I FORGOT ARS POETICA / AM UITAT ARTA POETICĂ by Eileen Tabios (English/Romanian biligual edition), pub. “Bibliotheca Universalis” Collection in Iasi, ROMANIA / EU.
Opening any work by Eileen Tabios is like waiting for the curtain to rise in a theatre when you have no idea of the performance you are about to watch. It is exciting and slightly daunting at the same time for she has the uncanny ability to take us to places we may never have known existed, and bringing us home to a place within ourselves that is forever “us,” universal and constant.
Here is a multi-talented writer—a philosopher, historian, and a cultural ambassador for her own worldwide Filipino community—all qualities that come through in everything she writes. These are poems with no scaffolding, no rungs on the ladder—so much so that the reader forms their interpretation from what is not said, rather than what is.
But what binds this collection is a sense of identity, a message particularly pertinent today when so many people are fleeing tyranny and oppression to seek elsewhere a new, safer life with more opportunities at enormous personal cost. The loss that such communities feel is tangibly felt in this collection—a loss that remains for many years until something, or someone, such as Eileen Tabios can re-unite the self with itself.
The collection opens with a series of prose poems, which demand careful reading—we wander with the author down the boulevards of cities in the USA, half in this new country and half longing with a passionate, heartbreaking, inner voice for the old:
I often recall Manila and the lost generation hugging the corners of its streets.…Oh, Eileen, you have tiptoed down this path before. Why are you now stepping deliberately on fallen branches, their sounds cracking the air like the edges of blades against eggs? This must be what it means to be a woman without sisters. For mothers must let go
Here is a story of transition and return, of rejection and acceptance, a knocking on the door of another country, striving to belong to the greyness while the head is still filled with:
patchouli and cinnabar …. feel(ing) the birth of pearls in tropical ocean beds tended by boys burnt by the sun…. feel(ing) one pearl's inexplicable caress in the hollow between my breasts.
And eventually a sense of belonging:
It is another day in Santo Tomas, Philippines, and my thoughts recall my favorite part of Manhattan: a city skyline at night, their lights as far away from me as the stars but as near to me as the speed of light is intimate. Finally, and consistently, there is you: an embrace I feel across an archipelago. Desire is an ocean; there is no edge between us.
There is continuous movement in these poems which hop from place to place within the mind, hardly allowing the reader a breathing space, and like a musical concerto reaching great heights and lows, twists and turns. Although I never quite comprehend the “you” throughout this work, I do enjoy the mystery of trying to fathom whether this is the country left behind, the one waiting ahead or a lover, a parent, a friend. But this seems unimportant as whichever way it is read it comes back to the same thing—loss/discovery, displacement, loneliness, passions, fears—eventually settling in acceptance and re-discovery of the true sense of the self re-emerging and free. The ‘you’ becomes what you want it to. And yet the reader never becomes “resigned” —there are forever more questions to be asked.
Into the middle section of this book we are treated to a series of lyrical poems, each with stunning imagery yet all following the continuous theme of departures and arrivals, loss and re-discovery, joy and pain:
Trade one ocean for another
but the waves
retain the same pungency
—“(Returning the Borrowed Tongue”
Are you looking
at me as I tilt
my face elsewhere
to hide the yearning
in my gaze?
All docks approach
Straight ahead is
a sunlit day
with a sky whose
press against the horizon
is as careful as you
—“(My Staten Island Ferry Poem”
The reader never quite settles in the work of this remarkable poet—as soon as we seem to arrive we are whisked away again, like a continuous turning wheel that picks up the new, the unexpected, questions without answers, a slow letting go and picking up. No fragments are left to linger in the mind for long and there is always a sense of hope and deliverance.
One poem stands out for me in because I could grab hold of some “concrete” imagery. It is that of a daughter/mother dressmaking moment when the daughter discovers with almost triumph the first signs of frailty in a mother she had resented for her apparent “invincibility.” She treats this with the indifference of youth, only to find—as we all do—that such action will prey on her mind for the rest of her life. There is an extraordinary sense of tenderness in this poem that the daughter refuses to acknowledge—an example of a love/hate relationship that can never be forgotten:
Yet the daughter stayed her
hand that would have reached
forward to raise Mama
from her knees, to empty
her Mama’s mouth of pins.
Bliss deferred only temporarily
the start of a series
of dreams …
that simply refused to abate.
—“(The Secret of her Happiness”
The last section of this collection is one of continuous “memory” created when the poet wrote in response to her read of her many previous works, using a computer program-inspired but manually-generated process.* Each of the poems’ lines begin with “I forgot.” Yet it soon becomes apparent that nothing can, in fact, be forgotten, and that by cleverly turning around phrases and through repetition the result ensures that “forgot” is in fact “remember”:
I forgot to be human is to be forgiven
I forgot the boy grinning as he folded silver foil into an eagle
I forgot lurking forever in a red telephone booth to look up at rain and your window
I forgot losing the language of scars—we shook lanterns to bestow frankincense and myrrh.
Those lines from “I Forgot the Language of Scars” could not have been written had they not been remembered and so memory is a continuous circle coming back every time to the same place that is archived deep within us.
Finally, we reach the section which forms the title of this collection, “I Forgot Ars Poetica”:
I forgot my poetry is going to change the world.
I forgot my words are healing.
I forgot my words are apples infused with cheerful cinnamon,
I forgot my words are holy.
I forgot my words are going to lift you—all of you!—towards Joy.
I forgot the poem whose words entranced by galloping across the page until you felt the wind against your face and, suddenly, you were composing the opera that would come to be known as “Sonora.”
I am certain that Eileen Tabios’ poetry will continue to gallop across pages, picking up and dropping as it goes—bringing readers continuous surprises and revelations, and opening minds and changing perceptions through the power of words. It is a tribute to her that I, for one, close the last page wanting more.
* I first became aware of Eileen Tabios’ writing process that is inspired by computer generation through two of Eileen’s recent publications: The Connoisseur of Alleys (Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2016) and Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir (Black Radish Press, 2016).
Valerie Morton is a British poet whose work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA. She has two collections published by Indigo Dreams Publishing: Mango Tree (2013) and Handprints (2015). She has taught Creative Writing at a mental health charity and during 2016 has been Poet in Residence at the Clinton Baker Pinetum in Hertfordshire. 2016 saw her funding the publication of an anthology of elephant poems for a wildlife charity.