Witness in the Convex Mirror

Eileen R. Tabios has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her books include a form-based “Selected Poems” series, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL: Selected Visual Poetry (2001-2019), INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems & New 1996-2015, and THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New 1998-2010. She’s also released the first book-length haybun collection, 147 MILLION ORPHANS (MMXI-MML); a collected novels, SILK EGG; and an experimental autobiography AGAINST MISANTHROPY. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the poetry form hay(na)ku, whose 15th-year anniversary was celebrated in 2018 with an exhibit, reading, and new anthology co-sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library and Philippine American Writers & Artists, Inc. as well as a first poetry book, BEYOND LIFE SENTENCES (1998), which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into nine languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays, as well as exhibited visual art in the United States, Asia and Serbia. 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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Witness in the Convex Mirror
By Eileen R. Tabios • 2019
ISBN-13: 978-0-9987438-9-9 • 150 pages; $18

When John Ashbery died in September, 2017, all the obituaries noted that he had been a member of the New York School of poets, that his roots were in western New York and that, despite living for a decade in Paris, his career had unfolded over many decades in the City. Ashbery was, indeed, something of a local poet, constantly using references from the places he had lived. Lost in the very local memorials, however, was the fact that Ashbery’s work also influenced writers in the Pacific, including writers of color. Eileen Tabios has taken up Ashbery’s influence and engaged in a project of “the browning of John Ashbery,” as she told Tinfish’s editor once. Using one or two lines at a time from Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” (1976), Tabios inhabits Ashbery’s mode, while moving our focus of attention many thousands of miles west of New York City. Tabios, who grew up in the Philippines, studied and worked in New York City, and has lived in California for many years, appropriates Ashbery to her own ends. These include cultural appropriation, genocide, militarism, sexual and racial violence, art history, and many other interests she shared—or did not share—with the older white male poet. Witness in the Convex Mirror is a tense act of homage, one that draws Ashbery away from the region that is most comfortable with him, and into a place where the discomfort is palpable, but extremely generative.

 
Military Philosophy

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
secure on its jet of water: make your path
a circle and, Grasshopper, you shall never
be lost. Rain ceased, but so much water
still flows on the streets, releasing concrete
from their steel bindings. To be suspended
in confusion is to be protected. For one may
colonize the confused, but not necessarily
recruit their loyalty. Confusion, loyalty—both
are constructs that cancel each other. Learn
from me, General Grasshopper: you want
them fully comprehending when you invade.
You don’t want them so confused they might
think you and your soldiers to be mere ghosts

 
Blurbs

“You don’t write poems like he does,” the speaker says in Eileen Tabios’ poem  “Tense Past Tense.”  We, the readers, immediately notice the vertigo, the  joie de vivre  of a playful but incisive sense of the text.   She does not write like Stephane Mallarme but   you can hear the sounds of his dice rolling in the poems. She does not write like John Ashbery and yet the complexity and opacity tumbles in tune to the music of those sentences. WITNESS IN THE CONVEX MIRROR is Eileen Tabios’  modus opus  and it should find a place in every public or private library.
— Nick Carbó, author of Secret Asian Man and editor of Returning the Borrowed Tongue

 

Eileen Tabios cracks open Ashbery’s convex mirror to reveal a secret history of our times.   Her virtuoso riffs on Ashbery’s masterwork are no mere exercise, but open up into unexpected vistas—these poems “say ‘convex’ for widening / the gaze.”  That gaze is directed both inward and outward, offering glimpses of the quotidian life of those who find “mortality gazing back / at us from the bathroom mirror,” but also pulling back for a wide-angle view of a planet in crisis, chronicling “the body’s deterioration, ours and earth’s.”  These pages, like Ashbery’s, are filled with the pleasures of poetry, but Tabios resists the “preening that / negates the subject matter,” unafraid to peer behind the scenes of our lives in “the dim shadows / of a movie forged from the margins / of capitalism.”  The swerve of the convex mirror, allowing us a (brief) respite from confronting ourselves, is gradually replaced with an awareness of our complicity in the world reflected in the poem: “No one is / innocent in empire.”  What’s left to the poet is to be “the spy / in the house,” as Tabios’s formal inventions dig behind enemy lines to open up, however briefly, a space of plentitude: “I came into being, capacious and singing.”  
— Timothy Yu, author of Race and the Avant-garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965

 

To read Eileen R. Tabios’ WITNESS IN THE CONVEX MIRROR is “to Ashbery,” which,  to paraphrase John Ashbery—arguably the greatest American poet of the 20th century—means to “imitate the way knowledge comes, by fits and starts and by indirection.” Ms. Tabios begins each poem with 1-2 lines from Mr. Ashbery’s oeuvre, before pivoting to Asia and Asian themes: “It happened while you were inside, asleep. / The penguins now grieve over the escalation / of silt in their bath. A mother begs a child, / “Let go. I won’t survive, but you can!” But…” In her new book, Ms. Tabios addresses super typhoons and modern-day slavery, and homonyms and reduplicative words such as wagwag and pagpag, with aplomb and intense imagination, permanently and expertly connecting these with the hermetic nature in John Ashbery’s poetry. Read these poems as through a fish eye mirror, where the field of view is ever more expansive, and objects are always closer than they appear.
— Aileen Ibardaloza Cassinetto, San Mateo Poet Laureate and author of The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems

 


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