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Book Review

A Very Avant-Garde Awakening

The Awakening by Eileen R. Tabios
The Awakening by Eileen R. Tabios
Theenk Books, New York, 2013

Philosophers and neuroscientists have long posited that various mental states share common neural pathways. In The Awakening, a long poem triptych, the individual poems/panels arouse seemingly conflicting emotions within a powerful continuum: pain and pleasure, love and fear, defeat and triumph.

The first panel, “The Erotic Life of Art: A Séance with William Carlos Williams,” is a very avant-garde approach in re-framing a conversational poem. Exploring, in couplets, the sexual lives of famous poets, it is interesting to see how Tabios shifts from playfulness to sagacity:

at his nipples, that his chest and legs where shaved,
that he wore panties and silk stockings. What

determines how we define our secrets? How to
receive and protect secrets without being corroded

by aftermaths of conspiracies? Always, always:
how to discern with compassion? Now, there is no

smooth way to effect this transition as Picasso
enters this poem, nay, penetrates this poem

Tabios awakens the reader/artist to the same call that Olinde Rodrigues trumpeted: for artists to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde… that the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way to social, political, and economic reform.”

An article in the iconic magazine Eros (Autumn 1962, Vol. 1, No. 3) notes how Picasso, in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, “shattered [the image of the prostitute] into a pattern of planes and angles,” and yet, accorded her “a solemn and monumental presence” (compassion?). Moving forward, what is most arresting is how one couplet can evoke feelings of revolt, and another, of delight:

when Rivera bought fresh corpses from the city morgue?
The artist discovered he liked both legs and breast,

serendipity, tendril, licorice, hecatomb, calyx, glint,
periwinkle: periwinkle, periwinkle, periwinkle, periwinkle

In the second poem, “9 1 1 / My Forty-First Birthday: Notes for the Poem that I Will Not Write,” Tabios distempers fear with love as she collages real-time emails, bestrewn with excerpts from Moonlight over Paris, exchanged on her birthday, 9/11/2001:

Barbara to Ertabios@aol.com: Hi Eileen, happy Birthday.
Despite the somber and emotional, dark and conflicted feelings, it’s still a beautiful day—in its own strange way. I hope you are doing well

If you follow the sunset will it ever end


Katie toErtabios@aol.com: we saw the second plane. It was a United Airlines jet and we were very close, I could read the lettering on the plane. It was flying low, and I swear to you; as it banked, it accelerated into the building.

If you follow the sunset will it ever end
Does the moonlight shine

Whenever I drive over the Bay Bridge after an evening with you all, the moonlight is always silver to my eyes…which is to say, the whole night sky over San Francisco shimmers like a white witch’s gown …

“The Awakening of A,” the final poem of the triptych, in reverse hay(na)ku form, is culled from works appraising the plight of refugees in the aftermath of colonialism:

big eyes and
many cuts
all

over his hands.
He receives
two

rupees for one
kilo of
rubbish.

Two rupees is
two U.S.
cents.

It ends with the question:

“What kind of
life, and
Why?”

Within this continuum, Tabios awakens the reader/artist to the same call that Olinde Rodrigues trumpeted: for artists to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde… that the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way to social, political, and economic reform.” (University of Chicago, Theories of Media, http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/avantgarde.htm)

The book’s cover features artwork by Filipino American artist jenifer k. wofford titled, “MacArthur Nurses.” In the painting, wofford has replaced the figures of MacArthur and other soldiers as they landed on Philippine shores during World War II, with figures of Filipino nurses, seemingly “conquering some new land or returning to their homes after many years.” Tabios writes, “this work is adamantly avant garde by long-held tenets of avant gardism… Just as jenifer k. wofford did not effectuate such a moving work in isolation, I attempt new poems mired in the socio-political… If I am an avant garde poet, it’s not because “I” am avant garde. It would be because we, all of us, are. This We, that is holding my hand writing the poem.”

Tabios’ gift as a poet is that she allows us space to perceive a myriad of human experiences: desire, loathing, horror, outrage, grief, love. It is this universality that awakens us—Always, always: to discern with compassion.

© Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto

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