ALLEN GABORRO reviews THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS
PHILIPPINE NEWS, March 28, 2007:
Paean to colons and commas
By Allen Gaborro
Little attention is paid to the application of punctuation marks in a text. Yet, with the simple shift of a semicolon or a comma, how a sentence or paragraph is interpreted can change. In the first volume of her “The Secret Lives Of Punctuations” poetry collection, Eileen Tabios invests her idiosyncratic verses with an emphasis not only on imaginative thinking and on a “weakness” for departing from the norms of the English language, but also on the taken-for-granted practice of punctuation.
Tabios shares this passion for creative punctuation with Barbara Jane Reyes, Paolo Javier, Eric Gamalinda and other published FilAm poets. This unconventional, even esoteric, form has been passed down to them by a revered Filipino prophet of the art of innovative punctuation, José Garcia Villa. His nonconformist spirit is alive and well in Tabios’s poetry.
Such deconstructionist poetry as Tabios’s has the ability to either inspire wonderfully limitless layers of meaning among the open-minded or downright contempt among old school poetry enthusiasts. Traditionalists are sure to bemoan the glaring absence of clear-cut continuity and linearity in her work, which must be a far cry from anything they have grown accustomed to reading. But the highly subjective ground on which Tabios’s poetry stands in “The Secret Lives Of Punctuations” is the bread and butter of her poeticism. It is where the anomalous magnetism of her works lie, tradition be damned.
Tabios’s devotion to an individualistic-centered strategy of poetic interpretation can be encapsulated in what she calls a “long-held poetic interest of mine.” That interest involves, as she puts it, “writing poems that can be read forward, backward, left to right or right to left.” Tabios’s poetry can be transmuted into the notion that beginnings are ends and that ends are really beginnings, to borrow loosely from T.S. Eliot. In the hands of an unabashed rule-breaker like Tabios, Eliot’s universal idea of ends and beginnings tears apart coherent narrative patterns. Indeed, to understand Tabios’s poetry means having to do away with easily-discernable signifier-to-signified interactions between words, phrases, and sentences, and thus between poems and their essences if it can be said there is such a thing. Perhaps this is a reach, but if one had to find comparisons in her unregimented verses to the productions of a particular visual artist, Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock and his disorderly, nonrepresentational “drip” paintings would seem to fit the bill.
Tabios meant for “The Secret Lives Of Punctuations” to be a sort of homage to the family of English punctuation marks: the comma, the question mark, colons and semi-colons, the ellipsis, and strikethroughs are all given special mention by the author. She utilizes each mark to subvert the standard forms of the King’s English, or in the postmodern context of Tabios’s poetry, the Americanized version of His Majesty’s English. What is alluded to here is Tabios’s attempt, however circuitously, to delineate a trajectory between her poetry and the historical narrative of America’s colonial relationship with the Philippines.
As if acting as Tabios’s postcolonial spokeswoman, Sonoma State University Professor Leny Mendoza Strobel asserts that Tabios’s poems are a response to how the grammatical rules that administer the English language have been usurped in the service of American colonial domination. This contention appears in Strobel’s essay, also titled “The Secret Lives of Punctuations,” which is incorporated into Tabios’s book. Referring to herself as a “postcolonial subject,” Strobel writes that “the rules of English usage didn’t come in a vacuum. They came nicely packaged as a ‘gift’ from the empire to its colonial outposts.” For Strobel, Tabios’s verses “de-familiarize” English punctuation in order to “avoid recycling the narratives of an imperial past that has become useless to the present.”
If we were to coalesce the totality of Tabios’s poems into a single commentary, we would probably be compelled to step beyond the thematic content of her works and recognize that they hang on the perspective of the noble individual who lives experientially in the world and who meditates spiritually above it. With all the subtlety of a kamikaze pilot, Tabios explains that “I, robustly believing in subjectivity, fling myself naked, hair matted and blood rushing into the poetry-writing.”
Tabios gives readers every opportunity to gaze out on the far side of their existence and see that “reality,” poetic or otherwise, is contingent upon the dynamic energies that run throughout their unique human imaginations. That said, hard work and great patience will be required on the part of readers if they are to understand and appreciate Tabios’s poetry. But that will only make the interpretive chase that much more sweeter.