Review by Joey Madia
The arrival of a new Eileen Tabios book has become no less than an Event for me. Not only is it inspiring to see what new forms and source material this award-winning and prolific poet and editor is working with and drawing from, but it inevitably leads to my own experimentation with whatever creative works I am bringing to life at the time. Tabios is very much a writer’s writer, and one of the leading poet-practitioners in the realm of how to make the reader participatory with the experience. In essence, Tabios is such a writer’s writer that she wants everyone to be, if not a writer, than certainly an active author of their own experience and engagement. This is an aspiration that is beyond resonant with me as an artist, mentor, and storyteller.
When Invent[st]ory: Selected Catalog Poems & New (1996–2015) arrived I was particularly enthused, as I have not read/reviewed anything of Tabios’s prior to 2010.
For this reason, I will concentrate on works from Tabios’s early years, beginning with 1996, where, in the very first poem, I read the line “your finger trailing the ragged seam of my stretchmark.” Having read Tabios’s more political work, stemming from issues of Filipino nationalism and diaspora, the condition of the orphan, and gender transformation, among other elevated topics, I found this line a reminder that all art, no matter its purpose, must be personal and evocative. It must paint with words—words chosen with the utmost care and discernment.
An early experimentation of Tabios’s that defines her relationship to the reader that I found fascinating is from 2003, when she published There, Where the Pages Would End, which is a series of “footnote poems.” The idea was to have one of the poems at the bottom of an otherwise blank page so that the reader could create the story that would generate the footnote. I encourage the reader to do so. For writing teachers, or writers looking for exercises to sharpen their skills, this is powerful practice. In general, there is a considerable portion of Invent[st]ory that could be used to structure a series of workshops or to engage a class of writers with the endless possibilities for our craft that are left beyond the margins when we teach a static poem on the page and ask them to merely imitate.
As I mentioned earlier, much (though not all) of Tabios’s work is closely tied to her Filipino identity and the experiences that have shaped her life through that lens. A piece of her 2005 collection Post Bling Bling is “Letters from the Balikbayan Box,” which evolved from a question that Tabios posted on a Filipino Listserv about the items that those living outside the Philippines put in care packages that they send back home to relatives and friends. The answers become “list poems,” demonstrating yet another way that raw material can be (re)constituted as poetry, while also driving/sustaining a rich discourse. As an Italian American away at college, the times of year when I received a box of goodies and necessary items from one of my grandmothers was quite the event, both for myself and my hall-mates—especially when one of the items was a tin of homemade cookies—and this section got me thinking about ways that I could use this exercise to further explore this family practice, especially given that my wife now does the same for our sons now that they’re living on their own.
Another collection that invited reader participation is 2006’s The Secret Lives of Punctuation, Vol. 1, which features a series of poems where each line is preceded by a semi-colon; an example: “; mistaking science for ‘bathroom graffiti.’” It occurred to me, as I was going through this section of the book, that what truly differentiates Tabios’s approach to poetics is that, while most modern poetry invites us only into the spaces in between the poem’s lines (because, as we know, some poets do not invite us into open spaces at all; they categorically deny them), in her work, the spaces are all around: above, as with the footnote poems, and to the left with the ones using a semi-colon.
One of my favorite sections in this volume is from a 2007 collection called SILENCES: The Autobiography of Loss. It deals with Garbage: lists of the contents of a pile of garbage! Here we see the whimsical and the very real married in a thought-provoking way. The list poems cover December 23 through January 1, when curbs and dumpsters fill to overflowing with the detritus of the Holiday season. What a commentary! And it builds, as so much of Tabios’s work does, from scholarship she’s read, her compulsion toward expression on her Blog or in a Listserv, the poems themselves, and feedback from commentators and readers through the process.
And, in this case, all stemming from garbage. Food for thought.
The last selection I’d like to mention, entitled “What Can a Daughter Say?” from a 2007 collection, could occupy the space of an entire review in and of itself. Combining sobering statistics and a heart-rending list of atrocities committed by the world’s most vicious dictators, this poem examines identity—broadly and the familial—through the lens of the legacy of Ferdinand Marcos. If I could recommend any of Tabios’s works to a newcomer, this would be it.
Invent[st]ory, in closing, is a time-capsule of innovation, passion, and skill. Whether for your personal collection or a writers’ group, the riches to be mined are as endless as the possibilities emerging from Tabios herself.
TITLE: Invent[st]ory: Selected Catalog Poems & New
AUTHOR: Eileen R. Tabios
PUBLISHER: Dos Madres Press