(BlazeVOX Books, New York, 2015)
ARTICULATING THE SILENCE:
ABSTRACTON AND TOTALITY
EILEEN TABIOS’ AGAINST MISANTHROPY
A LIFE IN POETRY
“There is a season for writing, there is a season for detours, there
is a season for publishing, there is a season for rejoicing.”
Against Misanthropy: A Life in Poetry by Filipino-American writer Eileen Tabios seems the sort of collection of writing that is ground-breaking but perhaps without appropriate fanfare, including from the author and publisher themselves. The title of the book doesn’t appear especially political and, in fact, might constitute an attempt to emphasize a general context. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it’s the political undercurrent in them that energizes and ultimately directs the writings contained in this discussion or, to use a favorite word of Tabios, this “engagement.” “Against misanthropy” is a phrase that indicates a disposition toward enthusiasm, optimism. Reading the latest news headlines, with their destructive wildfires, fatal shootings, shark attacks, lawlessness, jarring government shut-downs, I feel Against Misanthropy: A Life in Poetry is a much-needed note of positivity and encouragement. “A life in poetry” could be taken, as nothing other—in a context of diversity and singularity—than as, in Tabios’ words, an attempt “to be a good person.”
As a poetics, this means that I choose to have faith that being a good person is relevant to writing good poems.
Several times in her book Tabios quotes Paul Lafleur in saying, “Being a poet is not writing a poem but finding a new way to live.” So in this way we know that Tabios’ doesn’t merely intend to give us pastoral poetry or psychological or confessional poetry, though Tabios says at one point, “…it’s not significant to me that I have something particular to say; I just want to evoke emotion in the reader.”
Tabios doesn’t go so far as to state this explicitly, but I think that at present she has arrived at a place where her poetry is intently based on abstraction, an inward gaze. The processes of her poetry seem to be a deconstruction. Says Tabios, “my poetry language reflects having to disturb the norm.” She challenges “preconceived and/or mass produced definitions of beauty.” The sort of beauty that she seeks in her writing manifests “life’s contradictions and paradoxes.” I would describe her writing as “conceptual.” Don’t forget that Tabios’ excellent proactive online journal Galatea Resurrects doesn’t publish poetry per se but generally only criticism of poetry or “poetic criticism.” Of “abstract poetry” in particular, Tabios says,
I will say that—without privileging one form over the other—I see “abstract poetry” as different from narrative poems. Narrative may make it easier for some people to discuss those works, but that doesn’t mean the abstract form requires less finesse…
I “prefer” the abstract form without necessarily judging that form to have more aesthetic value over other forms. Some people may say that abstract poems leave them cold because they’re not accessible, but there are poets who believe that the narrative forms are actually less accessible because this falsely assumes the existence of a consensus between author and reader as to what words mean.
In different piece in the collection, Tabios writes,
Linear narrative comes up short for my poetry since it is contextualized within a world that contains results not derived from linear progressions.
Indeed, Tabios’ interest in poetry began with prose poems. Prefacing one quoted in its entirety in Against Misanthropy from a 2000 interview with Purvi Shah, Tabios says that the poem “reflects the influence of visual arts on my poetry.” Here is the opening strophe
You quirked an eyebrow when I said I love the flag. What else can be summoned when you have never seen me drop a smile? Then you admired the cherries hanging from the ears of a lady behind me. But as I turned my back I felt you raise your hand before it sadly lapsed.
The poetry here has an overt sense of “articulation,” which is an apt word since its Latin derivation means “to divide into basic parts.” It is the articulation of emptiness, of gun violence, the articulation of insensitivity, the articulation of silence, the articulation of death, thus turning emptiness, guns, silence, insensitivity, death into new lands and fertile worlds. Tabios’ poetry reminds me of the poetry of Mark DuCharme, as in his Infinity Subsections, in which DuCharme portrays the interrelated landscape of hackneyed form and perceptive observation in urban settings. This poetry also rather emphatically conjures up the writing of Henri Lefebvre, especially his Critique of Everyday Life.
Of course, though it is generously laced with poetry of all sorts, Against Misanthropy: A Life in Poetry is in fact a collection of Tabios’ prose, including essays, introductions, interviews and a selection of blurbs she has written on other poets. Not that prose can’t be abstract and probing in its articulating. With Tabios it definitely is. Tabios prose in this collection is wide-ranging and intensely tied to the subject matter with which it deals. Often what she ends up writing and speaking about, in highly charged intricate imaginative improvised “breaths” and paragraphs, is her ties to the Philippine Islands where she was born and the circumstances of the people living there now or in the past. Sometimes these ties involve the historical, for the most part imperialist relationship between the Philippines and the United States. The most powerful pieces in the collection are an introduction to a fundraising anthology of Filipino poems written in response to the devastating typhoon Yolanda, articles on Filipino culture and poetics, articles on Filipino poetic forms and an article on Filipino writer Jose Garcia Villa. Interviews with Purvi Shah, Tom Beckett and, especially, John Bloomberg-Rissman are also deeply interesting.
In the two poems in this collection that pay homage to the American Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, Tabios reiterates her journey of abstraction—which is among other things a Surrealist journey—into the undiscovered cracks and coral of reality at large with lines such as
No chasm in your room, no movie
that would rupture air with a category academia labels non-
Met Philip Lamantia at night
each second “historical” time acquiring an
opulent opal’s cast
corridor raucous with paintings and masks
(From Deflowering Memory With Philip Lamantia)
Some of the terms used by Tabios are familiar from Structuralism and Existential philosophy. The idea of “engagement,” following Jean-Paul Sartre’s term “engage,” has to do with the forthright heroic search for the unknown “Other,” that is, the strangely divine materiality of the infinite. Especially in Emmanuel Levinas’ writings this engagement with the Other is closely observed as being periodically problematized in its temporal movement that tends toward being hijacked and subverted. The Other, rather than being Other, that is, continually revised, continually rediscovered, continually different from “The Same,” instead is transformed into a fixed “totality” that humanity has many times in the past, most notably during the time of World War II, turned into a lifeless propagandized idol or “statue,” the absolute prompting of exclusion and tyrannical authority, utterly undermining and removing the reality of fruitful social interaction. This is the importance of “abstraction” and articulation in ever maintaining the life quality of the perpetual Other.
The point of saying this is that, in Against Misanthropy, it becomes apparent, or seems to, that, without this constant battle against tyranny and the threat of tyranny, the general context, under which abstraction is subject, carries no purpose and becomes pointless and uninteresting. Tabios herself says as much
So the arduity of poetry for me is figuring out how to live as a responsible human being in a larger context where what I do and how I behave ultimately will be meaningless.
The abstractness that constitutes her poetry and her prose really has no purpose or relevance as pure abstraction. It needs to relate to some holistic context or significant mode of perception. Here is where poetry gets lively, because, in its probing and its mysterious connections, it discovers holistic contexts and significant modes of perception. Inevitably poetry becomes political. Inevitably we discover that language itself is political, that abstraction is political. In talking about putting together the fundraiser anthology of Filipino poetry in response to typhoon Yolonda, the “largest ever storm on land,” Tabios begins to use phrases such as “collaborative, community-oriented approach,” “poverty,” “disasters,” “socioeconomic.” In talking about Babaylan (a term similar to “griot, ” referring to a shaman-like character in Filipino culture) the first ever international anthology of Filipino writers, she inevitably uses words such as “ancestors,” “history,” “Community,” “birthland,” “colonizers.” The word “diaspora” describes a scattered group of people now seeking connection via the internet. I don’t say the word “nationalistic” is an unquestionably propitious word, but its conceptuality is similar to “justice,” “equality,” “planet,” “indigenous.” In the same discussion, the French writer Jean Baudrillard would use such terms as “hegemony” and “nuclearization.” These are words whose meaning is universal, the same for everyone.
In one of the most lofty pieces in the collection, the lengthy Bloomberg-Rissman interview, somewhat ostensibly concerning a Rissman blog-sequence titled “arduity,” Rissman brings in the term “globalization” and Tabios uses the term “macro.” But both Rissman and Tabios are troubled by these terms. “But what troubles me right now about Western culture,” says Rissman, “is its globalization. It’s like a monocrop.” Tabios, at the same time, says
And Love is one of the most successful mitigants of Power—that such happens more in the micro rather than the (disheartening) macro is not cause for discouragement. We all live in the micro.
Both Tabios and Rissman seem to be cautious of things such as “rationality” and “the status quo.” Both sense the menacing presence of an “underlying power structure” that obstructs progress. Says Tabios, “The arduity of my poetry is to behave and write as if we are not doomed.” Rissman references Dadaist poets that were trying to “figure out why they continued to write poetry in a time when poetry seemed not to matter.” In turn Tabios asks, “Is it rational to write poetry?” In the course of the interview, Tabios mentions “responsibility,” “love and respect for other people, creatures, and the environment.” For these reasons, I would say both Tabios and Rissman seem to rely upon an unrestricted, boundless format that allows them the sort of poetry and abstraction that we have been talking about. But just as such a boundless format allows them to delve into the philosophical mystery and diversity of reality, so these abstractions begin to create and elaborate this “boundless format.” Just as the Totality calls for abstraction, so abstraction creates the Totality.
But it circuitously tracks back to how the attitude of not taking more than one can return is an attitude of respect and love toward others outside of our individual selves.
The political context precedes the economic. In embracing the economic ideas and disciplines of the nineteenth century, we seem not to give credit to the structures and logos of the political theories of the eighteenth century, the political theories upon which the economic theories are completely dependent. As Henri Lefebvre writes,
When they are not governed by laws, spontaneity and immediacy lose direction. Conversely, without spontaneity, laws and norms resemble death.
The point is that the macro has to have some kind of urgency and direction, some kind of importance in order for the micro to have any relevance or interest. Political freedom, the unmeasured burdens and terrors that it permits, is the source of that urgency.
This, then, is our ascent to the heights of “globalism” and the global perspective, our ideological perch amidst the stars. I tend to agree with Tabios’ and Rissman’s preference for understanding these concepts from an individual, human, everyday, “micro” point of view. One feels the miraculous empiricism unfolding in a lowly naturalistic way. One senses the vastness of time and space in simply, humbly looking at the same flowers or trees in one’s life day in and day out. We become middle-class Sisyphuses transported in a nonlinear nostalgic time-space Proustian manner in mowing our lawns, painting our boats on blazing hot summer days. The obvious associations between globalism and urban “multidimensionality” seem to me too intuitive. I feel the same way in reading about the predictions of barrages of storms, incessant floods and droughts that lie ahead. Globalism is the opposite of linearity, but there is plenty of conjectural theory out there that is entirely linear and unfounded. I don’t have a particular problem with so-called global warming. The science of it is interesting and makes sense. On the other hand, it’s easy to demonstrate that the scale of the thinking is so inaccurate, uncomprehending and distorted in terms of its basic measurements that we might as well be talking about slimy outer-space monsters with one eye, six arms and ten legs. James Lovelock points out in Gaia what every high school physics student ought to know—that in terms of global features, that is, in relation to the diameter of the earth, the earth’s oceans and mountains essentially don’t exist. Writes Lovelock
If we were to model the earth by a globe 30 centimeters in diameter, the average depth of the sea would be little more than the thickness of the paper on which these words are written. (p.79, Oxford University Press paperback)
These geological features are like a leaf on the surface of a large field. In my opinion, it’s because we have in our biases and stereotypes so misrepresented and underestimated the size and proportion of our planet that we don’t have a clue as to where vanished Malaysian Flight 370 is located. Perhaps we never will.
What, then, does globalism even mean on a “macro” scale? It might mean that the so-called “carbon footprint” of humankind is probably an insignificant factor in terms of the environmental future of our planet. It might mean that the appearance and disappearance of glaciers is a somewhat more normal fluctuation than at this time we view it. It might mean that we don’t yet have good science on, for example, such things as the part that lithium plays in the formation of solar systems and galaxies. It might mean we need to know where the Sulphur in our oceans originates. It might mean our rare atmosphere and biosphere, with its oxygen and liquid water, are possibly very much in jeopardy from ice formation or complete evaporation as seems to be the more common surface condition of most planets but from natural factors which we are only beginning to study. In Gaia, Lovelock does an excellent job of discussing the atmosphere of earth on a macro scale, and he points toward the significance of our being able to contrast our atmosphere with that of other planets.
In terms of human life, the macro perspective might mean that we are more afraid of our unknown fates than we are aware, that humankind is less well established on the planet than it believes it is, living and dying pitifully huddled together and exposed in rags in a way that we are currently incapable of seeing and understanding. Yes, we have become, as the apostle Paul says, citizens rather than subjects, but don’t forget that it is a citizenship established in the manner of adoption. Our promotion comes at the cost of learning that we are citizens of a much more autonomous and formidable emptiness than we could ever have imagined. The “arduity” that poets such as Tabios face is to write about our birth into a magnificent mystery of Creation that sometimes we are capable of mistaking for being doomed. In fact, in both poetry and science, globalism on the macro level seems to me pretty much summed up as this: humankind’s understanding and activity needs to be motivated and advanced based on faith and knowledge rather than fear and desperate melodramatic manipulation. Just as Tabios resolves to connect writing good poems with being “a good person,” the citizens of the macro perspective must resolve to do the right thing in a straightforward diligent and mature and open manner—for the sake of life in society.
Globalism is our new life of abstraction, lived in an uncrowded space, inside our twenty-four hour a day (or perhaps twenty-five or forty-five hour a day) space suits of conceptuality. Globalism is interacting with our miraculous, strangely wonderful surroundings of loneliness and affection and that includes some moments of apprehension and not knowing, in the seeming scale of randomness or else improbability. Globalism is finding our bearings in the infinite context.
Tom Hibbard’s most recent credits include a poem in Cricket Online Review, contributions to an Egyptian international poetry anthology and poetry contributions to newspapers in Egypt. He also had several reviews published in issue 17 of Big Bridge, including a review of Jack Kerouac’s poetry, and he had a prose piece on the visual work of Nico Vassilakis in issue 23 of Galatea Resurrects. Hibbard’s poetry collection Sacred River of Consciousnessis available at Moon Willow Press and Amazon. He’s working on a new collection of poetry, Global People, and a selection of his prose. Hibbard will also have a selection of his French Surrealist poetry translations published in the upcoming issue of Big Bridge.
[Each review provides the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily the opinion of THE HALO-HALO REVIEW staff.]