The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Volume I
Eilenn Tabios’ volume The Secret Lives of Punctuations shows how these modest marks deviate from their standard grammatical expectations to slow the reader down and make them notice the power of words. Poets like Alice Notley and Barbara Jane Reyes (an emerging poet cited by Tabios as inspiration) have visited this terrain before. Instead, Tabios offers poems that use the colon, semi-colon, the strike through, parentheses and question marks to create a sort of sonic acrobatics.
Some of the results are unexpected analogies, metaphors, riddles and homonyms, while others are elaborate found quatrains taken from the poet Jukka-Pekka Kervinenen’s text cornucopia. While Kervinen’s text is generated by a computer’s statistical distribution from John Locke’s “The Essay of Toleration” and Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison, Tabios wants the words to express their inherent sound and spirit. In a way, The Secret Lives of Punctuations represents the organic potential of a found poem removed by two degrees from its original texts.
This book becomes more intriguing when Tabios offers her insights on this process. In addition to her interaction with Kervinen’s text, she refers to Spirits in Stone: Zimbabwe Shona Sculpture. The sculptors’ philosophy adheres to the practice of carving the spirit of what is already present in the wood, instead of trying to force what one may desire upon the wood being carved. So, these poems could also be seen as another illustration of the conflict between nature and the constraints of civilization, which her postcard art in the book intimates the impropriety of punctuations having secret trysts in a hotel.
All of this is compounded by a sharp assessment of Tabios’ project by Leny Mendoza Strobel and Eve Aschheim’s work that mirrors parentheses, dashes, pauses and space. In Strobel’s statement, she notes more than the space created by zazen breathing. She outlines how Tabios departs from the narrative of racism and Other-ness that traps post-colonial people to identify themselves, and their writing, in limited ways:
De-familiarize the familiar. Dis-entangle ourselves from the old narratives. Withdraw our consent from the empire’s attempt to continue fanning the fires of racism and xenophobia in the name of protecting the empire’s image of its glorious past. Face the reality of the traumatic consequences of colonial conquests. Could it be that one way of doing that is to begin to look at the greatest tool of the empire of the 19th and 20th century: the English language and its grammar rules? In a way, I see Eileen de-familiarizing punctuations in these poems.
Although it takes time to work through these statements and get to the prose that further illuminates what Tabios is doing, she is offering another possibility beyond narrative and the lyric in poetry.