The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes by Eileen Tabios
Marsh Hawk Press, 2007
In this new century, the writing and rewritings of the poetic self seem to be at the crux of a burgeoning genre; a genre in which the self is less a 'basis' for certain convictions about 'what poetry is' than an opening: an aperture or aporia to diverse inventions, collaborations, languages, traditions, and histories. Seeking diversity over singularity, this 'radical autobiography' seeks articulation across many forms, genres, dialects and discourses. It is polyvocal, polyvalent, trans-historical and – in contrast to an Olsonian poetics of place – increasingly trans-geographic. In its apparent anti-humanism, however, it is surreptitiously humanist. This is the self of all selves, professing its one paradoxical universal: that all universals are dead.
Context is crucial in the award-winning Filipino-American poet Eileen Tabios' The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes, as with this book we are not only talking about the writing of a life, but also about the writing of a culture and a history. Since American Confessionalism and the British Movement, there's been a steady attempt to reclaim autobiographical writing in the cause of an ever more 'innovative' poetics. The contentious term of 'radical autobiography' has thus been evolving – from the earliest orientations of the New York School through to early and current Language writings – in a consistent if at times calculated way.
Tabios' The Light does not easily situate itself within one of these competing camps, but rather seems to accomplish the feat of making poetic diversity a value in itself. It accomplishes this explosion of aesthetic boundaries to such an extent that the critic is initially at a loss to properly take account of the book's wide-reaching concerns. But what actually is The Light, as cultural and aesthetic object?
The question is not easy to resolve, but a little enumeration may help. The book contains lists, letters, emails, blog-posts, visual poetry and installation art. It is made up of free-verse poetry, poetry in set forms, prose, diary entries, photography, essays, collage and historical account. It is at once dirge and celebration, history and prediction. In the nomenclature of classical rhetoric, it is at once deliberative, judicial and epidictic. It is a full 360 pages long. It is a book explicitly about Eileen Tabios – more specifically, an elegy for the death of her father, Filamore B. Tabios, Sr – and yet Tabios is not its sole author: the book contains contributions, translations and collaborations from Nick Carbo, Ernest Priego, Jean Vengua, Rebeka Lembo, Paolo Manolo, Cody McCafferty, and more.
Formally the book ranges from the invention of new procedures and constraints – from 'Scumbling' to Tabios' now famous 'Hay(na)ku' – to discourses free of canonical stricture. It passes every rung from quotidian observation to historical generalisation. It is a book as much about the world today as it is about the Philippines at a precise moment in that nation's history. It is a meditation, of great sadness moreover, on one man's death, and also on all of our deaths, as individuals and as members of families and societies. In short, The Light takes as its central value that of poetry as profusion, and powerfully equates this with the profusion which is Life.
One must note, however, the risk of failure implied by such a project. This risk is, specifically, the production of a work of such overwhelming eclecticism that it turns abundance into aesthetic bedlam, largesse into graphomania. If Tabios' vital work avoids this pitfall – though often barely, and with displays of fantastical acrobatics – it does so, in this critic's mind, thanks largely to its emotional core, its biographical preoccupation which serves as the central sun about which Tabios' diverse discursive modes are subsequently allowed to orbit. To be more precise: Tabios' father remains, always implicit, at the centre of the work. This affective nucleus keeps The Light's formal brilliance and bold displays in check. It reigns them in when they risk escaping the book's gravity.
If abundance is, however, at the core of Tabios' book, in what does this abundance consist? 'The poem cannot be pure', insists Tabios in 'Athena'; we understand by this that purity would mean the restriction of abundance, the limiting of poetic voices, forms and discourses, so they may conform to a restrictive calm. For Tabios, we are thus always confronted, and comforted too, by many voices, since:
croons from behind
Language, like this self, is never singular, for we find not only English in the book, but other languages like Spanish and Tagalog. Indeed there are no 'translations': all language is rather, as the title of one of the book's sections declares, 'Eternally Under Translation'. As well as voices and languages we find a multitude of competing forms. In a natural extension of this profusion, we meet forms for which no label is possible. The reason, Tabios suggests, is that at the very moment the poem seeks to limit itself, to define its own boundaries, Life (and Death, sadly) push at the poem's formal limits, force it to buckle, but allow it also, crucially, to continue to be. As Tabios states:
At one point, the Poem took over and suggested its form: a prose poem with 100 sections. Dad looked at that Poem and snorted.
'I'll tell you the form,' Dad told the Poem.
The Poem clenched its wingtip to punch Dad, then decided to let it go.
'Whatever you say, Papa,' this compassionate Poem said. 'Whatever you say.'
This is the 102nd section.
Such procedures finish, importantly, by calling into question the very status of Tabios' writing. Does such profusion, in the end, have a definable tradition, ontology and object? As she states in 'Within April's Deep Calm':
What is this that I am writing? Is this a poem? If so, then these words form 'lines'?
If lines, definitely written by my body on my body. Lines like those cut by the troubled on their skin in order to divert away from the real pain. About 2 million Americans, nearly all female, are thought to be afflicted with cutting, self-mutilation as a balm for pain and anxiety.
To 'cut' – to edit, to limit and reduce – is to ease pain, but this cutting brings, in the end, no true ecstasy. The answer, it seems, is not cutting, but rather connecting. 'Everything is a relationship' says Tabios in 'April In Los Angeles'. And moreover, as we discover later: 'relationships are difficult'. To play down their difficulty is to effectively ignore their true value, and Tabios continually draws this complex parallel between the difficult 'relationships' of poetry – between structures, syntaxes, lexicons – and those of life. Everything 'relates', and Tabios becomes thus, in the course of the work, other poets, other individuals, at other points in time.
In 'O Heart, My Father', for instance, the first section of the book, she becomes Maria Immelda Marcos, whose relation with, and reflections on, her own father, form a complex historic parallel to Tabios' own. Both women are connected by the 'fiction' of their own histories: the stories they tell about themselves, about their fathers' deaths, and about their shared country as a whole. In 'Sentences' for example:
The same book you read to excavate me is a fiction I sculpted to soften my marble core, as if – and I still don't know – words can save me from myself.
Such words, Tabios insists, are the reduction of identity, but they also may 'save us' from identity. They are at once our jailor and our lawyer. Yet in order to escape such barriers of identity, the poem will need to call upon a specific type of diversity and, in sending out its overlapping ripples of languages, forms and modes, embrace its own 'corruption'. And yet, the Protean poet, in the midst of her changing, attempts to fix events in time, to use poetry as a form of active remembrance. 'Perhaps I write to rewrite history', suggests Tabios. Whether such remembrance succeeds, of course, is a pressing inquiry. In 'ME . . . ME', for example:
M E M R Y
I have written as a poet
public relations hack
stock market analyst
country risk analyst
Words have always been my material.
But I have yet to figure out how to spell that which remembering preserves.
The listing present in such a piece is common to the collection, and must be seen as a questioning – the same as Plato's in the Phaedrus – of what truly is distilled by writing. What in the end escapes, and what is preserved, by the mere act of 'setting down'? We may keep on writing, then, in the cause of life against death, but there is a point where our words, like life, will dissipate. And thus, for all this graphic and sonorous proliferation, Tabios whispers to us that, eventually: 'silence is queen'.
We realize too that, if the act of writing is often, in the book's metaphoric architecture, the definition of Life, then silence, as Mallarm?¬© felt, is as perfect as Death. Appropriately then, and in imitation of life's penetration by its end, there are entire pages of the book left blank. Only the title of certain poems remains readable. There is a point, it would seem, where diversity fails, and we are left confronted by its absolute. What is, in the end, this absolute? It is perhaps nothing too complex. It is simply the silence which exists before and after language, and which perhaps exists too, in some way, before and after Life:
Death is a blank page. Its significance is something we write on its page, not something that exists prior to our lifting our hand . . . to write.
Death, and silence, is the distillation of complexity and diversity, of all these vibrant languages, forms and histories, into something which unites them. It is perfection, yet such is Eileen Tabios' vitalizing disposition, that even this perfection cannot seem an end. It too becomes poetic affirmation:
'Don't ever stop.' Be mad with me. Be ecstasy. Be me. . .
Nicholas Manning is a poet who teaches poetics at the University of Strasbourg II, France. He is the editor of the poetry and poetics video-forum The Continental Review .