Witness in the Convex Mirror

“An Innovator, Always”

Review by Joey Madia

It is always a special day when a new work by this innovative and energetic writer arrives in my mailbox. Over the past 10 years, I’ve reviewed about 20 percent of Tabios’ over fifty published works, at times being inspired to be as innovative as the poet and the particular work in how I did so.

Part of her ability to be so prolific is the way she reworks, recycles, and reimagines her own writings and the writings of others—in this case, as the Author’s Note indicates: “Each poem begins with 1 or 1–2 lines from ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery.” In many of my previous Tabios reviews I talk at length about her various means of working with existing pieces to create something new, so I won’t belabor it here. Instead, I’ll say that ALL work a writer or other artist produces is linked to and derivative of something—many things—that have come before.

Tabios simply has the self-awareness to be up front about it, even when it is more ephemeral than repurposing lines from another poet’s already existing poem.

Although Tabios has always been to some extent political, be it the Filipino diaspora, 9/11 and the world ever since, or the complexities of gender or adoption for adopter and adoptee, I found Witness in the Convex Mirror to take it to a new level. And the clue is in the substitution of Witness for Self-Portrait. As many a wise and wizened soul has told us, to Witness is to be responsible to Speak. And speak Tabios does, on a variety of pressing subjects in a hurting and hurtful world. So this review will be less about the technical achievement and more about the content of the poems and the responses they evoke. Continue reading

Different Drummers

Review by Joey Madia

You never know where the connections you make in life will lead. Simply saying yes to opportunity, out of curiosity or even as a courtesy, can open doors to whole new worlds, whole new places, that you never knew existed.

In the twenty-first century, where everything is divided into Us and Them and the Other might as well live in another solar system where their rituals and culture are uber-alienated by some shadowy cabal that has engineered itself to make such decisions, feeding them down through indoctrinal water-drips to the TV-zombied hamster-people, it is imperative to learn about other places, other sub-sets of society. And to learn about and from what occupies the time of the thinkers and artists that reside there.

For this reason alone, Different Drummers is a primer on Thailand and an invaluable read.

So… that saying yes I mentioned. It happened a decade ago, when I received John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool in the mail for review. His poetry moved me. Still does. I can’t swear to it, but I believe John and I connected on Facebook, which is an admittedly unusual benefit to an otherwise stinking/sinking cesspool of Big Data content and insidious mood manipulation. I had been doing reviews for about five years, which is an invaluable exercise for a writer and content creator (and, should you need more proof, Different Drummers is full to the brim with Cummings’s and others’ reviews of the books of some of the expats he interviews). Continue reading

Murder, Death, Resurrection

“Metaphorical, Intentional Poetics”

A review by Joey Madia

Eileen Tabios’s newest collection of poetry could be called a sum total of a life’s work (in progress). Created from her MDR poem generator (as have been a few other collections before this one), Murder, Death, Resurrection (to me aptly named, although an email exchange in the back of the collection indicates not everyone agrees) is 1,166 lines of her previously published poems. (The final line is 1,167, but in a Postscript Tabios says that she eliminated one line—I did not notice which—and, should your own means of generating poems from these lines [a key aim of this project] point to that missing line, insert one of your own, or another poet’s.)

Boy, that’s a complex opening paragraph—lots of clauses, parens, brackets, em dashes… but that seems to be okay in this case. Complexity is part of this endeavor, which Tabios undertook for a few reasons. I will summarize them quickly here, because there’s lots to do, but do not ignore the Introduction and back matter of Murder, Death, Resurrection—it is a treasure trove of exercises, explanations, and that email exchange is really not to miss. If Tabios wants to provoke thought and even pushback, she is succeeding. Continue reading

Impossible Songs

A review by Joey Madia

Several months ago I reviewed Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, Dear Mary, which is a series of (far-ranging) meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. This follow-up, co-authored with Sarah Cave, is a series of “21 Annunciations,” using the same source-event, but presented in wholly different ways.

There is no indication of which poems are penned by which poet, or if they are all collaborations. This is interesting to me, because I recently reviewed another book of poetry, Blue, by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda that did not indicate which poet contributed where.

The annunciations in Impossible Songs are refracted through a wide array of prisms. “A Polar Bear Annunciation of Self” is a first-person poem from the polar bear’s point of view, interdicted with narrative from Barry Lopez, the environmental/humanitarian writer. This poem is followed by another with an Arctic theme. In the third stanza I was struck by an echo from the poem “Bright Flags” by Jim Morrison, wherein he says “There’s a belief by the/Children of Man which states/all will be well.” In the Cave/Loydell poem “Shadow Words,” the line is “she convinces herself/all will be will be well.” This would seem reviewer-centric if it were not for a poem several pages later, “The Impossible Song,” which quotes Morrison in its epigraph and then begins:

“The voice of the serpent/slid into my ear, creaking/leather and snakeskin/black boots aslant…”

and ends:

“dead in the bath,/a drowned angel/who lost his voice” Continue reading

Blue

“The World within a Nutshell”

Review by Joey Madia

The true gift of poetry as an art form is its deft use of air. Of space. Of pauses and gaps into which the reader can pour him- or herself.

Blue takes these strengths of poetry and puts them to maximum use. With its glossy pages, blue and black ink, illustrations, and numerous typefaces, Blue looks like and reads with the speed of a children’s picture book, but don’t mistake the design for simplicity—Blue invites and rewards multiple readings, each with its own approach.

For instance, the first time I read the book, I took it in as a single poem, telling only one story. The second time, I used a panel with a quote by e.e. cummings as a dividing line between two acts—one that takes as its central character love of a human and the second love of God.

The third time I focused on each passage as delineated by its typeface. This third approach is like reading a book of Asian poetry or koans. Each passage is its own rich moment, an invitation to meditate upon its many meanings. Continue reading