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Alan Baker

“The Opposite of Claustrophobia” by Eileen Tabios, pub. Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. 72 pages. £8.00

Each of the poems in this sixty-seven page book begins with the phrase "I forgot". So, we have poems like this:

I forgot I knew the back alleys of this neighbourhood, where beggars made their beds...

The obvious parallel is with George Perec's "Je me souviens", which itself was inspired by Joe Brainard's "I remember". The form allows free rein to the writer, and the phrase "I forgot" is inherently paradoxical, as the writer, by saying what they forgot, is also saying that they haven't forgotten it. The phrase also adds a certain poignancy to some statements:

I forgot you cradled me...

The sequence is inventive and continually interesting, ranging from the lyrical:

I forgot a sarong fell and a river blushed

to the topical and political

I forgot the blades of army helicopters slicing
air into thinner and thinner strips

I forgot the grandmother who was too old to run

The question, with any sequence in this vein is, what is the rationale that binds these things together? In Perec's case, the remembrances are of popular culture and events filtered through the mass media to the mind of a young person, and they also relate to his lonely early life as a Jewish orphan in post-war France. In the case of Tabios's sequence, the rationale is very different, but equally fascinating. In fact this sequence is generated by something called “The MDR Poetry Generator”. On her blog, Tabios describes it thus:

"An ongoing work, 'Murder, Death and Resurrection' (MDR), includes 'The MDR Poetry Generator' that brings together much of my poetics and poet tics. The MDR Poetry Generator contains a database of 1,146 lines which can be combined randomly to make a large number of poems… I created the 1,146 lines from reading through 27 previously-published poetry collections" [that is, her own poetry collections - she's a prolific author].

As a result of using her own poems as source material, the randomness of the resulting texts is provisional, and there's some degree of sub-conscious patterning. The texts also reflect Tabios's socio-political position. She tells us "these poems reflect long-held interests in abstract and cubist language (partly as a means to interrogate English whose narrative once was a colonizing tool over my birth land, the Philippines)."  In the case of this book, Tabios took a list of prime numbers - reproduced in the first page of the book - and applied it arbitrarily to the MDR database. The results can be compelling – one poem ends with the lines:

I forgot my father is not and never has been President of the United States:
Harry S. Truman
Dwight D. Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard M. Nixon
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Cater
Ronald Reagan
George Bush
Bill Clinton
George W. Bush
Barack Obama

I forgot music became a jail

It's hard to know why a list of US presidents, followed by that phrase is so powerful; but somehow it has more punch than many overtly political poems I can think of. And the fact that it was generated by chance makes it more poignant. One also notes that, as the poet is a Filipino-American woman, these names (with an obvious exception) seem very male and Anglo-Saxon.

This sequence can be read sequentially, but I found that dipping into it at random – in the spirit of the generated text – to be more fruitful. There are passages of rare beauty, there are striking phrases and cadences, and there surprises on every page:

I forgot meagre pity.

I forgot omission as confession.

I forgot dungeons waste marble.

And always, throughout the sequence, there is an abiding sense of mystery:

I forgot her hobby of attending to death
beds – afterwards she always lusted for
hotel lobbies stuffed with crystal chandeliers

By generating these poems, and by using her own past poetry as raw material, Tabios has breathed new life into the “I remember / I forget” form, in a way typical of this inventive poet.




Copyright © Alan Baker, 2017