Monday, November 27, 2023



Getting to One: Flash Fictions by Eileen R. Tabios / Art by harry k stammer

(Sandy Press, Santa Barbara/Australia, 2023)



I will begin with a close and plurilingual reading of the title—‘Getting to One’, which had led me to think about language and how inter-woven it can be. The title phrase itself is nested, in that it contains plurilingual words within words—

‘ge’ — 
 — gè from Chinese (Pinyin) to English translates to ‘each, respectively,
every, individually’…

‘ting’ — 
 — tíng from Chinese (Pinyin) to English translates as ‘to stop’ – other possible meanings of ‘ting’ include ‘to listen, to hear, to heed, to obey’, ‘a sound of a bell or a chime’ and ‘graceful’.

‘o o’ from Pilipino to English translates as ‘yes’; a green light to keep going—which contradicts the Chinese ‘ting’ — ‘to stop’.

And ‘One’ is a number loaded with symbolism and meaning; it implies unity, togetherness, but also a sense of isolation, solitude and loneliness, which I believe we all (not only readers and writers) may be familiar with. Which led me to think of the reasons for Eileen Tabios’ purpose to thread the epigraph to the vignettes in the book, and as well, Tabios’ collaboration with the writer/artist and musician, harry k stammer.

On the whole, ‘Getting to One’ implies that one is going somewhere (to oneself perhaps?), and that there is movement. 

Getting To One is a collection of vignettes from Tabios and visual poetry (vispo) from harry k stammer, which traverses highly imaginative themes, quaint characters and interesting facts. I read the book closely and seriously. I am not certain this kind of reading is appropriate for the book, but whether it is or not is not the issue—the fact it is being read at all is really something to be proud of. 

I contemplated upon the part of the epigraph for quite some time: ‘…“One”—a bar where each patron must drink alone…’ (which is from ‘Ghost’, an excerpt from Tabios’ novel-in-progress Clandestine DNA). In Tabios’ writings, this part of epigraph appears in each vignette and linked by the surreal bar—’One’, where ‘each patron must drink alone’ (8). Tabios thus weaves her narratives together—texts within texts. This is most evident in the closing vignette of the book, ‘Recycled Afterthought’, which ‘uses one sentence each from the other flash fictions with most being exactly as they were portrayed in the source material, subject to the persona’s pronoun being changed to “you”’ (51).

I will, however, skip to ‘Silence as Condition Precedent’, where the protagonist is a ‘pretender’—‘He claims to prefer being alone but he needs company to listen to his animal stories’ (37). Perhaps in the bar ‘One’, ‘silence [is] a condition precedent’—and ‘drunks bec[o]me regulars only if they’[ve] lost all appetite to be heard’ (37). I do question the paradox of One’s predication—Wouldn’t the bar need patrons that need to be heard in order to be? Otherwise, why bother with it? Stay home. Stay home in comfort. Be unheard and comfortable. And it is here I arrived at the conclusion that the bar ‘One’ is mythical—it doesn’t exist, never has, never will. 

Perhaps the irony of writing this review for Tabios is the notion of the central ‘place’ where activity derives, being ‘One’—a bar, which is the last place on earth I’d read a book. Further, compound the fact that I don’t drink alcohol nor frequent bars, and one can arrive at the comical effects and affects of writing this review. I’m rather like a vegetarian working at the butchers.

But perhaps why this work of fiction and art resonated with me was in the first story, ‘The End of Sundays’. Having friends and family who are single fathers and mothers, marginalised writers, Othered persons, I caught the notion of the bar—‘One’—as a metaphor for an orphanage, where each patron drinks alone…and ‘each would leave alone’ (9). The bar has become the place for ‘One’s’ who have been abandoned; ‘there [are] so many orphans’; each of them deserved ‘a turn’ (9). The tone of the book is thus melancholy, and this resonates with the art by harry k stammer, whose vispo often contain ‘/’ slash[es]—a punctuation used to represent division and fractions and separation. stammer’s colours are stark, and contrast upon each other, representative of the uniqueness of characters written about in Tabios’ fictions.

In ‘Planet M’, the protagonist is a monk who trips over and smashes his face in the mirror causing him to bleed. Planet M lacks aroma—one presumes the monk is celibate—but the protagonist fails to weep—he has no more tears. While the monk bleeds, one questions whether he is still human. The monk ‘feel[s] the warmth of ichor through [his] veins’ (15)…yet, he is ‘not [a] god[’s]’ (15). Planet M may be thought of as not necessarily a planet per se, but a state of mind, which affects the body and heart; conditions the spirit and soul. Planet M—where ‘M’ may stand for mirror / monk / messiah et al—is one which resonates with my ontology, and is perhaps the story which captivated me the most because it is a clear indication of ‘avatars presented by mirrors’, one which places hope in faith in of our lives—to ‘live happily ever after’ through suffering. 

In ‘Polmost Spirytus Rektyfikowany Vodka’, the protagonist is awoken from a dream, and sees his conflict in that ‘No one ever talks about how much fortitude hope requires’. He drinks as a means to forget (that he lack[s] hope and [is] hopeless’ (19). And he dreams an escapist utopia—he is ‘seasteading’—creating artificial islands. And that island is ‘One,’ a bar where each patron must enter alone, drink alone and leave alone. stammer’s art reflects slashes and backslashes—they are touching—indicative of a kind of utopia or unity. This is against a Maya Blue background, which was employed in Maya visual cultural and religious ceremony to signify the god Chaak, their patron deity of rain and agriculture.

‘The Road to Juliana[’s]’ conflict sees the protagonist looking forward to forgetting about his past—a past wherein he was ‘victim of…[a] field of eating disorders, [which] present[ed] a high burn out rate for dieticians…[who] take on [his] anxiety and trauma’ (29). It is a joy to come to the resolution of this vignette, where the protagonist ‘Learn[s] about dogs, [as] he [had] ordered himself’…discover[ing]…a Great Dane named Juliana…[who] once peed on an incendiary bomb…earning [her] a Blue Cross medal. Hence, human anxieties and trauma are turned to non-human joy and fulfilment. Further, anthropomorphism takes place as Juliana earns a Blue Cross medal. So, the protagonist becomes a friend to animals.

Perhaps then, ‘One,’ is not a ‘bar’ where the Othered drink, but an ‘escapist[s] utopia’, ‘an artificial island’ in our minds and hearts—a bar so personal that it can only be reached by oneself and one’s soul-kin, because unfortunately, one must drink alone. Do Tabios and stammer believe we, humans and non-humans, are in effect dying alone? Tabios’ collaboration with stammer indicates not. Tabios’ oeuvre is impressive and I feel she has written an imaginative, dare I say, conflicted narrative in Getting To One. Her creative persistence to imagine and re-imagine ways show our solitude may be people’d through writing/art and collaboration shows how one can mature as a writer and artist. In storytelling, Tabios has written an aporia prevalent in a writer’s pursuit to be understood; and to consciously (even fictively) express isolation in her characters, to perhaps transcend her own.


Harold Legaspi is an Australian writer born in Manila, Philippines, living in unceded Darug land (Western Sydney, Australia). He holds a Doctor of Arts from University of Sydney. His thesis: "Decolonising Transculturally via José Rizal’s Life and Legacy as Motif," re-remembers and re-imagines the Philippine hero-martyr and reveres plurilingual literatures. Harold’s first book, Letters in Language, was published 2021 in the Flying Islands Pocket Books of Poetry series. Recently published poetry collections Litany, Requiem and Edge of Seas vs Lost Generation can be accessed [here].

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