A review by Joey Madia
Innovation is not easy. Being innovative and prolific—well, that approaches the ultra rare. And that is why, year after year, I try to do at least one review of Eileen Tabios’s works. When the work spoke clearly as to how, I have attempted to be as innovative in my reviews as Tabios is in her art. A scroll through the 145 reviews currently on New Mystics Reviews (newmysticsreviews.blogspot.com) will show ten other reviews of Tabios’s work, some of which use lines from my other reviews or a poetic form to honor the range of inspirations and innovations Tabios has employed in her 40-plus collections, which have now been published in eight countries and in numerous languages.
Manhattan: An Archaeology, from the relatively new Paloma Press (they list only one other offering so far—Blue by St. Jo and Grefalda, which I reviewed last month), has a multi-page list of inspirations, ranging from Tabios’s own previously published works to those of other authors, YouTube videos, the paintings of Clyfford Still, and a trip to Provence the poet took with her husband.
The collection, which is divided into several sections, interdicted with graphic images, begins with THE ARTIFACTS, a poetic list of items that then appear in the poems that follow. Here we have the material archaeology of Things, which is only part of the picture. Because there is also the etheric archeology of Memories, to which the items tether. Why else are so many of us so compelled to collect? Looking around my writing room, each of the “artifacts”—drawings and photos, printed-out quotes, statuary, toys, books, animal totems, pottery and model cars—has a meaning and context beyond what the outsider sees (which is often perceived as “clutter”). And context can only be uncovered with words. Stories. And so it goes with Manhattan—it is a series of stories. Deeply personal. Candid. And as colorful as the graphic images that bridge its sections.
Within this collection are the elements that I love most about Tabios’s writing. There are abundant references to other authors, painters, dancers, thinkers, and creators from numerous media and fields. Are any of us purely original? What is the line between inspiration and imitation? Between plagiarism and homage? Can we steal from ourselves? Is re-use repetition? The older I get, the more I read and watch and learn, the more I ponder these questions. By naming names, we ensure that at least some of the credit is given where it’s due, understanding that the subconscious influences of everything we have seen, watched, and talked about are the submerged part of the iceberg as opposed to the section above the waterline.
Another element of Tabios’s writing, so elemental to archaeology, is her facility with lists. She has written entire collections that are lists—of items sent to relatives to and from the Philippines; of trash items on the curb post-Christmas; of communications from friends and relatives just-post-9/11. THE ARTIFACTS is a list. And lists are what Humans do. Genealogies are lists. Taxonomies and all forms of labeling are lists. Calendars and digital address books are lists. Even our social media posts are lists. The careful social archaeologist can discern much about Life and Change from digging down deep into the layers of these lists. Facebook has algorithms that will do it for you, whether it be how you have physically changed through the years, or the things about which you’ve written. And you know the corporate oligarchy is mining your lists in the form of the billions-of-dollars business of Big Data.
Another element is the honesty. I am taking a chance here even to broach the subject of honesty (or at the very least I need to provide some clarity) because Tabios and I have only communicated through brief emails over the many years that we have exchanged books and publishing opportunities. I am not equating honesty with Truth here. At least not Personal Truth, or Absolute Truth. As in, did all of the things that happen to the narrator(s) of these poems happen to Tabios? The section “Winter on Wall Street (A Novella-in-Verse)” cues us that there are other voices, other characters at play here. It doesn’t actually matter… because the emotional and experiential roots run deep. The poems would not be so ancient, strong, and lasting in their impact on the reader if they were not.
I want to focus briefly on the section that takes its inspiration from abstract expressionist Clyfford Still’s painting. This is ekphrasis as only a seasoned, adept artist like Tabios can do. Not familiar at the onset with Still, I took the poems solely on their own. It was not until I started writing this review that I did an online search for the paintings that inspired the poems, expecting to find highly detailed, realistic still-lifes that suggested the places and circumstances in the poems. Similar to Rothko and Kandinsky, Still uses color and shape without traditional images. One can only try to imagine the process from painting to poem that passed through the mind, art, and hands of Tabios to create one from the other.
And this is what keeps me (and so many others) coming back to her work. Ever innovative. Ever able to draw in the reader, to expect of the reader an interpretive contribution in order to fully juice the battery of the work.
As long as she writes, I will review. Because each experience generates new inspirations and new commentary on the state of our arts. Given the use of our lists by Big Data, this particular creative act of Tabios’s might be nothing less than Revolutionary.
AUTHOR: Eileen R. Tabios
TITLE: Manhattan: An Archaeology
PUBLISHER: Paloma Press