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To bring the poem into the world
is to bring the world into the poem
— from Conjuration #3, Eileen Tabios
In his “Discourse in the novel” Mikhail M. Bakhtin writes:
“The poet must assume a complete single-personed hegemony over his own language, he must assume equal responsibility for each one of its aspects and subordinate them to his own, and only his own, intentions. Each word must express the poet’s meaning directly and without mediation: there must be no distance between the poet and his word.
[...] To achieve this, the poet strips the word of others’ intentions, he uses only such words and forms (and only in such a way) that they lose their link with concrete intentional levels of language and their connection with specific contexts.”
Bakhtin’s description of the poet approaches Eileen Tabios’s active involvement. I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved (2005) is a phantasmagoric journey of 504 pages into one of the most interesting embodiments of contemporary poetry. Tabios’ uprooting literary strength finds an unusual background. Born in Ilocos Sur, Philippines, her family moves to the United States when she is ten. With an M.B.A. in economics and international business, after having worked as an economist, a journalist, a stock market analyst, and finally as a banker for a decade, in 1996 she decides to move to a castle in California to dedicate her life to poetry. She founded and edits the poetry review Galatea Resurrects, and is the founder of Meritage Press, a multidisciplinary literary and arts press based in St. Helena, Ca. Her publications are numerous and she has many imminent projects to which she is at present committed. Her dedication to art, artistic actions, joi de vivre, untiring creative presence make her one of the most interesting and well known poets on the net, and internationally.
A critical approach to a collection like I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved could entice a critic into a labyrinth without escape. An Aristotelian taxonomic method might initially be adopted to find leading patterns, but it is soon to be discarded out of necessity. Any symbol, allusion, sign, style, tone by which the reader thinks he has recognized a safe sequence in terms of interpretation, will be soon overthrown. Tabios’ words and continuous twists catch the reader with their luring beauty to flee as soon as they have reached him. She slides elegantly in and out of stylistic rules with breath-taking acrobatic moves. Her compositions are a feast for the “poetic intellect” as defined by our distant Coleridge where the development of his “Imagination” has topped to:
stunned sunlight, stunned light
(from The Piano Keys)
The equilibrist of opposites enters and exits plastic sceneries from unexpected perspectives:
Sunrays coating gray rocks
offer a sheen, pretty
but false as a repentance
also in hiding
for what is rational is not what serves the day:
right = negative X (wrong)
for Jukka-Pekka Kervinen)
A passionate “love-hate” bondage with the English language develops in nuances that reach both extremes: passionate eroticism and annihilation by alternating supplications and requests, the indescribable need to forge the “lover” as much as the need of forging oneself to the expectations of the lover, within moral, intellectual, emotional rules the “I” has set as the parameters of a relationship, with guilty feelings, tensions out of the entwining, clashing, crashing of feelings.
what I meant to say.
What I mean to say is
have I truthfully
truthfully loved you?
(from PERSPECTIVES BEFORE EARTH FALLS)
[...] nothing less than osmosis and agonizing over the compromise.
(from A COAGULATION OF PIXELS)
Tabios keeps on surprising in a whirl of unannounced and unanticipated associations, courageous in her faith, delimited as in Ex-Faith, with vocatives in Italics, rhetorical questions, objects taken from the nearest proximity, as much as the use of a most tropical-exotic language: “jasmine; jacaranda; vines; mango; amethyst; ginger; orange rinds; Sri Lankan grass; corral pink sapphires; garnet; carmine; crimson; Vases overflow with magenta;
-a flamenco dancer stamps her feet and red velvet skirt whirls-
muscled thighs glistening
(from On Looking Back at the Unborn)
the sweetness of the Filipino kayumangi color
(from “Poems form/from the six directions” interview by Nick Carbo)
melons, harvesting melons, eating
melons: canary, cantaloupe, honeydew...”
(from Honeydew, Chapter eighty; III. The Definitive History of Fallen Angels: An Autobiography).
What unifies the present collection, what is the idea behind the red cover of the book with Eileen Tabios and her husband at their wedding in an oval picture framed by the alphabet? It is the marriage of the poet with the English language and the list of Contents can sketch an outline of the structure that far from being comprehensive can at least convey in broad lines the complexity of the present tome. Divided into five main blocks, a series of distinct sub-sections are used to complete and integrate the guiding segment of investigation:
I.ENGLISH: THE COURTSHIP
LUCIFER’S ATTEMPTS AT NARRATIVE
(Followed by a longer section of poems:)
YES, I DO
(concrete images, thick tough language, prose poems. “Play and write stringently–want that. Want.”)
CLYFFORD STILL STUDIES
(Eileen Tabios’ quotation is taken from Wandering by Arthur Rimbaud: “I made up rhymes in dark and scary places, /And like a lyre I plucked the tired laces /Of my worn-out shoes, one foot beneath my heart.”)
OBVIATING THE PROSCENIUM’S EDGE (I)
(the surreal staging of Eileen with her double /”But Seriously, When I Was Jasper Johns’ Filipino Lover...”)
HAY(NA)KU: OBVIATING THE PROSCENIUM’S EDGE(II)
(Eileen Tabios is the inventor of the Hay(na)ku: in this section, several Hay(na)kus are collected, and the Official History of Hay(na)ku — born on June 10, 2003 — is described. The new poetic composition that wants stanzas of three lines: the first of one word, the second of two, the third of three, was inaugurated on Philippine Independence Day at the Pinoy Haiku, on June 12 of the same year. The present section is used by Tabios to glimpse at Philippines’ history. Mention is given to their first independence from Spain in 1898, followed soon after by the United States invasion. “Despite the material improvement brought about by the American Government, they still considered themselves unjustly deprived of their right to manage their own affairs; and when the first Philippine Assembly met in 1901, it made the solemn declaration that American rule in the Philippines remained unsanctioned by the people whose great desire, as ever, was their complete political emancipation.”)
BLACK HOLE BEATITUDES
II. POEMS FORM/FROM THE SIX DIRECTIONS
III. AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
(Ten chapters with Footnotes; starting from Chapter Eleven to Chapter Ninety-nine only the Footnotes are reproduced; finally Chapter One Hundred is a prose poem that retraces the story from the beginning.)
IV. THERE, WHERE THE PAGES WOULD END
(Footnotes to “Paroles” by Jacques Prevert, translation by Harriet Zinnes; Footnotes to “Forces of Imagination” by Barbara Guest; Selected Footnotes to “Opera” by Barry Schwabsky; Footnotes to “Volume V of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, M.A., F.R.S.”; Footnotes to “The Virgin’s Knot” by Holly Payne.)
V. ONE POEM, ONE READING
(review by Ron Silliman of one poem by Eileen Tabios: “Helen” and his extremely positive evaluation of her work.)
SELECTED NOTES TO POEMS
(an interesting reading by itself)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In II. POEMS FORM/FROM THE SIX DIRECTIONS, Eileen Tabios introduces her “Marriage to “Mr/s Poetry” with the description of her performance/exhibition of “Poem Tree” held in March, August and September, 2002, at Sonoma State University; Berkeley; and in San Francisco. Photos of Eileen Tabios’ original marriage are mixed with the ones of the happenings. We see the poet and students, or friends, wearing Eileen’s bridal dress. The supporting notion of the various actions, as Tabios states, is “modeled after a rite in Filipino and Latino weddings wherein guests pin money on the bride’s and groom’s outfits. The ritual symbolizes how guests offer financial aid to the couple beginning a new life together. For ‘Poem Tree,’ poems are pinned onto the dress to symbolize how poetry, too, feeds the world.”
It is the same Poet to give directions: “For me, living as a poet requires maximizing awareness of the world [...]. I refer to my hope that my poems create spaces for experiences that readers find meaningful, if not pleasurable.” Within the same context Tabios adds: “Poetry is not words but what lies between words, between the lines.”
An interview by poet Nick Carbo with the poet follows; then the transcription of an E-mail by Eileen Tabios to Paolo Javier to introduce her first poem-sculpture, and finally the section dedicated to the SCULPTED POEMS.
From an interview that appeared on Readme, by Purvi Shah, Tabios explains: “Some might call my approach a brand of surrealism but I use the phrase ‘subverting the dictionary’ for political reasons related to the use of English as an imperialist tool in the Philippines, which we can discuss further later.”
The variety of poetic forms, the different styles, the use of prose, interviews, E-mails, the writing of a fiction story by chapters and footnotes, pages and pages of intuitions and comments to other Author’s poetry collections, the insertion of Ron Silliman’s review, the same formatting of the book, subvert not only the dictionary but the same idea of a book. There where Roland Barthes talked of the ‘Death of the Author,’ and Michel Foucault asked the question: “What matter who’s speaking?” after having buried the Author under a series of definitions and questions, Eileen Tabios stands out in her being alive, here, unique, and present.
Speaking ab absurdo, the inherent abstraction inserted in surreal contexts creates stability and consistency. The tension that obliges the reader under a continuous strain establishes the parameters of intelligence. If patterns are to be found, her Filipino indigenous culture–and in detail an opening to all suffering peoples, together with the piercing observation of facts, situations, events, can be highlighted as leading threads.
City of light
Algerians cluster on the quay
amidst suitcases stuffed
with carpets and breakfast cereals
waiting for the boat to Oran
If I write a poem
about you Manila,
will your politicians respond
with more civility
than a man who never learned
Manila, I am asking,
for open eyes. I am pleading
like a woman in your bed,
Your songs need not always break
like green soda bottles
emptied then resurrected as
of thorns frozen
atop unyielding fences. Manila,
your poets are writing to escape.
(from Manila Rains)
In the background as a never-ending leitmotif, her respect towards her surroundings lived through her fragility, her (or a fictitious female’s) naked body to trace emotions, impressions, in the transformation of “a flower into an archetype”, “as a painting /on cracked canvas /of a fragmented grid.” Irony, self-irony, double distances, zooming in, an idiomatic language in the Derridean context quoted by the Author in Season of Durian. An incessant mapping that distinguishes itself from Baudrillard’s criticized mapping of our world because of the poetic imprint given to words as carriers of the numerous signs, the same single sign invested of different meanings according to the multiplicity of contexts they describe.
Once the image is perfect
It is no longer there.
(from Ars Pictura)
By complying with the same rules and at the same time fleeing from any framing context the multi-sided quickness of the Author’s personality finds its reason of being in quick scherzos, in sharp descriptions that stretch from minimalism to baroque, to the depiction of utter beauty or of fractures in scenes imbued by lyricism or carnal passion, or stilled in an ecstatic purity filtered by thought, “To accept everything, everything, everything”, “Let us lose the language of scars- [...].” Eileen Tabios succeeds in what Cezanne did, he “painted rocks instead of images”, with her “Burgundy veins [that] ripple through marble surfaces”, “untoward, she has grown accustomed to breathing through her drowning.” Tabios becomes pitilessly meditative on the compassionate forgiveness of blindness, as her all-seeing vision enters fringes to cleanse out radically semi-benevolent /malevolent misunderstandings meant to hide what does not have to be seen behind or in front of the brilliant façade, “but for you there is not even the light /which matters /for light always contains some sort of Redemption.” “which is also an attempt to soften the armor that your beleaguered flesh has become- I suggest ‘armor’ as I am reminded of Wilhelm Reich’s theory that psychological traumas imprint themselves on the body in the form of muscular tension that, if unrelieved, hardens into armor-”
Finally, as Bakhtin would have wanted, a dialogue to understand the speaker:
Question: what causes you to stop and stare?
Answer: when a word (say, “ethereal”) becomes defined by spiritual awkwardness
(from THE FOG LIFTS)
Anny Ballardini lives in Bolzano, Italy. She grew up in New York, lived in New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Florence. A poet, translator and interpreter, she teaches high school; edits Poet’s Corner, an online poetry site; and writes a blog: Narcissus Works. She has translated several contemporary poets into Italian and English. Her book of poems, Opening and Closing Numbers, was published by Moria Press in 2005. (This review is dedicated to Professor Bill Lavender)