MONICA MANOLACHI Reviews
Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole by Eileen R. Tabios
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2002)
The study of flags, vexillology is a fusion of the Latin word vexillum (flag) and the Greek suffix –logia (study). Vexillologists deal with all sorts of flags and they often meet to discuss their meanings. When the flags happen to be unidentified and fictional, they may be found in short stories, novels or comic strips. If the flagpole is empty and the vexillologist says “I am addicted to what I do not know” or “I symbolize nothing” or “I am unsure with metaphors—I allow them to bleed from my pen,” then we are talking about a poet disguised as vexillologist. In Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002), Eileen R. Tabios dwells on the possibilities offered by the combination of poetry and prose, reflects on belonging to various forms of in-betweenness and imagines unusually liberating flags for the states she explores.
The motif of “the empty flagpole” can be read in different ways throughout the book. As a vertical line, it is a sign that simultaneously divides and unites, and it stands for the attempt to find laws in what is apparently turbulent and disconcerting: “To escape chaos, the Greeks created art with abstractions. It is a familiar approach, having long used geometry to deny myself caresses.” Tabios’s collection is also political. As a Filipino-American poet, born in Ilocos Sur, she explores the intersection of double belonging, by grafting cultural, ethnic and personal memory onto her American and transnational experience: “What does it say about me when I ask for asylum in places where people wish to leave? I try to find meaning in flags. But they repel me when buffeted by an incidental breeze.” The motif also implies the difficulty of separating poetry from prose and the desire to employ the aesthetic complexity of both, in order to express the struggle of finding meaning. For Tabios, the middle ground can be where the rhythmic cadences of free verse, with their lyrical repetitions, images and sounds, meet what seems to resemble a narrative, but which expresses a mood, emotion or feeling rather than strictly the thread of a story. The facts are only pretexts for further subjective visions, both sensual and intellectual.
Reproductions of the Empty Flag is a three-part ekphrastic collection with a long middle part, preceded by an introductory five-poem section, influenced by ancient Greek culture, and followed by a three-poem conclusion, animated by the spirit of Anne Truitt’s minimalist art and journals.
The first part, entitled My Greece, which is inspired by the work of Jerome J. Pollitt on the relationship between the ancient Greek art and the Greek literature and philosophy, sets out some of the stylistic particularities of what comes next: emotionally intense meditations on the purpose of art in everyday life, poignant questions about the perceiving self and its role in the world, and an overall atmosphere imbued with an enthusiasm for the unintentional and the unexpected, mixed with historical fact. The voice of the poems belongs mainly to a very present first person singular, but also to a dialogic second person singular and a detached third person singular, usually a woman or a man. Together they form what the poet calls “unrelenting intimacy”.
In the second part, Returning the Borrowed Tongue, the poet starts from the historical fact of the year 1898, when the Philippines was bought by the United States from Spain. As a result, English language became the second official language of the country in the 20th century. The section is a collection of confessions, a study of gestures, a display of shades and illuminations, interrogative flashes, memories filtered through various characters—all framed in urban settings and indicating attraction to boundaries and awareness of change.
In a postcolonial fashion, the poet “writes back” in an attempt to present an untold part of an immigration story, focused more on inner personal experience. For example, the four-paragraph poem “Profiles” introduces a character who returns to his childhood land and whose shadow or trace on a beach is compared with the image of “an empty flagpole”: “I returned to the wheat fields I had loved as a boy and realized I was just beginning a transition, your friend said as his hair swayed in the faint breeze. Behind him, a lone tree rose like an empty flagpole to interrupt the horizon of a deserted beach. I looked at him too intently because I was conscious of your hand an inch away from mine. We shared a table whose span barely allowed the width of a three-way conversation. He was your friend and I detested my attempt to measure your intimacy.”
The reiteration of the symbol of “the empty flagpole” projects a mental picture which departs from politics, history and cultural trauma, but preserves an abstract memory of emigration or (post-)colonialism through the collocation “to interrupt the horizon.”
After a second paragraph on the empty boulevards of New York and a third one on the atmosphere on the streets of Manila, the ending paragraph shifts to a monologue: “Oh, Eileen, you have tiptoed down this path before. Why are you now stepping deliberately on fallen branches, their sounds cracking the air like the edges of blades against eggs? This must be what it means to be a woman without sisters. For mothers must let go”
The reference to “this path” could be interpreted as the abstract line that unites the two cities, invisible but very present in the mind of the immigrant, often tormenting because it reminds one of something lost and of powerlessness. Abstractness allows a comparison of the “path” with the unbroken character of the flagpole, which in the next line becomes “fallen branches”. The poem goes a step further from merely accepting linearity and loss, and “stepping deliberately on fallen branches” proposes another vision, mysterious and surreal, a struggle for new meaning, which the lack of punctuation at the end of the paragraph suggests.
The third part, composed of three poems – “Beginning Lucidity”, “Illusions Through the Grid” and “The Continuance of the Gaze” – that correspond to Anne Truitt’s three journal titles, “Daybook”, “Turn” and “Prospect”, is an avalanche of existential open questions that elicit unanticipated answers. First person singular predominates. In this section, “the empty flagpole”, which subtly repeats Truitt’s columns, is significantly designed as spiritual double belonging and as an ars poetica: “And what joy to recognize the curved line as both convex and concave—a moment close to my backbone.” Thus, Eileen R. Tabios’ conceptual approach to belonging (in contrast with territorial or religious belonging, for example) appears as a healthy solution to today’s sometimes storming experience of migration.
Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian and was awarded a prize for poetic eloquence by the American Cultural Center in April 2005. She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.