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INVENT(ST)ORY Paperback – September 1, 2015
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In the United States, the catalog or list poem first made its appearance in the work of Walt Whitman, who himself was evidently influenced by Old Testament verse-lists. Formally and thematically, Whitman was a democratizing force....Like Whitman, [Eileen] Tabios has prioritized democratic impulses in the conscious shaping and articulation of her poetics. However, while Whitman stands as a figure claiming centrality for his American-ness and for an idea of America, Tabios postcolonial or ... transcolonial subjectivity has done much to shape her poetics. --Thomas Fink
Invent[st]ory is evidence of the magnetic prowess of Eileen R. Tabios. Her fluency in the catalogue poem transforms the generative function often associated with this mode into profound poetic resonance:
I forgot belting my jeans with a used halo. I forgot my feet mischievously walking two inches above ground.
I forgot a girl shrieking as her swing soared towards a boiling sky.
The sense of plenitude in this work reveals a lifescape replete with variations on the infinite themes we learn anew. There are no boundaries beyond the chant-like intonation that engenders spiritual potency. Eileen Tabios transforms raw material by way of an innately glowing sense of wonder at the richness of this universe. --Sheila E. Murphy
There are so many paths thru the enchanted forest that is Eileen Tabios oeuvre that no one can possibly take them all in one lifetime. So it is with something approaching glee that I find here a completely unexpected one: a mid-career selected constructed around her recurring use of the list / catalogue-form. Did I say the list-form? No, pluralize that, and prepare to encounter an entire ecosystem of catalogues and lists. And don t for a minute let this lead you to think that this is a book of weak conceptualism , not that there s anything wrong with weakness (in the sense of an antifoundationalism), nor with conceptualism, because there s not. Think rather that you are encountering poetry, sans qualifiers; prepare to read; and (quoting Perec quoting Verne) Look with all your eyes, look . This is the real stuff. --John Bloomberg-Rissman
About the Author
Eileen R. Tabios loves books, and has released more than 20 print, five electronic and one CD poetry collections; an art essay collection; a "collected novels" book; a poetry essay/interview anthology; a short story collection; and two experimental biographies. INVENT(ST)ORY (Dos Madres Press, 2015) is her second of a series of Selected/Collected Poems focused on poetic form; her first Selected, THE THORN ROSARY (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010), focused on a 12-year exploration of the prose poem form. She has also exhibited visual art and visual poetry in the United States and Asia. Recipient of the Philippines' National Book Award for Poetry for her first poetry collection, she has crafted an award-winning body of work that is unique for melding ekphrasis with transcolonialism. Her poems have been translated into seven languages as well as computer- generated hybrid languages, Paintings, Video, Drawings, Visual Poetry, Mixed Media Collages, Kali Martial Arts, Music, Modern Dance and Sculpture. She also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized ten anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays in addition to serving as editor or guest editor for various literary journals. She maintains a biblioliphic blog, "Eileen Verbs Books"; edits Galatea Resurrects, a popular poetry review; steers the literary and arts publisher Meritage Press; and frequently curates thematic online poetry projects including LinkedIn Poetry Recommendations (a recommended list of contemporary poetry books).
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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.
Eileen Tabios is a master of words but more important than that she is a purveyor of experiences and emotions and reactions to the world (her world/our world) that are unmatched. It is impossible to review this magnum opus, so rich in character and the passage of time and continuing sophistication and maturity. Best to simply realize that Eileen is capable of using the English language in ways few have ever attempted or could mimic.
That is enough to say about this splendid book, except to purchase it and learn and bask in the genius of what she continues to accomplish – a beacon for all writers, no matter their style. A very brief insight follows:
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.
And that is not even the tip of the iceberg. Reading Eileen Tabios is not only illuminating, and entertaining, it is edifying. Grady Harp, April 16