Wednesday, July 27, 2016

“A Collaborator in Alleys”: A Poem-Review of Eileen Tabios’ The Connoisseur of Alleys

(Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, www.marshhawkpress.org, 2016)
To mark the occasion of my tenth review of a poetry collection by the prolific and boundary-stretching poet Eileen Tabios, I knew I wanted to do something special—something that would honor Eileen’s ability to take the reader from a position of relative passivity to one of co-creation.
I made an attempt at this before, ending my review of Tabios’ Sumptuous Sculpture (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002) with a poem crafted from another one of my reviews (Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, same publisher and year).
This review, however, takes things much further. Since beginning her ongoing work “Murder, Death, and Resurrection (MDR),” Eileen has created new poems and published seven books that use re-constituted lines from a database of 1,146 lines from her previous works. The Connoisseur of Alleys is one such work.
Following suit, the following is a poem formed from 27 lines taken from my 9 previous reviews of Tabios’ work (3 lines pulled from each). Using a combination of I Ching–inspired coin tossing and one of my own random generator algorithms that I use for my experimental prose projects, the lines have been reformed in what I hope will be both a testament to not only the form and substance of Tabios’ poetic tapestry as I have written about it over the years and a testament to Tabios’ ability to inspire and co-create from afar, through the power of her words and fearless pursuit of new forms to deliver them.
“dieci da nove”
I forgot the hooks are finely barbed and grab you in the deepest places. I forgot each line begins with the phrase “I forgot” which was inspired by a Tom Beckett poem that began in the same manner. I forgot the condition of the artist and one’s Identity (geographically, sexually, psychologically) are key subjects in the considerable volume of work Tabios has created. I forgot poets have been either continually revising their poems (e.g., Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) or taking found texts, etc. to create works for a long time now…
I forgot, if poetry, like all writing, is a form of autobiography, then the path to the Truth is lined with thorns and nails and broken glass, at the end of which are myriad locks. I forgot the riches to be mined are as endless as the possibilities emerging from Tabios herself. I forgot ancient wisdom says that once you find the moon, you no longer need the finger that points to it. I forgot that we, the Readers, are the locks into which the various and sundry keys are meant to enter.
I forgot there is always counterpoint, yin and yang, light in dark. I forgot “The Color of a Scratch in Metal” and “The Fairy Child’s Prayer” are so beautiful, one could read them in meditation over and over, losing all sense of time and place and gaining new perspectives as doors are thrown wide. I forgot scores do not necessarily reflect Math aptitude, but a slew of other deficiencies in Communication. I forgot that the age of Empire was not overcome and obliterated, but merely morphed into the age of the Multinationals.
I forgot Tabios is not only a talented wordsmith, and visual artist of language—she truly is an innovator.
I forgot Dostoyevsky and Freud put forth the notion that it is impossible for an autobiography to reveal the Truth because of our penchant for self-delusion and both positive and negative exaggeration. I forgot the rich wordsmithed novels of the Victorian and Edwardian age, when books were thick and wordy because they were expensive and had to last the reader a good long while. I forgot how much I enjoy creating narrative from the nigredo of cultural reference and biographical minutiae. I forgot I’ve always admired Hunter S. Thompson and Sebastian Junger…
I forgot Oscar Wilde said that the future of fiction is to “reveal the innermost workings of [wo]man’s soul”… then the coupling of reviewer and reviewed is an essential mechanism for opening the locks. I forgot the source material is reconstituted in exquisite couplets full of enjoyable word play and just the right amount of sexual zing to bring a nearly constant smile to one’s face. I forgot it is up to the reader to find unity in disparity; to be the catalyst in an alchemical transaction (a hieros gamos) that rises beyond Reality into the etheric realms where the nigredo of our art is born(e).
I forgot many of the poems have no end punctuation, leaving the thought, the situation, the moment unfinished, as they so often are


Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Review of The Unseen Partner: Love and Longing in the Unconscious, by Diane Croft (Interleaf, 2016). ISBN: 978-0-9967771-0-0 (hardcover)


The source and substance of inspiration are as enigmatic and oft-debated as any of life’s deepest mysteries. Artists in all areas of creativity have been known to undertake ritual, engage in the use of various substances, or conceive of the work in terms of some vast, metaphorical battlefield where the artist must pay in pints of etheric, ghostly blood for the Muses to bestow even the smallest gift of good art upon them. Creativity gurus such as Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) and Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) lead the field with their insights and ideas regarding creativity and inspiration and their relationship to the work.
In Unseen Partner, Diane Croft tells her story of the source and substance of inspiration through the lens of automatic writing: ten years ago she had an experience of this phenomenon that produced, over the course of three years, in excess of 700 poetry verses. The experience would happen “about the same time every morning.” Croft, in an endnote, mentions William Butler Yeats and William Blake, and their experiences with creating through this means, and one might also think of Nostradamus and Philip K. Dick (the latter used the I Ching to write The Man in the High Castle). Croft makes no definitive statement as to whether this was the product of her own subconscious or of an external force from another dimension—which makes Unseen Partner about the poems and their meaning (personal and universal), rather than an exercise in trying to prove from whence they came.
Having two people close to me who communicate with their own Unseen Partners through automatic writing, with profound results of precognition and verifiable details (at times years in advance), I agree that the sooner one moves away from debating the source and concentrating on the messages, the better.
Croft’s journey through this process was not easy (she professes she thought the Unseen Partner could “kill” her and also that hidden aspects of herself came through that produced shame), she persisted, and the result is a beautifully rendered book with a selection of the poems, accompanying artwork (obtained through the copyright-free website Wikimedia Commons), and Jungian and other texts used for analysis of the poems.
As writers, we often struggle to gain the necessary distance from our work to analyze and improve it. It becomes precious to us in the blink of an eye. Given this struggle, I found it fascinating that Croft had the insight to know that these poems were coming from a place—whether interior or exterior—distanced enough from her own conscious background in writing that she was able to analyze them as a critic or reader might. When Croft writes “I take this poem to mean” it cues creators to aspire to a new level of objective detachment from their work. Because of this enforced distance between Creator and Creation, the poems in Unseen Partner are like dreams, begging to be born anew through analysis and the act of sharing them with an audience.
Croft does not settle on one name or definition of what a higher source or “god” might be, which allowed her to pull from a wide range of sources for the epigraph that precedes each poem/image dyad and to center on the relationship of the “I” and the “thou.” We hear from the likes of Rumi, Meister Eckert, Carl Jung, and Jungian “disciple and pioneer” Dr. Edward F. Edinger. Considering the condition of Tat Tvam Asi (“Thou art That,” from the Sanskrit), the lines are further blurred, as the vessel (in this case, Croft), the message (the poem), and the messenger (the Unseen Partner) are inextricably linked.
A quick word about the poem/image dyad before exploring some examples from the book. When a poet uses an image for inspiration (or vice versa), this is called Ekphrasis. The example most often used is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It is impossible to know from the book if Croft is aware of this practice (she says in the introduction that she “felt the need” to find accompanying images), but it is a natural fit, and a testament to the power of following our instincts and inspirations in any creative endeavor.
Although this is far more than a collection of poems, the poems themselves hold merit in and of themselves. Like the works of Rumi or Li Po, they contain a simplicity of format, vivid images, and a gentle, peaceful rhythm:
I am the night covering me
in memories of how I was before
I slipped into this mindfulness. (From “Memory”)

The gods grew tired of waiting
and woke me from a heavy sleep
not by shaking my shoulder
but by breaking my heart. (From “Matters of Heart)

At times, they operate like koans, posing contemplative questions:
“Who is this three of thee and me” (From “Holy Ghost”)
Those familiar with the Rule of Three or Gurdjieff’s Law of Three will see that this notion of the new third emerging from two opposites in balance is reflective of Croft and the Unseen Partner collaborating on this book. Croft chose the following quote, from the Tao Te Ching, to precede the analysis section for this poem: “The one engenders the two, the two engenders the three and the three engenders all things.”
As the book progresses, those familiar with archetypes and how they operate will find abundant treasure here. From notions of the Hero’s Journey to the presence of that powerful Trickster totem animal, Crow, the poems are aspects and reflections of numerous world cultures and mythologies, many of which the author discovered as she was writing the commentary for the book. This, again, is a refreshing reversal of the writer’s usual way of working: gathering research and either using it as a starting point or infusing the writing with pieces and parts of the detail.
In the Epilogue, Croft writes, “My own myth—drawn from a universal database of archetypal imagery—is fashioned from my personal complexes.” This is a profound statement to which I think Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would readily agree. I quote it for two reasons: First, because I believe that this is the well from which all art springs and second, because of the following quote, from the Acknowledgments:  “a book consultant, meaning to be helpful, posed this question: So. You have no credentials in this field, no standing, no platform, no colleagues … and you want to publish a book on archetypal psychology? (emphasis in original). 
I feel fortunate that Croft was not dissuaded by this question, but pursued with increased fervor her 15-year quest to bring this collection to others. After all, what are credentials, standing, platforms, and colleagues when a person’s personal complexes and veiled Muses conspire with the universal database of archetypal imagery?
They are the cold, neutral ash from which the dynamic phoenix of creation takes flight.