JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“What Can a Daughter Say” by Eileen R. Tabios
(poem featured in THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES: Our Autobiography, as well as in THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems and New (1998-2010) and INVENT[ST]ORY: SELECTED CATALOG POEMS & NEW (1996-2015)
Publishers respectively are Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2007 and 2010, and Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2015)
from “WHAT CAN A DAUGHTER SAY?”
[Note: This is Part I of a six-part poem.]
O Heart, my father is not Idi Amin who killed 100,000 to half-a-million in Uganda.
O Heart, my father is not Ion Antonescu who killed 300,000 Romanian Jews and half-a-million Romanian soldiers.
She calls for an “objective appreciation” of The Marcos Era. She says, “As a member of the succeeding generation/ who knows too little about our past,/ the time has come to study intently,/ intensely,/ dispassionately,/ completely, the Marcos era,/ before, during, the Martial Law period,/ applying intellectual rigor over emotion,/ scholarship, not partisanship.”
How much do we need to know to master the past?
O Heart, my father is not Yasuhiko Asaka who killed 200,000 to 350,000 Chinese.
And Jesus said, according to Judas, “How do you know me? Truly I say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me.”
O Heart, my father is not Nicolae Ceausescu who killed 5,000 during a 1989 revolution, who starved thousands during an unnecessary austerity program, who ruined tens of thousands of lives during his reign.
She says, “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.”
I stand here before you. That I am alive makes me insufficient evidence?
How many centuries until it was known that Judas was Jesus Christ’s greatest apostle, not his greatest betrayer?
How does loyalty come to betray the loyal?
O Heart, my father is not Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti who killed 20,000 to 60,000.
And Jesus, speaking privately to Judas, said, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is possible for you to read it, but you will grieve a great deal.”
“Salvage”: To apologize
if one knows
Salvaging: not to know, never to know
O Heart, my father is not Francisco Franco Bahamonde who never remembered the tens to hundreds of thousands who died. Was it half-a-million or two million killed in the Spanish Civil War? What is the true number?
She says her father told the U.S. ambassador, “I would rather die/ than abandon the Presidency.” The ambassador warned that thousands of troops were heading to his Palace. The dictator then absconded with his family.
The U.S. ambassador lied.
Of course. To be an effective ambassador in this world is to lie.
One lie became what was believed for centuries as one man’s life: O, Judas…!
A dictator ends his reign the way he began: through deceit.
And Jesus said, according to Judas, “Strong and holy generation? Truly I say to you, no one born of this aeon will see that [generation].”
What is a number? What are numbers?
O Heart, my father is not Joseph Goebbels responsible for killing over 46 million in Europe in the Second World War.
O Heart, my father is not Hermann Wilhelm Goering responsible for killing over 46 million in Europe in the Second World War.
This music is my jail.
She says, “My father felt women and children should/ not be present on the battleground./ Our mistake was to forget/ that the palace of our childhood was not/ really a home but a battleground.”
The palace of one’s childhood
—for even those who could afford
the bricks to obviate metaphor—
is usually constructed from memory.
I insist. I am evidence, speaking.
O Heart, my father is not Heinrich Himmler who killed six million in German concentration camps and over 40 million more in Europe in the Second World War.
And Jesus said, according to Judas, “Strong and holy generation? No host of angels of the stars will rule over that generation, and no person of mortal birth can associate with it.”
O Heart, my father is not Adolf Hitler who caused over 60 million deaths worldwide.
This music jails me.
She says, “Exile has been merciful/ [for allowing me to] remember/ my father as well,/ strong, playful and brilliant.”
To reassess exile’s historical role—
To acknowledge exile as savior—
To not diminish “exile” as mere manifestation of loss—
From exile, Dante wrote a comedy. From exile, Milton wrote a tragedy. From exile, I write.
From exile, Etel Adnan writes a new form for absence as “an exile from an exile”. From exile, I write.
And Jesus said, according to Judas, “Why have you gone into hiding?”
O Heart, my father is not Elie Hobeika who killed 1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. And “an unknown number of others” during the Lebanese Civil War.
O Heart, my father is not Enver Hoxha of Albania whose victims cannot be counted reliably by the living, but can be estimated as “in the thousands.”
What is a number? “I” is rarely “1”.
She says about being “a child of a dictator”—“I don’t remember.”
O Heart, my father is not Saddam Hussein who killed two million. One can be more specific: 150,000 to 340,000 Iraqis and 730,000 Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War. One thousand Kuwaitis. Over 100,000 Kurds killed or “disappeared.” Another 300,000 for the Kurds, Shias and dissidents. Half a million Iraqi children dead due to international trade sanctions following the Gulf War.
The logic of amnesia—
“disappeared” versus “murdered”
The flux of language—
“I don’t remember” versus “my father was a murderer”
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 those things.”
And, according to Judas, Jesus asked the disciples, “What are [the priests] like?”
She says, “I don’t know if there is a right way./ Sometimes destiny takes over and/ you just happen to be there.”
And, according to Judas, the disciples replied to Jesus, “Some [priests] sacrifice their own children.”
O Heart, my father is not Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic who together killed 200,000.
“What Can a Daughter Say?” is one of my favorite poems by Eileen Tabios. It’s also from one of my favorite books of hers, THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES: Our Autobiography. Rather than describe the book in my own words, I’ll just quote the blurb at the publisher (Marsh Hawk Press)’s website:
On April 11, 2006, Filamore B. Tabios, Sr. died of brain cancer and its complications. In writing about her father, Eileen R. Tabios explores reconciliation with Ferdinand Marcos’ legacy through deliberate empathy with the former Philippine dictator's daughter Imee; pays homage to Judas Iscariot whose Gospel, discovered during her vigil by her father's deathbed, reveals him to be the most loyal disciple, instead of greatest betrayer, of Jesus Christ; meditates on the murder statistics of the 20th century's leading killers, from Idi Amin to Adolf Hitler; considers the global Filipina pen pal phenomena; and engages with Dante Aleghieri's Purgatorio.
In enacting Nietzsche’s notion that “Punishment is the making of memory,” Ms. Tabios also makes poetry by interrogating form. In this book, she uses commodity lists to create autobiography, practices ekphrasis to translate the painterly technique of scumbling, offers variations of the hay(na)ku form, relies on random collage to create visual poetry, and blurs the boundary between poetry and prose through texts originally written as blog posts. In addition, the book's overall trajectory reflects her disruption of narrative linearity in favor of Dante’s conception of the Trinity. For Dante, creation is simultaneous as regards What (God) creates, How (Son) creation unfolds, and the Form (Spirit) taken by what is created.
… The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes reflects the poet’s primal battle with grief, showing how the death of a parent can be one of the most complicated, turbulent and wrenching experiences. It is also her most overtly political work yet, referencing her roots as a “Marcos Baby,” a member of the generation that grew up during Marcos’ martial law regime. To grapple with her father’s death, the author addresses the world which created the context for their engagement. Ultimately, however, The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes acts as a poet's testament for Joy—that she would cease writing this book only after she resurrected her father, which is to say, Love.
This is more a reading than a review, if a review is a judgement. Take it for granted that I think that Tabios is very very good.
The above blurb does double duty for me. Besides contextualizing the poem within the Tabios oeuvre, its first paragraph, at least all but the last two clauses of it, appears to be a purpose-built description of “What Can a Daughter Say?”. That leaves me free to discuss its complexity, and what makes it most interesting to me.
But first, I want to say something else. Since I am neither a Filipino nor an exile / immigrant, I am sure that there are aspects of this poem that are opaque to me (to clarify, I am not defining anyone’s status here; “exile” is a word this poem makes use of; “immigrant” is not; but it is intentionally a little unclear exactly to whom the word “exile” refers, and I add immigrant to keep from implying a potentially inappropriate clarity). I will have some additional comments about different histories and how they might affect reading, below … not comments, exactly: questions, rather.
“What Can a Daughter Say?” is constructed out of a number of strands: quotes from Imee Marcos about her father Ferdinand Marcos; quotes from The Gospel of Judas, someone repeatedly saying “My father is not <insert name of political figure with a lot of blood on his hands here> <insert crime against humanity>”, and other text which may or may not be by the same person who is saying “My father is not …” At first is seems fairly clear that Imee Marcos (who is more or less Tabios’ age) is comparing her father to these other people in order to minimize his crimes. Then it begins to dawn on me that it could be Tabios herself speaking these lines (yes, I know I know, but still, these comes from a book in which Tabios is coming to grips with the death of her father, so it makes little sense to think of the Tabios of the poems as significantly NOT the Tabios whose father has just died. But I’ll call her the Tabios persona if you’d rather). But if so, why? What are her father’s crimes? They are utterly unspecified; rather, they aren’t even hinted at; the only thing that suggests them is the possibility that “My father is not …” is spoken in Tabios’ voice. And yes, by the end we know that the Tabios persona is in fact a character in the poem.
I think the best we can do to answer this question (what are the Tabios persona’s father’s crimes?) here, in this selected poems, where “What Can a Daughter Say?” is out of its original context, is that every child has to come to grips at some point with the failings of a parent, which often means the fact that a parent is just another human being, and that that’s among the stuff that comes to the fore when the parent dies. So, regardless of what the father may have done, we can conclude from this poem either that the Tabios persona thinks it could have been worse – or that she is trying to convince herself that it could have been worse. I tend to believe the former.
Entwined with the two strands already noted are excerpts from The Gospel of Judas. And the assertion that Judas was Jesus’s greatest disciple. How does this fit with the rest of the poem? I can come up with several ways to think this. First, it parallels Imee’s continued assertion that her father was, for the most part, misunderstood (as was Judas). Second, it is a way for her and/or the Tabios persona to assert that while it might feel traditionally Judas-like to question one’s father, especially during the process of grief, it is not in fact a betrayal at all, tho all who witness it might think so. To see one’s parent straight just might be the highest form of Love possible.
Eventually, Imee and Eileen (what the Tabios persona calls herself) merge, as, eventually so does “My father is Ferdinand Marcos” and “My father is not …”. This accomplishes two things, for me at least. One is a reconciliation of conflicting feelings for the dead father, a kind of Hegelian sublation as it were, in which both the is and the is not are allowed to exist side by side. The other, and here I feel a little more tentative, not being a Filipino, is that here Tabios is coming to terms with her being what the Marsh Hawk blurb calls a “Marcos baby”, which, and here I am reduced to imagination, would be akin for me to coming to terms with being not only a member of my nuclear family, but with also being a member of larger social groupings, including my country, and realizing that the blood on its hands is also the blood on mine.
Which brings me to some final thoughts on this poem, final in the sense of “for the purposes of this little essay”. Perhaps this is where my NOT being an exile or immigrant becomes a strength, but perhaps it also becomes a source of misreading. In any case, my immediate thought upon finishing this poem was: why, among all the world’s leaders who have been linked with terrible crimes, are no USAmericans listed? Yes, the names of a number of presidents are listed, but not with crimes attached to their names. Which leads to a question: does a person exiled to the US, or who has emigrated here, have a different relationship with the nation’s crimes than I (who as born in Chicago) have? Or is there another reason for this what to me is an obvious (meaning not accidental) omission? I don’t know. I really have no idea.
But I must say, that these omissions do say something. I just don’t know what. But it’s important somehow. It feels important. Not in terms of the grief that this poem is working thru. I only know that if I had written these lines, and if I had limited myself to US crimes against humanity that took place from Johnson on, I would have had to write:
“My father is not Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Richard Milhaus Nixon, who, between them, murdered 700,000 Vietnamese for no intelligible reason, and disrupted Southeast Asia to such an extent that the Khmer Rouge, and hence Pol Pot, became possible, and as we already know, Pol Pot, who ‘killed between a quarter and a third of his country’s population.’”
“My father is not George Herbert Walker Bush, or William Jefferson Clinton, who, between them, embargoed Iraq and did not allow the importation of chemicals that would purify the water, so that 500,000 children died of intestinal diseases.” [Note: Tabios – the poet and/or the persona – attributes these deaths to Saddam Hussein. I can only say that the US Ambassador to Iraq under both Bush and Clinton said, in my presence, that the US was to blame for the death of those children. I know, as the poem says, ambassadors lie, but I couldn’t see in 2003, when I heard him say this, and I still can’t see, what this particular ambassador had to gain by his statement]
“My father is not George W Bush, who invaded Iraq in 2003 under the known pretense (lie) that Iraq had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, even tho he knew they didn’t, which morphed into the lie that Iraq was a danger because it had WMDs, which morphed into the lie that we were bringing them democracy, and who is responsible for the deaths of a million or so Iraqis who died because of the US invasion and occupation (whoever in fact did the killing, they wouldn’t have died otherwise).”
And, just as a footnote, during the year since the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, 1091 people have been killed in the US by police. That’s almost 3 a day, which is heading towards Pinochet territory, whether or not some of the dead “earned” it (suicide by cop, etc).
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think Tabios SHOULD have included these lines, or ones like them; it simply the fact that she didn’t, that the US in this poem is somehow (apparently) exempted, that I found so … interesting. I make no critique of the poem for what it doesn’t include. But. The fact that there are no such lines tells me that there are things about this poem I don’t understand, and thus my position as a reader (and more) is raised, in my eyes at least. My takeaway is that it is possible that it’s different to be her than me, or it’s different to be an exile / immigrant than not to be one, or it’s different to be a Filipino than not. In terms of relating to US crimes in this context. Or something. I don’t want to write a whole essay called “What Is Reading?” I am perfectly happy to leave this as an open question to worry over, in the sense that a dog worries a bone.
In fact, speaking generally about Tabios’ work, this is one of the things I like best about it. No matter how simple the sentences, I’m always left with a bit of a mystery. Which I think is thought and emotion producing. Which is great.
John Bloomberg-Rissman has just finished a 5-year textual project/poem, In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life mashup called Zeitgeist Spam. It’s only 1.5 million words, not counting the notes. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). His working title(s) for the fourth section are In the House of the Hangman: The Baroque Feast and Adouéke, an untranslated plant name in a Kanaka war chant which was translated by Louise Michel while she was exiled on New Caledonia in the 1870s, after the Commune (adouéke makes warriors “fierce, and charms their wounds.”) In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, Black Widow Press has just published an anthology which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, and he’s just embarked on another anthology project, called Nuestra America, about which he’ll be more than happy to wear out your ear. He’s also learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).
[Each review provides the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily the opinion of THE HALO-HALO REVIEW staff.]