Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Review of Nota Bene Eiswein, by Eileen R. Tabios (ahadada books, 2009)

Eileen Tabios is a poetic force to be reckoned with.

Since 1996 she has written or edited some 30 poetry, short story, and prose collections. Her own press, Meritage, is continually producing groundbreaking, vital poetry that not only explores new realms of poetic expression, such as the hay(na)ku, which she invented, but brings a multicultural, Diasporic voice to the forefront of modern poetics.

Her latest collection, Nota Bene Eiswein, continues to mine new areas of inspiration, as she “excavates” the writings of the poet Christian Hawkey and the novelist Sara Bird.

The title, translated as “Note Well Ice Wine,” is explained in the Notes to Poems on page 109, as well as the source material and methods Tabios worked from to create the two halves of this collection, titled “Ice: Behind the Eyelet Veil” and “Wine—The Singer and Others—Flamenco Hay(na)ku.”

In “Ice,” Tabios works in a number of forms, using Hawkey’s poetry as a launching point while mixing in additional source material as she works. Examples include everything from randomly opening and then quoting from Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Harvest to lyrics pulled from the 2008 “American Idol” finals. This kind of playfulness and spontaneity in the midst of complex forms and techniques makes Tabios’ poetry accessible in ways that it might otherwise miss.

“Wine” is all about flamenco (“the music of drunkards and prostitutes,” p. 56), opening with a quote from Federico Garcia Lorca and employing its hay(na)ku structure to created a heat-filled, energetic, and whirlwind representation of the spirited dance that is its subject. Within these fiery ink-songs we learn about the Flamenco Ten Commandments (seven of which must not be revealed to outsiders) and such illustrious practitioners as Carmen Amaya, whose talent led her to the big screen as well as to Washington, DC, where she danced for FDR and Harry Truman. The poems “Sangre Negra/Black Blood,” “Dark Freedom,” and “Bait the Dark Angel By” are the highlights of this section.

In reading and reviewing several of Eileen Tabios’ collections, I have often been struck by her ability to take large themes and subjects, such as Diaspora and flamenco, and bring them around to her own vision and mission as a poet and artist. In “The Singer” she writes,

the worst thing
one can
say

about someone in
flamenco? No
me

dice nada. He
didn’t say
anything

to me… (pg. 68)

On the facing page, directly opposite, she writes,

…Do
you know
what

would be the
worst thing
said

about my poetry?
I created
nothing

that moved you.

Her passion and efforts for connection with the reader make all the difference here. Although Tabios is coming from a place of High Art, there is nothing ivory tower about her poetics. This is a balance that both the street poets and academics should be seeking if we are to revitalize our worth as poets.

In the poem “As If the Poet Loves Everything and Everyone” the parallels between poetry and flamenco are explored more fully, twisting and turning around the line “So dance me a poem.”

Dance me a poem. Are we as poets—and as readers—able to take that challenge?

“Wine” ends with the beautifully rendered story-poem “La Loca,” a piece that had my mind racing with thoughts of multimedia stagings in a place where spoken words meet music, imagery, shadow and light, in a culmination of what Tabios has explored in previous pages.

Nota Bene Eiswein ends with a two-page exploration of “Tattoo Poetics,” yet another new form that has come out of the creative atmosphere that exists because of Eileen Tabios and her willingness to “excavate” unexplored mines of material and meaning.

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