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Eileen R. Tabios’s latest poetry volume, Nota Bene Eiswein, is broken up into two sections: “Ice: Behind the Eyelet Veil” and “Wine: The Singer and Others—Flamenco Hay(na)ku.” The two parts couldn’t be any further apart. The poems of her first section are fairly elliptical while the poems of her second section are visceral and narrative.
The first part reads like refrains from a gallery of songs. The poems of the first section are unusual because Ms. Tabios produced them in response to reading a fellow poet’s collection—The Book of Funnels by Christian Hawkey. Compelling in their own right, the poems from this section provoke longing, a need for answers in the reader. Yet, Ms. Tabios does not deliver any apparent answers or prescriptions for these poems. She merely guides her audience along, challenging each reader to harvest the clues that lead to meaning.
The second section offers the reader full knowledge of the events impacting each poem’s subject. These poems are especially satisfying because they draw one into the narrative thread—whether that thread involves passion, loneliness, or hunger. With this section, Tabios found inspiration for her poems through Sarah Bird’s novel, The Flamenco Academy. The reader who values the study of foreign languages will find exploring the poems in the second part to be a gift: Spanish words proliferate, artfully embedded within the English texts of Tabios’s poems. Thus, the cultural dimension of these poems adds to their allure. One final noteworthy point concerns how all the poems of the second section are written in a reverse hay(na)ku sequence, meaning that within each stanza consisting of six words in total, the longest line is placed first while the shortest line is placed last.
In a poem near the start of her first section, “Where Everything Is Clear,” Tabios builds image upon image. The very first image, “left with a stare / watching itself” lingers with the reader. As if these two lines aren’t thought provoking enough, Tabios concludes the poem with an idea that moves beyond a stare: “somewhere, a woman / shrouds herself in white linen / a poem invisible but transparent.” This idea of a woman as a poem is astonishing. With this image, Tabios takes the reader to an imaginative height the reader could not have anticipated at the poem’s beginning.
Like the piece “Where Everything is Clear,” the poem “After A Departure” opens with an incongruous image—“a mirrored face / only partially owned / by its reflection.” Yet, if one is to appreciate this image, one must analyze it in light of the equally incongruous images that follow it. Hence, one must contemplate “an incomplete suicide note,” “a trompe l’oeil painting slip- / ing to surrealism,” “fishes flying overhead,” and so on. The genius of this poem is that it becomes the very thing that one of its lines merely points to—surrealism.
Slightly different from the poems “Where Everything Is Clear” and “After A Departure,” the poem “Grace Reddens” is significant because a few of its lines foreshadow what is to come in some of the poems included in Tabios’s second section: “I recognize the helplessness / of those who must dance / and those who can only witness.” In these three lines, Tabios encapsulates the predicament of those she highlights within several poems of her second section. These lines, rendered so eloquently by Tabios, speak to the drama and passion associated with flamenco dancing.
Tabios’s poem “Dark Freedom” tells the story of one girl’s desire to know a culture not her own, a culture filled with flamenco music. The poem pivots around the figures, Rosa and Clementina, who share a quid pro quo relationship. Rosa, the poor one, shows the rich one, Clementina, how to dance while Clementina offers Rosa food, mantecaditos (almond sugar cookies) and clothing from her wardrobe. In a very real sense, the two exchange cultural places. Clementina introduces Rosa to her world of delicacies—“candied chestnuts in / a brandy / syrup” and “perfectly grilled sardines, / tender, marinated / octopus.” Rosa, in turn, exposes Clementina to one particular element of her gypsy culture, flamenco dancing:
when she danced
time with Rosa,
innocence to feel
She felt milk
The lines “She felt milk / and pollen mate” give one the sense that on the most instinctive or intuitive level Clementina experiences a newfound joy of living. She seems now to be in touch with her primal urges and impulses.
The poem “The Singer” serves as a corollary piece to the poem “Dark Freedom” in that it suggests that singing is just as vitally important to Spanish culture as dancing is. The imagery Tabios employs to describe the singer’s singing is powerful indeed: “his cante come / from him / like / a rusty nail / being pulled / from / an old board.” This singer possesses a “sandpaper voice.” The most urgent words of the poem come not for the singer, whose verbal maneuvers Tabios details via third person, but for Tabios’s speaker. Addressing the reader, she asks, “who among you / listening will / be / the wild dog / I am / calling?” It is difficult to imagine that more than a few souls would be brave enough to heed this call. Sounding a menacing note further into the poem, the speaker confesses, “My people / trained me. . . . I learned / to / stamp my heels / to sound / like / a machine-gun blast.” One must, then, consider the possibility that the flamenco dancer’s movements are not simply to give pleasure to the watcher but to alleviate the psychic pain of the dancer as well.
In the poem “Teatro Olimpia,” Tabios creates a political atmosphere exemplified by a lone flamenco dancer performing for soldiers she despises. The tension arises when the dancer’s boss orders her to lift her dress for the amusement of the soldiers watching her dance. While she dances, the dancer appears to escape from her plight through her reveries. Tabios uses graphic details to illustrate the forcefulness of the dancer’s steps:
shoe tips bearing
drumming into a
as the naked
The ingredient of violence that Tabios interjects into the poem through this imagery is a bit shocking. One wonders if the vengeance the dancer exacts through her imaginings is too severe. After all, the stares of soldiers seem to do little in the way of real harm to the dancer. But then again, the text implies that the dancer’s fantasies are the only viable vehicle through which she can rid herself of her psychic pain, her dread of the soldiers.
Eileen Tabios’s book Nota Bene Eiswein challenges the reader to scrutinize her text meticulously. One must examine the text over and over again until its words make plain to the reader Tabios’s vision of the world.
A former two-year college English instructor, poet Grace Ocasio lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, Edwin. The poem “Ars Poetica” is forthcoming in the summer 2009 issue of Rattle: Poetry for the Twenty-First Century literary journal. She is an active member of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. Poetry of hers appeared in Black Magnolias Literary Journal, Drumvoices Revue, Court Green, The Cherry Blossom Review, Poetica: Reflections of Jewish Thought, Main Street Rag, and Aries. She is also a reviewer for the Web site The Review Review. She received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College.