NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems & New 1996-2015 by Eileen R Tabios
(Dos Madres, Loveland, Ohio, 2015)
Titles, like covers, seek our attention. They invite speculation and provide clues as to the nature of the material that lies within. The full title of this volume is Selected Catalog Poems & New (1996-2015) INVENT[ST]ORY. The dynamic inherent in the title, which holds together two opposing fields, the concept of the inventory and the concept of the story, is the force that fuels its creativity.
This substantial volme of work brings together selections from several previous publications written over the last twenty years together with some new and uncollected work. A fine introduction by Thomas Fink, who made the selection, places the work in context and provides a useful and informative guide to readers who may be encountering the work of this poet for the first time.
For a while now, Tabios has been interested in the concept of the list poem – that is to say, poems composed of lists. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her sequence of poems about the content of the Balikbayan Box (taken from her book Post Bling Bling, 2005) and the poem sequence called Garbage: A True Story. The former reveals her very real engagement with problems and perspectives relating to cultural identity and expatriatism and the latter with environmental issues and the problems of living in a throw-away society. In other words, these are not just lists recorded for the sake of it, but revealing commentaries on subjects that go far deeper than the surface text. Tabios‘ engagement with the public is of particular interest in these two sequences. E-mails received from individuals responding to her texts and calls for information form an integral part of her work and lend a degree of objectivity and authenticity to the overall content.
If you think that this is something rather peripheral – an approach, perhaps that is somewhat on the sidelines of poetry – think again. Lists form an important part of our daily lives. They come in all sorts of guises. Most of them try to make sense of something – they help us to remember rather than to forget [there is a whole sequence of poems beginning with the words I forgot... that appears later in the book]; some of them place things in a certain order [this could be chronological or some kind of order of importance] and a number of them categorise things in a certain way.
Lists form the backbone of many of the poems in this book. In Muse Poem Tabios offers up a whole paragraph of words depicting various shades of red. The sequence runs in strict alphabetical order as well:
...bloodshot, blooming, blush, brick, burgundy, cardinal,, carmine, cerise, cherry...
In the two column poem You Must Have Read Elizabeth’s Many Ways of Loving, she lists words memorized from her mother’s tongue – a Filipino language with English equivalents.
The titles of books from a bookstore are used in the poem Untitled [Bookstore] 2000. The fact that the poem itself is untitled yet consists of nothing but titles is surely a humourous touch. The titles, although seemingly taken at random from the bookshelves of a San Francisco bookstore, as Fink points out in his introduction, offer up lucid juxtapositions when considered as a whole. A similar but slightly different approach informs the List[ing] Poem: Towards The New Filipino Society which lists (this time in alphabetical order of title) books by the Philippine dictator Ferdinand E Marcos.
In other sections of the book, Tabios goes on to turn the idea of the list into a methodology for writing poetry on the grand scale. Frequent use of repetition, for example, is another way of listing and thereby organising the structure of the poem. This is particularly evident in What Can A Daughter Say? At various moments in the six sections Tabios uses statistics to relate how many people were killed by political figures such as Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier, Francisco Franco, Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, etc. The cumulative effect is undeniably powerful.
In many ways it can be said that Tabios’ poetry and prose poetry is a work in progress. Phrases and / or complete sentences reappear again and again, sometimes within the same poem or in multiples of poems giving the reader that sense of déjà vu.
One of my favourite poems in this collection, Plant Latin, plants Latin into the text by using the Latin names of plants. The effect is at once lyrical and beautiful. The repetition of Girl Singing. Day, inspired by José Garcia Villa’s poem Girl Singing. Day. lends structure to the poem with the words slightly modified at the close:
…..Girl singing strangely.
But it remains Day. Silly girl
singing for heaven hovers
nearer than a breath away.
Repetitive structures need not be bland. There are times when Tabios becomes astonishingly lyrical as evidenced in this short extract from The Erotic Life of Art: A Séance with William Carlos Williams:
……….I know nothing
about Thiebaud’s sex life. But I can say about Renoir
that he loved the girls from Les Halles for letting
their breasts sing soprano above their bodices.
The use of repetition is partly as a result of another of Tabios’ compositional methods: the MDR Poetry Generator. In an introduction to her work Murder, Death and Resurrection (MDR), she describes her reliance upon a Poetry Generator that contains a database of 1,146 lines which she can combine randomly to make a poem of varying lengths. The Poetry Generator allows for the generation of seemingly endless variations of words and word patterns making each poem sound like a revision of the last one and / or a completely new one. The use of a pre-determined phrase at the start of each line as, for instance, in the sequence of poems entitled I Forgot Light Burns, ensures that the random selection is coherent. Lines sparkle like different lights flaring off a prism.
Engagement with other poets is something that Tabios believes in strongly and likes to promote through the concept of the interactive poem. The best exponent of this can be found in Post Bling Bling (Letters from the Balikbayan Box) which I have already referred to above and the sequence of footnotes taken from There, Where the Pages Would End (2003).
The purpose of the footnote is to elucidate something, to offer an explanation, to put forward another point of view, to elaborate, to compare and contrast with something else in order to enrich our understanding of the text. Tabios turns this on its head by offering us the footnote but not the text. The large blank space above the footnote is an invitation to the reader to fulfil a commission. Tabios is saying Over to you. Take it from me, she is genuinely waiting to hear from you. Your response is as much a part of the poem as the footnote that has already been put in place. A note at the back of the book informs the reader that these footnotes have been used as prompts in creative writing sessions.
Two keys (both footnotes) that help to unlock this collection may be found in the following quotes:
(u) The rug trade teaches that it takes much time to learn how to love fragments.
13) Still, he once read her poem where for the poem, she had said nothing is “too much” or “not enough” – that a poem is only what it is.
An extract from the poem ME... ME is a good place to finish. Here, Tabios sums up her professional career to date in the form of a list:
M E M R Y
I have written as a poet
public relations hack
stock market analyst
country risk analyst
Words have always been my material.
This is an attractively produced book which will provide readers with a very good introduction to the work of this experimental poet. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist 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 most recent books are 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) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).