Thomas Fink

An Introduction to
The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019
by Eileen R. Tabios

Evidently, Dante invented terza rima to write The Divine Comedy. It may be the first example in the West of a poetic form based on tercets, whereas the haiku appeared slightly earlier—in thirteenth century Japan, though it was popularized by Bashō much later. The title of this forthcoming book, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019, informs us that Eileen Tabios’ method of assembling a collection is to foreground both her invention of the form, which has intervened in contemporary poetic practice for the last sixteen years by providing a new formal alternative (a tercet with one word in the first line, two in the second, three in the third), and her non-hay(na)ku poems that utilize tercets without counting words or scramble the order of the hay(na)ku count.

One of Tabios’ previous Selected volumes used prose-poetry as the framing device, and many readers first encountered her prose-poetry—for example, in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002)—before they read much or any of her work in verse. And she has written a great deal of prose-poetry throughout her career. This point deserves attention because the tercet is shaped so differently than the paragraph, and so we can expect some aesthetic effects to differ markedly.

The rationale for a large collection of tercets makes sense in a way that one of quatrains or couplets would not, because Tabios did dream up the hay(na)ku. But a poet who makes this decision runs the risk of formal monotony. Here, Tabios overcomes this risk by demonstrating several variations within the use of the tercet. This happens right away. The first poem in The In(ter)vention, “listening to what woke me,” initially published in her debut volume in 1996, has long, punctuationless lines, one dependent or independent clause to a line, and in the middle, a tercet that behaves like William Carlos Williams’ triadic/stepped lines, a late career innovation, and finally, a monostich. The third poem, “Mortality,” returns to the long lines of “listening to what woke me,” but has a great deal of punctuation. The second poem, “Anticipating Siberia” features medium-sized lines with punctuation; like “Mortality,” many of these lines have a strong pause, while a few are enjambed. And then we come to “Venus Rising for the First Time in the 21st Century,” where an anticipatory glimpse of the hay(na)ku’s spare quality becomes discernible:
You want to see
her seeing
herself. You want

her seeing
her wanting
you behind the wave

when you become
the sea seeing

her eyes form
(above a body you
dreamt into salt water)

to see you
through strands
of dark seaweed.
In short-lined tercets like this, which only occasionally “balloon” to five words in a line, the play of enjambment and caesura often becomes a central component in the poem’s temporal unfolding, and it is not only enjambment within a tercet but between them. Poetic thought/perception proceeds sinuously, sometimes hesitantly, without rushing. (And when these elements are less dominant in a tercet-poem or hay(na)ku-based text, as in parts of “Enheduanna #20,” which I will discuss shortly, it creates a sharper, less consistently exploratory effect and more of a succession of bursts.)

Apart from the formal effects I have just addressed, a new collection of Tabios’ work from the beginning of her writing life to the present should yield a solid sense of the problematics and topoi that she has consistently tackled. The lines above from “Venus Rising for the First Time in the 21st Century” provide a fine example of what Joi Barrios, placing Tabios’ work in relation to feminist Filipina bardic precursors, identifies as a major thematic dimension: “Tabios’ poems seemingly speak of love and desire, and yet are powerful statements that participate in discourses on gender, class, and power” (318). As it interacts playfully with the trope of “sea” that points to the mythological context of Venus’ birth, the repetition of “see,” as well as “want,” involving a “you” (male gazer) and “her” (the 21st century Venus) can be said to interrogate the power of the male onlooker to establish contexts of perception. According to this interpretation, the “you” seems to want Venus to experience a kind of “double consciousness” (W.E.B. DuBois’ term applied to African-Americans early in the twentieth century) so that she can participate in and accept her own objectification rather than experience her (new) life in an unmediated way, and he wishes to witness it—as reassurance that it is happening. Yet the second sentence, beginning at the end of the first tercet with the same words that started off the poem, indicate the male’s desire for her to be conscious of her desire for him. Interestingly, though, the man figures himself not as traditional masculine solidity but as a “body” of water, a “form” of “foam,” and this troping suggests the tenuousness of the male’s desire, the fragility that threatens his social power. Tabios’ speaker declares that the male addressee aims
to commence
a vision you
have shared with her

in her (lurking unknowingly)
through her
seeing you….
Prepositions merit attention here: while “with” implies mutuality of desire called up by the verb “have shared,” as well as acknowledgment of Venus’ agency, “in” can mean the man’s aggressive invasion, and “through” can suggest her seeing as something utilized for his own self-regard. A few lines later, there is more wordplay with “see”: see(d)ing you/ sea-ing her/ seeing you.” “See(d)ing” is a loaded signifier, because, although it is generally associated (literally) with patriarchal power, the power of insemination, the action of her seeing is engendering his vision, perhaps suggesting that she does possess agency, the power of subjectivity, and is not merely an “object” evincing beauty.

Barrios articulates the feminist disclosure of female power in “the Enheduanna poems of Ménage à Trois with the 21st Century” (2004), in which “Tabios privileges the woman’s voice and even when she speaks of the man longed for—‘you’—it is from the woman’s imagined perspective…. What really matters is the woman imagining ‘you’” (320) and not the actual “you,” whatever or whoever that is. In “Enheduanna #20,” the sole poem selected for The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets, and other tercet-poem with relatively short lines, two opening questions compel a recognition of the speaker’s influence over the man as she seeks to fathom his prediction about specifics of his future subjectivity: “As you fall asleep/ in my skin/ will you dream?// Will you want/ you or want/ to change?” Then again, Barrios might be right that this “is from the woman’s imagined perspective,” since the speaker’s apostrophic questions cannot be answered by a “you” who exists, if he exists, outside the poem. After some questioning of herself, she returns to questioning him:
Will you bring the scent
of red roses
I left behind

in New York City alleyways
(or has that season yet to pass)?
In my eyes

will you see
Baudelaire's infinity
he defined as the "sky"

you witness repeatedly
on and in any painting
marked by blue sapphire, lapis

lazuli, indigo, turquoise...sky...?
Far from acquiescence to male social power, this questioning, whether rhetorical or actual, uses the tropes of courtship and seduction—not to valorize them, but to explore the psychology of desire and power relations in ways that do not assume the eventual dominance of either party. And sometimes, when the poet casts aside these tropes, we encounter an urgent directness made all the more urgent and direct by the hay(na)ku’s formal simplicity and compactness:
My love. If
words can

whatever world you
suffer in—

I have things
to tell
The speaker at year’s end seems at first to speak of physical contact, this turns out to be her imagination, which she labels “violent”: “I prowl/ somber streets/ holding// you—in my/ head, this/ violence!—//a violent gaze./ You.” The headnote of this 2007 poem “Maganda Begins” serves as a salient social frame: “’Maganda’ is not just a Tagalog word that means ‘beautiful.’ ‘Maganda’ is also the name of the first woman in a Filipino creation myth.”

As Tabios has herself in explanatory pieces and in titling a large brick of a book, I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved (2005), Joi Barrios, Leny Mendoza Strobel, and other feminist Filipina critics have underlined the relationship in her poetry between the representation of erotic interchange and the power dynamics of colonial and postcolonial subjects and those entities who have imposed not only “a violent gaze” but violent constraints on their political, economic, and cultural agency. One might hypothesize that Maganda is not addressing her “love” in the “present” of creation but a distant future, our present. From this perspective, “I have things/ to tell” not only a “you” who has “suffered” in the “world” of the twenty-first century Philippines and the Filipino/a diaspora, whether identifying as male, female, or gender-neutral, but a (post)colonial figure who has gained the speaker’s erotic attention. English itself is “spoken” in the poem by Maganda, and the language might also be considered a possible addressee, as I find Anny Ballardini accurate in referring to “Tabios’ “passionate ‘love-hate’ bondage with the English language” developing “in nuances that reach both extremes: passionate eroticism and annihilation by alternating supplications and requests… (19).

In the Enheduanna poems, Ric Carfagna finds the speakers in Tabios’ poems “at times to be entranced, totally absorbed in ‘otherness’” (35), and it is important to reiterate that this is not capitulation to the dominance of an other, but an interrogation of possibilities of intersubjectivity, as in the opening lines of the 2006 “Burning Pulpit,” a poem that conflates erotic and religious intensity: “Could/ our two miseries/ copulate into one opulent being?” This powerful question is followed by a snappy critique of a typical patriarchal strategy that would stand in the way of “opulent being”: “Men simplify/ then slink back/ to antediluvian burrows.”

Another gender-themed tercet poem “Hay Naku! That Menopause!” (2017) wittily and fiercely tackles a subject that many men might choose to minimize:
O pause:
Reconsider, then begin….

O pause:
On the other

I feel
quite proud of

hot flashes.
And why is menopause a source of pride? “I feel amazed/ over/ generating so/ much heat,” as though she “could// absolutely/ warm up/ an entire city!” The enjambments foreground both words conveying energy and small directional words that convey conduits for the movement of that energy. A later section of the poem offers a less jocular recontextualization of a negative to a positive: Tabios insists that “men” “pause” in their “concern” for Angelina Jolie that, in removing her “ovaries and// breasts,” “she// might enter menopause/ early,” while the actress pushes “back/ against the narrative” of “menopause” as “unwelcome” and “aging” as “bad.”

Another prominent thematic terrain in The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets involves theorizing about poetry within the poems. While this could prove a dull, mechanical exercise, Tabios does not so much philosophize abstractly as underscore a sense of necessity, as in “Poetics (#1):
What we wanted
to do
to be

was what we were helpless
against doing
against being
The parallel structure in the last two (two-word) lines of each tercet not only animates the sense of “helplessness” but also points to the notion that “to do” is preferable to being “against doing,” and “to be” authentically contrasts mightily with being “against being.” (It is a tough position, after all, to be “against being.”)

“As If” captures Tabios making fun of the hubris she has exhibited in believing her own prior dictum, "'If a poem/ is so/ powerful// it will return….'" She tells of a situation where she received linguistic inspiration and did not choose to write down the lines, and “it feels like/ years and/ yet// that poem has/ not yet/ returned.” This little narrative placed in a reverse hay(na)ku format playfully echoes Socrates’ distaste for the new technology of writing as a threat to the cultivation of memory and to the full power of primordial speech.

In “Athena” Tabios ponders the complexities of poetic revision:
What’s deemed necessary
changes. Hear

listening in another
decade, editing

and first lines.
A different

croons from behind
an impassive
Tabios can speak of “a different/ Singer,” despite the fact that the same poet is reviewing the poem “in another/ decade,” evidently because she believes that new preoccupations have transformed her. She finds a different sense of necessity in her lines—probably an unanticipated context—as she renews the editing process. “The poem cannot/ be pure” for various reasons, but here, it signifies that the poem cannot be “purely” fixed in the mind of its writer and first reader because later experiences and insights coloring subsequent readings will change its meanings and impact for her: “Sound// never travels unimpeded/ by anonymous/ butterflies.” And of course, “butterflies” do not stick around long in one’s visual field. Indeed, “writing it down/ merely freezes/ flight” temporarily because further reader-response, which the poet calls “translation,” will reactivate the motion of a fresh encounter with the text. Even a seemingly stable vision is subject to sharp displacement: “The sky/ ruptured/ suddenly—“ In this spirit, Ballardini praises “Tabios’ words and continuous twists” for catching “the reader with their luring beauty to flee as soon as they have reached him” (18).

Tabios’ “Death Poems” tend to use small words with maximum acuity: “Die We Do” packs a great deal into three hay(na)kus:
we do
as much as

live. Then
we write: right

we lived
when we write.
The first sentence cannot be about temporal quantity, since, if no other incarnations are factored in, the amount of time being dead is not equal to the amount being alive. Therefore, perhaps the first sentence is an assessment of equality of significance between the two elements in the opposition. Another possibility is to link the verb “die” to the life-long process of moving toward death. However, the last five lines might tilt the poem in a different direction: in writing, re-presenting “life,” “we” writers “kill” “what we lived”; to “right” it as we see fit may be to “wrong” what happened in the execution of a set of intentions designed to validate the self to others and itself.

The numbered “Hay(na)ku Death Poems, all of which are “written in the ‘reverse’… form to visually manifest disappearance,” manifest divergent perspectives on death. #2 rejoices in Proustian memory-triggers: “Familiar, joyous barking—/ we’ll meet/ again,” and #14 subtly suggests the redemptive power of poetry, including brief poems: “Against silence, even/ haiku are/ maximalists.” On the other hand, #4 through #6 lament the appearance of veins as harbingers of demise: “Veins rippling protests—/ rivers into/ Hades” (#4). Speaking of the death of a bird against a windexed-windowpane, #15 ends with a jab against “cruel// hypocrisy in creating/ this bloody/ Anthropocene.” The equally thorough bleakness of #7 is perhaps balanced by the indeterminacy of whether “Grief overcomes/ joy” for the dying or living onlookers, and the next deathbed poem (#8) seems a rebuke to Catholics who believe that last rites confer absolution:
To be human
is to

But knowledge is
no palliative

reaching one’s deathbed
For Eileen Tabios, “to be human/ is to” write and read variously, among other things. An assessment of the scope of Tabios’ poetic accomplishment would require a comparative perusal of this Selected Tercets, her Selected Prose Poems, her Selected Catalog Poems, her Selected Visual Poetry, texts in other verse-forms, and her forays into computer-inspired poetry, some of which appear herein, as well as other aspects of what has been called “Conceptual Poetry.” That being said, it is evident that ample multeity exists within the boundaries of this In(ter)vention.

Ballardini, Anny. “Eileen Tabios and the Upturning of Codified Needs.” The Blind
Chatelaine’s Keys: Her Autobiography through Your Poetics
. Blazevox, 2008,
pp. 18-24.

Barrios, Joi. “Afterword: Fearless Peerless Kasu-Kasuan Poetry.” Tabios.
The Thorn Rosary: Selected Prose Poems and New (1998-2010). Marsh
Hawk P, 2010, pp. 313-322.

Carafagna, Ric. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Women….” The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys: Her Autobiography through Your Poetics. Blazevox, 2008, pp. 32-39.

Thomas Fink is the author of A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late Twentieth Century U.S. Poetry (2001) and co-editor of two collections of essays, including Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Innovative American Poetry (2014). His criticism has been published in Contemporary Literature, American Poetry Review, Jacket 2, Verse, and numerous other publications. He has published nine books of poetry, most recently Selected Poems & Poetic Series (2016).

The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019 will be published later this year by Marsh Hawk Press.
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