NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Love in a Time of Belligerence by Eileen R. Tabios
(Éditions du Cygne/SWAN World, Paris, France, 2017)
[First published in Contemporary Literary Review India, Annual Print Edition, 2018]
At the heart of this collection there is a sequence of 22 poems entitled “From ‘The Ashbery Riff-Offs’” – and the title of each poem begins with the words “Witnessed in the Convex Mirror” followed by a word or series of words that uniquely sets the poem apart from the others in the sequence. The fact that the title begins with the word “From” suggests that this is part of a work in progress and that other poems will follow on in due course. The reference is to John Ashbery’s celebrated poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is arguably the best known contemporary poem inspired by a painting. First published in 1974, and later issued as the title poem for his now famous 1975 collection, it earned Ashbery the Pullitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award – a triple crown in a single year.
In his poetry classes, Ashbery often encouraged his students to find ways to extricate themselves from the conscious construction of a poem so that they could write pieces arising from the subconscious. One of his methods was to urge them to borrow lines randomly from one another which would subsequently form the basis of a poem. Tabios uses this same idea to create the poems in this sequence by borrowing lines at random (usually a whole line or two lines) from Ashbery’s poem in order to inspire her own poem. Of the 22 poems presented here, at least half have been taken from the first 60 lines of Ashbery’s poem, the other half are taken at various intervals from the rest of the text. The fact that they do not appear in the order that they are borrowed merely adds to the random nature of the experiment.
Tabios refers to her sequence as being a series of “riff-offs” – a neat contraction of two ideas revolving around the concept of a rip-off (a slang term meaning to exploit or to steal from something) and a riff (a term frequently employed by jazz musicians to imply a phrase that is played repeatedly or a theme that is subject to improvisation). Both meanings are particularly relevant here where lines have been borrowed from another writer in order to free-up the imagination. It will come as no surprise that certain passages of Ashbery’s poem refer to ways for seeking inspiration. Just as a creative work, whether it be a painting, a musical composition or a poem, depends to some extent upon the reactions of others to continue to give meaning and enjoyment over the years by means of interpretation and analysis, so Tabios, in producing these poems, becomes a part of that catalyst herself.
Consider the idea of the mirror and the mirror image. To what extent does a mirror distort an image? A convex mirror is a curved mirror in which the reflective surface bulges toward the light source. Convex mirrors reflect light outwards, therefore they are not used to focus light. Such mirrors always form a virtual image, since the focal point and the centre of curvature are both imaginary points "inside" the mirror that cannot be reached. As a result, images formed by these mirrors cannot be projected on to a screen, since the image is inside the mirror. The image is smaller than the object, but gets larger as the object approaches the mirror. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, they provide a wider field of view as they are curved outwards.
When Tabios looks into the mirror, she does not just see herself. There is nothing narcissistic or egotistical about this volume. Instead, she sees certain aspects of human nature and our fallen world, areas that we would rather not see. Her poems speak out against sexual violence, cruelty, injustice and slavery. They speak of disengagement, deception, drug abuse, pollution and promiscuity. These are complex poems that are all the richer for the way in which they operate on different levels. In Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Betrayal with Brand Names, for example, Tabios weaves a story of human betrayal and illustrates it with reference to advertisements that deceive us with their branding.
On one level there are poems that address the plight of refugees and on another there is a poem that zooms in on a specific individual, the plight of Charlie Gard.
This poem simply grieves over Charlie
Gard, indisputably human though he could
not hear, see, swallow…
…Charlie suffered from
mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome
But something is missing in all of us
an absence that clarifies our humanity as
we despair, as we are unable not to hope
and as we refuse to cease searching
for redemption, accustomed as we have
become, to night collapsing before day.
The ability to shift from the universal to the particular and back again is one of the many strengths of this collection.
Some of the poems in this sequence take on a philosophical flavour. A question one could ask of the whole book revolves around whether art is a true reflection of life or a means of creating another type of image that is one step removed. Images that give off reflection or act as a means of seeing things are strategically placed throughout the text: telescopes, mirrors, stained glass windows, metal surfaces, eyes, bullet holes through plasterboard. All of these offer up distorted images: the reader is invited to look through the wrong end of the telescope, the mirrors are convex, the stained glass relies upon the sun’s rays for illumination, the “gibbous” eyes are swollen or pouched, the bullet hole only permits a narrow vista and does not give the full picture and the metal, however shiny its surface, is only capable of offering a dim reflection.
In Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: The Significance of Milk questions about the soul are cleverly framed around a familiar scene involving a human and an animal and the life-giving properties of milk framed against a backdrop of nihilism and human slaughter.
In Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: The Lost Context Tabios addresses our obsession with wanting to be different so that we can be the centre of attention:
….We all want to remain
the child who would draw a green dragon
or blue banana or yellow stallion and
not only receive but know to anticipate
with confidence the consistent response
“Wow! You are so talented!”
Her plea, as offered in the final poem in the sequence, Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Don’t Make Up The Ocean, is for us all to recognise each other in all humility, respecting our differences and sharing all that we have to offer:
In our nakedness, let us share ancestry, not look at each other as an Other. We all deserve to breathe and we cannot but share the same life-giving breath.
Belligerence carries with it not just a sense of being aggressive. It also has the force of war within its Latin root. Despite the subject matter, there is much to be positive about. In Witnessed in the Convex Mirror: Pathos Tabios writes
interesting that one always thinks of
adversity when considering the soul
(or identity) being affected by positivity
(though isn’t kindness as powerful as
In other poems, Tabios writes of the power of a mother’s love for her baby, she mentions rainbows, and leaves us with the sense that, however defenceless we may feel, love, especially compassion for all living things, is still with us even in a time of belligerence.
A series of shorter poems at the beginning and the end act like bookends that support the main text. On the surface, the subject matter might appear to be different but there are in fact some important links to the main sequence and also to the book cover.
PilipinZ, the first poem in the opening sequence, originates from Tabios’ “I Forgot” series (with few exceptions, every line begins with the words “I forgot”) generated from the MDR Project.
For readers who are unfamiliar with this project, this is an ongoing work that brings together much of the author’s poetics to date. The initials MDR stand for “Murder, Death and Resurrection” and reflect the idea of putting to death an earlier work only to resurrect it into something new. Initially, Tabios created 1,146 lines by reading through 27 previously-published poetry collections and has since “computer-generated” over 130 poems in six separate books from combinations arising out of the stored database. In so doing, she points out that “if randomness is the operating system for new poems (i.e. the lines can be combined at random to make new poems), those new poems nonetheless contain all the personal involvement – and love! – that went into writing their lines. The results dislocate without eliminating or pretending to eliminate authorship.” The final section links with the central message that occurs later in the volume and to which I have already alluded:
But I will never forget we walk on the same planet and breathe the same air. I will never forget the same sun shines on us. I created my own legacy: No one is a stranger to me.
Several other poems in this opening sequence, inspired by the reading of specific novels or reports in the news, deal with the subject of war, power play, dominance and corruption.
At the other end of the book, the sequence called Double-Take acts as a suitable coda. All the diary entries from Taking it Slant From Those February Days begin with the words “Once upon a time” and neatly anticipate the title of the next poem, “Ever After” where “Happy” is the word that is conspicuous by its absence. This is a powerful poem on the need for recognition in a world dominated by those in power. Tabios ends the sequence with these words:
I practice a poetics of lucidity. Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone deserves to be seen.
I pushed. The door was heavy. But I was alone on this side of the heavy, steel door. I pushed harder. Then harder. Harder. I pushed that door open. Wide open…
Tabios’ concern for our world is global in its reach and this is a book that is very much of our time.
A Note on the Book Cover:
Marc Gaba’s composition “A Simple Word” is a fitting complement to this book. Tabios was drawn by the bright colours which she considered offered encouragement and by the image of “rupture” visually created by the use of a dual canvas, which invites us to share in her wonderment and belief that, despite our torn world, we refuse to be overwhelmed because acts of love and kindness win through. The colour of the painting finds its way into the “blue bird wings” of a Sarayaku elder in Letter from Sarayaku; the heartbreak of its rupture is played out in the poem Marawi’s Pets and the combination of the two is noted down in the closing poem All Night:
I noticed we shared a predilection for the same artist who painted abstract canvases in tones of gray, pale blues or off-whites but lined with cracks through which could be seen colors like scarlet fire, radioactive orange, Antarctic iceberg green, and ripe lemon yellow. It was as if the vivid colors were rioting to surface through the cooler palette that seemingly subdued them.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, England, 2017). He is a regular reviewer for several journals including Write Out Loud (UK) and Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagement) (USA). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.