On SPD Recommended List, April 2019
“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 tumble 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 County Poet Laureate and author of The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems
TinFish Press Description
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.
In poems like “Email to a Young Poet of Color,” “The Now of Heaven,” and “Eco Echo,” Tabios doesn’t shy away from blunt reactions to the political and environmental struggles we face. She writes, “As if the ill-educated parent / will not bear ill-educated children. As if billionaires would / still contribute to charities without tax-deductions.” The collection is strikingly frank. “The Optimists Ciphertext” quips, “Clarity, as lives of quiet / desperation imply, is untrustworthy.” Readers follow the speaker as she searches for something more reliable than clarity. The poems focus in and out on current culture from a precise but unforgiving angle.
Overall, the collection reads like a social proclamation, one many will champion, though others might read as deliberately deadpan. Fans of Ashbery’s Portrait will likely enjoy the echoes of his work paired with Tabios’s take on the vantage of the convex mirror. In short, Witness in the Convex Mirror offers a biographical approach to poetry from a successful and well-published poet.
—Jeanna Paden, Harbor Review
The use of two of Ashbery’s lines to begin new poems is bold and courageous. Tabios has never been a poet to conform, she shatters the mirror. Its shards of images and words, both beautiful and harsh, of the comfortable and uncomfortable glitter like diamonds spilled out upon the floor.
—g emil reutter, North of Oxford
Although Tabios has always been to some extent political, be it the Filipino diaspora, 9/11 and the world ever since, or the complexities of gender or adoption for adopter and adoptee, I found Witness in the Convex Mirror to take it to a new level. And the clue is in the substitution of Witness for Self-Portrait. As many a wise and wizened soul has told us, to Witness is to be responsible to Speak. And speak Tabios does, on a variety of pressing subjects in a hurting and hurtful world. / …tackles gender, race, and other political complexities through the modern lens. We have Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; Scarlet(t) Johansson’s turn as an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell (as I was writing this she defended her right to play any kind of human—or an animal or tree); struggles in the Sudan and the bombing of Syria; riffs on an article from The Atlantic and a report about the CDC from the Washington Post; the poverty politics of government cheese (which was a staple of my childhood family meals one particularly desperate year); irresponsibility and the environment; and rape politics and sex dolls (which are already overlapping).
—from “An Innovator, Always” by Joey Madia, New Mystics Reviews, July 18, 2019
It is not surprising that Eileen Tabios should compose a book referencing the great American poet John Ashbery – 1927 -2017 – yet in doing so she unveils an even more resplendent aspect of her art. This book is one that should be experienced by all lovers of fine poetry…
—Grady Harp, Goodreads
—Erica Goss, Sticks & Stones Newsletter on Love in a Time of Belligerence’s poems that appear in Witness in the Convex Mirror
“12 Small/Indie Press Authors to Read for Filipinx-American History Month” by Barbara Jane Reyes, Oct. 15, 2019
…the more I (irresistibly) enter the poems, the more dazzled I am. Zounds. These are wonderful.
Excellent book. It’s absolutely fascinating to see how Eileen Tabios broadened Ashbery’s work
I read this as one pissed-off book. I read this as hugely concerned with the world, and with everyone on it. Not just concerned with, but concerned about. Worried about, angry with …
Some background HERE.
An Introduction to this project is available HERE.