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Steve Spence

Hiraeth: Tercets from the last Archipelago   Eileen R. Tabios   Knives, Forks and Spoons Press   87 pages   £10.00

Hiraeth, the title taken from the Welsh word for homesickness, twenty six tercets taking in a vast range of themes and subjects, ranging across politics, visual art, war, natural history, dreams, language and religion to name a few. Eileen Tabios, a prize-winning Filipino/American poet is yet another new name to me though given her publishing track record she clearly shouldn’t be. It’s a problem keeping abreast and assimilating new material as more and more good work is constantly being published. These poems are partly based upon Andrew Bick’s series of multi-layered wax paintings where different layers are a key concept and Tabios’s writing is also layered, multi-dimensional and quite staggering in terms of how its construction manages to keep the whole show afloat. The – is a key unit of punctuation here and the various phrases and sentences/part sentences are largely held together by this device. How much of this material is ‘recycled’ from existing texts is hard to tell but montage is clearly an important aspect of this writing and the way in which it flows and embraces different registers, mixing the very emotional with the analytical mode is quite something to experience.  Take these three stanzas from ‘Post-Ecstasy Mutations’ by way of example:

          Love is always haggled – Truth is disembodied –
          Mahogany dining tables with royal lengths fail
          to include – Search defined as tipping Bing cherries

          into a blue bowl until sky becomes lost to a crimson
          moon’s overflow – Bones become hollow, flutes made
          from reeds – Entrancement’s target? The layered auras

          of decay – Breasts sculpted on immobilized Virgin Mary’s –
          A green calyx emphasizes the burden of a generously-
          watered corolla – Then discover the limited utility of calm

          seas – ………..

There’s a very strong sense of artifice about these constructions where the snippets of language are collected into an overall structure which plays with difference and with ‘conflicting’ contexts yet presents these in a pretty much grammatically coherent ‘whole’ which hints towards the traditions of visual art while also enticing and at times provoking the reader into interpretation. There’s certainly an almost dreamy surreal aspect to the stanzas above which drift in and out of the abstract – what exactly would ‘the layered auras of decay’ look like, for example? – which combines ‘mood music’ with fractured juxtapositions but not in an overly threatening or obviously disruptive manner. There is clearly a playful element to this writing even where the imagery is unpleasant or dark and the reader is always aware, I think, that we are in the realm of ‘Art’ even where hard reality muscles in upon the scene. At times the sentences are wonderfully self-reflecting, as in ‘Oh, the joy of eliding the vocabulary found in margins!’, where the exclamation mark operates as a ritualistic ornamentation which underwrites the overall sense of ludic engagement.

In the right mood it’s possible to simply savour the ongoing richness of these texts, enjoying the wide vocabulary (across languages) and relish the excess even where this is tempered by the framing device of the tercet though you are never hit over the head with the latter, other than by its obvious visual presence. In ‘Bending to form the Orphaned Heart’ we are in deeper and darker waters but still the repetition and framing device offers a sense of playfulness, perhaps in joyful opposition to the historical subject matter:


          Steel bending to form a heart – Wax freezing to form
          a heart – ink flowing to form a heart – My father is not
          Idi Amin of Uganda – Water traps itself in rust to form

          a heart – My father is not Ion Antonescu of Romania –
          Tears evaporate to remember a heart – My father is
          not Yasuhiko Asaka of Japan – Leaves fall to form

          a heart – My father is not Nikolae Ceausescu of Romania –
          A mountain splits to form a heart – My father is not
          Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti – Stone receives chisel

          to form a heart – My father is not Francisco Franco
          Bahamonde of Spain – Branches break to form a heart –        
          My father is not Joseph Goebbels of Germany –

          Muscle grows to form a heart – ………………………..

The listing device here, together with the repetition may also add a more dignified, ritualistic element, something like a roll call of the dead but the inclusion of natural imagery by way of mountains, water and branches also provides an oppositional mode to the names of dictators and the resisting phrase – ‘My father is not …’ is both up-front assertive and offers the possibility of an alternative tradition.

This collection is full of surprise and wit and celebration and splendour and dark moments and can be both read through in a sitting and contemplated at a more leisurely pace, perhaps both is the best option. The cover artwork ‘Suitcase’ by Bruce Connor suggests a cornucopia and this is largely what we have here, a panoramic vision, warts and all.              

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018