Neil Leadbeater

A Review of Two Books by Eileen R. Tabios

Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir

Black Radish Books, 2016


Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2017

The title – Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir – could be taken as a contradiction in terms. Memory loss is counterbalanced by the production of a written record or biography. I desist from stating “autobiography” because it is deliberately titled as “somebody’s memoir” – not necessarily that of the author. It is one of a sequence of books, probably the principal one in terms of length, in the so-called “I Forgot” series (with few exceptions, every line begins with the words “I forgot”) generated from the MDR Project.

For readers who are unfamiliar with this project, I should explain that this is an ongoing work that brings together much of the author’s poetics to date. The initials MDR stand for “Murder, Death and Resurrection” and reflect the idea of putting to death an earlier work only to resurrect it into something new. Initially, Tabios created 1,146 lines by reading through 27 previously-published poetry collections and has since “computer-generated” (like a computer but manually done after a predetermined constraint) over 130 poems in six separate books from combinations arising out of the stored database. In so doing, she points out that “if randomness is the operating system for new poems (i.e. the lines can be combined at random to make new poems), those new poems nonetheless contain all the personal involvement – and love! – that went into writing their lines. The results dislocate without eliminating or pretending to eliminate authorship.”

The first thing to notice is that the chapter numbers are not in sequence in the contents page. The book begins with chapter 8, for example, and ends with chapter zero. The lack of a linear sequence mirrors the way our mind seemingly moves from one random thought to another. The sequence is re-ordered in chapter zero into a linear progression running from 1 to 27. Seeking engagement with, and response from, her readers, Tabios points out in an Author’s Note that readers may reorder the chapters themselves – whether in numerical order or otherwise – in order to generate different stories since any combination or story is valid.

The process of engagement is taken further at the end of the book where six poets, John Bloomberg-Rissman, Sheila E. Murphy, Lars Palm, Marthe Reed, Leny M. Strobel and Anne Gorrick, all invited by Tabios, write poems in response to chapter 6. The result gives a fascinating insight into the different and very individual ways in which each writer chooses to make his or her response.

The author states that “at its simplest level, Babaylan Poetics operates within the poem(s) of AMNESIA through its insistence that seemingly random topics and references all relate to each other.” The random nature of our thoughts may not be all that random after all. Memory, for example, is said to work by association. To take the long perspective, everything is ultimately interconnected. Memory may be “a colander with generous holes” but it is also a synthesis of all the familiar things that make up our individual lives. It just needs to be unravelled – or, in the case of the Balikbayan Box, unpacked.

Tabios can coax a lullaby out of an empty tin can; she sees dragonflies off-kilter and knows that “I” is rarely “1” – but a multiplicity of thoughts and emotions and a point of connection with the world.

Chapter 27, titled “Ars Poetica”, gives the reader a clear example of the way in which the material for this book has been randomly selected to embrace specific topics. Here we find mention of poems that deliver a powerful punch, poems with strong opening lines, poems that depend so much on punctuation marks (not red wheelbarrows!), poems with stellar line breaks, etc. Other chapters bring together familiar backdrops found in her previous work: locations such as Ancient Rome, Manila, the USA and exotic far-off places, familiar subject matter such as orphans and orphanages, the plight of the marginalised and the dispossessed, the names of dictators from around the world, acts of violence, displacement and exile. On a different note, vineyards put in several appearances, as do some beautiful lines in praise of the natural world (Chapter 8: I forgot a snowfall of daisies whose mottles under moonlight twinkled like a saddhu’s eyes). There are some lovely evocative images too: (Chapter 6: I forgot the summer-dusted landscape of Gambia) and some startling ones that seem to be all the more powerful for their brevity (Chapter 1: I forgot how gazes can drop like debris). The classic contents of those Filipino Balikbayan Boxes also put in an appearance in Chapter 11. From the world of art, there are references to Ancient Rome, to modern writers and fellow poets, to classical music, opera, flamenco and jazz and to classical and modern art including, interestingly, Jackson Pollock, whose method of composition also had a random aspect, splashing paint on canvas.

The author’s need to engage with the world is given particular emphasis in Chapter 24 where she breaks with tradition by beginning the opening line with the words “But I will never forget” instead of “I forgot”:

But I will never forget we walk on the same planet and breathe from the same atmosphere. I will never forget the same sun shines on us both. I created my own legacy: No one is a stranger to me.

By turning the idea of forgetting things on its head, the book is actually an extraordinary testament to the power of memory and what it stands for. As Tabios says in Chapter 20: Memory is more than just pressed petals between the pages of expendable books. The impact of this book-length, incantatory poem is considerable and it reads like a litany.


The Opposite of Claustrophobia: Prime’s Anti-Autobiography forms another segment of the same series which is why the two books are being reviewed together.

Not so congested in terms of layout, the lines are given more room to breathe on the page. The effect can sometimes be extremely powerful. For example, a whole page is given over to the single line I forgot Burkina Faso. For me, this is probably the most powerful poem in the book. It reads like a sin of omission. Like many of the other lines in this collection, it is tantalising in its brevity. Several of the lines are akin to photographs –memories frozen in time- a word from a family member struggling to recall some incident from the past, a fleeting glimpse of some memory brought on by listening to a piece of music, looking at an art work, inhaling a certain scent.

The numbers on the cover are prime numbers. The sequence was generated by applying prime numbers against the order of the lines from the MDR database. This time there are no chapter numbers and no titles. Every line is viewed as being as important as the previous one. If we think of memory as being a bit like a computer creating a database of images, mathematics is one of the recurring images throughout the text:

I forgot there are no guarantees, not even in math where “1+1” may not be “2” but, as a visual artist insisted, “11” or, as a philosopher insisted, “a turning towards the other.”

Memory can be open to interpretation. Many lines in this book contain images or references to things that evoke memory such as scent (scarlet roses; sprays of rose, peony, hydrangea and gladiola, gardenias crushed for perfume, the perfume of fresh bread, heaven as the scent of roasting coffee from a grocer, etc); music (lullabies from the wings of fireflies); travel (Mindanao, Berlin, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Istanbul) and food (sausage fat sizzling with the passion of cultists). There is some keen observation here (I forgot ice relaxing its contours into liquid gold) striking imagery (I forgot the blades of helicopters slicing air into thinner and thinner strips) and amazing beauty (I forgot a sarong fell and a river blushed). Many of these images have a habit of staying in the mind long after the reader has closed the book. They, in turn, are absorbed into the reader’s memory. None of these lines gives too much away. They paint a brief picture, sometimes just a brushstroke, and leave the reader to work on the rest of the canvas. From these small, intriguing details, we are all invited to build the bigger picture. This is why it is subtitled as an “Anti-autobiography” – it is not so much about the author but more about the way in which the reader brings his or her own experience or memory into play.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, England, 2017).
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