Monday, February 11, 2013

“Of Painters and Planes and Poems”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’ The Awakening

(New York: theenk Books, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-9647342-8-9)

Going to the mailbox and finding the latest book by Eileen Tabios is always a treat for me. Of all the poets and writers of poetry I have been blessed enough to know over the past two decades, none provokes thought and inspiration more than she.

Eileen is a pioneer, inventing new forms such as the hay(na)ku, and always adding in some essays or other notes into her collections. In the end, I always feel like I have gotten just that little bit more from her and her work than “just” poems.

In The Awakening, we get a little bit of lots of things, so if you’ve yet to read Eileen’s work, this is an excellent place to start. In less than 60 pages, she gives us a long poem on the sexual (mis)adventures of some of history’s best-known painters, as framed through the medical work of the poet and MD William Carlos Williams. We then move on to an offering of emails sent and received on September 11, 2001, that dark and obliterating day, interwoven with lyrics from “Moon Over Paris.” “The Awakening of A” is a hay(na)ku about colonialism throughout the world—a theme that Tabios has been de- and reconstructing throughout her many works. These three pieces, lest we think them intended to be seen as truly separate, are presented as a Triptych. Last is an excerpt from a Presentation she gave on the Filipino diaspora at a poetics conference in San Francisco just a few months ago. Each piece is so unique, and yet the overarching themes of the important of poetry and the active role of the reader weave each of the four together.

I’d like to discuss the three parts of the Triptych in some detail.

The first part of the Triptych, “The Erotic Life of Art: A Séance with William Carlos Williams,” is perhaps my favorite work I’ve ever read by this author. Readers of my short stories and Minor Confessions of an Angel Falling Upward (Burning Bulb Publishing, 2012) know how much I enjoy creating narrative from the nigredo of cultural reference and biographical minutiae. Whereas in Minor Confessions I focus on the murderous tendencies of various artists, Tabios’ work draws from their dalliances with prostitutes and other ill-advised lovers and their experiences with various venereal diseases. What I like best about this piece is that Tabios is such an active narrator, posing questions about life and art along the way (including the news that Williams’ father thought very little of his poems… more than one of us can no doubt relate). From Van Gogh to Da Vinci, from Cellini to Rembrandt, from Goya to Rodin, from Toulouse-Lautrec to Picasso, there are things here about their lives, sexual and otherwise, that makes these titans of art all the more human. Much is drawn from Nigel Cawthorne’s Sex Lives of the Great Artists, but 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.

True to form, Tabios does all she can to create a relationship, an intimacy with the reader, at one point asking:

…By the way, it never fails,

does it?—this neat gimmick to insert a question
within the poem that, were I to read it out loud

to an audience, would allow me to form a sense
of intimacy not otherwise possible by me simply reading

and you simply listening (p. 12)

Or, we could insert, “by my simply writing and you simply reading.” This is one of the key values of Tabios’ work—not only as a writer but also as an editor and teacher: How do we continually engage with our audience as writers, rather than talking AT them?

Notice the use of the word “gimmick.” It lacks all pretension. That’s a good starting place for any writer, beginning or master. Leave all the lingo behind, or explain it in terms everyone can understand.

The middle part of the Triptych is entitled “911/My Forty-First Birthday—Notes for the Poem that I will not Write.” As mentioned above, this “poem” consists of emails sent by Tabios and others during the course of that fateful day interwoven with lyrics from “Moonlight Over Paris,” which was playing in the background as she assembled the emails into this piece.

September 11, 2001 is of course one of those monumental days in history. Like JFK’s assassination or the day the Challenger exploded, you often hear the question: “Where were you when it happened?” I was working in my home office at the Jersey shore when my younger sister called from Rhode Island: “Are you watching the news?” I switch on the television about 5 minutes before the plane went into the second Tower. Surreal. Life-changing. I knew in my heart that nothing would ever be the same again. It was a tense two hours waiting for my wife to make the drive home from northern Jersey, where she could see the smoke from the Towers from her office building. Two of my uncles narrowly missed being at the WTC that day. One had a meeting canceled; the other was there the day before.

The emails selected for the poem cover all the key ground: thoughts and prayers; disbelief; worry about missing loved ones; and true fear over what the United States would do and how right it would be in doing it.

The tranquility of the song lyrics adds a razor sharp contrast to the texts of the emails, capturing the dichotomies and distortions that have continued to prevail since that time.

The third part of the Triptych is a hay(na)ku called “The Awakening of A.” Readers familiar with Tabios’ work will know that the hay(na)ku is a form she invented that has stanzas consisting of three lines, with three words in the first, two in the second and one in the third. In this case, there are prose lines also interdicted throughout. Previously published in Otoliths, the poem takes its inspiration from two books, a video, and a news article about the staggering statistics and human horror of colonialism throughout the world. It is a sobering reminder that the age of Empire was not overcome and obliterated, but merely morphed into the age of the Multinationals.

Once again, The Awakening is a great introduction to anyone who has yet to have the pleasure of engaging with Tabios’ work. And for those, like myself, who have come to anticipate and treasure new volumes, she continues to be on the frontier of what poetics should be in our world.