by Neil Leadbeater
by Neil Leadbeater
SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems)
Marsh Hawk Press, New York
PostModern Poetry E-ratio Editions (available as a free pdf download)
147 MILLION ORPHANS (MMXI – MML)
Gradient Books, Finland
Eileen R. Tabios became a full-time writer in 1996 after spending nearly a decade as a banker on Wall Street. Before that, she worked as an economist, a journalist and a stock market analyst. In a relatively short period of time, her output has been prolific. In an interview with the poet Purvi Shah(1), she states that the analytical perspective honed through negotiating bank deals has helped her to write her poems. So much for the intellectual rigour, focus and concentration that she brings to her writing, but what about the inspiration, where does that come from? For that, we turn to art and, in particular, abstract art. How we look at, and react to, a piece of abstract art has shaped her own ideas about poetry.
In Sun Stigmata Tabios is playing Janus. It is a book that looks both ways. It looks back to a previous collection and it looks forward with a renewed identity. The concept of going back to revisit a previous collection is an interesting one. In the preface, Tabios has placed the following quotation from Michelangelo:
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor
to discover it.”
She then adds this intriguing afterthought of her own:
“What if the block of stone was a block of prose?”
This thought forms the genesis to this collection which revisits the first two sections of her 2002 collection of prose poems, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, for the purposes of “sculpting” poems out of prose. Essentially, Tabios wants to meet the persona that she created in her 2002 collection and, because she is always interested in creating books that are different from each other, to “re-invent” that persona. “When it comes to poetry,” she says, “I don’t want to know myself as a fixed identity…I wish to discover and, at times, change.”
With few exceptions, the titles of the poems in this collection begin with an open bracket as if they are being written in parenthesis. To my mind this is because they seek to offer an elaboration or a rephrasing on something that has gone before. Interestingly, the brackets are never closed. This is the parenthesis that offers a space, a digression, an interlude that Tabios leaves for the reader. It is up to the reader to complete whatever it is that he or she discovers in the poem and then to close that bracket. It is a mechanism that allows the poem to breathe, to resonate in all its nuances, much as a person might stand before a painting and not move away from it until its impact has been experienced in full.
In the opening section, “My Greece,” Tabios gives hints as to the strategy she will adopt as a writer. She will embrace unpredictability, she will not be constrained by narrative, she will appeal to the emotions, write from the heart as well as the head, and escape chaos through the creation of art. She is attracted by the statue of the Kritios Boy because it breaks with tradition by shifting away from a rigid full-frontal position, the right leg slightly bent, the whole statue immortalized in hesitation. In “Purity” she laments how a square canvas depicts a square and a circular canvas depicts a circle. In contrast to such dull predictability, she wants her writing to flow
like a menstruation—ooze with a viscous intensity unmitigated by geometry.
The largest section of the book, “Returning the Borrowed Tongue,” is a direct reference to the colonial domination of the Philippines by the United States through the popularization of English as the preferred language for education, administration, commerce and daily living. Filipinos refer to this as “the borrowed tongue” though, as Tabios points out, “enforced tongue” would be more accurate. This “borrowed tongue” has left Tabios with a general distrust of words and their meanings. It is one of the reasons why Tabios eschews narrative for its own sake and uses language in a more abstract form to heighten emotion. Tabios turns to abstract art to draw her parallels with poetry but you could equally turn to music to offer the same argument. There are parallels here with the compositions of Roberto Gerhard, a Catalan who went into self-imposed exile at the close of the Spanish Civil War. Gerhard was a champion of “abstract music” steadfastly denying that most of his scores had any programmatic element to them at all.
Looking back to the 2002 collection, it is fascinating to see how Tabios has gone about this process of reinvention. The prose poem “Approximations” is reproduced in full to give the reader a sample comparison. Taking two other pieces at random, words from the first two paragraphs of the prose poem “January” reappear as two stanzas of two lines each, showing a considerable amount of reduction whereas the scene in the original version of “(Juliet’s Salt” is hardly condensed at all but recast into stanzas with only a minimal change of wording. For me, both versions are equally powerful and offer a great example of how these works can evoke such emotional power. “(Juliet’s Salt” is a kind of stigmata: she feels the mark of shame.
This “recycling” of former material, to reach for another musical reference, calls to mind the work of Michael Nyman who has also experimented with reinventing his scores so that no two performances are ever exactly alike. It makes for a fresh experience every time.
Despite the abstraction, recurring imagery helps to anchor the work, to set down specific themes (insofar as the reader is permitted to discover such themes in what is essentially an abstract piece of writing). For the most part, these are images that speak of exile, uncertainty and loss; of finding one’s identity, and of the fragility of the world in which we live. The images are expressed in terms of empty flagpoles, reflections in glass, straight backs (learning to walk tall in the world), and dying roses.
There is a lyrical feel to many of the poems. In “(Eulogy” she writes:
To feel stars as close to me as the speed of light is intimate
and in “Corolla” she writes:
yes: the girl
in me is a country
of hammocks and waling waling orchids.
In it, I forget the world’
s magnificent indifference.
In “Amber” there is this sheer moment of bliss:
that would come to scent
the rest of her sunsets.
There are many moments like this where the words are so beautiful that you never want them to end.
Every so often, however, Tabios pulls the reader up with a philosophical question or statement that is all the more powerful for its sudden unexpectedness coming as it does in the midst of other, more poetic, phrasing.
if identity cannot be fixed
does that mean Self must fragment?
but what is compassion? Must desire always entail a loss of innocence?
the physical reality of revolution is decadence
the aftermath is what transcends.
There is plenty to marvel at in this seminal work. Scenes will stay with you long after you have read them and you will be all the more enriched for having made their acquaintance.
At the end of the collection there is a long poem titled “Humming A Critique.” Tabios created this poem from a review of 86 publications by poets. The reviews, which all appeared in Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagement), were chosen at random and the poem uses excerpts from these reviews as a series of starting-points.
“Language does not want only language.” Read these poems as if they are tapestries and you will certainly feel the prick of the needle.
In 44 Resurrections, Tabios shows us another light flaring off her prism. She takes as her starting point a quote from Tom Beckett who once wrote “Writing is an advanced form of forgetting.” This may sound a little contradictory at first. After all, most people write things down in order to remember them but then there is this phrase “to write something off” meaning to dismiss it….and then try aligning that thought with the title, 44 Resurrections. Resurrection is surely all about coming back or moving on. Another contradiction.
Tabios uses these contradictions to flesh out her poems in a collection where all the lines begin with the words “I forgot”. Through the act of writing down the things that she has forgotten, she brings them back into her conscious being. By stating that she has forgotten them she also resurrects them.
As for the number 44, speculation suggests it might refer to 44 distinct reflections (not counting near-repeats) in the sequence (the sequence is derived from Tabios’ “MDR Poetry Generator”(2)) or simply the fact that the number of pages happens to add up to 44. I am not aware of any special significance given to this number although a numerologist will tell you that every number has a certain essence (this one seems to be linked with business efficiency, focus and conscientiousness) but at the end of the day it is probably left up to the reader to make his or her own inference.
For the most part, 44 Resurrections is a book of statements paired down to the single sentence. These statements take as their reference point history, geography, politics. art and philosophy. Some of them are clearly a throwback to Tabios’ homeland, the Philippines:
I forgot the rice fields, sometimes melancholy at dusk, sometimes a rippling mirror of a sunset’s maidenly blush.
I forgot the Jessamine wafting over the paddock.
I forgot the classic contents of the Filipino Balikbayan Box
(the latter being but a brief resurfacing of a subject covered in much greater detail in her earlier collection Post Bling Bling which dates from 2005).
Other statements are more philosophical:
I forgot the second-greatest among losses is disillusion.
Whatever the statement, the imagery is always striking:
I forgot when memory became a colander with generous holes.
I forgot the seduction of wet cobblestones.
Several of the statements are derived directly from her previous work (e.g. “I forgot appreciating a dedicadeza moonlight as much as any long-haired maiden” and “I forgot the spine bent willingly for a stranger’s whip”), others are restated throughout the text (“I forgot I knew the back alleys of this neighbourhood”; “I forgot the grandfather who stood before the fire rushing through a legacy untouched by 300 years of Spanish colonialism”; and “I forgot, for him, she released milk to orphaned baby birds”). Some are deliberately playful on the theme of forgetfulness (“I forgot I yearned for amnesia”) while others reach for the ultimate expression of forgetfulness (“[ ]”).
The overall effect is often one of the beginning of a story or series of stories which the reader is left to complete because once again Tabios has allowed us the freedom to indulge in the realm of our own imaginations. Isn’t that one of the things that all great poetry should really be about?
147 Million Orphans: MMXI-MML bears a front cover image of cribs for orphaned babies at an orphanage in Colombia and a back cover drawing of the author “Mom” (2014) by Michael Pollock. 147 million is an estimate that is often quoted to represent at any one time the number of orphans worldwide.
147 Million Orphans: MMXI-MML is the first book-length haybun poetry collection. A haybun is a combination of hay(na)ku and other text. The hay(na)ku is a 21st century diasporic poetic form invented by Tabios consistinf of a tercet with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words. There are many variations of the form,(3) including that it can be reversed (where the longest line is placed first and the shortest line last). But for these haybun, the original form is used for the opening hay(na)ku which generally serves as an impetus or starting-point for the subsequent prose. Each word of the tercet is taken from a school assignment undertaken by the author’s adopted son, Michael. After arriving in the United States, Michael was encouraged to learn English in 8th grade partly by learning 900 English words within a school year.
After the hard-hitting facts:
Adoption is an industry, as commercial as the polyethylene commodities travelling on ship tankers from China with no regard for carbon footprints. (MMXV)
there is the emotional response:
I see the rose and feel the thorn. (MMXV)
The sections that are written from the standpoint of the orphan are, for me, the most successful pieces in the collection. In these sections, Tabios clearly writes from the heart:
Her new mother told her the family would take her on a vacation. She asked for a camera—perhaps what can unfold will become real for her only when affirmed by photographs, objects she can touch and recover. (MMXVII)
He was trained to live in the present as that is all that he is guaranteed to have. He does not even have a past. (MMXXVI(A))
He is different. He knows broken laces are not a reason to buy new shoes. “I just need new laces.” (MMXXVI(B))
The emotions of the adoptive parents are also clearly expressed:
The one who has never been coddled was informed she would be adopted and she cried out in response, THANK YOU SO MUCH! We mothers hate hearing this story—no child should learn to be grateful for an effect of loss. Yes, we can understand why she is grateful for an effect of loss. (MMXVII)
Many adoptive parents feel: I didn’t save a child. A child saved me. (MMXXVI(B))
Tabios is considered to be an experimental writer in all senses of the word. For example, stylistically, the use of the line strikethrough can add a deeper resonance. It can represent two different ways of looking at the same thing, signify a change of heart, offer some alternative insight, such as another layer of meaning, or illustrate the author’s quest to find the perfect word. It is the privilege of seeing at first hand revisions in several forms.
The book is also something of a collaborative venture. The author invited a dozen guest poets to write on the same subject using the same format (including the use of the line strikethrough) but gave them the freedom to interpret their subject matter in any way that they wished. The guest poets, in alphabetical order are: William Allegrezza, Tom Beckett, John Bloomberg-Rissman, Michael Caylo-Baradi, Patrick James Dunagan, Thomas Fink, j/j hastain, Aileen Ibardaloza, Ava Koohbor, Michael Leong, Sheila Murphy and Jean Vengua.
The vast majority of the work is by the author herself but the contribution made by the guest poets (their names are credited after the titles) adds a new dimension which ranges from John Bloomberg-Rissman’s highly original long list of generated words in chronological sequence (depicted as orphans in the absence of a sentence) to Tom Beckett’s sparse evocation of orphans defined as “guitar chords” or “grace notes.”
In Aileen Ibardaloza’s contribution, a rice farmer keeps part of his farm flooded in order to accommodate migratory birds. He was once a migrant worker, an itinerant, and knows all the meanings of the word “exploit”. His interpretation of the word as “an heroic feat” runs in parallel with his idea that the provision of a safe haven for migratory birds is an act of adoption in itself.
Michael Caylo-Baradi’s contributions begin innocently enough with emotive scenes of babyhood:
Laughter bouncing in your little steps has expanded the backyard. Green grass is not redundant anymore, and now has a way of flattening raised punctuations.
The adoptive parents are
still in the season of coronation, of indoctrinations, of immersions
and then, in the pieces that follow, the mood changes as the orphan grows older and begin to question his / her origins.
The collection ends with Tabios’ “A Quintet for Michael Gerard Tyson,” referencing the former heavyweight champion boxer who was himself an orphan.
This is a book that offers up some powerful thought-provoking messages. It deserves to be heard because it speaks out against social injustice and brings to light the shocking plight of those who have no voice of their own.
(1) “Eileen Tabios Interview” by Purvi Shah, README (http://home.jps.net/~nada/tabios.htm)
(2) Information on Eileen Tabios’ MDR Poetry Generator is available at http://eileenverbsbooks.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-mdr-poetry-generator.html
(3) Variations of the Hay(na)ku form are summarized at http://eileenrtabios.com/haynaku/haynaku-variations/
© Neil Leadbeater