Leny Mendoza Strobel presents AFTERWORD to The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I by Eileen R. Tabios
(xPress(ed), Finland, 2006)
The Secret Life of Punctuations
I never told the Roshi this: I have cheated during zazen at the zendo. Instead of counting my breaths and following the comings and goings of thoughts while sitting, I stare at the wall in order to tease out a story lurking within the veins of the wood’s grain and the gnarls in its nubs. I see an awe-struck eye. A creased brow. An upturned lip. Sometimes there is a mirage that invites an interpretation, a nudge in one’s memory bank of a forgotten story.
I am aware that there are rules to be mastered if one is to attain the state of Emptiness. Yet something tells me that I can bend the rules if only to see what lies behind the disobedience. Emptiness can wait.
Punctuation marks remind me of this. The rules of English grammar on punctuation are succinct, non-negotiable. That is why my grade school teacher didn’t spare the rod in order to discipline us on their correct usage. Over time we demonstrated perfect mimicry, ever mindful of the dire consequences of a misplaced mark—a red mark of failure or a slap on the wrist. We learned our punctuation lessons well.
Now we rarely notice them except when they are mis-used. Perhaps that is the point: One is never meant to notice them and yet upon this invisibility a writer builds an elegant sentence or a scaffold of ideas making reading pleasurable. Pause here (,). This clause is independent of the next (;). Exclude this . This points to this (:). End here(.) and so on…
For a postcolonial subject like me, the rules of English usage didn’t come in a vacuum. They came in nicely packaged as a “gift” from the empire to its colonial outposts—so that what is unintelligible might become intelligible; what is obscure might become clear; what is dis-united can be united within one language. So much the better for management of the empire and its unruly colonies.
Time has been kind to the life of Punctuations. The rules are still more or less fixed and undaunted by the malevolent and mischievous tricks played by nativized englishers (non-native English speakers). Partly, it is their invisibility or lurking presence that do not invite grave attention from the grammar police.
Now comes THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I by Eileen Tabios. What happens when a poet decides to foreground punctuation marks and gives them a life of their own? This poetry book is organized this way:
The poems in Semi-Colons all begin with “;”—how do I, the reader, supply the preceding clause to complete the idea here—
; To Study Art Is To Become Thin
I have to admit, it is not easy! There isn’t necessarily a narrative here about studying art or becoming thin. Yet there are images here that prefigures the feeling that comes with falling in love with Art.
; despite Cezanne’s desire, the world is never unclad
; to peruse a painting (intently) and see only one’s uncertainty over where to look
; white velvet ribbon become bookmark
I notice that the titles of the poems and the last line echo back to each other, yet in between there are halves of a thought/image/feeling, with the first half waiting to be filled in by the reader.
; The Loss of a Wool Coat
; exodus [last line]
;The Possible Glow
; ember [last line]
; Hope for Enchantment
; bells [last line]
Two of the three parts to the section on Colons are “The Estrus Gaze(s)” and “from The Masvikiru Quatrains”; the former is inspired by Autism and the question of whether it is a disease or an identity and the latter by the Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe. The poems in “The Estrus Gaze(s)” hearken back to a time of “archaic darkness … when all things were one,” “a never ending pattern,” a “holograph” —perhaps as if to say that autism is not a disease.
Eileen references the Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe in “from The Masvikiru Quatrains” for allowing the vision in their minds’ eyes to emerge through stone effortlessly and delicately. She triangulates this with the work of another poet, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, who generates poems via a computer program that “generates statistical distributions…to avoid patterns” and allowing a period “.” when the computer encounters a space from the vocabulary source. The poet attempts to discover if this manner of constructing poems generate a musicality—a soundscape—with their own rhyme and rhythm and tone.
Eileen takes this process one step further: She strings together three-line words from Jukka’s text and inserts a colon after the first word to create relationship between these words. Out of the abstract threesome pairings, I was surprised and bemused by these (there are many more but here’s a sample):
professor: minutia civil (The Eighth Page)
mastermind: keynote whitener (The Ninth Page)
gulag: floppy mandatory (The Eleventh Page)
The point of Eileen’s poetics here, for me as a reader from a postcolonial space, is a type of de-familiarization with punctuations. The difficulty of responding to these poems lies in the forcible manner by which one must contend with the punctuations before one contends with the words.
The shorter chapters, Parentheses, Ellipses, Strikethroughs, and Question Mark, continue this refrain: what happens when we break the rules? What happens when we de-familiarize ourselves from the very things we take for granted like punctuation marks? What happens when the ellided, marginalized and invisible take on center stage on the page?
As I write this, I am reading Postcolonial Melancholia by Paul Gilroy. He asks the same question but in a different but related context: How can we avoid recycling the narratives of an imperial past that has become useless to the present? How do we deal with the post-imperial trauma (of Britain and by extension, the U.S.) that must rely on these recycled narratives to keep the dead empire alive? How do we deal with the Other who now lives in the (dead) empire’s center? How do we get rid of racism that is at the root of Other-ing?
His reply: De-familiarize the familiar. Dis-entangle ourselves from the old narratives. Withdraw our consent from the empire’s attempt to continue fanning the fires of racism and xenophobia in the name of protecting the empire’s image of its glorious past. Face the reality of the traumatic consequences of colonial conquests.
Could it be that one way of doing that is to begin to look at the greatest tool of the empire of the 19th and 20th century: the English language and its grammar rules?
In a way, I see Eileen de-familiarizing punctuations in these poems. In giving them new and not-so secret lives, she challenges the reader to conjure new relationships, new images, new stories. What was new and difficult for me in taking on these abstract poems is the musicality that wasn’t easily evident at first glance. Perhaps that, too, is conditioned by my inherited sense of rhyme and rhythm coming from certain places (e.g. hip-hop, Cordillera rhythms, salsa) that doesn’t include poetry. In this exercise, I needed and wanted to expand the boundaries of my experience of what is musical. In this sense, poetry has ceased to be an “Other” for me.
Thinking back to why I broke the rules of zazen, it occurs to me that perhaps I have simply become tired of obeying the rules. I ceased to believe the Roshi when he said that I must sit for another 20 years before I can experience Emptiness. In his view there is only one way. He didn’t want to know where I had been—what other practice in my past might have offered me a glimpse of Emptiness—he just wanted me to find his way. He is right, of course, and many believe him. But I was ready for what lies beyond the fence.
For those who are ready for this kind of wild and good ride, this is the book.