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Aileen Ibardaloza

The Mysteries of The T(h)orn Rosary

Review of The Thorn Rosary: Selected Prose Poems and New (1998-2010) by Eileen R. Tabios (Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2010)

A torn rosary, in Filipino burial tradition, signifies the broken cycle of death. In the genre of Prose Poetry, Eileen R. Tabios’ The Thorn Rosary breaks the peripherality not only of Filipino/Filipino-American post-colonial concerns, but also of the Filipina as forgotten poet, healer, storyteller and epic hero.

Thomas Fink, in his Introduction, observes that

the transcolonial poet looks toward the day when the Philippines will overcome the imprint of colonialism and the Marcos regime; assertion is the first step in imagining what exceeds the “music”/”poetry” of (post)colonialism: “I break this music’s shackles. My name is Eileen and I will not be jailed inside a poem.”

In the Afterword, Joi Barrios equates Tabios with Leona Florentino (the first published Filipina poet) who “wrote for her community, [as] Tabios writes for Filipinos in the diaspora”; with the binukot (storyteller) of pre-colonial Philippines who “[sang] of the hero’s life”, as Tabios “sings” of and undertakes the journey (i.e., “of the self to the self through the work”); and with the unanthologized Tagalog women poets during the American colonial period who, “specifically [addressing] women readers… [and emphasizing] the value of the woman worker… employed the strategies of the traditional Tagalog literary form, the balagtasan (verbal joust in verse)”, as Tabios “privileges the woman’s voice… and employs the [balagtasan’s cue-response] technique… [in urging] us to think critically of our own complicitness in global capitalist culture.”(2)

As the rosary is a meditation on the decades and their mysteries, the mysteries of The Thorn Rosary involve more than a decade’s worth of meditations and engagements with language, form, culture, reason and human experience. Underlying both is a “purity of intention”. Without romantically idealizing a post-colonial Philippines or the concerns of immigrant communities in a postmodern, multicultural society, Tabios redefines the word “Balikbayan”(3).

I am called “Balikbayan” because the girl in me is a country of rope hammocks and waling-waling orchids—a land with irresistible gravity because, in it, I forget the world’s magnificent indifference.(4)

I have been “meditating” with Tabios’ work for almost five years now, and I find that some lines are simply immortal:

Part of mortality’s significance is that wars end.(5)

Some lines, like poetic stomach punches, are so unexpected they never fail to knock the wind out of me:

I am compelled to answer the many variations of the same question: Why do I weep before a square canvas depicting a square? Or a circular canvas depicting a circle? Have the Greeks attained purity? Attained perfection? Have I earned the moments I made my mother cry?(6)

Despite (or because of) the lack of line breaks, I hold my breath longer than I thought I could when I find the beat as startling as the poet’s ability to sustain the emotional impact in long sentences:

These memories are a single weight and you are the one with the extended palm, open and trusting the fall of light against the flesh that surrounds your life lines.(7)

And then again, some of the lines just break me:

“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you!” Mr. Forgotten Name exclaimed, patting me on the shoulder. “Perhaps you’ll come work for me someday!

“Your mother is the best typist who’s ever worked for me! And I never have to repeat my instructions for her to do what I want correctly the first time!”

I turned then to my mother and whispered, “Mama…”(8)

“Pink Lemonade” is inviting in its jauntiness and remarkably pink imagery:

Women may be like fireflies—they constellate and then, for a moment, they all go dark at once.

But, inevitably, one will go shopping for a pink clochard.

A pink coyote with an extra cherry.

Circlet of pink sapphires to dangle (insouciantly) from a wrist.(9)

In “Looking for M.”, Tabios effectively uses the haybun form (a prose and hay(na)ku combination) in communicating the vicissitudes of motherhood, that which births the greatest of mysteries:

…You have

idea how
much louder I

tu Mama’s silence

I hold
your twisted ten-year-old

twisting off
multiple implosions within(10)

(Interestingly, in this section, Tabios bravely tackles mental disorder which, for the longest time, was taboo’d and unaddressed in Philippine society.)

In true Tabios fashion, the book ends with “E-mail to a Young Poet”, a prose poem in letter form, limned with steel and velvet—elegant, veiled, fierce, inherently generous:

Here, now, is a deceptively manicured hand slitting then arising from the page to stroke your cheek…and, later, wherever else you will guide it to go…

Take my hand, fold it within your own. Shiver (
Honey, I know…).

Honey, Poetry
always knows.(11)


1. Thomas Fink, “Introduction,” in The Thorn Rosary: Selected Prose Poems and New (1998-2010), by Eileen R. Tabios (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2010), 20.
2. Joi Barrios, “Fearless Peerless Kasu-Kasuan Poetry: Notes on Eileen Tabios’ ‘Thorn Rosary’,” in The Thorn Rosary, pp. 313-321.
3. The Philippine National Statistical Coordination Board defines “Balikbayan” as “Philippine nationals who are permanently residing abroad including their spouses and children, regardless of nationality or country of birth. It also refers to those of Filipino Descent who acquired foreign citizenship and permanent status abroad.”
4. Eileen R. Tabios, “Corolla,” in The Thorn Rosary, p. 45.
5. Ibid., “Helen,” p. 156.
6. Ibid., “Purity,” p. 67.
7. Ibid., “The Chase,” p. 74.
8. Ibid., “Milk,” p. 254.
9. Ibid., “Pink Lemonade,” p. 155.
10. Ibid., “The Silent Scream,” p. 275.
11. Ibid., “E-mail to a Young Poet,” p. 310.

Copyright © Aileen Ibardaloza, 2010