Review: THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL by Eileen Tabios

Paloma Press, 2019

Somehow it escaped me that the subtitle for this book is “Selected Visual Poetry, 2001–2019”. I was expecting to read a…novel. Lol. Eileen had me again. I should have known she is up to her trickery again. With the image of the red box of chocolates in the garbage plastered with “novel”, I understood the title…after seeing the subtitle on page 3.

This is how the she subverts English. And Poetry.

There are so many forms to Poetry, Autobiography. To Creativity.

The other day I told an Elder/friend about a statement that has been told to me by spiritual persons: “Leny, you have to raise your vibration!” So I asked this Elder what people mean when they say this to me. The first thing she said was “Creativity!” Followed by: “When you are creative; when you have joy; when you laugh and love; when you treat your body well; when you spend time in Nature — you are raising your vibration.”

Ahh, so desu ka! I was relieved to hear this and assured myself that I, too, am creative. But I have a lot of limiting beliefs. (That’s another story). And this is why Eileen’s projects are always an inspiration.

In the Great American Novel, Eileen deals with these limiting beliefs. What does it mean to be Filipina? What does it mean to be a Poet and Filipina? What does it mean to be displaced? What is and isn’t a Novel? What is Poetry?

Boundless creativity can be unleashed when one is not attached to limiting beliefs.

Ergo, Eileen invents the words “Pilipinz” and “cloudygenous” to write about the paradox of being a settler and a diasporic person at the same time. Those of us who have been displaced from a homeland may be interminably pining for “Home” so, in the place where we are settlers on indigenous lands, we create home on the (i)Cloud and we sustain our virtual connections to the homeland using facebook chat, zoom, whatsapp, instagram., etc. What are the implications of technology as the mediator of our deepest desires and longings? You will have to read the book to see how these dilemmas express themselves in a Eileen’s visual poetry (14–20).

“…my (poetry) words attempt to transcend dictionary definitions…As a poet, I attempt not to work only within what I inherit because what’s inherited is fucked up, of which colonial history is only one fact. English was the colonizer of my birthland, the Philippines. English, but not Poetry.” (25)

Creativity as Resistance.

Another expression of creativity is Eileen’s recycling of old poems into new poems. I hesitate to use “old” because I think poems are ageless but what Eileen does is to write (new) tankas from several of her poems in “Witnessed in the Convex Mirror”. Witnessing Eileen’s process reminds me of how I sometimes “fish” out words and phrases from books I’m reading that have a beautiful resonance in my heart. The words tumble in my heartmind like gems being polished and waiting to be discovered, waiting to be heard. And then slowly and over time, they reveal themselves. Words are alive.

Words, of course, are made of vowels and consonants. In another section of the book, Eileen writes about how the word “community” fails and fragments even when we give positive lip service to it. As I have been practicing chanting in my qi gong practice and learning from my sound-healer/friends, I am learning about the power of sound, of vowels and how the vibrations that they create in our bodies enable our physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Eileen shows us how the vowels in poetic lines are also song-like. Can we make these a-e-i-o-u sounds harmonize and create beautiful music? (42–46). This is why poems are always meant to be read aloud; the aural quality reaches the invisible receptors in our cells, making them happy and producing endorphins of joy.

Asemic. Another word for visual poetry. In this part of the book, Eileen writes about achromotricia, the loss of hair color. The images of strands of white hair she has pulled from her head are imposed on a black background producing a certain effect. To me they look like mung bean noodles thus making me salivate and craving for pancit. But on second look, they evoke other feelings…of lightness, of suppleness, of fragility. On the third look, past the silence of Eileen about why she pulls her white hair, I succumb to the temptation of storymaking. I, too, stopped coloring my hair a long time ago making my sisters aghast at my decision. But we don’t need to talk about the beauty-commercial complex here and other ways that women’s bodies have been colonized, do we? (60–69)

How else does Poetry show up? In a collage (Eileen has several collage projects in this novel). In the conversion of an empty paper towel roll into a mini secret book. In the randomly chosen materials juxtaposed in succeeding images with the goal of seeing something come together in a meaningful way. And yes, meaning happens…because a Poet chooses to see meaning in everything.

So what’s novel about this novel? Novel as the “fictitious prose narrative of book length” and novel meaning “new, original, never before seen”. Pick up The Great American Novel and see for yourself. Take inspiration from the Poet to unleash your own limiting beliefs about creativity. Raise your vibrational energy. Heal a grieving heart; heal the world.

Leny is Kapampangan. Settler on Pomo and Coast Miwok lands. Founder and Elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies.

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