One, Two, Three: Selected Hay(na)ku Poems by Eileen R. Tabios (Paloma Press, 2018)
A review by Neil Leadbeater (MHP, June 2019)
This bilingual (English / Spanish) selection of hay(na)ku poems and their variants contains explanatory notes about the hay(na)ku as a form of writing, an essay on its history, a poem by a guest poet, Vince Gotera (who gave the name “hay(na)ku” to the form created by Tabios) and comments on the hay(na)ku as a form of writing by several other poets.
First, a word about the artwork. Two of Thomas Fink’s hay(na)ku paintings are included in this collection. The first one, in color, adorns the front cover and the second one, in black and white, is reproduced on page three. In her essay, “Ay, Nako!! Thomas Fink’s Visual Poetry: The Hay(na)ku Paintings” (Our Own Voice, August 2006), Eileen Tabios states that “color is narrative and, reflecting the two countries’ shared history, the dominant colors of these paintings incorporate the colors of the U.S. and the Philippine flags: red, white and blue. But also present is yellow or gold. The Philippine flag contains the color yellow, but yellow / gold is also a symbol of light, enlightenment. Its presence is apt for, does not a poem often shed light or illume its subject matter?” She goes on to point out that, “as with all the paintings in the hay(na)ku series, the primary images are sets of three fluid lines in either increasing or decreasing length, mirroring the concept of the hay(na)ku tercet.” She later remarks that “the black and white series evokes the poem as black ink against the white page.”
The hay(na)ku presented here vary in length from a few short tercets at the beginning of the book to longer “chained” versions that continue over one or more pages. Like Fink’s paintings these are multilayered pieces that require some teasing out on the part of the reader.
The longest poem in the hay(na)ku section, The Ineffability of Mushrooms, is described as a novella-in-verse. The first thing to notice about this is the title. The word “ineffability” stands out from all the other words and makes us stop in our tracks to consider its meaning before moving on to read the text. In its greater sense, ineffability is concerned with ideas that cannot or should not be expressed in spoken words (or language in general), often being in the form of a taboo or incomprehensible term. This property is commonly associated with philosophy, aspects of existence, and similar concepts that are inherently “too great”, complex or abstract to be communicated adequately but here, on a different level, it is also used in the sense of something that causes so much emotion, especially pleasure, that it cannot be described. Contrary to this notion, much is actually described about the actual art of foraging for mushrooms by man and beast, as well as their preparation and storage but, perhaps in keeping with the earlier definition of the word, the name of the speaker in the poem is not given, he is only referred to as “F”. Earlier and later references to “smoke” become ominous by the time we reach the final section of the poem:
“…Later in / London, I / received //each Autumn one / precious single / bag // of dried mushrooms / and memories / then // lingering like smoke. / The last / arrived // in 1939, shortly / after the / outbreak // of war.”
Perhaps it is war (the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb?) that is the taboo subject here.
As If reads like a fragment of a sentence: a conjunction in isolation. So much is indicated by these two words. What came before them and what will come after them? For me the title works on several levels: as a heartfelt wish; as a throw-away line and as something rather dismissive. It is a heartfelt wish that the poem the author has begun to compose in her head while driving will return; a throw-away line to indicate that this is extremely unlikely to happen and a dismissal that it will never happen. Tabios dismisses the thought that she should pull in to the side of the road to jot the poem down in the belief that “if a poem / is so / powerful / it will return” but the poem dismisses itself from her mind. I like the way y flamenco at the end matches up with un momento at the start: something of its memory dances back to us but it cannot be forced back by deliberate effort, it must come of its own accord. That way it will be full of grace and movement. That way it will sing. Like dance, the timing has to be right on cue.
In Post-Ecstasy Mutations Tabios presents us with a series of tableaux that undergo some degree of metamorphosis: a blue bowl being filled with crimson colored Bing cherries; bones becoming hollow; ravaged cliffs taking on the full power of pounding wave water. The hyphen at the close suggests that this is just a fragment of many more examples that are yet to appear in print.
Change is at the forefront of these hay(na)ku. Several poems revolve around dual meanings posed by titles such as Athene / Athena (Filipino singer, stage and film actress / Greek goddess); Maganda Begins (Tagalog for “beautiful” / the name given to the first woman in a Filipino creation myth) and words that sound the same but are spelt differently and mean different things such as “write / right” and “weather / whether”.
Change, in the form of substitution, makes up the pattern of Athena. The substitution of the Greek goddess for the Filipino singer is followed up by the image of butterflies, a sure symbol of transformation, of one thing turning into another, and then the mention of pigeons which a few stanzas later are described as clay pigeons—a substitute for various types of game bird. The way a poem evolves in the mind of its creator changes at every turn, too. There is a lot of listening to begin with, a need for a period of stillness (“Silence is Queen”), committing the poem to paper too early “merely freezes / flight” but once it is down on paper, the process of editing, of crossing out lines and of editing again and again begins in earnest. Translation is another form of change, a substitution of one word in one language for another word in another language. This, too, carries its own hazards. The meaning and the sound have to hit the right note. Priorities, perspectives and ideas are never a constant but change over time.
The six haybuns in this book are selected from 147 Million Orphans. For these haybuns, the hay(na)ku tercet served as the impetus to the subsequent prose. Each word forming the hay(na)ku tercets was taken from a school project by Tabios’ son, Michael. In his 8th grade, he learned English partly by learning 25 new words a week – an exercise that generated a list of about 900 words. Michael’s list provide the words to the tercets that begin the haybuns.
The vivid imagery contained in Haybun MMXIII, which revolves around the words television / screening insightful / prescient melancholy evasive acts as a warning about the way in which visual images can have a lasting impact on young impressionable minds. The haybun speaks of the absence of human contact, comfort and love (the television is the babysitter here) and how this can sap a child’s courage to take risks in life, to live life “in all its fullness”. I admire the way the haybun comes full circle with the image of tears, rain and weeping. It is a poem that is profound in both its insight and its melancholy.
Vince Gotera’s poem Blue Bravura, which takes the form of a chained hay(na)ku, is a brilliant study in blue, employing all kinds of exotic descriptions of the color: (“blue / lapis lazuli / azurite aquamarine topaz”). It is dedicated to the Griffin Lit sixth graders and their teacher and says as much about the poet’s craft as it does about the color blue being an invitation to discover the joy of poetry that can be had through paying close attention to detail.
In the final section, various poets offer their views on the hay(na)ku as a poetic device for expression. In closing, here are few of the comments that have been made: “I feel the hay(na)ku is a form that grants a common space for poetic practice in different languages; a way of writing in English without completely obliterating one’s ‘mother tongue’” (Ernesto Priego). “The hay(na)ku is fun to read and fun to write. I like beginning with one word. It puts everything into focus almost immediately. Its an extreme condensation…” (John Olson). “Hay(na)ku creates or pushes certain syntactical structures, potentially disruptive through its arbitrariness. Forms aren’t games, or just games – they are ways of paying attention.” (Jill Jones).
This is a very welcome addition to the growing number of books on this form of writing and it should encourage other writers to try their hand at the hay(na)ku and, in the process, invent even more variations of this versatile form. Credit should be given to Rebeka Lembo for her sensitive translations of these works into Spanish. Of particular note is the way in which she managed to preserve the word count of the tercet form in translation. Fully recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018). His work has been translated into several languages.