Saturday, November 25, 2023


 LYNN GROW Reviews  


The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019 by Eileen R. Tabios  

(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2019)



            In this book Eileen Tabios has not only included an impressive smorgasbord of her own wide-ranging poetry, but has as well supplied an enriching array of interpretational, historical, and contextual information about it.  The latter alone constitute a significant contribution to literary studies.  The title immediately provides a foothold for the reader.  The predominant, though not exclusive, stanzaic structure is the tercet, but this structure imposes no size or development limit, even on the hay(na)ku, a specialized form of the tercet with a first line of three words, a second line of two words, and a third line of one word.  There is no cap on the size of the words or the number of stanzas a poem may contain.  Additionally, in her essay “The History of the Ha(na)ku,”  Tabios lists and defines sixteen variants that have been developed since its introduction on June 12th, 2003 (symbolically appropriate since June 12th is Philippines Independence Day), some with picturesque names like the “ducktail hay(na)ku,”  the “worm hay(na)ku,” and the “abecedarian ha(na)ku.”

            The name “hay(na)ku” is derived from “haiku” and the interjection “hay na” (in English “oh” in a number of different contexts).  “Haiku” not only refers to the type produced by practitioners like Bashō, but also to what has been termed “The Filipino haiku” (the tenaga, consisting of four lines, each line with between seven and nine syllables).  For that reason, Tabios originally called her invention the “Pinoy Haiku” but, at Vince Gotera's suggestion, has since dubbed it “the hay(na)ku.”  The hay(na)ku's background also accounts for the “In(ter)vention” of the title. The hay(na)ku is both an invention and, granted the pre-existing forms,  an intervention. The form has been used by a good number of poets, and as Tabios approvingly notes, non-Filipinos as well as Filipinos. Its versatility has even facilitated its use in visual poetry and the visual arts themselves.

            The rest of the scholarly apparatus includes an “Author's Note” that explains the chronological organization of the poems and provides a bird's eye view of each of the four sections into which the poetry is divided. Thomas Fink's “Introduction” is an erudite exegesis of the poetry, with infusions of insights by  Joi Barrios, Leny Mendoza Strobel, Amy Bellardini, and Ric Carfagna.  “ Some Poets on the Hay(na)Ku ” consists of mostly paragraph-length remarks by Dan Waber, Jean Vengua, Ernesto Priego, Ron Silliman,  Michael Leong, Aimee Nezhukymatathil, John Olson, Jill Jones, Craig Hill, and Sheila E. Murphy.  All are laudatory; each cites a different benefit for the poet writing hay(na)ku.

            Tabios' brief essay “Generating the MDR Tercets” describes culling 1,167 lines from her previously published collections.  Wishing to know how many new poems could be created by re-ordering these lines, she called upon a student in the Johns Hopkins Applied Mathematics and Statistics     Department to produce an equation. The result was 1.129300103 x 10 to the 3,010th power, yielding a 3,011 digit number.  As radical as this sounds, it is not gimmickry, unlike the comma poems and the “reversed consonance” of Jose Garcia Villa.

            To answer Tabios' own question in “Generating the MDR Tercets” “Are the poems any good?” (p. 202) it is necessary to examine other publications of them; in The In(ter)vention the sample size is too small to render a judgment. The reader of Tabios' 2015 collection I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS  (Chicago: Moria Books) can confirm that the answer to Tabios' question is a qualified “Yes.”  Here two relatively long poems comprise the entire volume, so the MDR results are extensive enough to base a conclusion on.  In both poems the sprawl of the Generator's output is corralled by a repeated first line: “I forgot red” in “I forgot the Flamenco” red poems and “I forgot,” which opens each stanza of “I Forgot Light Burns.” Since the poems' lines are all complete sentences, the opening phrase in each poem suffices to obviate incoherence.  However, the two poems do tend to break down into individual stanzas that could be taken as poems in and of themselves, “square inches of ivory exquisitely carved” if the reader focuses on a stunning image or sharply-worded observation.  This development bears on the question of whether the MDR productions are new poems, revisions of existing poems, or something else entirely. Since each line has already been composed by the poet, “new poem” or “adaptation” do not seem accurate.  “Revision” doesn't seem so either, because none of the words in the original poems have been changed.  By default, “something else entirely,” vague as this phrase is, may have to do.  The “Notes” section at the end of the book provides background information about several poems. “Hay(na)ku Death Poem #18” was prompted by the author's jury duty experience; “Kapwa's Song” is elucidated by the information about it as a Filipino cultural concept; the “Girl Singing” series of poems was inspired by Villa's poem “Girl Singing. Day” and so on. Finally, “About the Poet” details Tabios' prodigious literary production: ”over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace” (p. 239).  Among these are two bilingual editions and one trilingual edition (English, Spanish, Romanian). Her work has been translated into 10 languages, and her visual art has been exhibited in the United States, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Serbia.

            Granted all these considerations and more that arise from The In(ter)vention poems themselves, it would be quite in order to inquire about for whom Tabios has written them.  According to her, they are for everyone. She is pleased that “the hay(na)ku … has succeeded in becoming a community-based poetic form.... Poetry is inherently social.”  She sees it as a “fine result” that “non-Filipinos have taken up this form because “I consider the hay(na)ku both a Filipino as well as Diasporic Poetic” (p. 112).

            Yet the challenges for the reader of  this book are formidable: languages, allusions, vocabulary level, and contextual subtleties most prominently.  Besides English, there are infusions of Spanish, French, Latin, Greek (in transliteration), Italian, Tagalog, and Ilokano.  To exacerbate this complication, sometimes the foreign expressions have secondary meanings.  For instance, in stanza 89 of “Enheduanna #20,”  “caca d' oie”  literally translates to “goose excrement,” but in everyday French the expression is used to mean “khaki.” Because the last line of the preceding stanza already states that “green becomes khaki,”  readers may not think of the daily use meaning.  Deeper waters await in “Four Skin Confessions.”  In stanzas 9-12 the translation of John 1:1, based on the King James Bible,   is  presented.  For the reader conversant with the theological controversy over whether its references to the Deity should be rendered in English as “God” or “the God,”  the passage is a major sidetrack.

            The allusions to geography, people, cultural practices, music, history, art, philosophy, and scriptural exegesisfor openersare daunting, especially since they are very large in scope and/or recondite, but understanding many of them is essential for construing the respective poems.  For example, “Enheduanna #20” requires the reader to know that “Enheduanna” denotes the high priestess of  the sky god  An, the wife of the god Nanna, the goddess of love, and the world's first known poet and author (from the 23rd century B.C.E. In Mesopotamia).  In stanza seven “Baudelaire's infinity” appears.  In stanza 28 is the line “eyes of a sadhu” (a Hindu ascetic holy man).  In stanza 41 the reader must recognize that a ziggurat is a terraced pyramid with successively receding stories. 

            The almost fugitive allusions are obstacle enough, but the allusions as a whole are numerous and cast a very wide net.  As Tabios' opening poem of The In(ter)vention so succinctly puts it, “to bring /a poem/ into the world /is to bring/the world/ into a poem.”  Tabios very nearly does that. She can allude to an excellent Filipino story by Oscar Pen̄aranda,  “Babaylan in Playland by the Sea”: “her slip was damp with the sea.”  She can allude to an American retail institution, “Paloma's Groove,” a high-quality jewelry collection from Tiffany's of New York.  She can echo Jose Garcia Villa in the “Girl Singing” poems.  She can allude to scripture once again, this time in English: “the bush suddenly ablaze” (stanza 79) in “Four Skin Confessions,” then in stanza 96 in Spanish, “bebed / porque este/ es mi cuerpo” (“drink, for this is my body.”) Again, in stanza 100 she introduces the coined word “circumfession.” The term is attributed to Jacques Derrida and means a blending of Jewish and Catholic ideas.  But along with evocations of Jimi Hendrix (an icon of the flower children, especially at Woodstock)  and Jerry Garcia (a renowned popular guitarist of the same era), we get callups of Dylan Thomas' poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight”  (“rage against dying” stanza 89),  Sherrill Jaffe (a fiction writer and creative writing professor), Homer, William Carlos Williams' poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and the Torah.  Elsewhere, in “Hay naku! That Menopause!” Angelina Jolie is mentioned by name and Edith Piaf evoked in the line “I regret nothing” (stanza 43); cf., her song “Non,  Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

            The elevated vocabulary of the In(ter)vention  is evident throughout but especially prominent in “Adjectives From the Last Time They Met.”  Granted, we should realize that this poem is for the nonce.  Nevertheless, we meet such locutions as “taphophobias,” “hastilude,” “cthonic,” “scumbled,” “eldritch,” and “nictitating.”  The opposite level of  diction pops up rarely, but even it may not be readily comprehensible to everyone.  As an example, “Drump” in “Hay naku! That Menopause!” means “someone who behaves like Donald Trump” (not a compliment, as its co-meaning “dry hump,” a sexual innuendo, makes clear).  

            Contextual subtleties  also must be apprehended.  For “Mudra” we need to know that in East Indian classical dancing, a code of body postures and hand movements with which a dancer enacts a narrative is operative.  In “Mudra” we get the brief, rapidly-moving, pellucid lyric that we will have anticipated from the title.  In “Sangre Negra/Black Blood” it is necessary to comprehend the Flamenco dance.  Here the “escobilla” (“little broom”) or (“brush”) is the section of a baile dedicated to footwork. “Ayan” in stanza four is an Arabic male given name meaning “watchful, “ “seeing,” “witnessing,” “viewing.”

            The “Haybun” series, in which each poem has an opening hay(na)ku and then a prose paragraph, uses a device of Derrida, sous rature,  leaving a word, a phrase, or even a sentence in the text but lining through it. This practice signals that the wording, though inadequate, is the best the language has to offer.  Happily, the device in not used in the verse. The poetry in The  In(ter)vention, as we have already seen, is diverse in quite a number of ways.  The poems range in size from three lines (e.g., “Paloma's Groove” and “ROI”) to 783 lines (“Four Skin Confessions,” though this poem is a collaboration by Tabios and three other poets).  Tabios' own “Enheduanna #20” reaches 520 lines.  The quality is also not uniform.  “Adjectives From the Last Time They Met” comes across as artificial and contrived. “Vain Terse-et” is another poem that the book could do without.  “Terse,” meaning brief,” and “et” (Latin for “and)”  form a near homonym with “tercet” and could well merge with the first line to make “Vain Tercet Vanity.”  Each of the three tercets consists of capital letters, “VANITY” forming a vertical shaft with, respectively, “FAIR,” “FAR,” and “AIR” running horizontally, almost like pedestals for the vertical letters.  “FAR” and “AIR” are formed from the letters in “FAIR.” The sense the reader may take  away is that this is cleverness for the sake of cleverness.

            Fortunately, poems like these are outliers.  The bulk of the poems, even if they are not among the best in the book, usually offer standout segments, such as the image in “Mortality”: “The Piano whose keys have settled into a graveyard” (stanza 2).  Again, “Copper Rain Redux” is certainly a step up from “Vain Terse-et” though both poems have visual layouts and Latin words  (”Redux” meaning “bringing back” or “returning”).  Just three words, in two cases with “-ing” variants-- “whisper”/ whispering,” “song/ singing,” and “stairway”-- are used to construct four of the five tercet stanzas.  The progressively more indented second and third lines of each stanza depict a stairway.  “Redux” applies because “stairway” is brought back twice from the stanza's last line (stanzas 2 and 4) to its first line (stanzas 3 and 5).  However, the title “Copper Rain” is esoteric.  It is an acronym from numerology meaning “explorer,” “great companion,” or trustworthy.”  Each component letter of the title stands for a different adjective: e.g., “C” is “commendable.”

            Among the first-rate poems is “Venus Rising for the First Time in the 21st Century.” Its playful second person point of view brings the reader close to the mythological goddess of love and beauty, who is here blended with a mermaid.  The “to see and be seen” motif upon which Thomas Fink elaborates is melded with the sea through homonyms: “the sea/ seeing” (stanza 11); “seeing her/ see (d)ing you seaing her” (stanzas 14-15).  The arousal of sexual desire is a gradual crescendo, almost a tease.  The poem begins with less explicit assertion like”you want / her seeing/ her wanting/ you” (stanza 2) then, as the poem unfolds, more direct expression appears, like “you become to see/her peeking from behind / hair of ink you want/  to part from her breast” (stanzas 6-7).  Finally, via double entendre, “you foam/ upon seeing her foam” (stanza 19); “your vision/ 's penetration to see.... behind her breasts/ and thighs/ now rising from the sea” (stanzas 21-22).  The control of pace and tone is masterful.  The pace is the same throughout, even as the reader's engagement intensifies toward the climax.  The tone is even-keeled from start to finish.  It never descends to the raffish.  The result is reminiscent of the effect of viewing, with quiet appreciation, a scene in the middle distance of a painting, a scene  perhaps veiled by a fine mist.

            That the ensuing poem in The In(ter)vention is “Enheduanna #20” is certainly no coincidence. It too centers around a mythical goddess of love and a theme of merging.  The refrain (with periodic   variations) is “you fall asleep / in my skin” (stanza 1), along the same lines as the recurrent “sea”/ “seeing” is in “Venus Rising.”  But here the prominent motif is mutability, presented in images of an allusion to process, merging, and fluidity.  It appears in the form of synesthesia: “the taste of all colors” (stanza 66); “my eyes can hear you” (stanza 173).  The allusions play a significant role by working   against fixed, static categories. “Baudelaire's infinity” in its application to poetry can be taken to refer, most famously, to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), visions of the changing conceptions of beauty as mid-19th century Paris was industrializing.  But, more directly, it can be linked to the idea of  “ infinite” in its mathematical sense: a set bearing a one-to-one correspondence with a subset of itself.  E.g., the series of the even  (or odd) numbers is never complete because digits can always be added to the series.  By extension, the world of art is never complete because new entities can always be added to those extant.

            The same unmooring of immutable, bifurcated categories emanates from the allusion to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's  '”syrapy and shimmering elements'” (stanza 125).  Like his fellow 20th century French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, as a proponent of existentialism, Merleau-Ponty insisted that existence precedes essence.  First we are born, and then we make ourselves into what we are.  Life then means becoming, not being; change, not immutability.  20th Century British artist Henry Moore, mentioned in stanza 142, fits in here because  he is most remembered for his semi-abstract bronze sculptures.  “Semi” places his pieces in neither the concrete nor the abstract school, thus not x or y.  Instead as Enheduanna #20 reads, “text whose materiality/ gleams forth 'Beauty'/ as abstraction/ while remaining palpably/ fraught with meaning” (stanzas 14-15).

            Yet all this intellectual baggage does not preclude the striking imagery that Tabios creates; e.g., “my memory / of the Sadhu's naked figure/ melding with the tanned face/ of a sandstone cliff” (stanza 29).  Again,


                         a double rainbow

                        that connected dandelion clouds

                        over St. Helena's  vines

                        hanging low with ripe purple fruit....

                        The curving prism revealed / where

                        cauldrons of gold/ lit up the depths

                        of a pond / embedded as a bead of azure /

                        into earth. (stanzas 67-70)


            The ten poems in the “Girl Singing” series derive from Jose Garcia Villa's  “Girl Singing. Day,” The first five lines especially:


                        Girl singing. Day. And on her way

                        She has to pass by the oldest


                        That at least is certain. Rain. That

                        Doth leave no stain.


With two exceptions, each poem in the “Girl Singing” series concludes with the melodic “Heaven nearer than a breath away,” after, with one exception, opening with “Girl Singing. Day.”  This first line is salted into each poem, with one exception, in other locations as well, creating an incantatory effect not unlike that which a hymn's refrain produces.  The poems are also linked by, again with one exception, the respective phrases embedded in monostich stanzas.  Villa's poem names “God” in lines twelve and fourteen;  In line two of “Infinity's Fragment,”  the series' concluding poem, “I feel Your hand,” the capital “Y”also evokes the Deity.

            “To-Day” is rendered in short, staccato units of discourse; “Brubeck Notes” begins in the same way, but in stanza three complete, normal-size sentences containing purported conversation between Dave and his wife are introduced by the third person narrator.  “A True Story” reverses the pattern of “Brubeck Notes.”  It opens with smooth, flowing syntax and then switches to staccato mode in stanza nine.  Along the way, several oddities appear: “the falling leaves of ancient pines” in stanza three and “your tableaux leaps” in stanza nine.  Since pine trees are conifers, they don't have leaves, ancient or not.  And it isn’t clear how a tableau, a scene or vivid description, could leap or why the plural “tableaux” forms the subject of the singular verb “leaps.”  The fairy tale in stanzas four through six about the boy and the bear has no discernible connection to the rest of the narrative.  The boy and the bear run across each other in the woods.  The boy, ecstatic, runs toward the bear, which backs off  and clambers away.  The terms of the first person narrator's simile “I / rise like mama's bread” ( stanzas 9-10) are elusive. Perhaps these anomalies are explicable only as imaginative components of the title's “true story.”  As in dreams, the furnishings of the fairy tale, the myth, here injected in stanza ten's “Like Aphrodite / fresh from a god's sundered brow,” do not have to coincide with sensory experience and, in this context, neither do pine trees and grammar.

            As “39,” the smoothly flowing next poem in the “Girl Singing” series has it, “the leaf beyond / my bedroom window becomes / a universe for contemplation / rather than a mere fragment / at the mercy of a faint breeze” (stanzas 2-3).  The subsequent poem, “Unity,” flows in perspective as well as syntax: “An outlook ever shifting, always in / flux” (stanza 4).  Yet “Heaven [is] present in the smallest  leaf” (stanza 10).  Both of these last two poems exemplify Tabios' own outlook, expressed in “Generating the MDR Tercets,” that “All is One and One is All”  (p. 203).  This does not entail obliteration of individual entity, however.  As a  yogin doing Tantric meditation will asseverate, enlightenment is the moment of realization that, ultimately, there is no distinction between self and other; the unenlightened conviction that bifurcation exists is simply maya ( misleading illusion).  But the yogin retains the sense of selfhood as an empirical phenomenon.  “Mudra” (“after 'Tantric Suite' by Rod Paras-Perez”) describes the process.

            The two next “Girl Singing” poems are affirmation of faith and salvation. “the Secret Life of an Angel” is narrated by the angel, who has “lost myself in the 'valley / of evil' but my wings unfurled / to make me rise” (stanzas 10-11).  “Day !/ I chant like the Babaylan [priestess; shaman] I will / become to keep the clouds / from dimming the sun, from / milking the sky of its cobalt / gaze” (stanzas 3-4). Immediately, we wonder why the first “b” in “Babaylan” is capitalized and why the usual progression babaylan/angel is here reversed.  “Forgiveness,”  next in the sequence, is a moving first person narrative about a girl about to be burned at the stakeor has been.  She is freed by a young soldier.  It is a very cogent invocation directed toward not just the young soldier, but, as the title suggests, toward those who viciously set out to murder heror have already done so: “May you never know cold / ashes and burlap. May you never feel tar and black feathers. May / you know what I saw through flames” (stanzas 6-7).  Stanza ten continues to invoke: “May you / know rebirth through a second / chance. May you live in Heaven.”

            “Dearest Nelson,” poem number eight in the series, is not quite the “garden ornament whimsy” that Emily Dickinson's “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” has been characterized as, but its generally light-hearted, carefree tone puts it on the garden path.  The poem narrates the charms of Corsica, centering on Simone De Beauvoir's delight in Porto Vecchio: “Everybody laughing / and nobody caring for lost time” (stanza eight)

            At dusk she revels in a “'whole village, lighted / with candles'” (stanza four).  In stanzas 14-15, while she “moves only a little” in the sea, she exclaims “ ' Oh, / Nelson my love.' My own Nelson.' 'Mon bien-aime' ” (my beloved).  Her beloved is Nelson Algren.  Details like “ 'dirty little inn'” (stanza 2), at which “peasants eat 'bad oily soup'” (stanza 7), and “an evening gunshot” (stanza 11) rescue the poem from probably unintentional parody of itself, so it stands as a delightful tribute to the joy Simone feels in her rustic surroundings.

            “Plant Latin,” poem number nine in the series, is a curious production in which the various Latin-named plants constitute the stage furniture, to the point that the poem reads like a garden guide.  It is hard to know what to make of these verses, especially lines like “Girl singing strangely.  But it remains Day. / Silly girl / singing for heaven hovers” (stanza 10).  What is strange about the way the girl sings? Why is “D” in “Day” capitalized, but the “h” in “heaven” isn't, granted that in all of the preceding poems in the series the “H” is capitalized?  Why is the girl “Silly” because (the meaning of “for” the context dictates) “heaven hovers / nearer than a breath away”? (stanzas 10-11).  In itself, “heaven hovers” is perilously close to inelegance, treating an abstraction (“heaven”) like a concrete object (a helicopter perhaps?) Since the subject of the poem is in itself an odd poetic bypath, perhaps it calls only for appreciation, not explanation.

            “Infinity's Fragment” is the ideal end point for the “Girl Singing” series.  With only four lines it is a fragment, and its suspension point ending reinforces the sense of “Baudelaire's infinity.”  The capital “Y” on “Your” in line two reminds readers of the ending of each of the other nine poems in the series: “Heaven nearer than a breath away.” The Deity is close at hand.

            For all the ways in which The In(ter)vention poems differ length, tone, syntax, subject matter, degree of thematic focus, narrative speed, presence or absence of syncopation to enumerate a few — they are beads strung together in the same necklace.  The variegated Tabios cosmos has an underlying coherence.

            Tabios' poetic diversity extends from the poem of direct statement (e.g., “Ferdinand Edralin Marcos”) to the powerfully evocative lyric, such as “Dear A, This poem Is Not for You,” a paean to a dying dog.  Tabios even demonstrates that her approaches to poetry are viable in languages other than English.  Her hay(na)ku “Die we Do” is rendered into Spanish by Rebeka Lembo as  “Morir hacemos.” In fact, it is possible to prefer  Lembo's translation to Tabios' original.  While the former is an accurate translation, through some line rearrangement each stanza is self-contained, and the fluidity of the verse is enhanced; the segmentation of the English version is no longer present.  If we did not know better, we might well wonder in which language the poem was originally composed.  Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that an “all-Finnish hay(na)ku book” (p. 110) has been publishes

            In sum, The In(ter)vention,  a cross-section of Tabios' poetry over a 23-year period, as a result of the author's genre inventiveness, poetic output, and critical acumen, is an American literary landmark.





L. M. Grow is Emeritus Senior Professor of English, Broward College, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He holds a B.A. ( English and Philosophy), M.A. ( English),  M.A. (Philosophy), and PhD. (English) degrees from the University of Southern California. He has published six scholarly books and more than sixty journal articles.  His specialty is Filipino literature in English.



1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a comprehensive review and appreciation!