by Aileen Ibardaloza
147 Million Orphans
by Eileen R. Tabios
Gradient Books, 2014
In an ideal world, no child is ever without parents. But we cannot deny the existence of 147 million orphans, the number so staggering they could be a nation unto themselves.
The world’s history is littered with well-documented cases of orphan trains and “apprentice bonds“; with dying rooms for medically “unviable” infants, and cribs serving as virtual prisons. In many orphanages, babies receive approximately 5 to 6 minutes of attention a day; this, despite evidence that “neglect is awful for the brain.” In post-Ceausescu Romania, for instance, scientists found orphans with “disturbingly low levels of brain activity.” Babies who grow up to be youngsters, however, continue to face mounting uncertainties. Today in China (as it was in major American cities in the late 1800s), children who “age out” (or those who reach their 14th birthday) are deemed no longer “adoptable.” They are turned out of the orphanage, and expected to fend for themselves. (But equally terrible is prejudice against adopted children. For this reason, I find the Tagalog word “ampon” unpalatable since it is often used to disparage the status of adoptees.)
Children in orphanage cribs rocking back and forth form some of the most disturbing images I have ever seen. The front cover of Eileen R. Tabios’ new poetry collection, 147 Million Orphans (MMXI-MML), features a row of empty cribs. I would like to think that it is a photograph manifesting hope – that the cribs are deliberately uninhabited because the orphans have found a more ideal place. The poems in the book employ the haybun form, a combination of hay(na)ku and other text, such as prose poems. Consider the following:
reacquaint vessel insubordinate
To learn his new language, the adoptee was charged with learning 25 English words a week during the schoolyear. Each new word spilled from the wet graphite tip of a knife. “Weekend, weekday” –such common terms, such common concepts. To the adoptee, the two words at first were a sifting of gravel for more gravel. Revelation was hard-fought, only to camouflage its rewards too well – comprehending the significance of sun versus moon was another blow from a belt’s brass buckle that refused to remain a lost memory. In an orphanage, time is relevant only if a future is acknowledged. For an orphan, the dog’s point of view suffices: the present is all that matters, especially when it lacks the fist, the empty plate, a rotgut bottle’s cap as toy, the alley as bedroom. Or so the orphanage staff believed–
when the boy whose intellect dwarfed his body started hurling rocks through the dim windows of the orphanage, he was not defining “knucklehead.” If a vessel with its hidden hole loses its base, how to contain, hold, embrace… anything in flux like liquids or emotions or identity or the degradation of the word “consequence” into “punishment”? How to trust in the passage of time to offer the possibility of possibilities? That adoption commences a progression will not dilute the pain of how each new word must be gained through bodily cutting as if to live a bad poem’s dictum: to feel is to hurt. How to trust that a metaphor need not be a lie? What a knothole–this interior of a fist! This classroom of negative space…!
It strikes me that the hay(na)ku portion reads almost clinically, i.e., the opening tercet seems fragmented and marked by a linguistic economy that is neither lovely nor unlovely. Each word, however, invites expansion. The imagery in the appended prose strongly captures some of the struggles a child contends with in the transition from orphan to adoptee.
She remained grateful, even when the celebrity couple edited the only gift she could give her child: a name… She named the baby “Good News.” … What is the name of the mother who continued to love her daughter after a rape?…
The excerpted text above references Mentwabe Dawit, biological mother of Angelina Jolie’s daughter Zahara. The haybun implicitly tackles the politics and dynamics of adoption, particularly transnational adoption where poverty has made it impracticable for a mother to raise her child.
The last section is “A Quintet for Michael Gerard Tyson.”
… They called him “The Baddest Man on the Planet…”
Mike Tyson is a boxing legend. I was, however, unaware of his roots as a disadvantaged orphan. As an “earnest young man… [he] was preoccupied with origin and authenticity,” Tabios quotes Avi Steinberg, “… later [recognizing] his place in the hierarchy of tradition… resigned to [being] a ‘fake somebody…'” As an observer, I am not inclined to like or dislike someone who is already full of self-loathing. (“The world thinks I’m a savage,” says Tyson in an interview, “and I’m an afraid little boy!”) As a potential adoptive parent, I find it difficult to condemn a child for actions arising from the absence of a nourishing environment. From this perspective, no one is irredeemable.
147 Million Orphans ends on a Joyful note. While the book is meant to direct attention to “one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of our time,” it is also a testament of love, for a parent is a force of nature stronger than indifference or deprivation. In a better world, such forces of nature are born everyday. And in such a world, the word “ampon” has become a thing of the past. There is only “anak,” which means “my beloved child,” which carries with it the unspoken appended vow, “I lay down my life for you.” In any lifetime, there is no greater love.