ROASTING THE EDITORJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN reviews:
Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole by Eileen R Tabios
(Marsh Hawk Press, 2002)
From the lone hills where Fergus strays
Down the long vales of Coonahan
Comes a white wind through the unquiet ways,
And a tear shall lead the blind man.
--Max Beerbohm, “After W B Yeats”
First, some facts (as I found them on Wikipedia, from which I quote):
Eileen Tabios was born on January 8, 1935 at around 4:13 a.m. in a two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo, Mississippi. In January 1945 her mother took her to Tupelo Hardware to buy a birthday present. Though she wanted a rifle, she settled on a guitar. Her mother paid $7.75 for the guitar including sales tax.
On July 18, 1953 Tabios paid $3.25 to record the first of two double-sided demo acetates at Sun Studios, “My Happiness” and “That's When Your Heartaches Begin”, which were popular ballads at the time. According to the official Tabios website, she gave it to her mother as a much-belated birthday present. She returned to Sun Studios (706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee) on January 4, 1954. She recorded a second demo, “I'll Never Stand in Your Way” and “It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You” (master 0812).
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who had already recorded bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton and Junior Parker, was looking for “a Filipina with a Negro sound and the Negro feel,” with whom he “could make a billion dollars.” Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the Tabios discs and called her on June 26, 1954 to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although that session was not productive, Phillips put Tabios together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954, Tabios began singing a blues song written by Arthur Crudup called “That's All Right”. Phillips liked the resulting record and on July 19, 1954 he released it as a 78-rpm single backed with her hopped-up version of Bill Monroe's bluegrass song “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. Memphis radio station WHBQ began playing it two days later; the record became a local hit …
It wasn’t long before she became one of the most popular stars in world history. Now she lives on top of her very own mountain.
Second, some additional facts, apparently unknown or considered irrelevant by the author of the Wikipedia article: parallel to her career as the True Queen of Pop, the Biggest Thing Ever, Ace Number One Bacchante, Tabios has also had a career as a poet. Among her early works can be found Beowulf, the Commedia (aka The Divine Comedy), an unfinished production with the collective title Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, which some attribute to Kathy Acker (possibly because both Acker and Tabios are drawn to, nay, obsessed by, the spiritual dimension of the sexual; are sex fiends, if the truth be told) and what must be considered the last true epic, Paradise Lost (in which, I must confess, she loses me, theologically speaking, as early as Book Three).
Though these works were successful in their own small way, it wasn’t until her Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002) that, to these ears at least, she, for better or worse, found her true voice, and became at last, “Eileen R Tabios”. Reproductions will be the subject of this review. Or perhaps the subject will be the reviewer, and Reproductions simply the excuse.
Let’s start with the cover. It’s ugly. It gives me the creeps. And the blurb, by one Arthur Sze -- a pseudonym if ever there was one (a little Kabalistic numerology and it becomes obvious Tabios wrote this blurb herself) -- well, it’s godawful. It seems to imply that “lovely surprising conjunctions” have something to do with poetry. What could be more self-evidently further from the truth?
While we’re on the subject of blurbs, let’s look at those on the back. I can’t be bothered to do the numerology, but I “suspect”, to put it mildly, that all the blurb writers are pseudonyms for Tabios herself. “… the words zoom-out like handpicked bees from a hive …” “Includes poems so fired up they’ll sear your fingerprints off …” In the manner of a Borges, one “Susan M Schultz” goes so far as to quote Tabios herself: “worthy is the price: Yes!” (No wonder Tabios ended up with a mountain!). Finally, one “Alfred Yuson” claims that the poems hit “us right in the gut. Or should we say groin …” Ah, flashback to Little League! I fall upon the thorns of life … I spend ten minutes writhing on the ground …
Sorry. I’m back now, rubbing a spot that still hurts.
And now that I am back, let’s return to “Schultz” a moment. “She” labels this “a volume of prose meditations …”. So. Are these prose meditations? Are these poems? How are we supposed to tell?
For those who have the heart or intrepidity or foolishness to risk bees and fire and groin damage, and who actually open the book, there is an instant reward. The first poem (or prose meditation) is one of the best of the bunch. It’s on the flyleaf. It reads simply: REPRODUCTIONS / OF THE EMPTY FLAGPOLE. The lineation, the italics, the capitalization: they say it all. At this point I was tempted to put the book down, certain that things could only go downhill. Luckily, a few pages later, there’s another excellent poem. It’s called “Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data”. It told this reader all he ever wanted to know. The real stroke of genius occurs in line 6, with the cuttering. Readers can be assured that this is one little bit of perfection that will never be found anywhere else.
Sadly, from this point things go rapidly downhill. Take the epigraph to “ECLIPSE”, by one “Laura Riding Jackson”:
The map of places passes
The reality of paper tears …
Holes in maps look through to nowhere.
Has “Jackson” (we all know by this time that “Jackson” = Tabios) no experience? Has she never looked through a hole in a map or other paper object? Need I remind the reader -- and the writer -- that there’s a whole beyond that hole?
Which leads me to my biggest problem with this book. I think Tabios needs to pass through the hole to find, to see, to experience, the whole. Many, too many, of these poems (if they are poems, and not prose meditations) are one long mope mope mope:
She knows she said I won’t reach out to you again. But even as I write this, I don’t think I’ll have broken that promise. You don’t exist. I never entered a dark building after the high heels you love tip-toed around potholes. I never rode an elevator whose walls presented cracks so I could feel the embrace of leers. I never walked down a hallway clouded by an air I was scared to breathe. I never entered a room where you exist …
Approximately 80 pages later:
She mourns his departure though he has yet to turn towards the door. He even tries to check her grief with a paltry joke. But both realize she is compelled by self-defense. So she must continue, and he must not object. She must continue her tears. They fall like a reluctant daylight.
For this fable, there are no words. There is only the Breaking (of) Silence: the evenings of solitary grace in a dim room, at a desk a piece of blank paper spotlit by the beam of a lone lamp and, yes, one more attempt with the wake of yet another day.
--“RETURNING THE BORROWED TONGUE”
And so on and so on and scooby-dooby-dooby. Tabios seems to think that feeling like shit is a big deal. She seems to think her suffering, which she equates with human suffering, is a fit subject for art. Patrick Kavanagh said famously that tragedy is failed comedy. But, I guess, to each her own …
But if only she were accurate. Let’s go back to that first selection for a moment, the one from “ECLIPSE”, and examine it carefully, sentence by sentence.
She knows she said I won’t reach out to you again. But even as I write this, I don’t think I’ll have broken that promise. You don’t exist.
If he/she/it doesn’t exist, why did the “she” of the poem say, “I won’t reach out to you again”? Either he/she/it exists or he/she/it doesn’t. I don’t think quantum uncertainty applies here. Unless I’m missing something obvious, there’s nothing in this poem (or prose meditation) to tell the reader that we’re operating at a subatomic level.
One must accept the possibility that we are, however. Upon rereading, it occurs to this reviewer that one may read “ECLIPSE” as a monologue, a soliloquy, “spoken”, as it were, by The Incredible Shrinking Woman. But since nothing necessitates such a reading …
I never entered a dark building after the high heels you love tip-toed around potholes.
Can one tiptoe in high-heels? Can one not?
I never rode an elevator whose walls presented cracks so I could feel the embrace of leers.
“An elevator whose walls presented cracks”??? What kind of building are we in? Or are those cracks only (slyly) present to allow in the leers? And what is she doing in the elevator, anyway, besides standing there listening to the ding ding ding of ascension, to engender leers (I told you she was a sex fiend!)?
I’ll let “the embrace of leers” pass because well, hell, I just had a snack and am feeling sleepy.
I never walked down a hallway clouded by an air I was scared to breathe.
But not so sleepy to let this pass. At least let me say that if I walked down a “clouded” hallway I’d grab that little hammer thingie on its little chain, break the glass, and activate the goddamned fire alarm! Then I’d run, not walk, to the nearest exit, and I’d be outa there!
I never entered a room where you exist …
Aside: whether she did or she didn’t, whether he/she/it exists or not, she shouldn’t have, that’s all I have to say. First potholes, then a crackpot elevator, then air you can’t see through? Couldn’t she have found her he/she/it in slightly more salubrious environs? I’m sure that’s what her folks would have wanted.
This is fun. Let’s look briefly at the other two examples I pulled from this book:
She must continue her tears. They fall like a reluctant daylight.
Pardon me, but what is “a reluctant daylight”? Does Tabios think the rotation of the earth is volitional? That it “wants” or “doesn’t want” to turn? Do we have to go back to Physics 101, people? Or is “a reluctant daylight” something like “an embrace of leers”? Ah, let it pass. I’m a nice guy when I’m sleepy.
For this fable, there are no words.
Wait a minute. If there are no words, why is this on line 31 of “RETURNING THE BORROWED TONGUE”? What are the first 30 lines made of? Chopped liver? (I guess I’m waking up …)
Others may find other entrées into Reproductions besides mope mope mope. But what I am left with is the impression of violet. As Tabios (or “Tabios”) herself says, “Violet is a tricky color. It is most effective as a stain” (“BLIND DATE”). I’m beginning to feel sorry for the poor woman.
It’s too bad, in a way, she’s chosen to compartmentalize her two careers, and not allow her success in one area to bleed over into the other. As a friend of mine said recently about an Australian pop star/poet (no need to name her here), “I find myself thinking that if her poetry were more like her songs and her songs more like her poetry I'd like them both better.”
But it is only fair to admit it when one finds a positive: and after hunting around a while I believe I’ve uncovered one. It’s to be found in the poem “JULIET’S SALT”:
It is the same moment of regret you feel when you say something cruel to your father and, to your surprise, he merely turns to leave the room in silence. His face is impassive, but it clutches at your heart. You raise your hand against the sight of his receding back. Your chest will not stop heaving. And, for a histrionic minute, you wish to die.
This, the recognition of the absolute alterity and reality of the other, feels like a breakthrough moment. Let us hope this breakthrough colors her future work, and that any such work includes the whole beyond the hole, as it were.
Reproductions closes with “TRYPTYCH FOR ANNE TRUITT”. Now, Tabios may think she knows something about Anne Truitt. But I have to tell her she knows nothing about Anne Truitt. Compared to me, that is. After all, I met Anne Truitt’s sister once. It was in Berkeley, at a B & B near the Claremont Hotel. I had breakfast with Anne Truitt’s sister on several occasions. She kept alluding to her sister, obviously someone famous. Finally I said, “So: who’s your sister?” She said, “Anne Truitt.” And then she went on to talk about her own experiences, working in the Harvard/Radcliffe library system.
The story that sticks in my memory is one that concerns Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her daughter Caroline. Jackie O was always trying to use her celebrity to garner her daughter special privileges. In her inimitable whispery coo: “Ooh, Ms. Truitt, poor Caroline’s book is overdue. Can’t you please waive the fine?” Caroline stands a yard or two away, smacking her chewing gum, looking vacant. I sip my tea. Ms. Truitt is unutterably disgusted. Not by me, I might add.
Now that’s what I mean by knowing a thing or two about Anne Truitt.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is … [editor interrupts] eh: who bloody well cares who this John is anyway? Why don’t you figure out the error of his ways by buying the editor’s book here or here? So there -- the John is trumped by Madison Avenue! I'ma telling you: my gift to you is my book to yourself!