Thursday, February 8, 2018

“Metaphorical, Intentional Poetics”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’s Murder, Death, Resurrection

(Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press,, 2018). ISBN: 978-1-939-92999-0

Eileen Tabios’s newest collection of poetry could be called a sum total of a life’s work (in progress). Created from her MDR poem generator (as have been a few other collections before this one), Murder, Death, Resurrection (to me aptly named, although an email exchange in the back of the collection indicates not everyone agrees) is 1,166 lines of her previously published poems. (The final line is 1,167, but in a Postscript Tabios says that she eliminated one line—I did not notice which—and, should your own means of generating poems from these lines [a key aim of this project] point to that missing line, insert one of your own, or another poet’s.)
Boy, that’s a complex opening paragraph—lots of clauses, parens, brackets, em dashes… but that seems to be okay in this case. Complexity is part of this endeavor, which Tabios undertook for a few reasons. I will summarize them quickly here, because there’s lots to do, but do not ignore the Introduction and back matter of Murder, Death, Resurrection—it is a treasure trove of exercises, explanations, and that email exchange is really not to miss. If Tabios wants to provoke thought and even pushback, she is succeeding.
This is my twelfth review of Tabios’s poetry, and almost all of the collections I have reviewed have lines represented in the MDR. So there was a familiarity for me in all of the new. After nine years of reviewing her poetry, I see the MDR work as a Culmination rather than a divergence or some (mere) experiment in recycled language. Comparisons can be made to the “cut-up” work of William Burroughs or even Philip K. Dick’s use of the I Ching to generate storylines and character choices, but they will ultimately fall short. Very much in line with Tabios’s previous work on the Filipino Diaspora, the MDR is an expression of taking back language through breaking it down. Briefly, this is a response to colonialism and American imperialism. Fittingly enough to mention here, I am preparing to do a Chautauqua tour as Ernesto “Che” Guevara in mid-2019, so I am living daily with the reality of what American colonialism and imperialism have done to the Philippines and Latin and Central America. Politics hinges on language (Rhetorical Studies is obsessed with this). Slang, jargon, and such art forms as Rap are expressions of this as well. An interesting aspect of this is the notion of “Babaylan” poetics, which (quite shamanically) states that everything is connected and in harmony, no matter how different it may seem.
Always one to blur the boundaries between poet and reader and to ask of the reader more than most writers do (a key reason I am so engaged year after year with her work) Tabios provides instructions for the reader on how to construct a poem of your own.
I could not resist the urge to try.
I decided on seven lines for my poem (as an homage to the theatre company I cofounded, Seven Stories). To generate line numbers, I went to the eleven reviews I have done of Eileen’s previous books. I used a variety of devices for generating line numbers, from dates of oldest and newest reviews, number of words in a review, and summing all of the numbers referenced in a review. The following lines make up “my” poem:
I forgot the years when I wore uniforms of darkened wool shaped by machines, lined by grey.
I forgot the mud in monsoon season always sucked at the ankles, non-discriminating, a placid surface but camouflaging sharply edged stones, goooey, goooey, goooey and brown as the hide on rotten bananas.
I forgot the advantage of an ignored chandelier.
I forgot my father is not Mao Tse Tung of China.
I forgot I admired encaustic for protecting forever the fragility of paper.
I forgot green calyx emphasizing the burden of generously-watered corollas.
I forgot there is a country somewhere on then opposite of where I stand on this earth, a country whose scents stubbornly perfume my dreams.
By the second line, a narrative began to form, and each ensuing line dropped securely into place as I read it. I witnessed a metaphor being born: Eileen’s lines were the bricks and the subtext I was creating to link the lines was the mortar. In the following, I have inserted the subtextual lines that “adhere” the poem into a unified whole in brackets (I have also titled the poem, as Eileen suggests):
“Echoes of Mortar and Brick”
I forgot the years when I wore uniforms of darkened wool shaped by machines, lined by grey.
[He insisted on uniforms; not everyday children’s clothes]
I forgot the mud in monsoon season always sucked at the ankles, non-discriminating, a placid surface but camouflaging sharply edged stones, goooey, goooey, goooey and brown as the hide on rotten bananas.
[Scrubbing the cuffs at midnight, so he wouldn’t know]
I forgot the advantage of an ignored chandelier.
[Some things better left in the black]
I forgot my father is not Mao Tse Tung of China.
[Though he surely acted that way]
I forgot I admired encaustic for protecting forever the fragility of paper.
[Notes from mother: “He cares; he just can’t show it”]
I forgot green calyx emphasizing the burden of generously-watered corollas.
[Signaling she was home, and I was somewhat safe]
I forgot there is a country somewhere on the opposite of where I stand on this earth, a country whose scents stubbornly perfume my dreams.
[I wished it into existence but now I can’t return].
Have fun creating your own poems from the lines in Murder, Death, Resurrection. Don’t hesitate to think outside the box. This is especially true for those who want to use this for workshops and classes. Some lines could be used as story prompts; some urge visual from textual: Line 547: “I forgot the laughter of weary men as they shared a wicker-covered bottle.” What an oil painting that would make. I think that this collection could serve as a “daily meditation” generator as well. Some of the lines make beautiful koans and sutras.
Tabios has left a breadcrumb trail of clues as to her poetry’s core thematic treasures. An e-copy of the manuscript could generate a thematic keyword search that would illuminate Tabios’s preferred words, images, metaphors, source material—the list could go on awhile, depending on the researcher’s interests and questions. Put it through statistical analysis software and what might be revealed, one could only imagine. But you couldn’t stop there. You’d have to DO something poetic with the data. That would be a must.
Murder, Death, Resurrection is the latest reason why Eileen Tabios is one of the most important poets working today.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Review of Emily’s Ride to Courage, by Sarah Maury Swan (CreateSpace, 2017). ISBN: 978-1978170179 (paperback)

Eighteen months ago I reviewed Sarah Maury Swan’s Young Adult (YA) novel Terror’s Identity, which tells the story of family who has to move from their home and assume secret identities because of the father’s work fighting terrorism. The story was told through the point of view of the teenage son and it was quite the action-packed thriller.
Emily’s Ride to Courage—although it shares similarities with Terror’s Identity, such as the upheaval of a family because of a parent’s commitment to fighting evil in the world—is a much different book in tone and pace.
Emily is not only the title character, but our narrator. Readying for her seventh grade year, with all of the self-doubt, excess energy, and shifting emotions of a girl her age, Emily is dealing with the news that her mother, a doctor, is going to Afghanistan to serve in the medical corps. Because Emily’s father travels a great deal for work, Emily and her 14-year-old dance-obsessed sister Jen will be spending the summer with their grandfather, a man well set in his ways.
I bet you already see the conflicts that might come.
Emily’s narration is somewhere between a polished “what I did on my summer vacation” essay and a series of “dear diary” entries. This takes nothing away from the quality of the book. Swan has plenty of subtext and storytelling framework to keep the action moving forward, an ability she demonstrated in Terror’s Identity.
Swan, a long-time horse enthusiast, is writing about a subject that she obviously knows well. Having once been very close with a college-level equestrian and having an 18-year-old daughter who has been riding and caring for horses since she was 5, I was able to both apply what I have learned over the years to my experience with the story and talk with my daughter about some of the details of horse health and training that Swan includes in Emily’s Ride to Courage.
My daughter has also made me a fan of the Canadian mega-hit TV show Heartland, which takes place on a horse farm and features pre-teen and teenage girls that have similar journeys to self-knowledge and maturity by working with horses as Emily. The grandfather in Heartland is the archetype of the old grizzly with a heart of gold, and Emily’s grandfather shares those traits—a combination of wisdom and sensibility that is important in our fast-paced, “modern” world. I was lucky enough to have all four of my grandparents through early adulthood, and their advice and role-modeling was invaluable during my teenage years.
The trope of the lost pre-teen taking solace and confiding in an animal is a gem, and Swan uses it well. As Emily tries to deal with her grandfather’s expectations, opinions (which are borderline superstitions), and habits, her sister’s growing frustration with being stuck in the middle of nowhere without the comfort of her first love—dance—and then the news that their mother has gone missing, we really feel for her. She is truly doing the best she can under tough circumstances, and watching the arc of her development unfold through her narration will be empowering for YA readers.
On top of her familial challenges, Emily is trying to conquer two major fears—riding horses and math. Even as a nearly 50-year-old man, I sympathized with her on both counts. I’ve done better at the former than the latter.
Emily’s best friend in the story is a horse named Gemini. Together they become the heroes of the story—learning to trust one another, standing up for each other in low moments, and working together in the heart-racing climax.
Emily also has help from a girl her age named Kat. Swan uses Kat and her family to widen the world for Emily and Jen from the farm to the town at the midpoint of the book.
I am a fan of any book that empowers our youth—that reminds them through the art of storytelling that our passions drive and sustain us through the tough times, and the obstacles they present, if we are brave enough to face them, help us grow and add beauty and satisfaction to our lives that become increasingly valuable the older we get.
Emily’s mother is a welcome role model. In how many books, even ones aimed at YA, are the kids totally on their own, their parents creating more obstacles than they are helping their children navigate? With large amounts of service women and men still over seas and the threat of new wars constantly looming as we approach the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Emily’s Ride to Courage is an invaluable resource for the thousands of families affected by this reality.
I applaud Sarah Maury Swan for being so generous an author as to share her talent to make the world a more manageable place for her young readers.

Monday, September 18, 2017

“Postmodern Vampirism”: A Review of Grief for Heart (the fourth book in the Vincent du Maurier series)

 by K. P. Ambroziak (Published by the author, 2017). ISBN: 9781548745073

Vampires have gotten increasingly complex.
Sure, there was that blip with the Twilight series, where everything went a little backwards with the complexity and ferocity of the un-dead blood-sucker, but overall they have certainly changed with the times. The metaphors that drive human fascination with this particular breed of monster have morphed and expanded as technology and human relations have grown into their present state in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
In my previous reviews of this elegantly penned series, I have touched on much of this—the addiction metaphors, the lab-created blood sources and tropes of the dangers of scientific advancement, the origins in Western European fears of blood pollution by Eastern Europeans, the sexual metaphors springing from the suppression of the Victorian and Edwardian eras—and I don’t want to take up space repeating it.
What I want to touch on here—what really drives Grief for Heart—are the sexual politics and socio-political hierarchies that Ambroziak’s universe has expanded to in this series, for they are as unsettling a commentary on modern “humanity” as I have ever read in a vampire novel.
Although vampires continue to inhabit the screen and especially TV (Preacher’s Cassidy and the ubiquitous vampires of Supernatural), they are more often than not lacking overall in substance. Even Anne Rice appears to have fallen on hard times with her twentieth Lestat book, where she uses an origin story about Atlantis to provide a play-space for her vampires that doesn’t work in the least.
If Anne Rice is out of touch with the times, even with her exploration of genetics and the rest, we have to look elsewhere for our fix. It’s the younger, more modern voices, like Ambroziak’s, that are the ones to see us through to the next phase of vampire tales.
Grief for Heart (building on its trio of predecessors), like the graphic novel-turned-AMC series Preacher, takes as its launching point the traditional vampiric issues of isolation and dis-connection. Being an immortal vampire is a lonely business, and family has now become the driving goal, and the vampires that populate Ambroziak’s world have taken on the problem with all the creativity their preternatural abilities allow.
What is so engaging is that, in the post-plague world of the du Maurier series, there is a complex hierarchy—one that incrementally grows with the books. By Grief for Heart we have traditional humans (many of whom survive by allying with a vampire who uses them for a continual blood supply); the Hematopes or “New Men,” who are genetically engineered; the vampires who have recollections of their past lives with increasing clarity; and the gods and goddesses who inhabit many of the vampires’ bodies and minds.
The socio-political issues at play in Grief for Heart are deep. Entire families are pledged to a single vampire, an apt metaphor for any kind of feudal lord or lady taking advantage of an indentured servitude with no freedom in sight. Additionally, for reasons both internal and external, the vampires also enjoy sexual liberties—as if the taking of blood were not enough (another analog for feudal slavery—including colonial America).
It is impossible to talk about vampire metaphors without getting to the core reasons why vampires continue to hold us in their thrall (pun intended): Addiction and Psychic Vampirism. Both are at play here—and what is most interesting is that the Addiction resides on both sides. The dynamics go well beyond species preservation and a sense of family honor. The humans like it—despite how viciously the vampires (and gods) treat them. So let’s add Abuse as a prevalent theme.
Don’t expect to like anyone in these books. And I don’t believe you need to. Rice’s characters are no longer likable… Lestat should have stayed dead rather than resurrecting into what he has become—a failing bureaucrat. And as much as Preacher’s Cassidy entertains with his one-liners and dark behavior, as much as we want to root for him to find some peace and solace, his depredations and degradations are wholly vampiric. That is, after all, the point. Addiction, Psychic Vampirism, Abuse—these are not to be made light of. Not ever.
Ambroziak’s writing is elegant and rich. There is a hypnotic lilt to her writing that functions like the vampire’s gaze, lulling us ever Inward. The storytelling is structurally sound, unfolding at a comfortable pace and allowing us to languish in the language. And the paying of IOUs and twists, turns, and reveals make it clear that this is not writing on the fly—these stories have been carefully plotted for maximum tension and effect, without being tawdry or merely monster thrill-rides.
Grief for Heart ends on a cliffhanger; I am interested in seeing where the story goes and what new secrets are revealed.
One thing more. Ambroziak managed to write a successful book in a named character series without that character ever appearing in it! Du Maurier is there by implication, of course—his shadow passes over and holds station in equal proportion as the story unfolds, and, through his force of will and cult of personality in the prior three books, it is enough to sate us until his return.

And I do look forward to him returning, to face the hell he’s wrought.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Review of Sarah Cave and Rupert M. Loydell’s Impossible Songs

(Cornwall, UK: Analogue Flashback Books, 2017).
Several months ago I reviewed Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, Dear Mary, which is a series of (far-ranging) meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. This follow-up, co-authored with Sarah Cave, is a series of “21 Annunciations,” using the same source-event, but presented in wholly different ways.
There is no indication of which poems are penned by which poet, or if they are all collaborations. This is interesting to me, because I recently reviewed another book of poetry, Blue, by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda that did not indicate which poet contributed where.
The annunciations in Impossible Songs are refracted through a wide array of prisms. “A Polar Bear Annunciation of Self” is a first-person poem from the polar bear’s point of view, interdicted with narrative from Barry Lopez, the environmental/humanitarian writer. This poem is followed by another with an Arctic theme. In the third stanza I was struck by an echo from the poem “Bright Flags” by Jim Morrison, wherein he says “There’s a belief by the/Children of Man which states/all will be well.” In the Cave/Loydell poem “Shadow Words,” the line is “she convinces herself/all will be will be well.” This would seem reviewer-centric if it were not for a poem several pages later, “The Impossible Song,” which quotes Morrison in its epigraph and then begins:
“The voice of the serpent/slid into my ear, creaking/leather and snakeskin/black boots aslant…”
and ends:
“dead in the bath,/a drowned angel/who lost his voice”
This poem is preceded by a poem “for Leonard Cohen” and followed by a poem called “An Annunciation of Christ’s Dark Matter” “after David Bowie.” This poem contains lines from “Ashes to Ashes” (“strung out in heaven’s high”) and other Bowie tunes and is darkly evocative, as Bowie so often was.
We now have as inspiration a triumvirate of dead songwriters who were all also poets. A few pages later there is a poem called “Tightrope Annunciation.” Perhaps this truly is tenuous and reviewer-centric but there is a song on Other Voices, the album recorded by the three remaining Doors after Morrison’s death, called “Tightrope Ride.”
Loydell is a painter as well as a poet, so it is no surprise that some of the annunciations are based on paintings, such as Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning. The cover art is a study of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.
“The Art of Silence” is three poems in one. The two columns can be read as individual poems or the lines can be read straight across to make one poem.
“The Deserted Garden” considers the first mother, Eve, who was pregnant, before Cain and Abel, with knowledge.
One of my favorite poems in Dear Mary is about annunciation as alien abduction. Impossible Songs contains a similarly themed poem titled “annunCIAtion,” which presents Mary’s experience as conspiracy theory. There are several theories therein of how she was impregnated (to which I add Roman centurion) and there is even a visit by the “men in black” (“secret agents or aliens”). Could the Pharisees and Sadducees been among their number? Or was it an infiltration?
“Notes on an Almost Annunciation” brings to mind Mary Lee Wile’s powerful novel Ancient Rage. While Mary and Jesus were made so much of, there was also Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist, who suffered much the same but didn’t quite get the press.
For readers who, like me, find added value in an artist coming back to subject matter again and again over time, especially when it is a single line or other form of bread crumb, the final line of the final poem in Impossible Songs is “The God-duck wore his Mitre at an angle in church on Sunday.” This line echoes back to a chapbook edited by Loydell titled The Gospel According to Archbishop Makeshift.
Speaking of chapbooks, along with Impossible Songs I received several quarter-fold chapbooks. Two in particular bear mention in the context of this review. They are point–counterpoint collaborations between Loydell and Peter Gillies and are titled “The Angel Gabriel is not Your Friend/The Angel Gabriel could be Your Cousin” and “Fra Angelico is not Your Friend/Fra Angelico could be Your Cousin.”
As evidenced by these three works, Loydell is mining themes that resonate with our times, leading to collaborations with a talented array of fellow poets, allowing for a synergistic pulse of varied views. He and his fellow travelers ask difficult questions and offer open-ended answers through the time-tested holy triad of ethos, logos, and pathos.
The grey space of possibility is one that more artists should commit to create in.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

“Struggles in the Void”: A Review of Sharon Heath’s Tizita, The Fleur Trilogy, Book 2

(Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2017), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-2-1

Four months ago I was introduced to Fleur Robins, with whom I fell instantly in love. Not romantically, understand, but as a father who wants to protect a curious and brilliant, although socially and emotionally challenged, young woman from the darkness in the world, while wanting her to bathe immersively and unabashedly in the light of it as well.
Perhaps it is the recent event of my only daughter’s eighteenth birthday, and her starting her senior year of high school as I write this. Perhaps it is the dancing whirl of contradictions that are her chosen isolation and digital world-traveling, her emotional and social strengths and weaknesses, her brilliance and naïveté and her own journey into the darkness and re-entrance into the light that make me invest so heavily in Fleur’s adventures.
This is to take nothing away from Sharon Heath, who writes with a power and honesty that draws me in and makes me laugh out loud and flinch in pain—often within the span of a page, or a paragraph.
In the interest of space, I encourage you to read my review of the first book, and, better yet—read the book itself.
Book 2 opens just past Fleur’s 21st birthday. Fleur’s quantum physics team at Caltech is hard at work on developing her Nobel Prize–winning theories and she is engaged to Assefa, a medical student at USC whose father has gone missing while trying to find the temple in Ethiopia where the fabled Ark of the Covenant is said to be kept. This is a much-changed Fleur and a much changed tone. Tizita [which is the “interplay of memory, loss, and longing” often conveyed in Ethiopian or Eritrean music or song”] is a hard book to get through. As the United States enters a pronounced phase of division over color, gender, and historical memory, all of these subjects and more send poor Fleur flapping and pinching into the void with rapidity and intensity. Her social and emotional challenges scream their depth during her sexual encounters, as they did in Book 1. As she worries over possible pregnancy and judges her admittedly questionable taste in men, I felt my tension rise.
Another difference between Books 1 and 2 are the added Assefa point-of-view chapters as he travels to and meets old friends and memory-demons in Ethiopia. Not only does this device give us insight into what he experiences while he is away, it also complicates the reader’s feelings toward Assefa. Because I care so much for Fleur, there were times that I actively disliked and wished him away. Even wished him ill. But because I knew the context of his life, through his back story and current experiences, it was incredibly hard, despite his negative actions. There is a valuable lesson here about why good storytelling just might save the world. I found myself at odds more than once with my out-sized reactions to Assefa’s actions and defending mentally the actions of others toward him. But then it was clear—it was a contest between my love of Fleur and my sympathy for him. I am sure this is exactly what Heath was going for. Kudos to her for succeeding.
Through her many adventures, including a trip to Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee institute in Gombe National Park to see her physics team’s former mascot, Hanuman, Fleur widens her worldview and learns that everyone truly has a void of their own. It is through that knowledge that she is able to forgive Assefa, others in her life, and perhaps even herself.
It is this macro/micro dynamic that drives Tizita—a natural progression given Fleur’s big-scope physics interests and her entrance into adulthood. Each macro event is linked to several micro ones. The assault against women and children in war-torn Ethiopia is sobering stuff. Thru the character of Makeda—the foil for Fleur and Assefa’s engagement—we see that there are all kinds of ways to change the world. Some are as simple as holding a dying child in its last moments on Earth, unflinchingly looking into its eyes to let him or her know they are loved.
Tizita asks the tough questions, calling upon the series’ engaging cast of support characters to serve as the moral “chorus” for Fleur’s philosophical navigation as well as doing some of the heavy lifting on their own. The complex character of physics professor Stanley Fiske is a good example, as is Fleur’s best friend’s Jewish boyfriend, Jacob. Their commentaries and self-assessments are facets to a diamond that shines with the biggest issues of our time.
Like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, the most vulnerable character in Heath’s artfully constructed world, Fleur herself, is our best chance for the (at least partial) salvation that comes with understanding after a struggle.
We cannot help but root for Fleur as we try to root for ourselves.

“Forever the Innovator”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’s Manhattan: An Archaeology

(Paloma Press,, 2017). ISBN: 978-2-365-87509-0
Innovation is not easy. Being innovative and prolific—well, that approaches the ultra rare. And that is why, year after year, I try to do at least one review of Eileen Tabios’s works. When the work spoke clearly as to how, I have attempted to be as innovative in my reviews as Tabios is in her art. A scroll through the 145 reviews currently on New Mystics Reviews ( will show ten other reviews of Tabios’s work, some of which use lines from my other reviews or a poetic form to honor the range of inspirations and innovations Tabios has employed in her 40-plus collections, which have now been published in nine countries and in numerous languages.
Manhattan: An Archaeology, from the relatively new Paloma Press (they list only one other offering so far—Blue by St. Jo and Grefalda, which I reviewed last month), has a multi-page list of inspirations, ranging from Tabios’s own previously published works to those of other authors, YouTube videos, the paintings of Clyfford Still, and a trip to Provence the poet took with her husband.
The collection, which is divided into several sections, interdicted with graphic images, begins with The Artifacts, a poetic list of items that then appear in the poems that follow. Here we have the material archaeology of Things, which is only part of the picture. Because there is also the etheric archeology of Memories, to which the items tether. Why else are so many of us so compelled to collect? Looking around my writing room, each of the “artifacts”—drawings and photos, printed-out quotes, statuary, toys, books, animal totems, pottery and model cars—has a meaning and context beyond what the outsider sees (which is often perceived as “clutter”). And context can only be uncovered with words. Stories. And so it goes with Manhattan—it is a series of stories. Deeply personal. Candid. And as colorful as the graphic images that bridge its sections.
Within this collection are the elements that I love most about Tabios’s writing. There are abundant references to other authors, painters, dancers, thinkers, and creators from numerous media and fields. Are any of us purely original? What is the line between inspiration and imitation? Between plagiarism and homage? Can we steal from ourselves? Is re-use repetition? The older I get, the more I read and watch and learn, the more I ponder these questions. By naming names, we ensure that at least some of the credit is given where it’s due, understanding that the subconscious influences of everything we have seen, watched, and talked about are the submerged part of the iceberg as opposed to the section above the waterline.
Another element of Tabios’s writing, so elemental to archaeology, is her facility with lists. She has written entire collections that are lists—of items sent to relatives to and from the Philippines; of trash items on the curb post-Christmas; of communications from friends and relatives just-post-9/11. The Artifacts is a list. And lists are what Humans do. Genealogies are lists. Taxonomies and all forms of labeling are lists. Calendars and digital address books are lists. Even our social media posts are lists. The careful social archaeologist can discern much about Life and Change from digging down deep into the layers of these lists. Facebook has algorithms that will do it for you, whether it be how you have physically changed through the years, or the things about which you’ve written. And you know the corporate oligarchy is mining your lists in the form of the billions-of-dollars business of Big Data.
Another element is the honesty. I am taking a chance here even to broach the subject of honesty (or at the very least I need to provide some clarity) because Tabios and I have only communicated through brief emails over the many years that we have exchanged books and publishing opportunities. I am not equating honesty with Truth here. At least not Personal Truth, or Absolute Truth. As in, did all of the things that happen to the narrator(s) of these poems happen to Tabios? The section “Winter on Wall Street (A Novella-in-Verse)” cues us that there are other voices, other characters at play here. It doesn’t actually matter… because the emotional and experiential roots run deep. The poems would not be so ancient, strong, and lasting in their impact on the reader if they were not.
I want to focus briefly on the section that takes its inspiration from abstract expressionist Clyfford Still’s painting. This is ekphrasis as only a seasoned, adept artist like Tabios can do.  Not familiar at the onset with Still, I took the poems solely on their own. It was not until I started writing this review that I did an online search for the paintings that inspired the poems, expecting to find highly detailed, realistic still-lifes that suggested the places and circumstances in the poems. Similar to Rothko and Kandinsky, Still uses color and shape without traditional images. One can only try to imagine the process from painting to poem that passed through the mind, art, and hands of Tabios to create one from the other.
And this is what keeps me (and so many others) coming back to her work. Ever innovative. Ever able to draw in the reader, to expect of the reader an interpretive contribution in order to fully juice the battery of the work.
As long as she writes, I will review. Because each experience generates new inspirations and new commentary on the state of our arts. Given the use of our lists by Big Data, this particular creative act of Tabios’s might be nothing less than Revolutionary.


Friday, August 11, 2017

“The World within a Nutshell”: A Review of Blue by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda

(Paloma Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-1-365-84488-1
The true gift of poetry as an art form is its deft use of air. Of space. Of pauses and gaps into which the reader can pour him- or herself.
Blue takes these strengths of poetry and puts them to maximum use. With its glossy pages, blue and black ink, illustrations, and numerous typefaces, Blue looks like and reads with the speed of a children’s picture book, but don’t mistake the design for simplicity—Blue invites and rewards multiple readings, each with its own approach.
For instance, the first time I read the book, I took it in as a single poem, telling only one story. The second time, I used a panel with a quote by e.e. cummings as a dividing line between two acts—one that takes as its central character love of a human and the second love of God.
The third time I focused on each passage as delineated by its typeface. This third approach is like reading a book of Asian poetry or koans. Each passage is its own rich moment, an invitation to meditate upon its many meanings.
Although St. Jo and Grefalda are the co-authors (with St. Jo contributing the abundant and engaging illustrations), there is no delineation as to which passages were written by which poet. This adds to the overall mystery and allure of Blue. In truth, there are not just two voices, but many.
For the purpose of this review, I am going to say that the book is divided into two stories, Man and God. But this is my own interpretation—they are not labeled as such, nor does the e.e. cummings quote absolutely guarantee a division. In Man, the authors engage the trope of the world traveler, using Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in allusion, illustration, and in the latter’s case, by name. They also play on “Eyes of Blue,” which calls to mind the classic “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” The authors’ use of “lose you to a song” in blue ink appears to reinforce this notion. The Man seems to be off in search of something, which the author(s) hope(s) will either bring him back, or that they will travel the world together “in Denim Blue.”
The e.e. cumming’s poem signals a switch to God: “I thank you God for most this amazing day … and a blue dream of sky…”
There is a subtle shift in tone (though the blue is still blue, as it were) in the section I call God. There are italicized passages that sound biblical, looming large and philosophical. Passages like: “You are/ Beloved,/He said./Perfect/As you are, He said.” While the author replies, “Sleep/Overtakes/Me,/I said./Rest/Frightens me,/I said.”
God does not give up, until the author says, after continued resistance, “So as/You will it, God
And in the final pages we come back to song (“damn you song”) and I wondered as I read and meditated, is it the same song from the start? But it is not: “i whistle out of tune/some nonsense i composed/with you in my heart” [note the small i, only appearing on the final page].
Read Blue as you choose. Perhaps the suggestions in this review will spark a path, but it’s best to ponder its images, meditate on its typefaces, and choose your own way through the blue.