Inculpatory Evidence: The Covid 19 Poems by Eileen R. Tabios

inculp

By Neil Leadbeater

Inculpatory evidence has, in its title, a legal reference frame which underscores the gravity of the subject-matter. Tabios presents the evidence. It is up to us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions.

The cover photograph of the author wearing her mask is a sombre reminder of just how contagious this virus is. Traditionally, masks were worn by actors as a means of transferring the wearer into a different character. More recently, they are considered to be a form of deception, a facade that obscures the truth. With regard to the present global pandemic we view them as a necessary part of everyday living. The covering over the nose and mouth is not without a cruel irony for we are short of breath due to polluting and dangerous pathogens and we are muted in expressing the truth because certain sections of society are fuelling us with misinformation, the so-called “fake news” that endangers us all. Wearing masks, we all lose a little of our facial identity and, to those who are hard of hearing, and who rely on lip-reading, our means of communication.

Four poets and translators have collaborated on this volume of ten poems by Eileen R. Tabios. John Bloomberg-Rissman has written an afterword and commentary on them, Natthaya Thamdee translated them into Thai and Susan M. Schultz provided useful feedback subjecting one of the poems to her Oulipian N+7 process in which a writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem’s substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. This added a surreal touch to what many of us feel is a surreal situation. Some notes about issues that arose in the course of translating the poems into Thai are included at the end.

John Bloomberg-Rissman gives a chilling factual account of events (from November 2019 to June 2020) relating to the spread of Covid 19, the nature of the virus, and the attempts that are being made to curb its spread. His essay focusses on the complete denial, by certain sections of the population, that there is any need to take any precautionary measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, at all. The account then widens to incorporate other global issues that are equally serious, if not more so. He lets the keepers of the Doomsday Clock sum it up: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat of multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.”  Will we never learn? It seems that a proportion of the human race is hard-wired to self-destruction.

The ten poems in this volume employ a range of different styles appropriate to their subject matter. Two poems, for example, are written in the reverse hay(na)ku form (a sequence of tercets comprising lines of three words, two words and one word each) and there is also a poem written in couplets, and a list poem. In others, there is some experimentation with the way the lines are presented on the page, the size of the typeface and, in one poem, one or two words are typographically represented by a strikethrough to give an additional meaning to the text. Several poems are dated by month and year of composition. Interestingly enough, the year 2020 is adjusted to 2563 in the Thai translation to accommodate the Buddhist calendar which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar.

In the opening poem we are reminded, among other things, of the power of the word and how a single word, (corona), when it suddenly acquires a new meaning can change our perception of it forever, and that poetry has the power to foretell, to warn, of things to come.

The subject matter in this volume goes wider than Covid 19: ‘Regret’ focusses on the environment, ‘Triggered’ on hunger, ‘Not My First Mask’ on xenophobia and racism and ‘What I Normally Would Not Buy’ on panic buying, consumerism and survival. This is not just physical survival but also survival from domestic abuse.

Tabios uses food in this collection as a metaphor for survival. Food, in its various forms, appears in at least seven of the ten poems. We cannot survive without it. Witness the panic buying that took place as soon as news of the outbreak spread. Maslow was right when he included it within his hierarchy of basic human needs (although he seems to have overlooked toilet paper altogether).

Deception is another theme that weaves its way through this collection: things are not necessarily what they look like or what they seem to be. In ‘Sudden Asian Prepper’ Tabios uses references from hair colouring and make-up to illustrate her point about the deeper issues of deception, not just those that are follicle or skin-deep, but ones to do with race, misinformation and denial.

dye for turning

hair blonde,

tape

for double-lidding eyes,

Eyelid tape and other similar products are hugely popular in places like Korea where having “double eyelids” is considered to be ridiculously desirable.

Despite the gravity of the subject matter there is dark humour at work in some of these poems. Take ‘Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus,’ for example, which opens with these lines:

The President proclaims

-nay, guarantees! –

BETTER DAYS AHEAD!

WE SHALL BOUNCE BACK

HIGHER THAN BEFORE!

 

I respond faithfully

 

with an item I’ve never experienced:

a box of 100 MREs*

My tastebuds cringe –

[*Meals Ready to Eat].

‘Kapwa on Covid’ opens with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. So much depends upon that word. If we can stem the virus, if everyone can adhere to social distancing, if there is another wave, if an effective vaccine can be found, if the virus mutates…different trajectories will ensue. There was a framed copy of Kipling’s poem in our home when I was young. I used to read it often and I can still recall the opening line: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs…’ In it, the speaker advises his son about how to perceive the world and life’s challenges so that he can both learn from his experiences and resolutely overcome barriers. It is something we all need to do in these difficult times.

——————

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),  Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).  His work has been translated into several languages.

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