THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES: Our Autobiography
On April 11, 2006, Filamore B. Tabios, Sr. died of brain cancer and its complications. In writing about her father, Eileen R. Tabios explores reconciliation with Ferdinand Marcos’ legacy through deliberate empathy with the former Philippine dictator’s daughter Imee; pays homage to Judas Iscariot whose Gospel, discovered during her vigil by her father’s deathbed, reveals him to be the most loyal disciple, instead of greatest betrayer, of Jesus Christ; meditates on the murder statistics of the 20th century’s leading killers, from Idi Amin to Adolf Hitler; considers the global Filipina pen pal phenomena; and engages with Dante Aleghieri’s Purgatorio.
In enacting Nietzsche’s notion that “Punishment is the making of memory,” Ms. Tabios also makes poetry by interrogating form. In this book, she uses commodity lists to create autobiography, practices ekphrasis to translate the painterly technique of scumbling, offers variations of the hay(na)ku form, relies on random collage to create visual poetry, and blurs the boundary between poetry and prose through texts originally written as blog posts. In addition, the book’s overall trajectory reflects her disruption of narrative linearity in favor of Dante’s conception of the Trinity. For Dante, creation is simultaneous as regards What (God) creates, How (Son) creation unfolds, and the Form (Spirit) taken by what is created.
Ms. Tabios’ first poetry book, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry, inaugurated a body of works that has given her a reputation for multivalent poetry. The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes reflects the poet’s primal battle with grief, showing how the death of a parent can be one of the most complicated, turbulent and wrenching experiences. It is also her most overtly political work yet, referencing her roots as a “Marcos Baby,” a member of the generation that grew up during Marcos’ martial law regime. To grapple with her father’s death, the author addresses the world which created the context for their engagement. Ultimately, however, The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes acts as a poet’s testament for Joy—that she would cease writing this book only after she resurrected her father, which is to say, Love.
Book Launch Introduction, Poet’s House, New York City, 2007
Eileen Tabios is a genre-exploding, subversive, transgressive, superbly intelligent writer who I think thrives on the idea of hybridity. Indeed, not simply in her latest book, The Light Sang as It Left Your Eyes: Our Autobiography, but in earlier work too, she can be intent on blurring the lines between art and the everyday, not unlike, for me, the emblematic metaphor in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch; Eileen shows us, she fixes in sharp focus, the food on the tip of one’s fork. I can think of two other antecedents or co-workers, who have published, with considerable effect, work that implicitly interrogates art and accuses it of being some pristine, showcased construct. The earlier work is Robert Creeley’s Day Book of a Virtual Poet, which records Creeley’s responses to a group of high school students in Buffalo who participated in a City Honors Online Writing Program Discussion List in the mid 90s, which Creeley found to be very nurturing and inventive. What became clear in this book is that a new genre of literature was being created. And earlier this year Nick Piombino published Fait Accompli, which is simply selections from his blogs over the last few years. But what Eileen has done goes well beyond this. She has made selections from blogs and has juxtaposed them with other writings of all kinds; they look different in the light of the various adjacencies, and they are at times shaped, bent—while they still retain their integrity as blogs—or are they poems in their own right? Written under the sign of her father’s passing, this remarkable book is also a kind of history of a colonized Philippines, of Eileen’s family, and of herself. It is only natural that she would write a book that in fact recasts history and historiography, a book written in English rather than a native language, a book written by someone who in her youth was uprooted from her home and taken to the United States where she makes her home. There are no absolutes, I think, in the vision of this book, in the writing of this book, and appropriately everything is up for grabs in it. In a poem she titles “Me … Me,” and which is subtitled “Memry,” spelled M E M R Y, she lists thirteen ways she has written in her life other than as a poet, and then says, simply: “Words have always been my material. // But I have yet to figure out how to spell that which remembering preserves.”
—Introduction by Burt Kimmelman
Poetryvlog.com VIDEO by Lew Papier: Poetry Reading during Book Launch at Poets House
Since American Confessionalism and the British Movement, there’s been a steady attempt to reclaim autobiographical writing in the cause of an ever more “innovative” poetics. The contentious term of “radical autobiography” has thus been evolving—from the earliest orientations of the New York School through to early and current Language writings—in a consistent if at times calculated way. // Tabios’ The Light… does not easily situate itself within one of these competing camps, but rather seems to accomplish the feat of making poetic diversity a value in itself. // Death, and silence, is the distillation of complexity and diversity, of all these vibrant languages, forms and histories, into something which unites them. It is perfection, yet such is Eileen Tabios’ vitalizing disposition, that even this perfection cannot seem an end. It too becomes poetic affirmation: “Don’t ever stop.” Be mad with me. Be ecstasy. Be me. . .”
—Nicholas Manning, CORDITE (See full review HERE.)
Who is the author of The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes? Is it Eileen R. Tabios, prolific Filipino- born poet, editor, blogger, Barnard graduate, California resident, and daughter of Filamore B. Tabios, Sr.? Or is it Eileen R. Tabios, the author-function (as Michel Foucault would have it), the “discursive set” revealed to the reader through cross-hatched trajectories of history, culture, ethnicity, gender, and the borrowed vocabulary of other writers similarly constructed? Or could it be—in a sense that Coleridge might have approved—the Eileen R. Tabios who is neither person nor socio-linguistic nexus, but the instrument of a “synthetic and magical power” that achieves its presence in the unique, transcendent moment of the poem itself?
To answer “all of the above” would be equivocal, but not inaccurate, since The Light Sang engages the nature of authorship from multiple flanks. In his essay “From Work to Text,” Roland Barthes asserted that “the Text is always paradoxical,” so we might be prepared to find that Tabios has assembled here an omnibus of paradox and exploration, at once textual and visual; private meditation and public discourse; self-conscious to the precipice of solipsism yet inclusively polyphonic; postmodern in concept but Romantic in spirit. It is less a book of poetry than a complex: a virtual, almost accidental honeycomb where disparate forces converge and thrive without necessarily coalescing into a stable structure. In her poem “‘Find’ Is A Verb,” Tabios writes: “‘To collage is to include the world,’”
… With its mash-up of styles and genres—hay(na)ku, scumbles, diary entries, prose poems, memoirs, blog posts, questionnaires, translations, cantos, drawings, visual poems composed with animal stickers—The Light Sang documents a restlessness, an ardent quest for a means of pure saying, for a methodology of comprehending both one’s self in the world and the world within one’s self.
—Fred Muratori, American Book Review (Full review HERE)
Eileen R. Tabios is one of the best avant garde and experimental poets alive today. Her poetic explorations—scumbling, ekphrasis, Hay(na)ku—demonstrate a zest for words and meanings as she shapes poems that reflect her world. Black sorrows, bright hopes, harsh injustices, a poisoned environment, new poetic forms, and boundless love share equal time on each skillfully crafted page published. In this latest book, Tabios proves that she has mastered prose equal to her exceptional poetry.
—Midwest Book Review
The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes is intended to be a postmodern blending of eclectic themes, images, and words. As hallmarks of the postmodern style, Tabios’s poems steer people away from simple-minded assumptions and towards being more contemplative about things, about ideas, about life in general. That is why readers should understand that the divergence and subjective impressionism in her poems are what make them not only distinct works of art, but also a significantly meaningful body of verses. // Categorical readings in art or literature should never be raised from the bottom of the interpretive receptacle. Meanings are subversive things, always ready to supplant the interpretation that was previously arrived at until they too, are subverted in turn. Tabios’s poetry is built on the same foundation.
—Allen Gaborro, Philippine News (Read full review HERE)
The whole book is very touching and moving and escapes from the poetic mystique that turns language into twisted ambiguity games.
—Small Press Review
The more I encounter Eileen Tabios’ writings—(and I mean that word “encounter” exactly as I wrote it, for to read Eileen Tabios is encounter her, no more, no less)–the more I’m convinced that she’s a force of nature instead of a mere scribbling mortal like the rest of us. I imagine Dr. Bucke must have felt the same way about Walt Whitman who time and again in his poems tells us that who touches his book touches him. (Of course his eventual encounter with the aging poet is a different matter.) Tabios manages to do the same thing with this book, and in fact even begins to talk in “we’s” instead of “I’s” toward the end of it. …What energy! What charm! And this doesn’t even begin to address the many virtuoso forms she displays in her “warm” rather than “cool” experimentalism.
Heart-wrenching…Though the selections here are classified as poetry one isn’t really sure as Tabios has been known to subvert the genres almost as if it were a fetish, perhaps even deriving some satisfaction out of our inability to place her under one label or category…..The writer makes good use of autobiography as in itself a conceit for her poetry, a construct that when left alone may soon enough crumple by the wayside like the shattered feeling of one who has just been orphaned.
—Juaniyo Arcellana, Philippine Star (See full review HERE)
Eileen Tabios commands breadth and depth in her ongoing affair with poetry, surely a passionate one that involves all senses and evolving forms, and yet still drawing — as against the risks of too prolific and possibly profligate an output — on fundamental strengths. As in “Canto 32”: “You dare to stare/ at the sun.// When you turn away/ from the light.// You can no longer see/ anything but its absence.// I see you, Daddy./ I see myself// seeing you looking back/ at me….”
These five couplets are followed by a prose rendering on a lower, right-hand column. It’s too long to quote in full, so let’s skip to its arc of closure, which could well be read as Tabios’ ars poetica: “… you will conclude, no matter how many poets have labored, are laboring, will labor, there are never enough poems. Never enough poems. And as you read me now, you feel me sitting before a small desk, buried in a man’s plaid bathrobe, unkempt hair falling over bloodshot eyes, ink smudging all fingers, munching on ‘a cookie chock full of mountainous chunks of rich milk chocolate and munchable macadamia nuts,’ as I write, as I write, as I write: Never enough.”
—Alfred A. Yuson, Philippine Star
In fact, speaking generally about Tabios’ work, this is one of the things I like best about it…. I’m always left with a bit of a mystery. Which I think is thought and emotion producing. Which is great.
—John Bloomberg-Rissman, The Halo-Halo Review, September 2015
tabios let her father’s time of passing become fodder for her art. she writes of her discomfort, her dissatisfaction with doing this. but it marvels me. …reading eileen tabios has forced me to wonder, what would happen if i just grit my teeth and walk down that path? who would i meet, and what would they say?
—Terumi Shorb, Artist Wins The Lotto
Some Readers’ Experiences:
I just want to let you know that I’m such a fan of your work—when I was in college in SF, on the ramen-and-cheetos diet, I spent a few nights going to City Lights and camped out in the poetry room to read The Light Sang As it Left Your Eyes. This was one of the first hybrid books I’d ever read, so difficult and tender, and it affected me deeply. Maybe a year or so later, I came to Jose Garcia Villa, and was pleasantly surprised to find you as the editor of The Anchored Angel. He became—and remains—so important to me, so I’m so grateful to you for your writing, and for making Villa legible to me.”
—Jay Santa Cruz, “Sometimes Facebook Doesn’t Suck”
I was introduced to Eileen Tabios’ work through my husband. He was reviewing a work of hers, and she had sent THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES: Our Autobiography as an aside. This is a book that never went through the marketing process. It was written while her father was dying.
I had lost my father 3 years previously. He was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain, and he took his own life. In reading through Eileen’s book, it helped me to see that his pain was his, that my pain was in witnessing his pain. It helped me to separate my anger from my emotional pain. Reading this book brought me to a place where I could begin to heal. The right book at the right time.
This particular work was, and is, controversial. Many thought it shouldn’t be published. It was too personal. I say the Poet’s purpose is to communicate, and when you start creating boundaries on what is communicated and how, you’ve silenced the work.
—Beth Garrison, The Halo-Halo Review’s Mangozine, September 2015
“Writers on Writing”–San Francisco State University:
THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES was the subject of a “Writers on Writing” at SF State during Fall semester 2015. Here are some photo-coverage from a visit to converse with the students: