With reflections on Nota Bene Eiswein (Ahadada Books, 2009), Silk Egg: Collected Novels (Shearsman Books, 2011) and Footnotes to Algebra (BlazeVox Books, 2009)
I doubt many can match Eileen R. Tabios’s publishing record in the last two decades, with more collections and artistic works that I can possibly count or name. As her biography page from Shearsman Books reads, “Eileen R. Tabios has released 18 print, 4 electronic and 1 CD poetry collections, an art-essay collection, a poetry essay/interview anthology, a short story book and a collection of novels. Recipient of the Philippines' National Book Award for Poetry for her first poetry book Beyond Life Sentences, she has exhibited visual poetry and visual art throughout the United States and Asia. She has also edited, co-edited or conceptualized nine anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays.” Of the 18 print collections, I can only offer some reflections on her most recent in this post, but given more time, I’m sure I will return to discussing more of them. I’m of curious what it means to release a CD poetry collection, so maybe I’ll get to get on that one next.
I begin with Nota Bene Eiswein, which was an absolute surprise for me, disorienting at first, because I am not familiar with Christian Hawkey’s work, The Book of Funnels. Indeed, every single poem from section I of Nota Bene Eiswein responds to a poem from Christian Hawkey’s work. On this level alone, it is difficult to properly review this collection, but what Tabios’s poetry does for me is to remind me the varied places from which lyrics are inspired. I was thinking the other day about how one poem often begets another, but little did I realize that it could be the inspiration for an entire set of poems, a sort of call and response lyric form that shows Tabios’s strong and dedicated engagement to another’s artistry and imagination. While the poem-for-poem genealogy is maintained in section one, Tabios charts a different, but similarly call-and-responsive technique in section two, where she takes on Sarah Bird’s novel, The Flamenco Academy. In this section, she employs a form that she invented called the Hay(na)ku, but actually reverses it. The traditional hay(na)ku is a tercet with a total of six words with one word in the first line, two in the second, and three in the third. Without having read Bird’s novel, one can see from the poems offered here that there the academy is just the beginning of a long history in which an instructor’s past comes back to life. The landscape of Spain comes vibrantly to the fore and leads the readers into a lyric excavation filled with music, dance, romance, and political drama.
Silk Egg: Collected Novels is another work extremely illustrative of Tabios’s willingness to push the boundaries. Having read many traditional novels, typically focused on the life of one character in more or less a realist form, Tabios stretches the boundaries of how a novel might be defined. Indeed, each “novel” is extremely short to the extent that one novel might consist of a handful of brief sections. Each section operates with prose poetic blocks that often do not directly engage the previous or following section. Nevertheless, Tabios’s work with all of its formal inventiveness always is undergirded by an attention to social contexts, however elliptically they may be represented. Take the “novel” entitled Cambodia, which seems to unfold over a dinner date in which consumption takes place within a Vietnamese restaurant. Given the interconnected histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, Tabios uses this “novel” as an opportunity to move beyond touristic consumption of ethnic foods. Chapter 5 consists of two sentences:
He defined “genius” as “beef with mint sauce.”
She felt no resentment. 
Chapter 6 consists also of two sentences:
However, she prodded, “The landmines still exist.”
The lace bordering the purse’s handles had come unstitched in places so that it hung in tatters. 
Chapter 7 consists only of one line:
He realized how much he agreed when he heard himself whisper, “Accurate Maps must be amoral.” 
This dinner scene is absolutely fascinating to me in what goes said and unsaid and what is narrated. Why, for instance, do we need the detail about the “lace” on the “purse’s handle”? What does it add to this novel? One thinks it serves to mirror the fraying of dinner itself, which has veered off into a very political topic, which still goes unacknowledged at the conclusion. The man “whispers” and we wonder if “she” hears him at all. His statement is further disorienting because it queries whether or not accuracy and cartography can coexist. Can there be an accurate map? Are accurate maps amoral because they simply show what is allegedly there? Or are accurate maps amoral because they cannot take a side on an issue? So, we come to the end of this novel thinking that Accurate Maps may be amoral, but they must be contextualized and therefore potentially politicized and moved into a moral terrain.
Footnotes to Algebra: Uncollected Poems 1995-2009 shows the tremendous range and styles that Tabios engages as a poet. Some sections like “Chant for Kari,” show Tabios’s interest in interlingual poetics. As Tabios explains in the introductory preface to the poem: “[I]t was the first time I’d translated a poem into Ilokano, my frst language. I had never thought before about translating into Ilokano because I don’t consider myself fluent in it anymore; I was ten years old when I left the Philippines to become 100% immersed in English” (51). “Chant to Kari” works best because it takes a numerological approach to the poem and engages in a repetition that functions as the “chant.” The most interesting aspect about the background to the poem, in my mind, is that she enlisted some of her artist friends to help actually perform the chant. The section entitled “A Filipino Accent” is the most autoethnographically inflected section from Footnotes to Algebra. Some representative lines from “Shove Those Lollipops” appears as thus: “But Imelda starved/ my people for the strings of pearls she flung at/ Hollywood hacks and Italian peasants pretending/ blue is their blood. You’ll never see me slip on a t-shirt/ labeled ‘DKNY’” (95). One of the most interesting poems here is the “General’s Report” is basically a poem that’s been redacted almost completely, showing the amount of censorship that shrouds the military in secrecy and darkness. The few words that do appear, such as “Abu Ghraib” and “stripped, abuse, and sexually” (97) tell us just enough to show the incendiary context of the poem. While this “collection,” obviously does not show thematic unity, it certainly provides a strong sense of Tabios’s poetics as a whole and would be a great place to start if someone wanted to dive into her work.
Buy the Books Here: