Thomas Fink

a review of
Eileen R. Tabios' Silences: the Autobiography of Loss

Silences: the Autobiography of Loss
Eileen R. Tabios
blue lion books: (Espoo, Finland & West Hartford, CT, 2007).
ISBN 952-5645-09-6

Eileen R. Tabios’ I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved (2005) and The Light Sang as It Left Your Eyes (2007) are massive books (classified as poetry and also containing various other features) that include numerous sections and that surround the poems and prose-poems with blog posts, essays of cultural criticism that shed light indirectly or directly on the poetry, and photos with commentary. The nine-section Silences: the Autobiography of Loss is a fresh, powerful example of the trend of heterogeneous inclusivity in Tabios’ work. After a whimsical “Preface,” we find a long prose-poem, “The Artist Looks at the Model,” followed by a nine-chapter “Excerpts from an Aborted Honest Autobiography,” which places “honest” surreal musing over factual reportage. Other sections include a series of prose-poems called “Spell,” a catalog of garbage, and a selection of nine of Tabios’ essays on visual art. “The Silent Sonnets: A Conclusion,” bizarre fourteen liners with evocative one-word titles like “Diamond” and “Nutmeg,” consist of almost identical opening lines, very similar closing phrases and, in between, recurrent patterns of random typing with only slight differences from poem to poem. “Silence” here becomes the impenetrability of the center—one perhaps even more severe than Steve McCaffery’s decompositions of words—but the poems also raise a question of utility: are they merely “garbage”?

In fact,154 pages of the book’s 400 are devoted to an “autobiography” of the poet, not as one subject to losing, but as one who discards—that is, intentionally loses: “Garbage: A True Story.” A list, recorded on Eileen Tabios’ blog, of the garbage that she discards for 34 days is not a poem in the sense that Whitman’s catalogs in Song of Myself are part of one. And yet, if one function of poetry is making people pay attention to what it is unfortunate that they have ignored, then this is a conceptual poem, akin to New York conceptual art. The first conceptual move is for Tabios to pay meticulous attention to her trash and then to name it, without editing, day by day. After the four main sections for each day, “TRASH,” “SAVED FOR RE-USE,” “RE-USED,” and “RECYCLED,” the author includes “NOTES” consisting of passages from various books about garbage, a cyberfriend’s post, websites and her own commentary on her own trash, others', and the process of recording.

The reader can recall and/or learn a good deal about social and ecological contexts of garbage and trash-disposal. In the entry for New Year’s Day, 2006, the “TRASH” section begins with “75 holiday cards, photographs and other correspondence” (162); this item is paired with the sole entry in the “NOTES”: “I love the holiday season. But this Garbage project is only emphasizing how unfortunate it is that holiday rituals generate so much trash” (165). Since Tabios’ 34 days commence on Dec. 21, right before a major holiday, she has caught a busy season for trash, whereas mid-July to mid-August might have yielded fewer list entries.

To cite another conceptual aspect of “Garbage,” Tabios puts the reader in a position to choose between alternative procedures. S/he may submit to the tedium of reading the whole section straight through—a boredom broken up by flashes of insight, especially bizarre recognitions of complicity with the writer’s experience—and thus, to experience the psychological weight of the synecdochal verbal representation of material accumulation that poses a major ecological threat. A second choice is to experience this oppressiveness and attending insights for a short time and to impose one’s own logic of synecdoche on the text by skimming or by arbitrarily selecting a limited number of passages on which to focus. Herein lies the difference between a blog’s diaristic flux, where one is given a bit to read one day at a time, and a confrontation with a “heap” of text. Like Tabios deciding what to put in the trash, save for re-use, and recycle, the reader must decide what to do with her text and its components. Ending her catalogue/collage with the provocative story of Lars Eighner’s “dumpster-diving” (254-8) Tabios suggests that the examined life includes analysis of what is collected and eliminated and why.

The “Garbage” project shares some common ground with Tabios’ art criticism, which spotlights her interest in how particular artists combat “silences,” reverse “losses,” and place “marginal” ideas and material (viewed, to some extent, as valueless “garbage”) in the center. (Prior highlights of her writing on the visual arts are collected in My Romance [2001]. Full disclosure dictates that one essay concerns my own hay(na)ku paintings.) In this volume, over half of the artists covered are Filipino/a. We learn in Tabios’ elegy for Santiago Bose that he repeatedly told her, “We need someone like you to write on Filipino artists” (371) until she got the message: “Santi understood the Filipino diaspora, its toll on diasporic Filipinos who may not even be aware of the costs they pay for having lost touch with their culture” (374). Tabios herself, who had “left the Philippines at age ten and grew up ‘Americanized’ in Los Angeles and New York,” was encouraged by Bose to profit from advantages gained by “being steeped in contemporary American art” and yet to “look at Filipino art from” something other than “ a colonizing world view.”

And so she does. In reviewing Emmy Catedral’s 2005 New York exhibition, Tabios celebrates political aspects of the installation artist’s use of “the ubiquitous yellow legal pad,” an unacknowledged, “mundane object. . . , serving mainly as a receptacle for our thoughts,” and its placement on an area “to which we rarely offer attention and, indeed, walk on: the floor” (351). The critic believes that, “by drawing our attention to such lowly objects,” which serve as tropes for human “elements a society or culture least values,” “Catedral ultimately suggests that we pay attention, and be more caring, as regards our environment” (352), and she cites the artist’s point that the viewer must “enter the margin” (353) to engage with her work. In a different gallery exhibiting the same work, “Catedral. . . placed some of her works”—“strips of paper cut along the margins of legal pads”—in the bathroom” in order to foreground “a space that is typically low in privilege,” not a theatre for imbibing the aura of the work of art: “And why not? What we release from our body also defines who we are, doesn’t it?” (355). In general, what makes Tabios’ art critical writings compelling is an interpenetration of elaborate treatment of social tropology (and even epistemology) in the art as conceptual intention and the appreciation of formal nuances.

Tabios’ investigation of margins often has a feminist accent. In contemporary feminist poetry, exploitation of female models by male visual artists has been a prominent theme. To cite one subtle, powerful example, Rochelle Owens in her long poem Luca: Discourse on Life and Death (Junction P, 2001) reimagines the interaction between Leonardo and the sitter for the Mona Lisa. Like Owens and others, Tabios, who has previously dramatized the Pygmalion/Galatea “relationship” in her work, includes enough of the artist’s machinations—“she will instruct her thighs to accommodate my brandy” (22)—in the prose-poem “The Artist Looks at the Model” while still accounting for the considerable pressure of the model’s subjectivity on their dialogue.

At times, when the male artist-speaker sees the model as posing a problem for his task of representation, her refusal to “be” a static object is manifested. The text begins, “She was not the wind. Not yet” (19), but several times afterward, he feels compelled to say that she “was,” or “becomes,” or “is the wind” (28, 29, 37, 39). No matter how often he brags about how he can force her to subordinate herself to him—“She became the wind after she lost all misgivings about drying my feet with her hair” (28)—one can also see his grudging respect for her “obstruction” of his quest: “She stood as an offended crack intent upon rupturing any seamless plane. It was clear she was oblivious to popularity” (19).

At times, the artist tells himself that she is merely a factor in an aesthetic exercise: “She could have shed her flesh and it wouldn’t have mattered to my measuring palm shaped as an ‘L’” (20). At other points, he admits his bodily response to her: “Suddenly, my feet ached for her femur” (21). “Femur” evokes “female”(ness). Because he wants to have access to dominance (“the steel-tipped whips which I wished to be the one to wield”) that her awareness of his “flinch” of desire for her would weaken, he catches himself and exercises self-control: “I instructed saliva to wait.” The high point of his acknowledgment that her assertion of subjectivity may rival his own occurs after a perfunctory art historical dismissal:
She is nothing new. Nothing new has frozen
since The Kritios Boy (circa 590 B.C.).
Appropriately, she called me “Absence”—which
will only facilitate her blusters at incest. But.
There was a reversal in an alley deeply hidden
within the bowels of Gotham City. She called
me “Muse.” There was an about-turn. There
was an about-face. (32)

The verb “frozen” is telling; the artist sees representation as immobilizing, perhaps even murdering the signified. He asserts that his chosen subject matter, not his art, is “nothing new.” When the model calls him “Absence,” he probably likes that it stresses his inaccessibility to her as perceiving subject, yet he also predicts that this term will serve as a windy criticism of what she may see as his “incestuous” desire to master the one he (re)creates/(re)produces on canvas. She will rebuke his efforts to be “present” to her despite distancing structures of aesthetic/social relations. In the “alley” of dream or day dream, where the unconscious can effect transgression, she “reverses” the hierarchy: that the model can call the artist “Muse” designates her as one (a poet?) whose subjectivity rivals his and designates him as passive object of her unscripted imagination. “Trope” means “turn,” so the “about-turn” marks her vigorous rhetorical subversion of the artist/model “contract.” “About-face” names her reversal of his authoritative focus on her physical presence; his face must encounter the interpretive gaze.

The series entitled “Spells” even more explicitly conveys Tabios’ desire to envision alternatives to dominant forms of gender relations:
What you do not know about me. You
ridiculous OTHER. You do not know what else
I have become. I am The One Enraged By Those
Who Silence Poets. I shall flirt you into the
silken depths of my bed and swallow you up.
Then I shall release you again … but you will
come out from between my thighs. A Golden
Baby who shall write poems to my

Eyes (60)

As one who habitually constructs “otherness” is “othered” by his gaze’s object, the spell declares him “ridiculous” for presuming fixed knowledge and for unawareness of the speaker’s mutable identity. She defends her fellow poets against both censorship and disregard. The spell anticipates her sexual conquest that involves a rebirth for the arrogant addressee in purer form after her “consumption.” He is “resurrected” to be pressed into service to his “mother’s”/”lover’s” vision. This narrative of reversed domination “releases” the man become “boy” into further representation of the speaker, but with the crucial difference of empathic rendering. We don’t know whether she intends to subordinate him permanently or whether this is a stage before a sharing of power.

The Oedipal pull of the poet’s tropes is in some sense “ridiculous,” too, and the strain it evinces dramatizes the difficulties of displacing social hierarchies with a new, better configuration. But perhaps the most important assertion, not far from the end of the series, involves precise political resonances: ”I am Babaylan. I have never been mastered by three centuries of invading colonizers or their religion” (70). The spirit of Filipina women has survived colonizations, and the spell-maker invites others to experience the restorative energy of its voice and scent: “Breathe in the sampaguita breeze known by warrior cultures as jasmine. Inhale my breath// into your veins to linger there, healing your ears now to hear me sing. . . .” The “autobiography of loss” moves from “silences” to articulation, and it also includes the autobiography of future gain.

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