Neil Leadbeater


The Great American Novel
Eileen R. Tabios
(Paloma Press, San Mateo & Morgan Hill, CA, 2019)

Every so often a book comes along that defines America in such a way that it is hailed by the critics as a literary benchmark that comes to be dubbed “The Great American Novel”. Examples include Moby Dick by Herman Melville; Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and, more recently, On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Reading these classics it is easy to see that there is more than one great American novel as each one in its own way captures the spirit of the age in which it is written and creates this consensus of opinion among those who pronounce upon such things about its “greatness”—its staying power. Rather like “the American dream” it is hard to pin down and is more of an aspiration, a Platonic ideal, than anything else.

The cover design of Eileen Tabios’ latest book, however, might suggest that the time of the great American novel—if it ever really existed as a defined entity—is now over. The heart of it has gone out of America and it has become an expendable commodity. It raises the question of who has the time nowadays to read novels. In the twenty-first century, the speed with which information is communicated around the globe by technology has left us with little or no time for conventional reading and quiet reflection. Drowning in information, we struggle to keep up with events. Our attention spans have been shortened quite drastically through our habit of flitting from one thing to another. Text messaging sums up so succinctly the nature of our abbreviated lives.

It is possible that even the branding associated with the term “The great American novel” is now defunct. In “Wordless branding” (Monocle, March 2019) Peter Firth asks “What’s in a name? Not much, it seems; the future is visual.” He goes on to cite how the biggest brands now want to be recognized by their symbols alone and quotes Rory Sutherland, vice-chair of the ad firm Ogilvy when he says “there’s a huge proportion of the world that doesn’t read roman script; we are negotiating the world by icons.”

It will come as no surprise then to discover that this latest book from Tabios is largely visual, comprising a selection of her visual poetry composed between 2001 and 2019. These poems take the form of photographs, art installations, mobiles, domestic objects, computer screens. and, at one point, photographs of patterns made by plucked human hair, the latter adding a new word to my vocabulary, “achromotricia”, loss of hair color. The accompanying texts—and there is a fair amount of text as well—act as a commentary on the visual art taking the reader on a personal exploration of cultural identity and language. In some cases the texts appear within the images themselves.

In her series, “Excavated Tankas” (2018), Tabios shows us just how much of the past we forget in the present and, by implication, how much there is in the present that we will forget in the future. Memory is selective, it forgets so much of the gray glaze of the past. The series “Erasing Amnesia” (2018) can be viewed as an attempt to recollect and restore that which has been lost but success is limited. It is not just a question of erasing the words “I forgot” from each line of text but of restoring the remainder, much of which still remains blocked out.

There are some things which one never forgets. In Tabios’ case, this is the brutality witnessed in her birthland under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. It manifests itself most powerfully in her sequence entitled “Listing Poem Towards The New Filipino Society” (2007) which she composed when she was invited along with over 50 other Filipino poets, artists, writers and poet-artists, to contribute to an exhibition entitled “Chromatext Reloaded” curated by Sid Gomez Hildawa, Jean Marie Syjuco and Alfred Yuson and held at the Main Gallery of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The core of her installation (which is mounted in the form of a crucifix) comprises a “list poem” in which each line contains the title of a book by Ferdinand Marcos. The design evokes crucifixion because Tabios and her family and, in the wider context, Filipinos in general, were sacrificed by the Marcos dictatorship. The installation is pinned against a red lush fabric to denote the color of blood. Part of the installation features a poem ripped apart to partly reveal her baby photograph to illustrate how she, among many, were ripped apart by the Marcos regime. She also conceived of the rip as the ripping out of Filipinos into the diaspora. In another work, which could well apply to this one, Tabios states that “Poetry’s task is not to affirm the (unjust) status quo but to disrupt it.”

There are other ways to keep in touch with one’s homeland. In the present age, one of those ways is through the internet. Accessing images is never the same as being there though. As Tabios says, “virtual reality’s images bring you closer to your birthland. But a remove remains and persists.” It is this remove that Tabios explores in her poetry and visual art installation entitled “Pilipinz Cloudygenous” (2018-2019). “Cloudygenous” is a word of her own making which she uses to reflect the contemporary integration of internet access into daily living, a practice more likely to deepen and expand in the future. It replaces physical reality and engagement with such reality. It has both negative and positive aspects to it in the way a cloud can obscure but also generate life-supporting rain. The more one is tied to the internet, however, the more displaced one becomes. Part of this installation comprises a series of mobiles which symbolize the Filipino diaspora. The mobiles hang from the ceiling and float in space—a metaphor for the internet cloud. A series of wooden carvings from the Philippines manufactured for the tourist trade hang from the mobiles by unstable connections to manifest the instability and shifting nature of the Filipino diaspora.

In the sequence, titled “The Mortality Asemics,” strands of plucked white hair form intricate, lace-like patterns against the dark background of a speaker box. They can be viewed from several vantage points: as matter that is weightless and floating in space; as an addition to the surface on which they have landed or as a subtraction from it, a hairline crack or fracture; or as art transforming gold into brass: the recreation of something new, fragile and beautiful—a composition in white lines created through the force of gravity. The images carry no text within them. They are what is known as “asemic” images—wordless writing which is often revealed through patterns in nature such as those seen in a snowflake or a nebula. The addition of another object, such as a small rock from a birdbath increases / changes the perception of the piece as a whole, presenting the story of alchemy and the whole idea of metamorphosis. The combination of a camera flash lends a Midas touch to the whole composition.

Language is explored in the sequence entitled “Community of Vowels” (2018). In this sequence, Tabios hones down on the word “community” which she views as a largely positive thing even though it often fails to live up to our expectations. Words are made up of vowels and consonants, the defined sets of letters that live together to create a sense of harmony in our speech.

In a series of grids which consecutively cover all the vowels in a cumulative sequence (i.e. Grid A; Grid AE; Grid AEI, etc.), Tabios presents us with a set text from a page chosen at random from her MDR Poetry Generator Project and loops together all vowels that are A in the first grid and then all vowels that are A and E in the second grid, etc., using a different color marker pen to pinpoint each vowel letter and connect it to its counterpart until the end of the sequence is reached. The visual impact of these grids shows how much more colorful, strong and unified the structure is at the end than it was at the beginning. In commenting on this, Tabios states “when more than one vowel is involved, the more obscured is the underlying text—with such, I hoped to indicate less didactic talking at each other and more in-unison or in-harmony singing. So, let us sing together, you and I.”

In “KOMMAS: A Speculative Fiction” (2016) Tabios turns her attention to a specific punctuation mark: the comma—the sign that traditionally marks the smallest division of a sentence. Laying aside Hart’s Rules on its usage, Tabios presents us with images where these commas (whose initial letter is spelt with a “k”) take on architectural, botanical, astronomical and geometric forms. The media for these images is composed of cat claws (which have the shape of commas about them), a ball of cotton, a crystal bowl and black painted wood. In these images the commas are, by turn, pitted against sharp, soft, fragile and solid objects. Apart from the titles, there is no artistic statement in the form of written explanatory text. Each image is left to speak for itself.

In another composition, “The Secret: An Unreadable Book” (2013), Tabios gives us a series of photographs with an accompanying text, in which she opens up to her readers a part of her creative process. The secret in this instance is the secret to happiness. That is all that we are told and it is all that we will get. The great irony behind this poem is the fact that at the end it remains a closed book. We will never know what the secret of happiness is, because it is elusive. In Tabios’ words: “Some secrets can be kept.”

Images can speak louder than words. In “The Novelist’s Diary” (2016)”(a photocopy of a page from a diary in which the words “Write novel” appear as the only entry for every day on the page), we soon discover that it doesn’t matter if it is the Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day or Presidents’ Day, the writer must find the time to write that novel, to mark out time and to do it to the exclusion of all else or it will never get done. The pursuit of this goal is relentless, it becomes the object of everything and the sole focus of attention. Writing can be a solitary occupation, an all-consuming one, that leaves little time for anything else and this visual poem puts this message across in a powerful and effective way.

“Mooring After Loss” (2016) demonstrates the close association that can sometimes be present between the word “image” and the word “imagination”. A camera has been positioned in such a way as to photograph someone walking across a floor. In the photograph we see the floor and a left foot (the one that is in the act of striding forward). The right foot is not to be seen but an outline of it has been drawn on a blank piece of white paper and placed on the floor beside the left foot. At first, I misread the title as “Mourning After Loss” and thought that the blank outline of the right foot represented the departed one but then I reread the title and recognized how important it is in a time of loss that we still keep ourselves anchored to the ground, even if it is only with one foot, so that we can keep moving on, one foot at a time. The soul of the departed one is always close to us, closer than we think, in our daily walk through life.

In this collection Tabios, always at the vanguard of poetic expression and invention, offers up a thoughtful fusion of text and image that is at once multilayered, satisfying and visual. Beneath the surface of her strikingly original artistry, she speaks out courageously against the horrors of injustice and makes a plea for all that is beautiful and tender in our fragile world. Fully recommended.

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 publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018). His work has been translated into several languages.
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