Friday, September 22, 2006

 

I’ve been reading Eileen Tabios since I came across her blog and her Meritage Press website almost four years ago – she’s just one of many poets whose work I might not have gotten to know, or would have only much later, had it not been for this new public space that weblogs collectively have created. And while I met her at a reading I gave at 21 Grand in Oakland a few years back, I’d never had the opportunity to hear her read before we appeared together at the Bubble House in Philadelphia last Tuesday. She’s a terrific reader: her poetry is strong and she brings to a reading the same questing, restless, driven imagination that one finds in her writing and the same ready wit. For the event, Tabios read entirely from “Gabriela Couple(t)s with the 21st Century,¹” one of two sequences that make up the bulk of Ménage à Trois with the 21st Century, a hard copy volume published by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed) Press of Espoo, Finland. I mention that it’s hard copy since xPress(ed) is better known for published post-avant ebooks, but has done at least some, as well, in actual print & paper, and the Gabriela sequence only in hard copy (it’s joined in the book with “Enheduanna in the 21st Century,” which is also available solo as an xPress(ed) ebook.)

Gabriela Silang, the widow of Diego Silang, continued her husband’s fight against Spanish rule of the Philippines in 1763, becoming the first female revolutionary leader there as part of the Ilokano revolt, for which she was soon captured and hung. “Gabriela” is a series of 33 poems – one for every year of Silang’s life – which engages this figure of Filipina nationalism, but hardly in the simple honorifics that characterize political poetry about heroes. Here is “Domestic,” which carries a subtitle, At Which Gabriela Would Have Been Better If A Revolution Had Not Interfered:

I am a stranger
to lace-edged aprons –

My melons
are rarely ripe –

My dining room boasts
a long mahogany table

whose silk flowers
offer the fragrance of dust –

That I have money
for perfect hems

consoles
like martyrdom –

Within this universe
I do not dominate

my sisters are
in demand

for “domestic skills”:
they are priceless

unlike I
who responds with words

when asked for
”objects” –

F.G. cautions me
against “enhancing the music”

as more would implode
my poems, trip

the “fragile balance”
between “sterility”

and “sensuality” –
In response, I grin

for I long – “I” long! –
for any manner of

a stable grid –
Let me tell you

of my nightgown:
a flannel background

of lapis lazuli
contextualizes

reproductions of
yellow bancas

green anchors
red piranhas

white fishing poles
orange oranges –

Perhaps I hold the potential
for a poem keening

for the sun
to irradiate the sky

until we all inhabit
the same room

in Walt Whitman’s
expansive ocean –

Mind you, I
once dived deeply

into a salty sea
to watch corals

crumble at my touch –
When schools of fish

dispersed, their bodies
pressed a rainbow

against the undulating
sea floor

suddenly flesh
suddenly scarred

suddenly scarred flesh
suddenly aglow

Bancas in this context aren’t benches, but the slender pontoon-balanced boats common to the Philippines. In the reading at The Bubble House, Tabios used the name Forrest Gander rather than the initials “F.G.” although she didn’t mention Silang’s complicated “domestic” history, having been adopted by a wealthy businessman who later married her &, three years after that, abandoned her, thus having been both daughter & wife to a man who obviously recognized the aspect of property in both of those relationships.

This poem, more than anything else, is about brilliance, whether the décor of clothing, the ripeness of melons, the sensuality of language or ultimately the inner glow of ocean fish. In fact, the poem turns on the description of a flannel nightgown with its ersatz image of island life. Up close real-time, fish scatter & coral crumbles, a dynamic the poem itself replicates, moving between the plainest of rhetorics and a sentence that hinges on the verb keening. Or between the flattest social romanticism of what might be read as the politically correct and the complete opacity of identifying a poet just by his initials (and knowing that a certain percentage of readers will recognize the reference from the initials alone). Like the best work, say, of Judy Grahn or Simon Ortiz, Tabios’ poem uses a lot of its energy seeming artless, which F.G. would be right to note is an especially hard thing to accomplish. At the same time, this poem divulges its own secrets, discusses its own devices, that same kind of referential/metacomment border blur we might think of as uniquely the New York School’s contribution to literary form, tho Whitman contradicted himself much earlier still.

Tabios did not read either all of “Gabriela,” nor did she read the poems in the sequence they appear in the book. With just 20 minutes allotted per reader, it made me realize yet again that the best readings are those that last at least an hour, tho the ambient noise of the bar upstairs might make that particularly challenging in a place like the Bubble House. As I head back to Chester County afterwards, what I wanted most was to hear more.

 

 

¹ That is the sequence’s title as given in the book itself. The table of contents calls it “Gabriela Silang Couple(t)s with the 21st Century.” One senses, throughout Tabios’ work, that such things are held lightly, that they might be called something else tomorrow, might even take on a different shape, become a novel or a performance piece.

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