Wednesday, February 01, 2006


[First published in SENTENCE, A JOURNAL OF PROSE POETICS, Winter 2004]

Eileen Tabios. Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole
Marsh Hawk Press, New York, NY: 2002. ISBN: 0-9713332-8-9.
By Chris Murray

"She knows she said I won't reach out to you again. But even as I write this, I don't think I'll have broken that promise. You don't exist."
--Eileen Tabios, "Eclipse,"
Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole

Those smallish parts of language, pronouns, are a significant source of artful excess: they are representatives, or reproductions of various speaking persons. The fact that there is no material substance to any poetic relationship of "I" to "You" is not news--think Rolling Stones, "Paint it Black," for the abject in that kind of relation of presence to absence. In language use, material referents always seem to shy from, to recede from their pronouns, and vice versa. Think silent films, the swirling of light down to a pinhole, then nothing. In the rhetorical economy necessary for poetry pronouns are an especial focal point of recession and reproduction for their referents. The prose poem as form makes this even more interesting since requiring that the relations be sustained at length, although they can never be anything but partial.

The prose poems in Eileen Tabios's Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002) are laden with loss, with the problematics of lyric, in terms of addressing the absent other, the loss of physical other, the various problem of missing someone in space and in time. No small order for poetry to fill. Yet it is those smallish parts of language, pronouns, in their relations, which are given the work of reflecting and poetically resonating with the larger metonymic, a problematic of situating parts to wholes.

The pronoun-woven quote above, from the book's opening poem, "Eclipse," resonates exponentially with both the promise and the loss of physical meeting, "She knows ... I won't reach out to you... " (13). Thus it highlights a certain pronomial eclipse (and literally, too, given the poem's title), an excess, a wandering swirl of voice(s) that suggests the promise of known people, people warm with identity and voice--yet these are never quite manifest nor fulfilling to the speaker: the addressee, the unspecified "you," does "not exist," so is eclipsed by the reproduction, the pronoun. This is one way that the contradictions eddying around pronomial relations nevertheless provide renewed ways to think about lyric poetry and the in-turning of to speaker, the first person voice(s): "But even as I write this, I don't think I'll have broken that promise." Promise resonates continually, yet never manifests. It is the very problem of writing itself, as this speaker also notes. A book of poems focused to that relation and how variously it works is always news for readers of poetry.

News, and yet also a mainstay of poetic tradition in terms of lyric poetry. Here is the opening of "How Cyberspace Lost Midnight," one of many places in these poems that tightly link and configure to maximum economy all of these matters: representations of material body, grief over its loss, the presence/absence of the other, lyric image and voice. What drives the poetic economy here is that the pronouns resonate with the work of indicating people caught up in poetic regions of excess, here, that very contemporary space of excess, "Cyberspace":

Petals cling to the wet pavement, forlorn in their solitude and with the insistence of their grasp. She tries to avoid stepping on them, then considers the intention silly. But she continues to avoid their pale flesh, seeking instead the stolid indifference of the pavement. In the fragility of a cyclamen's aftermath, she senses a storm's apology.

She is familiar with departures: the loosening of embraces, the forfeiture of birthplaces... . Before the millennium, this thing called the Internet sought to intervene... . She wrinkles her brow in understanding for the first time how much she is about to lose, even as she refuses to pull the emergency rope that would cease the train she discovers herself piloting. There are bodies laid on the tracks. (65-66)

There is a strong subtext of drama in this poem, of narrative driving the lyric, staging it, and in very effective ways. Throughout the book there is a metatextually feminist subtext, as well, as shown in that primacy of regard for both real and symbolic dramas of material body, its desires and limits.

The feminist voice here should not come as a surprise: Tabios has made it known that this book contains poems authored as a way of exorcising "the dehumanizing aspects" of her own past life in the finance industry. Of the poem, "The Investment Banker," she writes: "I realized that -- particularly with this poem's ending -- I had written it in an attempt to obviate the dehumanizing aspects of my finance career."(1) The poem dwells on loss of "avoidance," which should be "under control" in terms of the speaker's loss of self: "At 4 a.m. he is not displeased to be alone walking the streets. At 4 a.m., he feels that the hour offers a certain excuse for his loneliness" (70), yet no excuse for the anomie, the eroding of necessary, humanizing, connectedness to people, to life.

The poem resonates with issues of male-centered gendering. And on the metatextual level, something of a coup de grace: written by a woman in the voice of a banker, a man, exposing his personal longings and the vapid nature of his work, it is as if to say, I, a woman, do hereby exorcise this particular, dehumanizingly male-centered way of being through my art. Indeed, a very freeing, assertive mode given any gender orientation and cultural situation.

To my mind, the measure of a poetry book's success would linger over questions of intellectual usefulness--the book's continuing, viable rhetorical challenges. In that sense alone, then, volumes could be written about how and why Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is important both for purposes of study in creative rhetorics or poetics, and as a most satisfying, pleasurable read.

(1) Eileen Tabios, "Humanizing a Dehumanizing Career," article posted to Tabios' weblog, Chatelaine-Poetics, Archived Sunday 28 Dec 03, 9:25 a.m.


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