In Eileen R. Tabios’s The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. 1, semi-colons, colons, parentheses, ellipses, and strikethroughs each get their own section. Filipino-American modernist poet Jose Garcia Villa, whose Selected Writings Tabios has edited, had already paid prodigious attention to the comma, so it is understandable that Tabios deletes the comma from her consideration. As Leny Mendoza Strobel suggests in her essay on the poetry (included near the end of the book), Tabios reveals the “secret” of what punctuation marks can do when they are released from the “succinct, non-negotiable” “rules of English grammar” and from the fact that “one is never meant to notice them. . .” (154).
One rule that Tabios breaks in the semi-colon section is to begin the title and every line/sentence/fragment with a semi-colon and to have no other punctuation and no clarifying capitalization. (Each poem has seven strophes of one or two lines.) If any poem is a fragment within a virtually infinite intertextual weave, these poems’ forms explicitly dramatize that condition. Strobel notes that the reader has the burden of supplying “the preceding clause to complete the idea” (155), and this is in keeping with a “reader-response” concept that Tabios has frequently articulated in the prose-sections of her books: “. . . the poem begins the poetry experience but its recipient, the reader/viewer, completes it” (162). However, the poet’s strategy of situating her text repeatedly in medias res can also raise the possibility that there are too many blanks for one reader to fill in—that fragmentation is to be experienced as the concatenation of partial presence and “substantial” absence. Completeness may be forfeited in advance. Here is “; Writing Past Margin”:
; but all side streets point to wrong directions
; violence via the infant shrieking
; nothing behind a corner, really
; seduction as wet cobblestones
; scent of a lunatic negative
; a god envying decay
; math (16)
On the one hand, if “past” signifies “beyond,” the title may indicate an overflow of representation that overcomes contextual barriers, while on the other, if “past” refers to an earlier time, it suggests a tracing of previous boundaries. Since the left hand side of each line can be regarded as hidden or non-existent, the reader knows that there is a gap between the visible right hand side and the next visible passage, and so, “writing past [the] margin” of such gaps to forge a connection between the visible elements is creative guesswork without falsifiability. In this poem, the visible lines get shorter—retreating from rather than going past the right margin.
A reader would have to devise an arbitrary interpretive strategy to produce a pattern of meaning. Lines one, three, and four include references to outdoor settings, but it would be extremely difficult to integrate the other lines into a single narrative or meditative drift about architectural space(s). I gravitate toward the idea of insisting upon contact between the already ambiguous title and each line. This makes the poem a cubist entity, in which multiple perspectives are provided in the absence of narrative flow and a hierarchy of concepts. In the first line, for example, “side streets” can be “margins” to the main avenues that, instead of allowing the “writing” to reach a destination, get the writer/traveler lost; if these “streets” are “past [previous] margins,” then exploration of the past does not provide effective “directions” for present conduct. The use of “via” in the second line situates “the infant shrieking” as a conduit (or perhaps an occasion) for “violence,” not the violence itself. Thus, this line suggests that the “shrieking” writes (either spatially or temporally) past the margin of peace and reaches a destructive action—one that might threaten what people would ordinarily want to cherish and protect, an infant. By far the shortest fragment of the six that follow the opening independent clause, the concluding word “math” coldly registers how abstract measurement or quantification frames (or places a margin around) the sincere effort to make emotion and physical experience (like “wet cobblestones” and “scent”) present and significant in writing. I do not read “math” as a cancellation of the more emotive connotations involving “writing” and “margin” but as one of various competing perspectives.
The colon section of The Secret Lives of Punctuations, raises other issues about how to read poetry that uses punctuation unconventionally. In “The Masvikiru Quatrains,” which consists of 27 sections, each including quatrains with a single word, a colon, and two other words in each line Tabios “wrote through” Finnish composer/poet Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s computer-generated prose-poem, cornucopia, with the intention of developing a different kind of music than his (using a fraction of his words) and, thus, as she explains,
to translate Zimbabwean Shona culture methodology into writing poems. . . . Shona sculptors believe that (ancestral) spirits reside in stones and when they sculpt from stones, they basically are trying to release the spirits into what we later see as sculpted forms. From cornucopia, I sought to write poems to release the many hidden strains of music I sensed as spirits beneath each of cornucopia’s pages. (79)
While the colon implies a relationship between the words on both sides of this punctuation, I take Tabios at her word when she makes musical effects and not thematic development her prime focus in this series, and it would be helpful to identify how these effects work in a particular passage. Here are the first three quatrains of “The Twenty-Second Page”:
enviable: ungovernable deadliness
pollen: valve consequent
epitome: desecrate junkie
vernacular: entrance heavy
incestuous: Gaelic doddering
violinist: arpeggio chambermaid
moonstruck: vouch unabashed
irrefutable: unrelieved gallery
union: tendency heat
caffeine: serendipitous collocate
herewith: whoa typhoid
preciousness: supposing vestment (62)
The most obvious point about music here is the caesura at the one-third point in each line counterbalancing the pause at the end of every three words and the white space after every twelve. Of course, the differences in the lengths and number of syllables of words create variety against the encroachment of monotony in this relatively long text. Whereas the first and third lines have words that are close to the same length, in the second line, the first two words take up about as much space as is allotted to the third, and the middle word in the tenth line is much longer than the first or third.
In this passage and in the poem as a whole, Tabios does not rely much on alliteration. She concentrates here on partial rhymes like the first two words in the passage and “heat”/ “collocate.” Frequently, there is also reiteration of vowel sounds in successive words like the short “e’s” in the first line, short and long “e’s” in the third, varied “a,” “I,” and “o” sounds interlacing one another in lines six and seven. Further, strong reiteration of consonants appears: there are numerous “v” sounds in the first quatrain, “t’s” bumping up against “s’s” in the third, and a good number of “t’s” in the fourth, where “f” and “p” sounds also speak to each other and “n’s” assert themselves in the first two lines. For the music of the consonant and vowel repetitions to have a strong and varied impact, the letters need to appear in different places in the words, and they do. Far be it from me to suggest that Tabios was entirely conscious of my findings in “rescuing spirits” from Kervinen’s text; she probably acted on her hunches, and this spontaneous approach within the formal constraints of counting words and placing the colon after the first word permits her song to have an admirable subtlety.
The two long poems in the colon section are followed by the extremely short poems in “Parentheticals,” which span between four and fifteen words each but probably average eight or nine. Each “parenthetical” is given a separate page, but they are all brought together in a final “redux.” In Derridean deconstruction, the parergon or periphery often becomes the center, the parenthesis the main focus, and in the work of poets like David Shapiro, original and translation swap places. Tabios in her “Notes” demonstrates how her brief “Parentheticals” are the product of a double displacement: they first comprised “handwritten reactions on each page of . . . Kervinen’s collection, obeyed dilemma (xPressed),” and when she transcribed “the poems into the typed manuscript,” she had trouble reading “much of [her] handwriting” (172). This made “the published results. . . secondary parentheticals from the original parentheticals to Kervinen’s text.”
On the page, the “parentheticals” look striking, and this emphasizes their paradoxical centrality. They are placed near the center of the place, their typeface is at least twice as large as the usual type in the book, and one of the words in each one is boldfaced, thus calling special attention to something that is (part of what is) supposed to be an aside and causing us to wonder why that word has been singled out. Since a haiku is deemed long enough to be a poem, it would be impertinent to deny that these sentence- or fragment-length pieces are, too, although “(cooks lacking insurance!)” (97) is about a third of the haiku’s syllable count. Many of Tabios’s parentheticals “hold the page” because of their surprising word-choice and subtle bits of social commentary: “(dungeons: a waste of marble)” (99); “(regret a kingdom with unknown borders)” (100); “(is it not impossible for a decade to weep?) (104). The second of these three could be a poignant warning about the uncanny power and influence of multinational corporations.
In her essay, Leny Mendoza Strobel aptly stresses Tabios’s postcolonial gesture of “de-familiarizing” punctuation in order to loosen areas of institutional regularization, often barely noticed, that help see to it that individuals and groups consent to their own subordination. A critique of presumptions of transparent referentiality and unproblematic narrative—coupled with the aesthetic pleasure of stretching the imagination with formal innovations—has been an important feature of all of Tabios’s poetry. The focus on punctuation’s Secret Lives is an elaboration of her ongoing project of interrogating the English language, one central tool in the colonization of the poet’s native Philippines, (and appropriating it for the benefit of the previously colonized) to be found, especially, in the prose-poetry of Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002) and the sprawling, multi-genre I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved (2005). If “(she’s always spawning margins)” (106) through the use of generative constraints, Tabios is also always pawning and “writing past margins,” and I happily anticipate the adventure of margin-leaping that she will provide in Volume 2 of The Secret Lives of Punctuations.
Thomas Fink, Professor of English at City University of New York-LaGuardia, is the author of four books of poetry, most recently No Appointment Necessary (Moria Poetry, 2006), and two books of criticism, including A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001). His paintings hang in various collections.