[First published in Poetic Inhalation, 2004
]Let Us Now Praise Famous Women . . . .Book review by Ric Carfagna
As in the 19th century when humanism sought to break the grip of the theocratic hierarchal influence pervading society, it seems it's now time (high time) to move, or at least adjust, the spotlight away from the patriarchal domination that overshadows so many aspects of our world; and it is the art (poetry) world that I'm particularly interested in here. So now it is time to Praise, or at least acknowledge with gratitude the accomplishments of women. Eileen Tabios and her new book, Ménage A Trois With The 21st Century
does this quite nicely. And although the women Eileen 'acknowledges' might not necessarily be household names or even personages whom we have ever heard of before, their accomplishments in society and the world is significant, as we realize upon reading Ménage
. Eileen's book comes on the heels of another work, Catherine Daly's Da Da Da
, that prominently features the undertakings -- some overtly obvious, some more subtly hidden -- of women through the ages.... Eileen and Catherine's books provide a good one-two punch to the petrified patriarchal institutions that set themselves up as consummate 'taste-makers' and authorities. Hopefully the positive trend these two poets have initiated will continue and to some degree 'even the score', if such a thing is possible, tracing such literary and other practices back to Eve! Eileen in her wisdom understands this, featuring as her heroines two women from diverse time periods: one ancient (2300BCE) and one more modern, well modern in a relative sense (18th Century). I will speak in some detail on these personas momentarily but first I would like to expound the 'physicality' of Eileen's book in general. xPress(ed)
has been offering first rate quality e-books since 2002. Jukka-Pekka Kervinen is the editor of both xPressed and x-Stream
, the companion e-zine of new poetry vistas. What makes this new release so special is that it is the inaugural foray of xPress(ed) into the world of the 'empirical' book. Ménage A Trois With The 21st Century
is an appropriate jumping off point for xPress(ed) so soon into this new century. It sets the stage for what will hopefully be a long illustrious publishing career. Jukka, who is a first rate poet and cutting-edge poetic experimenter, is also proving himself to be a top-notch editor. He possesses a keen eye for uncovering and disseminating new and exceptional poetic talent, and 'exceptional' is most assuredly the word I would use to describe the poetry of Eileen Tabios. Ménage
sports a unique cover, designed by Jukka: it bears a ghostly image of Eileen embedded in a random computer generated sequence of alpha-numeric characters. It seems as if Eileen's voice is emanating from behind a din of garbled mechanistic background noise. On the back cover the image is reversed and Eileen's image is fore grounded with the random code fading into near invisibility. The book contains 3 works: a three page preface poem and two longer sequences taking up the remainder of the book's 120 plus pages. In the review copy Eileen sent to me she included a lovely, personal message: "For Ric, To poetry as a way of Life." Indeed, Eileen does approach poetry as a way of life. Her words speak from the depths of her being, emanating a truth and beauty that is simply brilliant. Even when Eileen delves into abstractions and transcendent speech she has an inimitable way of relating it to the pragmatic world we inhabit. The reader never feels lost in an etheric haze of non-tangibilities. One can savor each word and image she creates as a tasty morsel being part of a bigger feast. Her poetic vision is a unique experience: If, as I have dreamt, I possess twenty-ten vision, I then can see wind shift along an ocean's silver surface. Or the curl of a leaf dropping a few miles away. . . .
. . .
whose reality is the ideal
for you in me
"Venus Rising For The First Time in the 21st Century" serves as an epigraph, an opening poem which sets the stage both physically and spiritually for what is to follow. It takes us back to the first time we saw the evening/morning 'star', Venus, rising above the horizon in this new century: so silent and unassuming, swimming in a celestial sea far removed from all the joys and tragedies acted out on this small insignificant speck of dust called earth. Through the still air we see our 'sister' planet, a radiant sentinel in the sky. We choose to acknowledge it or not. Maybe we think of Botticelli's Birth of Venus and knowing how appropriate an image that might serve: her emergence into the world of 'flesh', her conception brought to full term and its fecundity gracing our eyes with its beauty, its perfection: fleshed creature
in a sea's dim depths
towards a sun
in whose light
scars reveal themselves
However we envision it, 'it' is life manifesting, attempting to teach the terrestrial mind to transcend earthly binds, seeing light and love removed from the shackles that 'mankind' so ignorantly places it its hearts and minds: you want to see
herself. You want
you behind the wave
. . .
We next encounter the first of the two large poetic sequences: "Enheduanna In The 21st Century." It is divided into twenty sections with an introduction. It is a work that draws us viscerally in by its massive proclamation. Its length and breadth rises from the poetic depths like a great leviathan threatening to devour the reader in a great flourish of poetic passion. In the opening pages we are introduced to Enheduanna (born 2300BCE). She is considered the world's first recorded poet to have her work preserved on cuneiform tablets. She is a moon princess and daughter of the King of Sumeria. She was known to summon Innanna (or Ishtar), the Sumerian goddess of love who would descend to the earth in response to her invocations. But we are told that once Innanna deserted Enheduanna and Enheduanna removed herself to a leper colony to mourn. Eileen has taken that event and moment in time to explore, in her words, "the sensibility underlying this period of Enheduanna's anguish: desire."
Through its twenty sections Eileen weaves for us sublime tapestry of beauty and perfection. By looking upon and meditating upon her words, we are transformed and translated-fused to both the present moment and the ancient arcane past. We enter a realm beyond the pedestrian ego's ability to imagine and become enveloped in a state of an unfolding enlightenment. Eileen speaks not only as if she is exploring and meditating upon this ancient princess but as if she has taken on her actual identity, enshrouded in the flesh, an incarnated oracle appearing to impart an ancient, clandestine wisdom and how it relates to this current century. Ultimately she reveals how all things change, yet how all things remain the same: And because I see today how the sky waxes and wanes between white and grey, I know you have become uncertain. How difficult it is to remain impassive before the sight of tremor? You are learning how a secret contains seemingly infinite depth . . .
. . .
Tell me, you who reads me: are you as unmoved as your reticence implies? Unmoved as you witness me "lose myself from (my) view" of you? . . .
Each of the twenty sections takes on the appearance of a meditative personal journal, an internal conversation. There are musings on current modern situations, the architecture, the technology and the landscape, and how Enheduanna might herself react when placed in the author's current timeline and circumstances: And are you thinking of me while you pace the streets of a city whose sidewalks have
memorized the atonal rhythm of my footsteps? Surely you have walked through the spaces I have hollowed out from air left behind in anticipation of you.
. . .
There, now. When you turn this corner and feel Baudelaire's "infinite expanse" at the sight of a sky thinned by two parallel skyscrapers . . .
There are times I am reminded of Olson: how he took Maximus of Tyre as his spiritual-poetic mentor, placing him in the Gloucester of the 20th century. Eileen's circumstance is not too dissimilar a situation. Where the two differ is in the messages they both 'receive' from their respective muse, and then 'translate' that message to us the reader. Olson sought to bring forth a historical account rooted in empirical facts. His 'message', entangled within his infamous lists of 'stuff', his profiles and accounts of the Gloucester's place and personalities currently and throughout its history, this colored by his attempt to expound "The Tale of The Tribe", to quote the title of Michael Bernstein's book. Eileen differs in her approach. We come to know her mind in a more intimate, compassionate way. She probes with depth and questions her surroundings, relating them back to her ancient muse, thereby placing Enheduanna in the present day. She seems at times to be entranced, totally absorbed in 'otherness'. This 'experience' reaches beyond the mere cognition of facts and figures, it assumes the nature of a mystical/transcendent phenomenon. We come to know that all occurrence emanates from the reality the mind manifests; and this is a 'true' reality to the eyes and emotions of the author, and vicariously, to the reader. Should we pause this expressionist brushstroke so I may ask: What can I do to break a certain pattern? What can I do to avoid the birth of regret in this space you and I have fashioned from moon, light, wind, sky, mules, paintings, rainbows, diamonds, chocolates, "aggressive speculation," and the wings of six fallen angels?
Moon, light, wind, mules, rainbows, angel wings, etc., quite a different itemization than an Olson 'list' of things. These are the trinkets and jewels that capture Eileen's eye, mind and imagination. Although Olson did speak of jewels and miracles,they were off-shore, by islands; Eileen's are within her being.
There is a curious note in "Enheduanna #20," which also happens to be the longest section in the poem. It begins with an epigraph from St. John of the Cross: "I live without inhabiting myself"
Eileen has surrendered a part of her identity to bring to life her ancient poetic counterpart. She has resurrected this kindred spirit through her will and through Eileen's eyes Enheduanna sees again and probes all that transpires in her new surroundings. There is the questioning, the quest and the longing to understand the driving force behind desire, behind anguish, their outward manifestations and the inner facets, how they intimately shape who we are. And though time and distance might seem to separate one from another, ultimately it is a common ontological/metaphysical inheritance that is shared, This is one of the mysteries the self seeks to unravel in the relatively short amount of time allotted to this physical existence. Eileen puts it so perfectly: I have memorized this girl's tale
for its location in a city
you once shared with me
in the same time zone,
a period both our memories failed
to grasp so that I may write
whose reality is the Ideal
for you in me
In the third of the poems, "Gabriela Silang Couple(t)s With The 21st Century," Eileen once more 'entangles' herself with a historical personage. This time it is Gabriela Silang, the wife of the slain Philippine revolutionary Filipino Diego Silang. The setting is the 18th century Philippines and the revolt against forced colonization by the Spanish authorities. Gabriela, was more a revolutionary than her husband, leading, in Eileen words, "one the longest (possibly the longest) local rebellion against the Spaniards." Although historically significant, the revolt was short lived. Gabriela and her followers were captured and hanged; Gabriela was thirty two years old. The poem is an extensive testament continuing sixty pages. In her treatment of an 'unsung' heroine, I am reminded of Susan Howe's work on similar themes. The design of the poem does stay true to the title: couplets; also the play on couple(t)s shouldn't go unnoticed. As in the previous poem, Eileen transforms the past to present, this time via someone not so far removed from current day. Eileen states in the intro "I wrote these poems to create a new life for Gabriela Silang in the 21st century." This Eileen accomplishes in her of structure of 'coupling' with Gabriela. The style and approach is different than it was for Enheduanna. In Gabriela Eileen states that she has "inserted details from my life because I sensed that I could best speak for/about Gabriela by not denying who was then speaking on her behalf." These personal inserted details augment our understanding of both Eileen and Gabriela. They show us the mind of Eileen at work, her imagination, compassion and sincerity. These and other qualities fuse with the historical personage of Gabriella, creating for the reader an ongoing conversation, an anamnesis and a revelatory experience: She keeps losing
this ancient lesson:
"white" does not signify
a bleached bone
and an orchid petal
share each other's complexion --
she keeps losing
this same lesson
No metaphors exist
for genocide --
Eileen's work serves as a historical testimony to Gabriela's revolutionary courage. We witness her reaching beyond the safe haven of insular self in her attempts to 'break the back' of the will-to-power: the subjugating force that threatened to oppress her people: The Book of Genesis
"to have dominion
over the fish of the sea
over the fowl of the air
over the cattle, over the earth"--
Like many other things
enforced upon my people
the gospel of invaders
offers no succor--
It is interesting to note the similarities of the words genesis and genocide, how one denotes a beginning and one denotes an end. This did not escape Eileen's notice, and even though the above two excerpts are separated by thirty pages, the message comes through with a ringing clarity, not obfuscated by superfluous rhetoric.
In "Domestic," Eileen ruminates on ". . . If A Revolution Had Not Interfered," what Gabriela's life might have offered her: I am a stranger
to laced-edged aprons--
are rarely ripe--
My dining room boasts
a long mahogany table
whose silk flowers
offer the fragrance of dust--
Just in the first two lines we get an idea of Gabriela's nonconformist, revolutionary spirit, the unease in her heart and her innate knowing that there is more to life than domestic prattle and the trivialities that consume so many others: That I have money
for perfect hems
Here we sense another facet of her disquietude: her innate realization that all materiality is transient, a momentary glimmer and then a passing to dust: Perhaps I hold the potential
for a poem keening
for the sun
to irradiate the sky
until we all inhabit
the same room
in Walt Whitman's
Here we have Eileen/ Gabriela coming to a realization of the inherent potential for transformation that indwells all existence; a rising above the insignificant ephemeralities that fill our world. There is the aspiration at the core of every person to find the 'meaning', to ultimately understand the reason why, and the purpose of The "fragile balance"
. . .
She would have compromised
"Gabriela Silang Couple(t)s With The 21st Century" and "Enheduanna In The 21st Century" are diverse, multi-faceted and eclectic in their construction and their offering. They cover the spectrum from tragedy to ecstasy and every emotion in between like the changing hues and patterns in a fine embroided fabric. The reader comes upon these shifts in sentiment and sensibilities and is compelled to adopt a new frame of reference, a new landscape in which they must navigate. But the compass remains always in the hands of Eileen's good sense of structure, logic and fluid readability. This allows the reader to easily flow from one transition to another: And perhaps you are looking today at a sky whose blue sapphire radiance often makes her sing, and you hear her singing now. . . .
. . .
And you suddenly become a statue in the midst of a crowded street, a horde of black-clad strangers dividing itself about you (making you remember, even as you continue to fall into this dream, a photograph of nuns lifting their skirts as they run towards the edge of a wave). . . .
. . .
I remember the rice fields
sometimes melancholy at dusk
. . .
I am empty
. . .
engendered by beauty
What I find fascinating is Eileen's ability to incite us to explore the many aspects of our emotional makeup. Her poetry displays a higher level of creation, one that takes our consciousness beyond the mundane world of a diurnal immediacy, out of our 'quiet lives of desperation' and lifts our awareness, seating us in the upper echelons of a transcendent reality. Eileen's poetry also serves as a 'reverse' prophetic utterance. She is more than a historian spewing forth dry facts and dates. She understands human nature, she expresses in her writing the burden of freedom, of beauty and knowledge of the sublime nature existing at the core of all things. Her visions are articulated with a graceful poetic poise and though she at times relates the cruel and godless aspects of humanity, she never wanders far from her center of peace. This comes across wonderfully and honestly to the reader. The closing lines from the poem Wedding Veil best serve to describe Eileen's poetry and Eileen: Only beauty,