Thomas Fink introduces INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems & New 1996-2015 by Eileen R. Tabios
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2015)
In the United States, the catalog or list poem first made its appearance in the work of Walt Whitman, who himself was evidently influenced by Old Testament verse-lists. Formally and thematically, Whitman was a democratizing force in American, and catalogs in Song of Myself and many other poems refused to separate high and low, significant and insignificant. Many modern and contemporary poets have followed the bearded bard in his forays into list-poems, but perhaps Eileen R. Tabios is the first to gather a Selected Poems comprised entirely of such texts. Since her debut in the late nineties, Tabios has been a restless experimenter; list poems have served as one major fulcrum for her diverse poetic experiments.
Like Whitman, Tabios has prioritized democratic impulses in the conscious shaping and articulation of her poetics. However, while Whitman stands as a figure claiming centrality for his American-ness and for an idea of “America,” Tabios’ postcolonial—or as she chooses to put it, “transcolonial”—subjectivity has done much to shape her poetics. (Writings on her work by such critics as Leny Mendoza-Strobel and Joi Barrios should be consulted for a thorough contextualization of postcolonial themes, and Tabios herself has frequently commented directly on this matter in autobiographical prose and in her art criticism.) Born in the Philippines during the Marcos era and less than two decades after the U.S. relinquished its last vestige of the colonial authority wrested from Spain in 1898, Tabios is the inventor of what she has identified as a Filipino diasporic poetic form, the hay(na)ku, and she has lived in the U.S. since the age of ten.
The two-columned poem “You Must Have Read Elizabeth’s Many Ways of Loving” (1998), boldly juxtaposes “words you memorized from my mother’s tongue,” a Filipino language, with English equivalents, and most of the words are tantalizingly gendered and intimate. In “Letters from the Balikbayan Box” (2005), lists that come from various Filipinos as reflections encourage us to relate diasporic subjects’ gift-giving to those who remained at home to economic disparities caused by contemporary multinational capitalism. Tabios identifies “a balikbayan” as “someone who ‘brings home the bacon,’ so to speak. He represents the Pinoy quest for the dollar, the deutschmark, the Gulf money, all in the name of prosperity.” “Commodities: An Autobiography” (2007), which offers poignant narrative snippets of the poet’s transcontinental uprooting, speaks of “products [that] were so prized” by Filipinos “that their names were turned into verbs or the labels themselves became synonyms for the products.”
The section from Tabios’ “Filipina Pen Pal” project, also published in 2007, takes aim at the fetishizing of Filipina women by white European and American men. A catalogue of questions like “Can you find the Philippines on a map?”, “Why do Filipinos typically have Spanish names?”, and “Do you anticipate that your wife will be submissive and obedient?”, followed by correct answers, and then point totals with explanations goads the white men to recognize their ignorance of Filipino culture(s) and their projection of vague fantasies on women, though the poem does account for the possibility that some of the men have done “their homework” and might even have legitimate reasons for marrying a particular Filipina.
I have written extensively in my introduction to The Thorn Rosary (East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2010, 15-20) on Tabios’ remarkably historically nuanced list poem about her own father, the national “father” Marcos, and the dictator’s daughter/apologist, “What Can a Daughter Say?” (2007). So here is a passage devoted to the catalog-effect:
At various points in the text’s six sections, Tabios takes statistics… about how many people were killed by such redoubtable evildoers as Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier, Francisco Franco, Saddam Hussein, Hitler and her major henchmen, Mao… and Stalin. And then there are quite a few villains, including Yasuhiko Asaka, Elie Hobeika, … and Ante Pavelic, who are undoubtedly extremely well known in certain parts of the world or to particular 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 [of atrocity and mourning for her father, with whom she had a fraught relationship in her youth] is the use of anaphora….
As a counterpoint to “What Can a Daughter Say?” Tabios includes a list poem in this volume that seems to purport to teach the people of the Philippines ways to overcome the horrors of their colonial past, the Marcos regime, and more recent postcolonial debacles. “List(ing) Poem: the New Filipino Society” may imply some valid general ideas like “A Budget for National Self-Reliance,” but the joke is on us: at the end, we learn that all the phrases are taken from the writings of none other than Ferdinand Marcos. (Nevertheless, I think that Tabios should rise to the challenge of a catalog poem that literally tries to prescribe effective sociopolitical measures for the land of her birth.)
If George W. Bush, one of the most divisive occupants of the oval office in recent memory, self-flatteringly claimed to be “a uniter, not a divider,” Eileen R. Tabios could honestly boast that she is an includer, not an excluder. Any discussion of her catalog poetry should consider how randomness impinges on this work as an “includer” of much that many people might think does not seem to belong together. In a discursive “Introduction” herein to her “recent work, ‘Murder, Death and Resurrection’ (MDR),” she describes reliance on a “Poetry Generator contain[ing] a data base of 1,146 lines which [she] can combine randomly to make a poem of” varying lengths—up “to 1,146 lines.” But though the poet notes that she “can create—generate—new poems unthinkingly from its database,” “the poems cohere partly by the scaffolding of beginning each line with the phrase ‘I forgot...’ (a tactic inspired by reading Tom Beckett's fabulous poem "I Forgot" in his book
Pointing to her “long-held interests in abstract and cubist language” and the infinite possibilities to reorder line-progressions, Tabios suggests that her process is not exactly random, nor does it signal Barthes’ “death of the author”: she “created the 1,146 lines from reading through 27 previously-published poetry collections.” She “murders” each pre-text while “resurrecting” it, and so “the results dislocate without eliminating authorship.” But perhaps “murder” conveys something far more violent than she is doing in her acts of displacement, which are more positively seen as “relocation” or “recycling” rather than “dislocation.” On the other hand, through effects of randomness, like New York School poets, Language poets, and older Asian-American poets such as John Yau and Tan Lin, she is “murdering” any sense that “the imperial self” (a phrase coined by Americanist Quentin Anderson) unifies poetic discourse. She is especially murdering her own potential imperial self that might otherwise be seen as a foundation of the coherent meditative or narrative lyric. Along these lines, Tabios’ "Babaylan Poetics," “based on indigenous Filipino practices,” emphasizes the cataloging poet as immersed in all other beings, materials, and processes—not separate from them in some sovereign “command” of “her” materials. Or as the poet puts it in “(Muse Poem” (2014),
No reason to censor
mountain from saffron, sky from
celadon, boulder from lavender
bougainvillea from cobalt, grass
from ebony, diamond from cerise
you from me. Me from you
Nothing must be silenced.
Obvious as it might seem, I must insist that what makes Tabios’ use of randomness poetically viable in her “forgetting” poems and much other work in this volume, is not only a fine diversity of represented experience, but the felicity of juxtapositions, as well as departures/returns. Take, for example, these successive monostichs from “In the Beginning, Before Words, There Was Poetry”:
I forgot love is always haggled.
I forgot you were the altar that made me stay.
I forgot you wanted to see her seeing herself…
I forgot, for him, she released milk to orphaned baby birds.
I forgot I yearned for amnesia—
I forgot the joy of eliding the vocabulary found in margins.
I forgot the zoo with retired cages.
As in Beckett’s poem, which itself signifies on Joe Brainard’s “I Remember,” the speaker of Tabios’ performs an act of remembering an act of forgetting that either recuperates the gist of the forgotten—as, I believe, in all of the examples above—or points to its inability to do so. The fifth line is especially layered or torqued because the speaker has now remembered that she had forgotten about a desire to forget, thus, at one point, fulfilling the desire by not consciously desiring it. In the first two lines above, “love” as a bargaining process (“haggled”) is connected with the influence of concrete symbols of religion (“altar”) on the fluctuation of individuals’ devotion. The third line also may concern love or simply fascination about another’s self-consciousness, but it is surely linked to the latter topic in the penultimate line, in which “vocabulary” of the representation of inside/outside is central to desire and hence “joy.” The “release” of “milk” to the birds is a different kind of love; it may reflect “his” love for the birds and/or her love for him. In addition, note the challenge posed to an overall narrative by the pronoun shifts in the first four lines, as well as the adjective “retired” that makes us wonder why it goes with the noun “cages”: are the animals that should be in the cages dead or released into the wild, or are they in new, high-tech cages? And could “zoo” and “cages” be tropes for the display and confinement of human emotions and behaviors—such as love and loving?
Another example of lucid juxtapositions can be found in “Untitled (Bookstore), 2000” (2005), a poem comprising a collection of titles of books on the shelves of a San Francisco bookstore,
The Case For Marriage
The Path Of Practice
Field Guide To The American Teenager
The Zen Of Listening
Immutable Laws Of Internet Branding
Darkness In El Dorado
A Brief History of Tomorrow
A book making a “case for marriage” might consider wedded life as requiring the “path of practice,” perhaps of a spiritual discipline, but more likely of communication strategies, including active “listening.” Also, marriage in the U.S. is often complicated by the “wild” nature of “the American Teenager,” for whom parents apparently need their own “field guide”! Of course, Tabios is also parodying the transformation of so many activities into “Zen,” a trend which began with “the Zen of archery,” in the realm of self-help books. Such a use of Zen is in the interest of corporate “branding,” whose “laws” can only be judged “immutable” insofar as one can crunch the numbers of a gigantic batch of sales reports in a way that supports the assertion. Even then, one is exceedingly presumptuous to assert anything like the book title promising an anticipation of “tomorrow’s” “history”—whether “briefly” or extensively. Branding, in fact, is a sign of mutability: whatever it happens to sell proves transient, and branding techniques must continually change to manufacture desire for new products. Even representations of the splendors of something like “Brunelleschi’s Rome” must be attractively re-historicized periodically to re-emerge as saleable.
Perhaps forgotten and surely discarded, garbage in a dumpster (or a landfill) is the ultimate collection of contiguously placed items that bespeak both randomness and relation. To create “Garbage: A True Story” (2007), Tabios imposed surveillance on herself during the 2005 Christmas season (up to New Year’s day, 2006 in this selection). The result is essentially a group of lists of “trash,” items “saved for re-use,” and items actually “recycled or re-used,” as well as commentary (“notes”) on garbage—for example, from Elizabeth Royte’s book, Garbage Land—and related topics like dumpster-diving. When the “trash” lists are much longer than the other two for a given day, the disparity gives pause. The reader can recall and/or learn a good deal about social and ecological contexts of garbage and trash-disposal, but the overwhelming effect is that the text, if read attentively, forces one to drown in a plethora of things and their tremendous specificity and capability of being differentiated from each other. One can come away from such immersion with a Thoreauian desire to simplify, an enhanced skepticism about commodity culture, and/or a desire for the kind of collectively responsible behavior needed to avert environmental catastrophe. In one of the “Notes,” Tabios writes: “We’re flooding here in Napa Valley. It’s our own taste of the effects of global warming—the tsunami, hurricanes and now increasingly intense rainy weather. I relate the flooding waters to this Trash Project as I know that while I try with recycling, there's still a lot of paper and plastic (especially plastic!) that I trash instead of recycle.” Lists, then, are not “more trash,” but a call to action.
The push/pull of juxtaposed elements in the catalog poems of Tabios’ Invent(st)ory continually raise questions about the slippery characterization of what is valuable or worthless, what is coherent or fragmented or both, what is to be deemed relevant or irrelevant, what is given to accretion and/or dispersal, what is clear or opaque, what is (politically) inclusive or exclusive, and what is communitarian or atomizing. Yes, her inventories tell stories—complicated ones, full of allusive and overall signifying power—and her stories partake of the processes of inventory.
Thomas Fink is the author of two books of criticism, including “A Different Sense of Power”: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001), eight books of poetry, including Joyride (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013), and three chapbooks. He has co-edited two critical anthologies. His paintings hang in various collections. Fink is Professor of English at City University of New York—LaGuardia.