Monday, January 30, 2006


[First published in BOOKMARK, 2005]

Review by Thomas Fink
Poems by Eileen R. Tabios
Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, N.Y.
$25.00, 502 pp, Paper

In her poem “I Do,” Filipina-American author Eileen R. Tabios’s assertion “I do know English” is followed closely by the line, “I do know English and still will not ask permission”). But why does Tabios, in her book’s title, perform a kind of marriage vow to English, the language that was instrumental in the colonization of her native land between 1898 and 1946? “I Do,” which contains ironic references to the 2000 U.S. Presidential election and efforts to wring some honesty or feeling from a game-playing lover, also includes the information: “Because I do know English, I have been variously called Miss Slanted Vagina, The Mail Order Bride, The One With The Shoe Fetish, The Squat Brunette Who Wears A Plaid Blazer Over a Polka-Dot Blouse, The Maid”. Wouldn’t marrying English accord European-American masculinity patriarchal privilege over Filipina otherness? Instead, this kind of wedding brings a “knowledge” (in both the cognitive and erotic sense) of English that bespeaks the woman’s agency (despite the colonial and patriarchal past) and equality (especially in the refusal to “ask permission”). It also acknowledges that the poet has lived in the U.S. most of her life, speaks and writes, at this point, only English, cannot return to some pristine “origin” of the Philippines, as it does not exist, and gives herself the right to use the English language in a way that resists residues of colonial power relations.

If this sounds “postcolonial,” Tabios would rather be known as “transcolonial”: her work implicitly acknowledges colonial oppression and her people’s postcolonial difficulties stemming from prior and enduring exploitative relations, but she insists that this must not be the only subject matter: she must be able to write “across” these challenges to take on whatever aesthetic and social realms her imagination and elective associations bring her. The poet insists upon the freedom to seduce English, be seduced by its pleasures, and transform it in ways that produce effects and structures that the old colonizers could neither fathom nor countenance. For example, her “Clyfford Still Studies,” a suite of prose-poems with some verse-lines, spotlight Tabios’s ekphrastic mode, a dominant feature in her 2002 book of prose-poems, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole. These texts do not literally convey the dark, jagged fields of the abstract expressionist’s big paintings but use them as a departure point for emotive journeys: “You know what I mean, that feeling of the very air pressing against you, the leaves whispering snidely overhead, the bees conspiring on what should be only a randomly-executed attack” (“On the Limits of Context”).

Indeed, Tabios’s work is more frequently abstract and disjunction-studded--in a word, “experimental,” and so it is helpful that, along with poems and prose-poems, Tabios provides ample discursive clarification of social, political, and aesthetic contexts. Tabios devotes space to her weblog explorations of poetics--which are well known in the cyber-poetry world--to accounts of her poetic processes (including “poem-sculptures”), to her invention of the “hay(na)ku),” a cousin of the haiku, and to her orchestration of “happenings,” involving many people and various other art forms, that constitute her belief in poetry as performance, not merely dramatic but worldly. Filipino-American poet Nick Carbo’s interview with Tabios is also included, as are e-mail exchanges with other poets. The book ends with a close reading by Ron Silliman, not only a pre-eminent Language Poet but a widely “hit” blogger.

As for the organization of the poetry, prose-poetry, and other elements (including a few of Tabios’s actual wedding photos) in the book, this is part of the “performance” of poetry/poetics. The first section spans 214 pages (more than twice as long as the average poetry collection) and includes 10 sections, each of which has a particular thematic or formal rationale. Section III, “an autobiography” that is not an autobiography, comprises a verse novel (“The Definitive History of Fallen Angels”) about a female character’s adventures in love and longing that offers many flashes of psychological insight without a traditional novel’s recognizable plot structure and closure.

For someone so intent on establishing ways of situating her poetic production, Tabios also manages to sound like 70s Reader-Response literary theorists, even more than the Language Poets, in insisting that the reader, not the author, “completes” the text. She even includes a section of “Footnote” poems that appear on the bottom of otherwise blank pages. As noted on the back cover, “the texts which generate the footnote-poems are not included, thus enabling a space where readers play the role of speculating what story(ies) is (are) being footnoted.” Even contextual specifications about race, ethnicity, international history, and (for that matter) gender and class cannot fully control the instability of reference in such texts as the “Conjuration” poems, where multiple “ands” and blank spaces disrupt any sense of continuity, and the “Epilogue Poems,” where ampersands abound and some lines are simultaneously present and crossed out.

I read many of Tabios’s poetic explorations of romantic/erotic themes as a testing of the claims of freedom and deterministic constraints. “Rapunzel’s Deaf Eyes” rewrites the old western fairy tale to articulate an imprisonment of self within others’ idealized expectations ("I live in a turret now/ No stairs, no hair// Reading yourself/ into a stranger’s poem// for a ‘hidden track’/ lying// beneath lemonade days/ envied by all// except their owner,” but it ends with the possibility of an overriding illumination:

meat withers
in the freezer

children and spouses
lose innocence

Only the moon
remains to write

me of something
the rumors profess

is called “light.”

Moonlight is both a (traditional) external source of inspiration and a trope of internal fortitude that “writes” the poet’s unflagging determination to exceed socially imposed limitations, to persist in the “transcolonial” goal of “transit” expressed in the title of one of her poems: “Fly Luminously, Please”


Thomas Fink, a Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, has published three books of poetry and two books of criticism.
A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP) appeared in 2001. His paintings hang in various collections.


  • ps I'm having a little trouble sending comments so if I do it twice please excuse me and I apologize.

    By Blogger answer-man, at 10:04 PM  

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