REPRODUCTIONS OF THE EMPTY FLAGPOLE
Eileen R. Tabios’ first U.S.-published poetry book, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, includes poems from her first book which won the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry (Manila Critics Circle). It is also a collection of prose poems, a form which reflects her transcolonial perspective on the history of English in her birthland, the Philippines. Notwithstanding its unique roots, the prose poems in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole are well-situated—without being trapped—In contemporary poetry’s postmodern explorations.
Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is full of lovely, surprising conjunctions: “the sound of fireflies mating, the thin sliver of a distant moon, … no premonition for such blinding light.”
Her poems allow our minds to be excited twice, by the psychological and artistic reference points from which the words zoom-out like handpicked bees from a hive, and by the vivid hum of the poems themselves demonstrating a captivating, utterly original imagination. In her lines, which are at once strict and sensual, Eileen Tabios inserts stingers barbed with wit and political incisiveness. The crisp, almost scientific clarity of her syntax is relentlessly undermined by fabulous leaps from sentence to sentence, by paradox, radical juxtaposition, lurking sexual innuendo, and unpredictable narrative swerve. Hers is a poetics of social and cultural interrogation in which she succeeds in uniting what she would call “the convex with the concave.” Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole will stand you straight up.
How often do you come across language so lavishly expansive that any description you can think of seems laughably one-sided? Better just to slap a warning label on it: “Danger: Contents combustible on contact with reading. Includes poems so fired up they’ll sear your fingerprints off as you feel your way through them (instant identity loss). Others brilliant enough to burn after images into your retina. Handle recklessly if at all.
“And what is seeing?” asks Eileen Tabios, in this volume of prose meditations on travel, eros, art, and innumerable other subjects, objects. Tabios’ answers–her seeings–come out of an amazing range of references, from Buddha to Salman Rushdie to Anais Nin to Anne Truitt to a nameless investment banker; from the Ancients to the Romantics to the Moderns and back again; from the Philippines, as from the United States. Through it all, reader and writer find themselves “losing uncertainty” through Tabios’ “eroticized history,” which earns its final exclamation, “worthy is the price: Yes!”
—Susan M. Schultz
Primal in its experimentation, fugitive in its tactile manipulation of recalcitrance and romance, ultimately there blooms a hardcore quality to her corpus’ radical engagements. None of the formulaic ploys is on show here; rather a robust desire to attach, if so subtly, vivid back stories that pique and shape our palpable interest with full-bodied allure. The uniformly sensuous appeal of her wide-ranging work — from the lyric to the exegesic, to the imperial prose units — is served by no less than either a canny courtesan or a come-hither voluptuary. Or both. Universally is she betrothed.
Tabios … explores how the colonizing language both obviously and not-so-obviously alters expression, experience and perception. Tabios begins the book with a selection of ekphrastic poems inspired by ancient Greek sculptures, introducing the complex issues of cultural and linguistic domination that are to play such a large part in the long central section, titled “Returning the Borrowed Tongue.” Her prose-poems balance (at times uncomfortably) on the much-contested border between “prose” and “poetry,” just as the pieces themselves explore the murky boundaries between colonization and identity. Tabios investigates sensual and personal histories, conjuring subtle games of domination and submission against a backdrop of physical dislocation and echoing the conundrums of a colonized land…. The book closes with an ornate triptych dedicated to Anne Truitt that exposes Tabios’s search through history and art to understand her central demands-to perceive freely, to investigate color, to be a fully responsive being. “Can you pay the price for risking perception and imperceptibility?” she asks in “The Continuance of the Gaze,” and then answers, “I trust in radiance. Let: Us.”
… Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, a formally consistent series of rich, deeply focused prose poems
—American Book Review
Eileen Tabios’ first book of poetry to be published in the United States and this volume of art-inspired prose poems should bring to an American audience what the Philippine and Southeast Asian publishing world has already known for several years: Eileen Tabios is a world class poet with serious talent. In ancient Greece, Philosophers defined ekphrasis as a vivid description intended to bring the subject before the mind’s eye of the listener. [She] is ultimately successful in this artistic enterprise of bringing the subject before the mind’s eye of the readers and these readers will not only be enlightened but informed.
—Nick Carbo, 2ndAvenuePoetry (Full review HERE)
To my mind, the measure of a poetry book’s success would linger over questions of intellectual usefulness–the book’s continuing, viable rhetorical challenges. In that sense alone, then, volumes could be written about how and why Eileen Tabios’s Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is important both for purposes of study in creative rhetorics or poetics, and as a most satisfying, pleasurable read.
—Chris Murray, Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics (Full review HERE)
[Tabios] pledges allegiance to her art. And the act of writing is a political one, staking out territory word by word….Her prose-poems are fiercely intelligent, though they’re lush, musical, sensuous, mysterious….[Reproductions] is not the world of fixed identities, and its language is neither Tagalog nor English. It’s a different world, whose poets are forging a cultural identity that is post-colonial, revolutionary, universal, and peaceful. Theirs won’t be a unifying flag under one god, but one that’s as various as the hands that raise it.
—Leza Lowitz, for KQED Radio Show Pacific Time’s “Monthly Selection” (Full review HERE)
The study of flags, vexillology is a fusion of the Latin word vexillum (flag) and the Greek suffix –logia (study). Vexillologists deal with all sorts of flags and they often meet to discuss their meanings. When the flags happen to be unidentified and fictional, they may be found in short stories, novels or comic strips. If the flagpole is empty and the vexillologist says “I am addicted to what I do not know” or “I symbolize nothing” or “I am unsure with metaphors—I allow them to bleed from my pen,” then we are talking about a poet disguised as vexillologist. In Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002), Eileen R. Tabios dwells on the possibilities offered by the combination of poetry and prose, reflects on belonging to various forms of in-betweenness and imagines unusually liberating flags for the states she explores.
—Monica Manolachi, The Halo-Halo Review Mangozine Issue #2 (Full review HERE)
A dense tropical forest of words, home to thousands upon thousands of linguistic species—some large and looming, others tiny and fragile — and blanketed by a moist emotional web of letters, Eileen Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is one of my favorite poetry books of 2002. … Rachel Barenblat says in her article, “Prose Poems and Microfiction“…, “the writer of a prose poem does away with the expectations of verse, and is thereby freed to borrow from other forms of discourse and create something new and surprising.” [Tabios] has clearly created something new with this collection of prose poems, and her work does indeed borrow from a dizzying number of other forms of discourse, forms shaped lovingly into gardens that tempt the reader into exploring their verdant depths. But these gardens aren’t as benign as they appear at first glance, and we would do well, while walking the paths in Tabios’ book, to keep our ears alert for wild, hungry sounds in the shadows.
—Clayton A. Couch, Sidereality
Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is able to narrate the political implications of place and identity without giving up the desirous, inquisitive or uncertain nature of human interactions. From Greece to Nepal, New York to the Mindanao Sea, the multiple paragraphs of these poems consistently demonstrate a devotion to the life of the pronouns which people them.
—Noah Eli Gordon, St. Marks Poetry Project Newsletter
Tabios has a remarkable ability to move from the abstract and the intellectual to the sensual and the tangible. She’s a poet of the streets, and she’s above the streets, in her own head, exploring and mapping her own consciousness where ever it takes her, even into the realm of “psychological insecurity.”
—Jonah Raskin, The Press Democrat
Unlike most poetry books that are light as feathers, their words and images floating off the page, this one is substantial in every way imaginable. Thick with imagery, subject matter, geography and precise and inspired syntax, Eileen Tabios’ work reminds me of going for a swim in the ocean — a complete envelopment in the currents of poetry. There is beauty, as in “Adultery”: “In the scent of wet earth, the hold of dark leaves clinging to my ankles, the sound of fireflies mating, the thin sliver of a distant moon, there had been no premonition for such blinding light.” But her prose forms also tackle the grim and boding, as in “My Saison Between Baudelaire and Morrison”: “The blood still seeps through the darkened continent you left without succor. The blood still spills. A century later I must reconcile with your grandchildren. They never spill viscous tears. Nor do they satiate. But I lose myself in their indigent beds, lick the drawn shadows beneath their eyes, to goad your hand into mine.” Tabios’ prolific meditations on writing, living and loving in modern times solidifies her role as one of the foremost Filipino American poets of the 21st century. A great read for anyone interested in prose-poetry experimentation.
—Neela A. Banerjee’s “LitPicks,” Asian Week
Is it so rare to be completely changed by what you have read? To instantly want to hand the book to someone and say, “Please read this!” Well, it has happened to me. Eileen R. Tabios has written a book that will leave you flipping back to the first page in hopes that you have indeed forgotten to read a page, that one or hopefully two of the pages were stuck together somehow, and you have the chance to read more… The language seethes with a beauty that one usually would inherit through translation or through personal diaries. It’s a personal story she tells with each new poem that exists to provide us with beauty…
—Chris Mansel, The Muse Apprentice Guild
…in Tabios’ own inexhaustible experiments in the written word all schools and philosophies and deconstructivist axioms can go hang… // Some detractors may label Tabios’ work pretentious but that may be just another way of saying it is way ahead of its time and so would understandably make many a new critic uncomfortable. // Or that she has a big ego which is true of many a controversial and ground-breaking artist. But only in the sense that Mallarme and Valery and the rest of those weird, turn of the last century French poets were ground-breaking and whose very poetry was a way of life.
—Juaniyo Arcellana, The Philippine Star
Her poetry exudes unabashed sensuality, artistry, intelligence, and lends itself to a reader’s surprise at their own insight. In Tabios, I have discovered a poetess whose works are a cultural activist’s. Tabios is indeed an activist whose medium is her poetry. For the Little Brown Brother to re-write his colonizer’s language into unexpected structure and exacting, stimulating prose that comes out as poetry excellence—it is an act of activism in itself.
—Perla Daley, October 2002 “Book of the Month,” BagongPinay
I find myself appreciating these poems as compositions with no sharply-framed “subject matter;” instead, I discover each one as a diamond-faceted free configuration of a singular and ever-shifting poetic mindset. The poems are made accessible to the reader through the use of clear, sensuous, and widely (and wildly) allusive diction. I can think of Ted Hughes writing these poems, were he to use a female persona with the sensibilities and multi-cultural experience of an Eileen Tabios. Saludos!
—Luis Cabalquinto, OurOwnVoice
[Tabios] is a poet whose concern for beauty is evident in the long, lush brushstrokes of her prose form, the richness of her language, the depth and color of her imagery, and the complex sets of emotions these poems elicit….The reader may exercise his/her own imagination to decide what each piece, each paragraph means, what the relationship between these paragraphs is. Ultimately, the reader decides what that larger picture may be. Eileen not only welcomes, but encourages her reader’s active participation in determining her poems’ meanings. …Hence, there is no one “wrong” or “right” reading. She is generous and democratic in leaving these poems open-ended, even going so far as to omit the periods that end prose sentences: Why should the limitations of a physical page end a poem? …. Similarly, the reader must imagine, even invent the poem continuing beyond the page. The reader, then, completes the experience of the poem begun by the poet. These poems become about us, the readers, what we have put into them, how we have chosen to experience them.
—Barbara Jane Reyes, International Herald Examiner Pacific Reader and Tamafhyr Mountain Poetry
“On Eileen Tabios”: For me, Tabios’ poetry has always been at the forefront of the Asian-American poetic avant-garde. Her poems have been continuously innovative and ground-breaking, in terms of style and content, and they have paved the way for the work of other Asian-American, especially Filipina/o-American, poets whose poems reflect her intelligent experimentation with language and identity.
Her poetry embodies the negotiation between form and content in a way that is important to Asian-American poets and others—especially important for critics who do not believe that experimentation with language and lyricism and narrative/history/identity may be reconciled. In Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole and other poems, she dares to attempt both at the same time, which is no easy task.
—Roger Pao, Asian-American Poetry and Other Artistic Meanderings
A dramatic thorn stabbing through the heart of a rosebud (cover photo design) aptly depicts the narrative poetry of Eileen Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole.
Fervor, murmurs and purrs; fantasy, fleeting
human relationships, flights of adventure,
impossible certainty, uncertainties, lust-desire,
memories; fully winged & eyelashed; unafraid
to dream, venture, tremble, discover, categorize:
—Li Bloom, Abolone
A substantial collection….One might say that [Mei-mei] Berssenbrugge and Tabios’ most important similarity is that both produce some of the most innovative work on the scene today….[Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole features] moments of extraordinary apolitical beauty.
—Qian Xi Teng, Columbia University Daily Spectator
…an endless swoon. Reading it puts you in a state of suspension—to misquote her, “an emotion you will welcome as a discovery.” Like a flag torn from its moorings, borne aloft, knowing no nation, just the wind, her poetry is the essence of sensual drift and travel. // But I’m wrong, of course: the central image, after all, is the empty flagpole…
—Benito “Sunny” Vergara, The Wily Filipino
In an age of electronic and “disposable art,” where surfing the ‘Net is akin to flipping endlessly through cable TV channels in search of reconnection in an atmosphere of isolation (calling to mind Robert Pirsig’s line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that looking at nature through the car window is just more TV…), the meditative works in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole defy the reader to simply skim and move on. The hooks are finely barbed and grab you in the deepest places…
—Joey Madia, New Mystics Reviews (Full review HERE)
…conceptual density, imagistic richness, and subtle narrative layering of the book as a whole.
—Thomas Fink, CUNY-LaGuardia Lecture on Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (More lecture notes HERE)
I’ve been reading Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole…, a good sign with any poetry book for me, that the reading makes me want to write. Not a competitive thing; rather, the reading opens up something for me. This book has made me want to join that energy to mine…
—Allen Bramhall, Tributary
Like one of those novelty dipping birds, I’m taking small sips from Eileen Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole. So aswarm is this book with imagery and thought-provoking phrases, I have to take a pencil in hand, so I can underline and make brief notes in the margins [something I haven’t done since completing my MA]. My last note was on ‘Profiles’, which starts:
I returned to the wheat fields I had loved as a boy and realized I was just beginning a transition, your friend said as his hair swayed in the faint breeze.
The nifty racecar twists and turns in that one sentence…
—Ivy Alvarez, from her former blog cited on Marsh Hawk Press Blog
A Satire Review:
Let’s start with the cover. It’s ugly. It gives me the creeps. And the blurb, by one Arthur Sze—a pseudonym if ever there was one (a little Kabalistic numerology and it becomes obvious Tabios wrote this blurb herself) —well, it’s godawful. It seems to imply that “lovely surprising conjunctions” have something to do with poetry. What could be more self-evidently further from the truth?
While we’re on the subject of blurbs, let’s look at those on the back. I can’t be bothered to do the numerology, but I “suspect”, to put it mildly, that all the blurb writers are pseudonyms for Tabios herself. “… the words zoom-out like handpicked bees from a hive …” “Includes poems so fired up they’ll sear your fingerprints off …” In the manner of a Borges, one “Susan M Schultz” goes so far as to quote Tabios herself: “worthy is the price: Yes!” (No wonder Tabios ended up with a mountain!). Finally, one “Alfred Yuson” claims that the poems hit “us right in the gut. Or should we say groin …” Ah, flashback to Little League! I fall upon the thorns of life … I spend ten minutes writhing on the ground …
Sorry. I’m back now, rubbing a spot that still hurts.
—John Bloomberg-Rissman, Galatea Resurrects (Full roast HERE)
Translated into Romanian, 2016
Featured in Contemporary Literary Horizon, no. 3 (May-June), 2016, based in Bucharest, Romania.
A 2014 Selection of the Princeton Women’s Book Group of Los Angeles:
A report about this book club selection is available HERE.
A Visual View:
Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole has been an assigned textbook at a number of schools, including Sonoma State University where several students created art works in response to its poems. These sample visual responses are by Noushin Farrokhnia: