Thursday, July 18, 2019

“An Innovator, Always”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’ Witness in the Convex Mirror

(Kāne’ohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-9987438-9-9)
It is always a special day when a new work by this innovative and energetic writer arrives in my mailbox. Over the past 10 years, I’ve reviewed about 20 percent of Tabios’ over fifty published works, at times being inspired to be as innovative as the poet and the particular work in how I did so.
Part of her ability to be so prolific is the way she reworks, recycles, and reimagines her own writings and the writings of others—in this case, as the Author’s Note indicates: “Each poem begins with 1 or 1–2 lines from ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery.” In many of my previous Tabios reviews I talk at length about her various means of working with existing pieces to create something new, so I won’t belabor it here. Instead, I’ll say that ALL work a writer or other artist produces is linked to and derivative of something—many things—that have come before.
Tabios simply has the self-awareness to be up front about it, even when it is more ephemeral than repurposing lines from another poet’s already existing poem.
Although Tabios has always been to some extent political, be it the Filipino diaspora, 9/11 and the world ever since, or the complexities of gender or adoption for adopter and adoptee, I found Witness in the Convex Mirror to take it to a new level. And the clue is in the substitution of Witness for Self-Portrait. As many a wise and wizened soul has told us, to Witness is to be responsible to Speak. And speak Tabios does, on a variety of pressing subjects in a hurting and hurtful world. So this review will be less about the technical achievement and more about the content of the poems and the responses they evoke.
Within the first few poems, Tabios makes her declarations on the state of things. Take these lines from “History”:
“We imbue objects with worth as determined by the artifice of scarcity”; “We break proven ancestral wisdom by taking more from the land than what we give back to it” (11)
Pressing and thorny themes, including History itself (who “owns,” who teaches, who manipulates it) that are very much in the current consciousness run all through the poems in this volume. She continues in this vein with “The Temporal,” writing: “I am exhausted from living in the dim shadows of a movie forged from the margins of capitalism” (32). The use of “movie” conjures images of Plato’s Cave, where the illusions are mistaken for reality. Neoliberalism anyone? During a recent historical education tour of a wealthy oil area I was shocked to learn that most of the attendees of my workshops and performances as Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara were not familiar with, nor aware of the etymology of, “neoliberalism.” Talk about a snake successfully inserted into a garden…
So as not to get too, too serious, Tabios interjects (one might say ejaculates) two poems in the mix—“Processing the Sheriff’s Advice” and “The Sheriff’s Advice”—the first the setup and the second the punchline on the subject of terms for male masturbation. The second is also a good example of Tabios’s use of list poems in her cumulative body of work.
The section that follows, Cubism of Color, tackles gender, race, and other political complexities through the modern lens. We have Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; Scarlet(t) Johansson’s turn as an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell (as I was writing this she defended her right to play any kind of human—or an animal or tree); struggles in the Sudan and the bombing of Syria; riffs on an article from The Atlantic and a report about the CDC from the Washington Post; the poverty politics of government cheese (which was a staple of my childhood family meals one particularly desperate year); irresponsibility and the environment; and rape politics and sex dolls (which are already overlapping).
And, because I spent 18 months immersed in the world of Che before the historical education tour last month, I have to quote from  “A Revolt at the Ready”: “I bet you’ll choose Che Guevara’s face, stubbled and with eyes haunting under a black beret—a logo for determination.” The co-optation of his image beautifully represents the distorted reflection and the witness in the convex mirror.
The collection concludes with the Selected Notes and Acknowledgments, which will clue you in to the extent of both the origin material for the collection beyond the Ashbery poem and the true reach and influence of this talented and always innovative poet.

Have a look inside the mirror, and let the poems ask a response.

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