Manhattan: An Archaeology by Eileen R. Tabios / Paloma Press / ISBN: 978-1-365-87509-0 / 2017
Manhattan, probably from the Lenape language word Mannahatta, meaning “island of many hills,” is the most densely populated borough of New York City, its economic and administrative center, and its historical birthplace. Locally it is often referred to simply as The City. However, this collection by Eileen R. Tabios is not so much an atlas of its streets and principal buildings but more a map of the human body and its emotions, a life lived in moments rather than a march through chronological time. Archaeology is the other part of the title – “an archaeology” not “an autobiography”. Like archaeology, it is concerned with the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The materials in this case are artifacts not architecture. Many characters run through its pages, one of them may very well be the author herself but we should never assume that this is so unless we are told otherwise.
The cover art is a digital mixed media inspired by the Herter Brothers’ “Side Chair” and Alfred Stieglitz’s “From My Window At The Shelton North” courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Public Domain Artswork program. The chair bids us to sit down. This is, after all, a book of reflection. Yes, there is flamenco and even, at one point, skiers in the Rockies, but the book is mainly concerned with human emotion. This is the area that it inhabits. It is not a book that is centered on physical objects even though the city’s high risers are all about us. The green patterned fabric of the chair base and the decorative working on the frame provides a stark contrast to the sharp vertical lines of the buildings beyond. This mirrors the type of imagery that Tabios employs throughout the book: soft fabrics (silk, satin, black stockings, etc.) versus phrasing such as the hard-edged diamonds studding platinum manacles. Tabios writes of a fabric that can be as soft as the light struck surfaces of rivers and as hard as freshly clean tabletops or Provencal pebbles under rain. Similar contrasts are made in relation to the botanical and animal world: rose petals, butterflies, spiders on the one hand and bulls, tigers and caged animals on the other.
The book is divided into several parts, interspersed with black and white images. These images work their way through the seasons. For the most part they take the form of digital mixed media inspired by other art works. The collection begins with “THE ARTIFACTS” – a list of items that are then used to provide the basic building blocks for the poems that follow. Tabios is drawn to lists and has invoked them many times before in her growing body of work. Joey Madia, in his review, (New Mystics Reviews August 29, 2017), points out the significance of lists in our daily lives (genealogies, taxonomies, calendars, digital address books, Big Data, etc). Archaeologists know the importance of keeping accurate records when it comes to listing and cataloguing their finds.
The anonymity of cities is skilfully portrayed through the repeated refrains of estimated population figures given in the section headed “Big City Cante Intermedio” where each city that is mentioned (New York, Ukiah, Barcelona, Vienna, etc) is immediately followed by a statistic. We are numbers, in this context, not individuals. Categories of people do, however, populate this book: the privileged, the bankers, the immigrants and the poor. Even the dead turn up for work. Occasionally, as in “Post Nostalgia”, we read of the intimacy between two lovers but then, at other times, the camera pans out to the anonymity of a crowd. Tabios shifts from the individual to the general with consummate ease. The variety of persons and perceptions mirror the multifarious nature of the city.
Early on in the collection Tabios exhibits dexterity in the way in which she handles her material, moving swiftly from one thought to another:
Another cliché –
How I came
to consider anew
the significance of a scarf
as it tears
as it ties
as it muffles
as it falls
as it knots
as it hides
as it binds
as its colors fade despite the absence of light deep within a locked closet.
Her poems travel in many directions borne by the wind:
(we should listen to more
plant wisdom: see how the wind
givesgifts dandelions their freedom)
The section headed “Winter On Wall Street: A Novella –in- Verse”, Tabios (a former economist, stock market analyst and banker on Wall Street) is in familiar territory. Chapter Nine, entitled “The Firm” is a witty exposé of life in The City. Here, the bull market is to the fore – one always likes to speak of rising prosperity rather than diminishing returns:
Bellowing like a bull in heat
Everything is to do with image:
Never get a cheap haircut
A bad apartment at a good address
is greater than
a fabulous apartment at a bad address
and fear of failure is endemic:
If one of your colleagues is fired
never speak to him again:
failure is transmittable.
For me, the section containing the ekphrastic prose poems written in response to the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Clyfford Still is the jewel in the crown. They are linked to “THE ARTIFACTS” through a mention of a “monograph on Still’s paintings.” The titles for each of the eighteen studies begin with the word “On” – emphasising a very real focus of attention on the subject matter in hand. Just as shapes, colors and lines combine to create “the image” as opposed to realistic looking images of objects or figures, so Tabios paints for us an “impression” of imagined scenes that stop short of becoming too particular. Like Still, Tabios asks us to experience her poetry on our own terms. Her striking images are Still’s crackling flares of light.
Here is the opening paragraph to “On Something Like Forgiveness –after PH-858, Oil on canvas, (1972) and PH-48, Oil on canvas (1957)”:
Some dreams you don’t want to end, like my only one from last week where I found myself crossing the street to be missed barely by a colossal truck crashing into a lamppost, its back bursting open to unload white roses – flung up high like the first gush of a Roman fountain – before dispersing slowly floating petals – taking their time – descending as if gravity had decided to be like a benign father and loosened its hold –
This is writing at its scenic best. The surprise of the truck’s cargo, the softness of the rose petals after the hardness of the accident and the slow coming to ground of the petals, as if a film crew had decided to shoot the whole episode in slow motion, is breathtaking. Tabios plays with imagery without being referential.
Having looked at some of the paintings that inspired the poems it is possible to spot connections between the two: the falling shower effect in PH858 giving Tabios the falling petal motif; the red vertical line in PH851 suggesting the spine, etc. but there is no need to get too hung up on the detail because what matters here is the beauty of one person’s imagination bouncing off that of another.
Continuing with the theme of painting, the last section, “2016 Diptych” provides the reader with the final panel or tablet which may be closed like a book. Like any diptych, there are two sides to it: “Ambition and Beauty – Paris 2016” and “Letter from Paris to New York –November 2016”. In some parts, the text is the same and in others it is different. This forces us to look at what has been left out or put in when we read the two poems as one work. Here we have the juxtaposition of a Fifth Avenue penthouse in NYC with the Palace of Versailles, ambition versus aspiration, splendour versus reality. At its core, we reach the heart of the message:
If only ambition could unfold
and beauty reveal itself
without collateral damage.
To sum up, In Big City Cante Intermedio, this collection, as a portrait of [a part of] New York City, in Tabios’ words
is incomplete – abruptly incomplete
-as it should be…
You City You Open-Ended Poetry
You City You Poem