Valerie Morton reviews Eileen R Tabios’ The Opposite of Claustrophobia, Prime’s Anti-Autobiography, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press (2017)

theopp1Eileen R Tabios is a Filipino-American poet and writer whose work I have come to admire and who constantly surprises with her adventurous experiments with new forms. It is especially exciting to see her first poetry collection published in the UK by Knives Spoons and Forks Press giving readers the opportunity to engage with her work and begin to experience her vast contribution to the poetry world.

Tabios is a multi-talented and prolific writer and publisher – a philosopher, historian, artist, and a cultural ambassador for her own worldwide Filipino community – qualities that dominate everything she writes. Here are poems firmly rooted in all aspects of the human condition – life/death … hope/despair … war/peace … love/hate …… and so much more – with no scaffolding, no rungs on the ladder – so much so that the reader is compelled to interpret from what is not said, rather than what is.

Opening any work by Eileen Tabios is like waiting for the curtain to rise in a theatre when you have no idea of the performance you are about to watch; exciting and slightly daunting at the same time. She has the uncanny ability to take us to places we may never have known existed, and to bring us home to a place within ourselves that is forever ‘us’, universal and constant.

The Opposite of Claustrophobia is the sixth and last book to come out of her MDR (Murder Death Resurrection) series* (see below), a database of 1,147 lines generated from reading her own previous works. Each work recreates lines into a new order, with each line beginning with ‘I forgot’. Claustrophobia was created by applying prime numbers against the order of lines from this database, relating to the conceit that the MDR lines can be combined in any random combination and the result is poetry.

With this extraordinary method Eileen Tabios brilliantly retains the musicality and imagery of poetry, with the result that whichever way this is read and in whichever order, the reader ends up with the same emotional response, startling and surprising in its ability to take the breath away.

I forgot it need not take more than one person to bring the world to ruin – for my mother, that person was me.

I forgot how one begins marking time from a lover’s utterance of Farewell

I forgot feeling you in the air against my cheek

I forgot you falling asleep in my skin to dream

I forgot how one can sag into night as if night was a lover

Tabios never allows the reader to arrive – as soon as we seem to be getting comfortable she whisks us away again, like a continuous turning wheel that picks up the new, the unexpected, questions without answers, a slow letting go and picking up. There is no room for complacency:

I forgot the collapse of New York City Towers – I forgot inhaling their spines to become mine in the aftermath

I forgot the grandmother who was too old to run

I forgot the alley of your city where I stood as a statue frozen by unrequited longing

I forgot how to perceive with tenderness

I forgot you cradled me

The work of this remarkable poet broadens our perceptions of ‘memory’ – what we thought were our own memories become ‘universal’ memories, belonging to collective humanity and if we can ‘remember’ then maybe we can move on to communion rather than division offering a way out of prejudice, fear, rejection – handing us a basic, most simple key, to recognition of each of us as one, not as other. By the constant repetition of ‘I forgot’ Tabios is ensuring that we ‘remember’.

The very words in this collection seem to breathe –

I forgot I saw a city breathing beyond the window

I forgot the musk of evenings quivering into post-elegance

I forgot a sarong fell and a river blushed

I forgot a girl singing as she smooched the sun …..

The poetry of Eileen Tabios invites us to look at what it truly means to be part of the human race, not merely a fragment of it. Challenging in its width and breadth, I would highly recommend this collection – it is at the same time startling and unnerving, not always comfortable reading, but every page/every line is an adventure in itself. If you are prepared to travel with her you will be astonished at her creativity and will close the last page wanting more :

I forgot the perfume of fresh bread outside a panetteria, the vinegary tang floating from a wine shop, heaven as the scent of roasting coffee from a grocer, and the necesssary reminder of those different from us through the stench of street drains

Eileen R Tabios loves books and has released over 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in eight countries and cyberspace. Recipient of the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry for her first poetry collection, she has seen her poems translated into eight languages. She also is the inventor of the poetic form “hay(na)ku.” More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com

* the six works using the MDR series
44 Resurrections (2014)
I Forgot Light Burns (2015)
Duende in The Alleys (2015
Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir (2016)
The Connoisseur of Alleyways (2016)
The Opposite of Claustrophobia: Prime’s Anti-Autobiography (2017)

Valerie Morton’s work has apppeared in various magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA. She has two collections published by Indigo Dreams Publishing – Mango Tree (2013) and Handprints (2015). She has taught Creative Writing at a mental health charity and is at present Poet in Residence at the Clinton Baker Pinetum in Hertfordshire. She is a member of Ver Poets.

3 thoughts on “Valerie Morton reviews Eileen R Tabios’ The Opposite of Claustrophobia, Prime’s Anti-Autobiography, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press (2017)”

  1. It’s great to see Eileen and her work getting international publishers and recognition. Valerie’s review gives an excellent sense of her poetry and many projects. Over the last couple of years, I’ve read a couple of Eileen’s books, follow her blogs and have participated in her Galatea Resurrects online literary journal (and she is always looking for reviewers). Be sure to have a look at the links that Valerie provides above!

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