Thursday, February 8, 2018

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

(Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press, dosmadres.com, 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.