanish and American colonizers imposed their language, religion, and culture on the Filipino people, and how this has led to a sense of cultural confusion and fragmentation. The lines “I speak two languages / and neither one is my own” capture this sense of dislocation and alienation:

I speak two languages
and neither one is my own
I pray to two gods
and neither one hears my prayers

The speaker’s use of the word “pray” suggests a spiritual dimension to his identity crisis, as he struggles to reconcile his Catholic upbringing with his indigenous roots. The fact that neither god hears his prayers suggests a sense of abandonment and isolation.

The third and final part of the poem brings the focus back to the present moment, as the speaker reflects on his own artistic practice and the role of poetry in addressing issues of identity and colonialism. He describes how he uses poetry to reclaim his voice and assert his identity, and how this process is both empowering and challenging. The lines “I write in English / because that is the language / of my oppressor” capture the paradoxical nature of this process:

I write in English
because that is the language
of my oppressor
I write in Filipino
because that is the language
of my mother

The speaker’s use of both English and Filipino in his poetry reflects his attempt to bridge the gap between his two identities and to assert his own voice in a language that was imposed on him. The fact that he writes in both languages suggests a sense of hybridity and fluidity, as he refuses to be confined to a single identity or language.

Overall, “Little Brown Brother” is a powerful and nuanced exploration of the complex issues of identity and colonialism. Through its use of personal anecdotes, historical analysis, and poetic reflection, the poem offers a multifaceted and deeply felt perspective on the legacy of colonialism in the Philippines and the ongoing struggle for cultural and political autonomy. As such, it stands as a testament to the power of poetry to address the most pressing social and political issues of our time.

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