20200418

Eileen R. Tabios


TINY STICKERS: A COVID-19 AUTOBIOGRAPHY
(March 2020)

Look where the window view finally stops.
“Sky is better than aspirin.”
—from “Silk Egg”

I forgot it was not a blood teardrop—simply, the last red pepper hanging from a string in front of a white wall.
—from “44 Resurrections”





Introduction

Chef J Flores Beckett introduced me to “The Best Group on Facebook” or “Weird Second-Hand Finds That Just Needs To Be Shared.” There, I discovered a fabulous artwork made from stickers collaged together, specifically stickers posted on various food items—in our household, they come attached to bananas, avocados, oranges, peppers, and tomatoes. The framed artwork was effective for offering pattern art based on the texts and barcodes on these tiny stickers. Inspired, I decided to recycle our own foodstuff stickers by creating an autobiography wherein each entry would be triggered by these stickers that permeate our daily lives.


I decided to write each entry inside a miniature journal because its scale framed each sticker well as I pasted them on its 2- by 3-inch pages.


But because I began this project on March 1, it swiftly and effortlessly became a diary of COVID-19’s effect on our lives.




March 1, 2020
Today's sticker is from one of [husband] Tom’s bananas shown in the bunch above; he eats a banana each morning. I don’t mind the domestic duty of ensuring he is always supplied with his daily banana—he lives with a poet, which is to say (at least in my case), he does more for me than I do for him when it comes to household logistics.


March 5, 2020
This is another sticker from one of Tom’s bananas. And of course how capitalist. It’s not only a banana distributor sticker but a mini-billboard for advertising. So as one eats a banana distributed by Dole, one gets to see a carrot-nosed character reading a book in the Disney movie “Frozen II.”


March 12, 2020
This sticker is from a banana picked up during stockpile shopping In the Time of Corona Virus. While shopping, I had traded rueful glances—from afar—with another shopper as we slowly strolled our carts by shelves emptied of toilet paper.

I picked up a larger-than-usual bunch of bananas in anticipation of Tom working at home for several weeks. He’ll be working online. We’re fortunate to have jobs that can be done at home and virtually. I’m anticipating the sudden ramp-ups in layoffs and unemployment.


March 18, 2020
Today's two stickers are from the six avocados we got while COVID-19 prepper shopping. Every shopping trip now becomes “prepper”-related. Our shopping list includes the expected and unexpected. The expected: toilet paper, rice, larger-than-usual packages of meats and chicken for freezer storage, pasta, and so on. The unexpected: 51 vacuum bags since we obtain these in another city half an hour away and I am as worried about the medium-term as the short-term in terms of supply line disruptions. I don’t believe politicians who claim this virus is a brief hiccup in our lives.

An unfortunate first for us: we also bought MREs and a bucket of vegetable stew with a 25-year shelf life. My taste buds are cringing.



Pandemic shopping, of course, doesn’t preclude the usual “impulse buys.” Our number one impulse buy are Brioche cakes with Bavarian cream topped with honey and sliced almonds. On this item, we bought several from the local bakery with zero guilt.


March 19, 2020
The sticker is from one of the six mangoes acquired from our first prepper shopping. Today Governor Gavin Newsom put all of California under lockdown. This made Tom rush out for another shopping run. He came back with

10 bottles of seltzer water
6 packets of cream cheese (critical as we give daily dog medicine camouflaged in cream cheese)
1 packet of parmesan cheese
2 swordfish steaks
1 bag of yellow squash
6 boxes of Rice-a-Roni
6 cans of pumpkin
6 bags of sliced turkey meat (for dogs)
1 package of napkins
1—another!—Brioche cake with Bavarian cream topped with honey and sliced almonds


March 20, 2020
Another sticker from our 6-mango purchase. Today is the second day of California’s lockdown. There are still workers out and about, reflecting the challenge of “Deaths vs. Dollars” as many need to work. I touch on this in a contribution requested by poet-critic Luis H. Francia for his column in The Inquirer re the effects of COVID-19 on various folks’ lifestyles. I wrote:
I live in a rural, mountain area in California. Living with wildfires and earthquakes actually prepared us. We had stocks of food and N5 masks at the ready. We’ve already shipped spare masks to friends in New York once their stores ran out of stock. This doesn’t mean we didn’t go prepper-shopping when we were able, but we’re the only ones I know who stocked up on vacuum bags, which is to say, I believe this issue is not a matter of weeks but months and I’m looking over effects of supply disruptions medium-term, not just the short term. As well, for years I worked at home, which means I’ve practiced social distancing for years so that’s not an issue for me.

What is an issue is the effect of this crisis on hourly workers with minimal health care coverage of which many work in the agricultural fields surrounding us in wine country. We’re also concerned about our elderly neighbors. One of my friends helps them out and I made sure she had masks as she would be in contact with senior citizens. Crises test character and I hope we all show our best sides. Last but not least, as a poet I’ve received several solicitations for poems related to COVID-19 which I’ve rejected; I have zero interest in making this virus my Muse.


March 23, 2020
This sticker is from one of three Assam Tea containers produced by Fortnum and Mason and which we’ve ordered from Williams & Sonoma. It’s better quality tea than my daily intake of Target house brand Black Tea but Tom and I agreed to treat ourselves and, if we’re to die, to die in style.


But when the UPS delivery man approached the house, we had an awkward hand-off. He and I responsibly and daintily kept our distance from each other while I told him to drop it off a few feet in front of me; I was standing in front of the door. But it felt unnatural and … rude. Normally, he’d hand it directly to me. He also felt the rudeness with his hand’s bodily memory stretching out to give me the box before he halted the impetus and laid it on the porch. He laid it down tenderly.

***

TinFish’s new editor Jaimie Nagle asked its authors for writing prompts. I offered:
Write poetic lines beginning with the word “Fortunately,…”. Alternate lines to relate to COVID-19 and then not (necessarily) related. For example, I began a poem with

Fortunately, the stores have not run out of canned pumpkin that I feed into my puppy’s meals.

Fortunately, the sun still comes out despite all that it’s seen.
Jaimie said she’ll publish it with the photo of Neo by a box of my Tinfish book, WITNESS IN THE CONVEX MIRROR (2019):


***

I am YouTube-bingeing on everyone’s pandemic shopping. Carla M., who I’m watching as I write this, says she just grabbed the last bag of sugar, making me recall how in our last shopping trip Tom says he’d grabbed the last package of napkins. I felt bad when I opened the cupboard to put it away to see another unopened package there that I’d forgotten: Hoarder Guilt.

***

Ah: a first—we are out of bananas for the first time in our remembered lives.

***

On March 20, 2020, when I was asked to write on Life in the Time of the Corona, I partly wrote, "I have zero interest in this virus becoming my Muse."

A few days later, I was asked for a writing prompt. I gave them one about starting lines with the word, "Fortunately,..." Subsequently, I’ve also spun out five poems.

Do I also continue to be full of contradictions because

All the world’s a stage”—William Shakespeare


March 24, 2020
A sticker is from another Fortnum and Mason tea we’d ordered from Williams & Sonoma. We like their “Queen Anne” product very much.


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has turned philosophical instead of just spouting off statistics. This morning he focused on talking about “America” and not just “New York,” feeding our speculation that this would revive his Presidential ambitions. Today, his briefing occurred in front of a poster emblazoned with “New York Loves You” in front of the visual red apple.

Objectively, it seems Democrats have a better chance of beating Trump with a brokered convention to put up Cuomo. It’d be “bleak,” indeed (paraphrasing the group “Bay Area for Bernie”), if they put up a guy in his basement fighting with his teleprompter. Poor Biden.

A Trump/Pence Town Hall this morning—on Fox News, of course. Tom actually sent in a question: “People talk about sending in supplies to states who need them. Why not airlift sick people to available hospital beds around the country? You’d have authority and we have ability if you commandeer the Air Force…?”

I bet him it would never be asked—or fly (pun intended)—on the state level. Humans are awful: why would they accept others’ ill folks? [Author note: Tom’s question was not asked but, later, politicians would discuss a variation of Tom’s idea: fly ventilators to the areas where they’re needed.]

We remain out of Tom’s bananas.

***

I’ve been listing the items we buy during pandemic shopping. I refashioned it—including embellished since the poem’s truth is its own and not necessarily the poet’s—into a list poem for Marsh Hawk Review:
LIST POEM, MARCH 2020

Food
1 rib-eye steak
3 swordfish steaks
12 chicken legs
3 packs of frozen fish
1 brisket
1 bottle of barbecue sauce
3 packages of smoked salmon
1 dozen eggs
8 bars of butter
6 jars of pasta sauce
1 jar of garlic
5 bags of pre-mixed Caesar salads
4 boxes of pasta
16 boxes of flavored rice
1 bag of white rice
1 package of quick-cook brown rice
24 cans of tuna
4 cans of crab meat
6 cans of soup
3 plastic containers of soup
6 cans of green beans
4 frozen packets of corn
2 containers of potato salad
1 jar of coffee
2 jars of Fortnum and Mason Assam tea
2 boxes of chamomile tea
1 oversized box of generic black tea
1 half-gallon of milk
12 bottles of iced tea
4 bottles of diet iced tea
1 box of crackers
2 baguettes
6 English muffins
6 types of snacking cheese
1 bag of yellow squash
1 bag of carrots
1 bag of green beans
3 tomatoes
6 avocados
6 mangoes
4 lemons
6 bananas

Medicine
2 boxes of aspirin

Water
4 gallon-jugs of spring water
36 bottles of seltzer water
96 cans of seltzer water

Cleaning Supplies
54 rolls of toilet paper
24 rolls of paper towels
1 package of napkins
2 boxes of dishwasher detergent
2 boxes of laundry detergent
3 boxes of toothpaste

Pets
2 bags of dog kibble
72 cans of dog food
2 bags of cat kibble
24 cans of cat canned food
12 boxes of pasta
2 bags of brown rice
6 cans of pumpkin
4 bags of turkey slices
7 bags of frozen bones

Identified Failures
Refilling two drug prescriptions
Mid-month restocking of bananas
Mid-month restocking of bagels

Excuses
1 slice of carrot cake
2 slices of chocolate cake
1 slice of lemon meringue pie
1 chocolate cake in its entirety
3 packages of Emmy’s Coconut Cookies, vanilla bean variety
2 packages of Emmy’s Coconut Cookies, dark chocolate variety
2 brioche cakes with Bavarian cream topped with honey and sliced almonds

Despair
1 bucket of vegetable stew with 25-year shelf life
100 MREs

Hope
51 vacuum bags


Marsh Hawk Review also accepted this COVID-19 poem:
Plato According to the Dog


Fortunately for the dog, I now stay home.


Fortunately, the dog now witnesses me working all day.


Fortunately, because of COVID-19 a major philosophical question has been answered.

There is actually a postscript line to the above poem which I didn’t include in my submission. It’s a line Tom suggested after I read the poem out loud to him. To wit, after the third line, I’d inserted an asterisk and then ended with:
(Unfortunately, my wife now wonders what I do all day…)
Speaking of dogs, because Tom will have to be home during this shelter-in-place period, I allowed him a four-week window to rescue and transition a new dog. I’d noticed animal shelters putting out pleas for people to adopt or foster as it’d be difficult to take care of animals during this time. Tom leapt at my offer and swiftly found our new dog, Nova. Just over a year old, it’s safe to say that Nova (who’d been rehomed three times previously) found a permanent home only because of the virus—one silver lining to this COVID-19 tragedy. Here’s Nova with her new brothers behind her: Neo and Ajax:




March 25, 2020
Our most recent “prepper-run” (as I’ve also begun to call these shopping trips) allows me to write a new journal entry triggered by a sticker from one of Tom’s long-missed bananas. Trump is announcing a $2 trillion plus $4 trillion liquidity support to battle COVID-19’s effect on the economy. He is pushing optimism but it’s clear to Moi, the ex-economist, that more such financial support will be needed.

I continue to be amused at various folks’ “temporary liking” (as one put it) of New York Gov. Cuomo for doing a great job in managing—and communicating about—COVID-19’s brutal effects. What a wonderful contrast to Trump’s narcissistic presentations. I’ve created a new word which I posted on Facebook with the (transparently) false claim that it’s a new addition to the Oxford Dictionary:
“Drumpf Virus”—inability to say anything without self-praise. (Jared’s infected.)
One of my commenters posted, “Please let this be an official addition.”



***

I stumbled across the flight itinerary for my now-cancelled May trips to launch my book The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku in New York and PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora in Houston. I immediately saw visual poetry possibilities of slashing black and other delete marks across its print-out. Too easy: I won’t bother making it.

***

As I join millions in looking for lockdown distractions, I thought to cook—a rare event for me. And I thought to make something I’d never made before: my beloved leche flan. But the recipe calls for nine egg yolks. Yikes! Who’s got nine spare eggs nowadays? Unfortunately, eggs don’t last as long as canned goods so there’s not much in la casa to spare nine! So I’m back to making another Filipino dessert: kutsinta. But I made it to symbolize the corona virus, the cheese’s radioactive yellow evoking “corona.” Perhaps this is a yummy vispo with its coconut filling… and, like a poem, its effect can be ineffable because this visual poem will disappear as I eat it. And with that critical poetics analysis, I am officially afflicted with cabin fever.



Certain Filipinos are aghast I utilize Kraft cheese in kutsinta (traditionally, the cheese is associated with another Filipino desert, puto, not kutsinta). But what’s poetry but subversive?

March 26, 2020
The sticker is from an avocado in our replenished stock. Today, I woke to one of my Facebook posts seeing over 8,600 Likes, about 700 comments, and nearly 250 shares. This is for something I posted at Facebook’s “Weird Secondhand Finds That Deserve To Be Shared.” I usually don’t social media-socialize but I categorize this act as uniquely attributed to being under COVID-19 lockdown. So …

I wonder if any of my posts would get such an enthusiastic reception again. Then I laughed at moiself: Naaahh, I’m a poet mostly posting about poetry.

***

I collect miniature books (sized 3 inches or less). Today, I received one published in 1822 that features the plays of ex-slave/Roman playwright Publius Terence Afer. One of his famous quotations is the core of my poetics; he wrote, "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", or "I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me." This appeared in his play “Heauton Timorumenos.”


Per social distancing (as encouraged worldwide to battle COVID-19), “distance” so easily becomes synonymous with “damage,” psychological and otherwise. In numerous poetics essays, I’ve paraphrased Afer with, “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” Or, or for, to be at our best as humans is to not be at a remove.


March 27, 2020
The sticker is from a tomato in our replenished stock. Pandemic cooking = comfort food = spaghetti sauce. Such variety in making spaghetti sauce! Ours tonight has ground chuck, ground pork, and sliced chicken parmesan sausages mixed with butter, olive oil, red pepper, black pepper, crushed red pepper, white pepper, sautéed onions, cans of tomato paste / tomato puree / diced tomatoes, 6 sliced fresh tomatoes, two bay leaves, 1/3 bottle of red wine (should be more but we drank too much), and tons of oregano. Here’s result:



March 28, 2020


Another welcome sticker from a welcome mango. Aileen Cassinetto, the mango-loving publisher of MiGoZine put out a call for poems related to COVID-19. I sent them this poem that I wrote after reading the article “For Asian Americans, There Are Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Daily Bigotry” by Brittany Wong, HuffPost, March 26, 2020. [Author’s Note: poem was accepted by guest editor Abigail Licad.]
Sudden Asian Prepper

A dozen jars
of macapuno
preserves,

20 bags of
dried mango
jerkies,

dye for turning
hair blonde,
tape

for double-lidding eyes,
an ankle
sheath,

15 propane cans,
100 MREs,
then

8 large buckets
of vegetable
stews

with 25-year shelf
lives that
become

revived by water
if blisteringly
hot


March 29, 2020
A tomato sticker allows me to share I just set up arrangements for the pets—three dogs, three cats—in case we're hit by COVID-19 and, say, must temporarily be in hospital. I hope people do the same. This is my cat Tarzan with one of his favorite books, The Artist As Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining A Creative Life edited by Sharon Louden:



***

Still reflecting on the HuffPost article as regards rising discrimination against Asian Americans, I ended up writing this hay(na)ku poem:
NOT MY FIRST MASK
AKA
2020 SELFIE


I didn't wear
a mask
because

of a virus—
I wear
masks

because they charge
me with
"Asian"



I didn’t mind the reverse hay(na)ku form but I like the poem better as a “shaped” poem after I tinkered to line up the words to form a mask, (a version that later got published in HALIBUT: a journal for micro poems):


March 30, 2020
A sticker from the last tomato that existed in the house. I rose early to be at the local Safeway grocery store by its 7 am opening—only way to get toilet paper or paper towels that’d be cleaned out by noon. There are products on the shelves but also diminishing flexibility in brands. Here’s a photo of items we might not have purchased pre-Coronavirus.


From the shopping trip, I also photographed this image that illustrates the decimation of California’s prior plastic bag ban; the state had instituted a ban on plastic shopping bags to slow down plastic’s invasion of the planet. This virus exacts its toll in so many ways.


March 31, 2020
This sticker is from an orange bell pepper. I’m so happy I found some fresh vegetables as the grocer’s stock is clearly being depleted. For the first time at our grocery, there were no carrots.


As is to be expected, poets are writing. And now Christopher Okemwa has decided to create an anthology. He accepted a poem I wrote after watching Michael Caine on YouTube read Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” I also wrote the poem in an attempt to conflate COVID-19 with the Filipino indigenous trait of “kapwa.” Kapwa relates to interconnectedness among all beings.
Kapwa On Covid: If

Walmart is out
of toilet
paper,

Safeway is out
of eggs,
Sunshine

(the cheerfully-named gourmet
deli) is
out

of brioches and
baguettes, no
need

to worry. I
am not
out

of you, he,
she, trans,
it.

They are We.
You are
I—

There is no
if about
it.
An okay poem—but it makes me realize that any poem I write related to kapwa seems to be … nice. In some cases, they border on the amiable—well, ugh.

I prefer the edgy poem—like Juliana Spahr’s “The Remedy” in that anthology I’LL DROWN MY BOOK: Conceptual Writing by Women edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place. Juliana’s poem’s persona ranges over/moves from nursing a baby to bearing a body spat upon by men to fucking to spitting while fucking (“my lover sometimes dodging the spit, sometimes just lying there and putting up with it”) to importing submachine guns to Slovakia (I wonder if the poet meant “exporting”) to masturbating to collaborating on a performance with another artist on some “unimportant” piece of land to exporting arms to Liberia to chartering a cargo plane from “Centroafrican Airlines” to the smell of rosemary on one’s fingertips to the ants who would appear as they sensed the milk leaking from her breasts while she taught her lover to move side-to-side and not only back-and-forth from the hole enlarged during her pregnancy. Etcetera, but all to say, the range is wide to also define kapwatic (yep, just made up the word) range.

My takeaway from a month of sticker-based journaling: my kapwa poems need to not refer to viruses but be them as well. Within most of us lives a darkness. You can make a poem be about or make the poem embody.

March ends. But for its last word, with all its benefits and disadvantages: KAPWA.


March 31, 2020, Saint Helena, California




Eileen R. Tabios has released about 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. Most recently, she released a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora (Paloma Press, 2020) and a poetry collection, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019 (Marsh Hawk Press, 2019). Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into ten languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com.
 
 
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