Eileen R. Tabios

When Poetry, Aided by Chickens, Took Revenge Against the Termites

“Poetry distribution”—that’s one of my least favorite oxymorons. Due to poetry’s limits as a commercial venture, there isn’t much infrastructure for distributing poetry books. This is further complicated when one tries to distribute a poetry book internationally as currency exchange fees and shipping can be prohibitive relative to the cost of a book. I was faced with this issue when I wanted my first Selected Poems book, THE THORN ROSARY, to be available in my birth land, the Philippines.

Fortunately, in the Philippines there is a tradition of the “sari-sari store” or neighborhood variety store. Per Wikipedia:
The word sari-sari is Tagalog meaning "variety". Such stores form an important economic and social location in a Filipino community. It is present in almost all neighborhoods, sometimes even on every street. Most sari-sari stores are family-run privately owned shops and are operated inside the shopkeeper's house….Candies in recycled jars, canned goods and cigarettes are often displayed while cooking oil, salt and sugar, salt and sugar are stored at the back of the shop. They also distribute prepaid mobile phone credits.… [T]hey may have refrigerators that can store other products such as soft drinks, beers and bottled water.
Sari-sari stores are so ubiquitous that it wasn’t hard for me to find one within my own clan: cousin Dona manages such a store in Santo Tomas, a day’s car ride away from the nation’s capital, Manila. Though Dona’s tiny store is set in a quarter of the space of my garage in California, it has become the third or fourth most effective distributor of THE THORN ROSARY. If someone in the Philippines tells me they’re interested in my book, I inform Dona (by email or through Facebook) and she mails it domestic throughout the country’s 7,000-plus islands—an inexpensive method. I'm grateful to have Dona’s generous service—and I love the idea of books located amidst potato chips, crackers and other snacks, toothbrushes, detergents in single-size envelopes, cigarettes, arak, seasonal vegetables and fruits from nearby farms, sanitary napkins, cologne and other sari-sari lovelies.

I love the idea of poems inhabiting life at its most mundane levels, rather than being relegated as books to the author’s basement or school bookshelves where they might be mostly ignored except when reading is forced through assignment. I haven’t surveyed the archipelago’s sari-sari stores but it wouldn’t surprise me if Dona’s store is the only one pitching poetry.
Here’s Dona at her store as she reads another book she “distributes,” my mother’s memoir, DAWAC by Beatriz Tilan Tabios.

But this distribution method has one drawback: tropical weather. Many sari-sari stores’ supplies are held in the storekeepers’ homes. As Matthew St. Ville Hunte, who lives in Saint Lucia, wrote for the Paris Review’s The Daily section:
Tropical conditions are constantly threatening to devour my library. Something has shredded my ancient paperback of The Naked and the Dead; I’m afraid to find out what. My pink bookshelf is kind of dodgy (termites?), so now I store its holdings on top of a big green Rubbermaid container. A few months ago, I caught a tiny, solitary, winged varmint burrowing its way through Frederick Seidel’s Collected Poems. (Its cousins nearly devoured Bernard Blackstone’s Virginia Woolf: A Commentary.) It got as far as page 274, “Red Guards of Love.”
In my case, Dona recently experienced an inventory problem due to … termites! Let these ugly photographs explain.

Termites chewed through about 30 books, about half of the inventory. To prevent the termites from spreading, Dona had to dispose of them in the area where trash is usually burnt.

As we commiserated over the plight of those books, Dona said that she set the chickens on the termites. “Nabusbussog da!” she said in Ilokano about the chickens. “The chickens are full!”

I suppose I could have wept from the loss of 30 books. But I actually didn’t mind—the outcome, to me, seems to manifest something about Poetry, perhaps its evanescence or fugitive state … or that poetry, too, is a favorite sport by mischievous (or cruel) gods.

In any event, the whole matter, of course, spawned a new poem. Being a poem—which is to say, having its own mind about what it wants to do—the poem also traveled on its own away from the poet’s intention to become a homage to Jose Padua, a poet whose works I’ve recently been enjoying. Here’s what came out from the termites’ interaction with my poems:


Termites ate 30 copies
of a book I sent to cousin
Dona who set her chickens

on the termites and now

the chickens are fattened

so that when they are eaten

the diners will be feasting

on Poetry though they 

never would have read

my poems and why should

they when I write like this

trying to imitate Jose Padua 

and failing miserably

except the termites ate

the chickens ate and

the humans ate even

though they do not read

my poems my poems my

poems like those I made

into a book for termites

Take that, termites! The chickens ate you, then Poetry—as ever—had the last word!

P.S. And Jose Padua? He not only was pleased, his wife was pleased.

Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her most recent include THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016) and INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems and New 1996-2015 (Dos Madres Press, 2015). More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com
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