M. EARL SMITH Reviews
Immigrant: Hay(na)ku & Other Poems in a New Land by Eileen R. Tabios
(Moria Books’ Locofo Chaps, Chicago, 2017)
In the early 1900’s, there was a worry that immigrant narratives would be lost in a perpetual white washing of culture, brought on by assimilation. In fact, few people know that the idea of a “melting pot” was a derisive term used to describe how white supremacy was being used to strip anything that was considered un-American away from immigrants of all stripes. And while the idea of assimilation still runs strong in American culture (speak English!), given the current political climate, one can’t help but to acknowledge that it has become less about a melting pot and more about pots of oil being tossed down upon a repressed proletariat that makes its way to our southern border.
“If we can’t silence them by assimilation,” they say, “we can silence them by force.”
What they fail to realize is that poets like Eileen Tabios have walked through fires that burn brighter than any flames brought on by crude oil. And, as a result of said trials, their strength becomes an incredible part of the American narrative.
There’s an incredible amount of power that Tabios’s minimalist stylings give to her work (a fact that she, tongue-in-cheek, acknowledges in the epigraph of her poem “Talk-Story Poem, but I digress), especially in a form of art that could be forgiven for waxing, well, poetic, given the societal circumstances that surround its composition. Yet, in this volume, less is more. For example, in one of her hay(na)ku’s, she offers “becoming plural through/re- _____, thus/community” only to give the reader a short, yet equally poignant list of words they could make: “revelation, redress, rebellion, red, restoration,/renaissance, redrawing, review, re_____”. Such a list inspires various acts of rebellion, whether it be by Catholics, lawyers, colonists, Communists, Protestants, artists, architects, or writers. In fact, one of the things that delights the reader about Tabios’s work is the ability to relate her words to their struggle, regardless of where they may or may not fit in the melting pot.
For it is her desire not to melt, but to mold, and stay a part of who she is within the greater lens of where she is. She speaks of her mother, her grandparents, an aunt, her tribe, her ancestors, where she’s at, where’s she’s going, and where she would like to be. Yet to acknowledge this same, yet different, is to do as she does at the beginning of her poem “Dear Mama”:
“Not bad for an immigrant.”
M. Earl Smith is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, with a Masters of Arts in English Literature. He currently teaches English at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. His current research interests include 16th-19th century manuscripts as well as children’s and young adult literature.