(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2010)
It is fitting that Eileen R. Tabios’ first Selected book should consist of prose poems, as the bulk of her first collection, Beyond Life Sentences (Pasig City, Philippines: Anvil, 1998) and the entirety of her second, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2002), are prose poetry. While Tabios is also noted as the inventor of the concise diasporic Filipino poetic form, the hay(na)ku, she has steadily produced prose poems throughout this decade.
Several recurrent themes are prominent in Tabios’ prose poetry and in her work in general. One is the problem/delight of eros, where intimacy, vulnerability, defensiveness, and an awareness of the rhetoricity of amorous utterances interact. Another theme involves indirect or overt dramatization and figurative evocation of the experience of exile within a postcolonial (or, as we will discuss later, transcolonial) frame, and speculation about its effects. A third explores the salient intensity, mystery, viability, dubious value, or even impossibilities of aesthetic strategies and encounters, whether in visual art or poesis. If some prose poems seem to concentrate solely on one of these topoi, at other times, Tabios’ movements from one set of tropes, images, or abstractions to others allow for the flexible development of an interplay between two or more subject areas. These themes—and, of course, quite a few others—might reflect, refract, solicit, supplant, and commingle with one another. The dynamic of interaction or quasi-disjunctive displacement does not harden into an aesthetic, psychological, sociopolitical, or other program; it happens differently each time.
In a review of The Light Sang as It Left Your Eyes: Our Autobiography (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2007) in Cordite Poetry Review, Nicholas Manning situates Tabios’ work in a trend characteristic of experimental poetry “in this new century,” “a genre” involving “the writing and rewritings of the poetic self. . .in which the self is less a ‘basis’ for certain convictions about ‘what poetry is’ than an opening: an aperture or aporia to diverse inventions, collaborations, languages, traditions, and histories.” Differing from the stably presented self of fifties and sixties Confessional poetry, “this ‘radical autobiography,’” according to Manning, is “seeking diversity over singularity” in “polyvocal, polyvalent, trans-historical and. . . increasingly trans-geographic” ways. The fact of selfhood is not trivial, yet it is less important than shifting interrogations of intersubjectivity and the historical imprint of formations/deformations of communities in contact with one another.
The “trans-historical” and “trans-geographic” dimensions that Manning identifies in Tabios’ work are specified in Leny Mendoza Strobel’s essay “A New Twist to Filipino American Decolonization: The Poetry of Eileen Tabios” (first published in Tabios’ Ecstatic Mutations: Experiments in the Poetry Laboratory [Quezon City, the Philippines: Giraffe Books, 2000: 5-10]). Citing “how Filipino ethnic and cultural identity is always tied to history,” including “the colonial/neocolonial/ postcolonial relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines,” as well as previous Spanish rule, and how Filipinos need to undergo decolonization to recover “the mark of. . . the ‘indigenous’” in themselves, Mendoza Strobel asks of the some of the early “abstract” prose poetry collected herein, “How do I connect with this poetry by a Filipino American poet when that Filipino connection is not obvious?” The critic acknowledges the poet’s claim “that her poetics are inspired by visual arts, partly postmodern and yet also postcolonial because of her political intent to subvert the (English) language that has been used as a colonizing tool, i.e. English was introduced 100 years ago to the Philippines when it became an American colony.” (Note the allusion that informs Tabios’ prose-poem, “Returning a Borrowed Tongue.”)
Mendoza Strobel notes that “abstraction” is “synergistic with [Tabios’] desire to offer a space for the reader to engage emotionally with the poem without relying on narrative,” and thus, she is able “to obviate the historical use of the English narrative as the means for defining power and privilege during the U.S.-Philippine colonial period.” While engaging with the poetry’s anti-narrative impetus, the critic perceives it as serving the crucial cause of a greater narrative, almost alluding to the conservative T.S. Eliot’s radical modernist “shoring” of “fragments” “against ruins” in The Waste Land: “When the sorrow of our colonial past is released and we come to know our Philippine history as the history of the world, Eileen’s poem becomes an act of rounding up the fragments of our narrative. And as she integrates these fragments (those parts of our identities forged by migration and citizenship elsewhere) into her own sense of Filipinoness, I still come away with the sense that the homeland is still the source of that inspiration” (9). Mendoza Strobel identifies “interconnectedness” and “interdependence” as central aspects of indigenous Filipino philosophy, and so her assertion of the centrality of “Filipinoness” to Tabios’ work would not contradict the poet/art critic’s deep interest in modern abstract art or her fascination with ancient Greek aesthetics. Manning writes in the review quoted above: “Tabios continually draws this complex parallel between the difficult ‘relationships’ of poetry—between structures, syntaxes, lexicons—and those of life. Everything ‘relates,’ and Tabios becomes thus, in the course of the work, other poets, other individuals, at other points in time.”
The question of what degree narrative intention is recuperable from non- or anti-narrative modes is challenging. Reading the prose poem “Helen” on his blog on June 19, 2003 (a piece later reprinted in Tabios’ I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved [New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2005]), Ron Silliman calls it “a dramatic monolog” (488), and he speculates (without quite insisting) “that Tabios wanted to structure a narrative with an extraordinary degree of tension—. . . as though she wanted to see just how far she could pull it apart without having the sense of his unity dissolve, to approach without crossing some intuitive breaking point” (489). Given that the poet’s beginning intentions may be difficult to trace, the burden seems to rest on each reader’s “intuition” about whether Manning’s Derridean “aporia” or Strobel’s “rounding up” should take precedence. And Tabios’ frequent invocation of the reader as the one who “completes” the text—see, for example, a statement on the back cover of I Take Thee, English. . . .—uses authorial authority to support the sense that it (she) should not have the final word on the narrative/anti-narrative issue.
A compelling example of Tabios’ encounter with the ancient Greeks is the three-paragraph “Purity,” which opens with sentences that obliquely explain a basis for the desire for aesthetic purity and a problem sewn into that striving: “Once, the Greeks tolerated subjection to obviate chaos. But an attitude of detachment is like anxiety—a flower in a glass prison.” Is some “subjection,” then, inevitable, whether a submission to “chaos” that threatens autonomous action or to an emotional restraint, “detachment,” that anxiously parallels “anxiety”? The poet moves on to consider war as a raging chaos that led to the subjection of a Greek city: “So ‘the entire male population of Miletus was put to the sword and the women and children were sent into Asia as slaves.’” The reference to a location in “Asia” might allude to Spanish and U.S. imperial adventures in the Philippines, but, if so, the parallel is indirect.
The sentence about Miletus is woven into the theme of purity/impurity in the next paragraph, because it is interrupted by a consideration of a future present, “the dying days of the 21st century”: “I am feeling the inhumanly fast beating of a woman’s heart as she raises a rifle, then shoots a canvas with pellets of paint. I am feeling a deer quicken its leaps. The artist avoided the aftermath of wounds, but I see red.” The artist’s act adheres “purely” to procedure. Perhaps additional intentions do not interfere with the unpredictable effect of paint flow (and canvas-puncturing) generated by the interplay of technology and uncertainties of human touch. However, despite the lack of violence done to animate beings, impure thoughts due to powerful associations induce the observing (or imagining) poet to “see red” (not communism!), to experience a loss of “pure” detachment and an influx of anxiety.
At the beginning of the second paragraph, Tabios addresses another loss of freedom following “the fall of Miletus” to the Persians: the Athenian leaders censored a play about this subject to banish the “impure” memory “‘of afflictions which affected them intimately.’” The repression of history as a kind of “purification”—the poison/ medicine logic of scapegoating (the pharmakon ) analyzed in Derrida’s Dissemination—often engenders greater chaos in the long run rather than “obviating” impurity. Next, the poet’s speaker ponders an individual’s impulses to embrace and burst out of such repression: “I consider my search for unrelenting intimacy—a search I conduct despite my heart’s cocoon of encaustic.” In “Come Knocking,” Tabios writes: “I know you admire encaustic for protecting forever the fragility of paper.” Through epigraphs, poem-titles, and direct statements, she has testified to the importance of John Yau’s book, The United States of Jasper Johns, to her poetics, so these two references might signal an allusion to Johns, whose painterly re-productions of the American flag are visible beneath encaustic. Yau shows how Johns’ work confounds the questionable desire for purity—as in nationalistic unity—with a critically forceful, complex impurity. When we see the “flag” under encaustic, are we witnessing its simultaneous burial and display? Do we encounter its desecration, distortion, careful preservation, or veneration? Is the “heart” pure when protected from intimacy’s dangers, or is its separation from “natural” emotion evidence of troubling impurity?
Toward the end of this marvelously dense paragraph, Tabios moves to the territory of Mondrian and other geometric abstractionists: “I consider how a grid is supposed to eliminate gesture from paint. Although paint, finally, must return to its nature and flow like a menstruation—ooze with a viscous intensity unmitigated by geometry.” If “gesture,” the province of an abstract expressionism that this poet admires, equals intimacy and emotional intensity, the “grid” signifies purity and detachment. The grid is designed to provide a culturally- and perhaps spiritually-based transcendence. While, for the time being, a Mondrian’s geometry prevails on the wall, the imperative (“must”) of all materials’ transience condemns such apparent solidity to a “return” to liquid (oozing), like a return of the repressed. Despite a museum’s best archival practices, the painting will not retain its hard, geometric edges in a thousand years. On the other hand, Tabios’ lines are also relevant from a short-term perspective if taken as providing tropes about the failure of applied cognitive and aesthetic structures to rein in psychological energies.
At various junctures in the prose poem, one sees how notions associated with purity and those with impurity attract people, who make attempts at decisive choice and synthesis, however unsatisfactory as enduring solutions. The third paragraph begins: “Though the Greeks would come to thwart the Persian invasion, I believe it noteworthy that such a victory belied intention. The Greeks—like all of us, through all of time—first attempted compromise.” The melting of wax, “failure” of “encaustic” suggests how precarious such compromise, as well as “pure” formalism is; “the heart” is so powerful as to merit a supplementary figure that gives it “eyes” to get outside the self and “stare it down”: “Now, encaustic fails and my heart looks me in the eye.”
“Purity” concludes with questions so evocative, so lyrically charged that they call for our answer: “Why do I weep before a square canvas depicting a square? Or a circular canvas depicting a circle? Have the Greeks attained purity? Attained perfection? Have I earned the moments I made my mother cry?” Overwhelming pleasure in form and color might elicit tears in front of an “Homage to the Square” by Joseph Albers or a tondo by Tabios’ friend Max Gimblett. Or one might mourn the great disparity between the “purity” on the wall and an awareness of sufferings caused by impure, imperfect daily experiences.
Whether one thinks ancient Greeks like the mathematician Pythagoras or their society as a whole—an early democracy that permitted slavery and granted extremely little freedom to most women—“attained” either “purity” or “perfection” depends on the terms’ definitions. By most contemporary standards, the answer would be “no” on both counts. And if “purity” and “perfection” are suspect nouns, which terms for the pursuit of excellence or psychosocial development might usefully replace them? Or are we stuck with using these nouns “under erasure”? Surely, a daughter who strives for “purity” and “perfection” could bother her mother, who might have pressing pragmatic concerns about her child’s security, a great deal. However, in adjudicating between the claims of the autonomy of one and anxieties of the other, should the success of the child’s efforts or the authenticity (purity?) of her intentions be taken as a primary criterion? Aren’t both of these factors hard to calculate? The reader leaves the poem with more specific uncertainties about aesthetic and social purity/impurity.
Spanning ten pages of many single-sentence paragraphs interspersed with some slightly longer ones, “What Can a Daughter Say?”, first published in 2007 in The Light Sang as It Left Your Eyes, is one of Tabios’ longest prose poems to date, and it needs to be. It is both an elegy for the poet’s father, who died of brain cancer the year before, and a reckoning with the Marcos era’s impact on the Philippines. The text’s epigraph, taken from a website called “More or Less: Heroes & Killers of the 20th Century, calls Ferdinand Marcos “one of the biggest thieves in the history of the planet” and estimates that, in twenty years, the dictator stole between $3–35 billion, which is especially tragic because his country’s “economy” was “struggling just to pay the interest on its foreign debt. . . .” Of course, the United States, the nation to which Tabios and her family emigrated when she was ten, was a crucial supporter of Marcos.
At various points in the text’s six sections, Tabios takes statistics from “More or Less” about how many people were killed by such redoubtable evildoers as Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier, Francisco Franco, Saddam Hussein, Hitler and his major henchmen, Mao Tse Tung (indicted not for murder but for starving “14 to 20 million” of his people “during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’”), Slobodan Milosevic, Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot, Mohamed Suharto, and Joseph Stalin. And then, there are quite a few villains, including Yasuhiko Asaka, Elie Hobeika, Efran Rioss Montt, Kim Il Sung, and Ante Pavelic, who are undoubtedly extremely well known in certain parts of the world or to particularly communities but lack name recognition in the U.S. The order of names may not be random, but it is far from chronological. The cumulative effect of this continually interrupted catalog is powerful, but one important aspect that links the poet’s two themes is the use of anaphora, beginning in the very first paragraphs:
Oh Heart, my father is not Idi Amin who killed 100,000 to half-a-million in
Oh Heart, my father is not Ion Antonescu who killed 300,000 Romanian Jews and half-a-million Russian soldiers.
This seems a way for Tabios to remind herself through a broad perspective that a difficult parent-child relationship, though deeply felt by her, should not be magnified into a real atrocity. But the anaphora takes on surprising significance, which will only become fully evident at the end of the prose poem. For it is important to note that the anaphoric catalogue is juxtaposed with the reflections of Imee Marcos, the dictator’s daughter, and in Section VI, the object of comparison/contrast becomes Marcos and the eight men who served as President during the Tabios family’s years in the U.S.:
O Heart, my father is not Ferdinand Edralin Marcos.
My name is Imee.
O Heart, my father is Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard Milhous Nixon
Gerald Ford . . .
George W. Bush
O Heart, my father is not Ferdinand Marcos.
O Heart, my father is Ferdinand Marcos.
Tabios’ use of Marcos’ middle name makes the dictator seem vulnerable to inspection, because “Edralin” was not used in common reference any more than William Jefferson Clinton has been. Most obviously, Eileen “is” Imee to the extent that both are Filipina daughters of Filipino fathers. The central (male) political figure of a country assumes the symbolic position of that nation’s “father,” and in a household conforming to patriarchal arrangements, the father is the “leader.” In her formative years, a daughter would experience a father’s impact in ways comparable to how a nation’s citizens would be influenced by their president or dictator. But these are just preliminary generalizations.
When Tabios collages what Imee Marcos says, she underscores the problem of articulation in the prose poem’s title. For Imee, herself a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives from 1998 to 2007, to acknowledge her father’s prodigious thievery and other crimes against Filipinos would be incredibly difficult.
(Tabios has never met Imee. In 1975 the dictator’s daughter and I sat next to each other for a semester in the front row [center] of Professor D.W. Robertson’s Chaucer class at Princeton; I sat on the left and Imee on the right. We agreed that Robertson was hard to hear. Whenever the professor let out a marvelously eccentric laugh while explicating off-color passages in The Canterbury Tales, Imee and I turned to each other and smiled. When we once asked each other’s majors and I heard that hers was Politics, I said, “That makes sense.”)
Long after a collective judgment has been rendered on her father, Imee Marcos wishes to defer assessment. Imee’s appeal for Filipinos to “‘study. . . the Marcos era,/ before, during, the Martial Law period,/ applying intellectual rigor over emotion,/ scholarship, not partisanship’” uses the rhetoric of disinterested research to mask the vexation she must feel about hearing her father condemned. She does not interrogate a basis for objectivity in assessing historical causality or account for the role of one’s subject position in developing interpretations. When Tabios responds to the passage above, “How much do we need to know to master the past?” one can ponder the difference between the verb “master” and the verb “understand.” In Nietzschian terms, Imee does not admit her “will to power” in invoking historical analysis, which can depend more on not knowing and/or evading knowledge than on presenting what one knows:
She says, “Exile has been merciful/ [for allowing me to] remember/ my father
as well,/ strong, playful and brilliant.” . . .
She says about being “a child of a dictator”—“I don’t remember.” . . .
She says, “I think it should be clear/ that to torture was never/ a matter of policy./
He didn’t order the military/ to do these things.” . . .
She says, “Martial Law/ was like/ another lifetime.”
As “‘a member of the succeeding generation,’” Imee purports to be calling “for an ‘objective appreciation’ of The Marcos Era” because she “knows too little about our [Philippine] past.” As an adult, long after living in her parents’ palace and being “protected” from understanding current events, has she still been blocked from studying that period in her nation’s history? Had she conducted that research, the results would likely have placed an immense psychological burden on her and poisoned happy family memories forever. Indeed, she seems to regard the subjective public airing of some of those memories as a potent strategy of rehabilitation. When Imee tries to establish positive aspects of Ferdinand Marcos’ personality, intellect, and aesthetic sensibility, she probably wants to trigger empathy for her position by reminding other women of their deep feelings for their fathers:
She says, “My dad is hugely patient,/ a very indulgent and playful/ father.” . . .
She says, “He had this playful/ story-telling ability/ and this skill of playing/ with
kids.” . . .
She says, “My dad was happy/ to talk about things other than politics./ His reading material can hardly be called political;/ he was extremely well-read.” . . .
She says, “My dad could/ recite/ blocks and blocks/ of poetry.”
Perhaps Imee’s subliminal message is that this poetic sensibility, and not the “false” image of the greedy, brutal dictator, is the true Ferdinand Marcos.
One motif that keeps resurfacing, along with the catalog of murderers/ statistics and Imee’s words, involves a discovery made when Filamore Tabios lay dying of brain cancer: “How many centuries until it was known that Judas was Jesus Christ’s greatest apostle, not his greatest betrayer?” Well before martial law, Marcos was viewed as a “Kennedyesque” “idealist”; Imee may hold out for the hope that her father will eventually be seen as a great Filipino leader and not as the Philippines’ “greatest betrayer.” Although Tabios reminds us through the Judas example that historical inaccuracies are often eventually brought to light, in the case of Marcos, grim facts are too well documented.
At one point, Imee gets a bit more specific in her “objective” vein: “’I need evidence/ of specific salvaging cases./ [The Marcos family is] willing to apologize/ provided we know/ what we are supposed/ to say sorry for./ Look at us/ with an open mind./ Give us a chance.’” The spokesman for a family that has obviously gotten so many “chances” by squirreling away so many of its country’s assets acts as though the charges are nebulous and have unfairly prejudiced the public against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. It is not clear what she would agree to consider proof, but Tabios immediately complies with the pseudo-request for “evidence” in the next paragraph: “I stand here before you. That I am alive makes me insufficient evidence?” Tragically common during (and after) the Marcos era, the economic exile of the poet’s family from the Philippines is the kind of evidence that Imee, prey to what Tabios calls “the logic of amnesia,” keeps evading.
Near the end of the prose-poem, Imee’s prior call for objectivity gives way to quasi-inarticulate gesturing toward the ineffable, toward “destiny” as (non)-explanation; such stress is put on a highly intelligent polyglot that she sounds silly: ““She says about the 1986 People’s Revolution that overthrew her father, ‘At a certain level, I’m very [Filipino]./ I don’t know if there is a right way./ Sometimes destiny takes over/ and you just happen to be there./ I supposed it is destiny because/ the things that happened were not/ typical of the people who did it.’” It is as though Marcos’ expropriations of his nation’s resources had nothing to do with his overthrow. Imee waxes pleonastically mystical: “’Too many unexpected things happened/ that I couldn’t explain. Maybe,/ at the end of the day,/ there simply are limits to logic./ I can’t explain it.’” But then she stops fumbling and finds a way to “spin” the situation, creating a sense of logic and counter-logic: “Because my father was the most in-charge leader/ you ever met. And here he was,/ he simply wouldn’t fight back./ His statements were clear. . . . he explained/ that he was courageous when he battled/ against foreigners. But if it’s a fellow Filipino,/ he could not fight. It was so atypical.”
Imee presents her father as a hero for sacrificing his precious power to preserve many of his people’s lives, despite their opposition to him: “His generals—his son—begged for his order to kill those who would overthrow him. The dictator looked beyond the palace, stared at the expanding sea of flesh, and said, No.” Compared to the killers on the “More or Less” list, Marcos seems “decent” and “gentle.” Tabios could say, “Oh Heart, Ferdinand Marcos is not Idi Amin,” etc., but she leaves that to readers. “At the end of the day,” the prose poem includes a recognition of good within the predominantly evil Marcos as an individual and patriarchal “leader” of the Philippines, who “would not shoot the Filipinos” and “would not shoot me” (Tabios). The text ends: “My father is also Ferdinand Edralin Marcos.” In something like a feminist gesture, the poet not only allows us to feel compassion for Imee in her difficult bind but lets the daughter act as the means by which the dictator’s positive aspects are now remembered; yet she thwarts Imee’s quest for exoneration through the gaps and absurdities in the apologist’s own rhetoric, as well as through pointed juxtapositions between different elements in the collage-prose-poem. What is unforgivable in Marcos’ actions remains dominant, but the transcolonial poet looks toward the day when the Philippines will overcome the imprint of colonialism and the Marcos regime; assertion is the first step in imagining what exceeds the “music”/ ”poetry” of (post)colonialism: “I break this music’s shackles. My name is Eileen and I will not be jailed inside a poem.”
When the prose poem’s aesthetic freedom took hold of Tabios in the mid- to late-nineties, she was not yet aware of how “Language Poets,” building on earlier work by such figures as Gertrude Stein and the John Ashbery of Three Poems, had developed new possibilities in this hybrid genre. She had yet to read, for example, Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence,” and yet “Purity” and similar prose poems in this volume—had they existed in the eighties—could have served as excellent specimen texts for that crucial essay.
Tabios is probably the first Filipino/a poet to bring experimentally tinged post- and trans-colonial concerns to the genre of prose-poetry—specifically and uniquely an integration of disrupting the narrative inherent in language as a colonizing tool with the influence of abstract art. She also figures as one of the first Asian-American poets to publish work in this experimental vein. The socioaesthetic benefits of her innovations accrue, of course, to all readers who can recognize them.
Thomas Fink is a poet, critic and painter: http://www.thomasfinkpoetry.net and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Fink_(poet). His work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s), and he is the author of A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) and co-editor of Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary Innovative American Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2014). His paintings hang in various collections.