Murder death resurrection
Another way for poetry
In 2013, I was weary of everything I’d written. So I decided to murder my poems — specifically twenty-seven poetry collections published up to that point — in an attempt to find another way for creating poems. For this attempt, I also wanted to deepen my interrogation (and disruption) of English which had facilitated twentieth-century US colonialism in my birthland, the Philippines. Finally, I wanted to develop a consciously closer link to the Filipino indigenous value of “Kapwa.” “Kapwa” refers to “shared self” or “shared identity” whereby everyone and everything is connected.
As the matter at hand was poems, murder (I thought) meant to forget them.
In order to be sure I forgot those poems, I read through every one of my poetry books and chapbooks and, as I read, I kept writing that I forgot them. The result is a group of 1,167 lines nearly all beginning with the words “I forgot.” Following this phrase was whatever surfaced during my reading — from excerpts to my real-time reactions to what I was reading. I consider the lines to form a database. The database opens with lines that surfaced from reading my first poetry chapbook, After the Egyptians Determined the Shape of the World Is a Circle (Pometaphysics, 1996):
I forgot I became a connoisseur of alleys.
I forgot I knew the back alleys of this neighborhood, where beggars made their beds, whose cats stole their food, which doorways provided for or grabbed the fragile into a hold of cruelty.
I forgot why lovers destroy children to parse the philosophy of separation.
I forgot the glint from the fang of a wild boar as he lurked behind shadows in a land where it only takes one domino to fall.
I forgot how quickly civilization can disappear, as swiftly as the shoreline from an oil spill birthed from a twist of the wrist by a drunk vomiting over the helm.
I use the word “database” because the group is a source of new poems, whether by me or others. When the database is unused, untouched, the lines are dead. But if the lines are used for new poems — lifted out of the database — they become resurrected. They are resurrected into new poems. Thus, I titled my project “Murder Death Resurrection” (MDR).
MDR’s conceit is that any combination of the lines is a legitimate poem — from the shortest possible combination of a couplet to a 1,167-line poem. Whether or not MDR merits its conceit, the project has generated six published books and four chapbooks in five years. The first, 44 RESURRECTIONS (2014), includes couplets, and a recent book, MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION (2018), features a book-length poem with 1,167 lines. AMNESIA: Somebody’s Memoir (2016) is also a book-length poem utilizing all the lines, but the lines are ordered differently and each section is structured to evoke a chapter.
When I first began MDR, I thought that final judgment over its poems’ merit should rest (as perhaps with all poems) with the reader. The logical way to test this was to create poems and submit them to various editors and publishers; if the recipients cared for the poems, they’d then publish them. Thus, I did so — frequently writing making poems by blindly pointing to lines from a printout of the database. Through this often random way of creating combinations from some of the 1,167 lines, I published individual poems as well as released collections from nine different publishers. Other poems generated visual poetry versions, some of which inaugurated h&, a journal of visual/concrete poetry, as well as showed up in an exhibition of visual poetry and arts, “Chromatext,” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (Manila, 2016–2017).
Since 2013 when I began the MDR project, results have exceeded expectations. For more than five years — and despite various publications — I kept waiting for combinations to fail in such a way as to have MDR be judged as sheer nonsense. But such failure didn’t seem to be a significant factor. Indeed, certain combinations which did not move me as a reader would find receptive readers. For instance, I do not find this two-line combination (the first line incorporates a list of names) to be particularly effective:
I forgot my father is not and never has been President of the United States:
Harry S. Truman
Dwight D. Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard M. Nixon
George W. Bush
I forgot music became a jail
Yet at least two readers admired the above couplet and said so in public. Reviewer Alan Baker called it “powerful” and interviewer Thomas Fink stated, “I really appreciate the juxtaposition, because the ‘music’ of the names leads to an aspect of what they signify, metonymies attached to them; Presidents are ‘jailed’ in their often ridiculously difficult historical circumstances, and people in the US and the world can be ‘imprisoned’ by decisions that these leaders make.” I remain unenthused over the couplet, but certainly allow Baker and Fink to respond as they wish to (my) poems.
No doubt part of MDR’s success was the scaffolding provided by the phrase “I forgot” — the phrase’s repetition ends up facilitating a poetic rhythm to what are de facto list poems. The use of “I forgot” was a tactic inspired by Tom Beckett’s poem “I Forgot” in his 2014 book DIPSTICK (DIPTYCH).
But the MDR project also reflects my long-standing interests in abstract and cubist language, partly as a means to interrogate English whose narrative once was a colonizing tool over my birthland. Through my perceptions of abstraction and cubism I’ve written poems whose lines are not fixed in order and, indeed, can be reordered. When I first began writing as a poet, I was very interested in the prose poem form and in writing paragraphs that can be reordered within the poem. For example, from my first US-published book of prose poetry, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002), is this poem:
Sometimes I am not tired. And I begin to pace the perimeter of Manhattan. I am always drawn to the East River, how the water is consistently grey and this sensibility mists over the entire East Side: it swathes the total territory in a wool suit. And it makes me recall interchangeable cities in Eastern Europe where the only spots of color are offered by tiny pastries silently waiting behind glass. Afterwards, I finish with memories of museum exhibits salvaging dusty armors from the crusades of a different century.
I am surprised that I linger in this part of the city, that the river’s surface loses its drabness to enfold me like cashmere. Unexpectedly, patchouli and cinnabar begin to linger in the air though I see no one dodging my careful steps. I feel the birth of pearls in tropical ocean beds tended by boys burnt by the sun. Then I feel one pearl’s inexplicable caress in the hollow between my breasts.
A woman rounds a bend and sees me. I pause by a white birch tree stripped by winter of its leaves. She smiles as she approaches. I wish to feel my fingers loosening her jeweled combs. Already, I can feel her hair curl shyly against my fingers like the breaking of surreptitious surf. No words would be spoken, but a window from an anonymous building would open to loosen the faint tinkling of piano notes. They would be plucked from the highest scale.
My fingers would turn blue in the cold. They would freeze in their fraught pose, laid against a stranger’s scented cheek while her hair would continue to flutter in a faint breeze. And her lashes would trap a beginning snow. And her life-generating breaths would occur through parted lips. And her eyes, too, would be the deadening of a river: translucent and grey.
I believe “Grey, Surreptitiously” would be equally effective (albeit with different resonance) if the paragraphs were in a different order, say, if paragraphs 1, 2, 3, and 4 were ordered as 2, 4, 1, and 3.
Such fluidity of language was/is, for me, the metaphorical opposite of language used for colonizing — language used by colonial masters to order those they’d subjugated. Such orders usually have specific intentions as regards enforcing behavior and policies, among others. Indeed, MDR’s way of creating poems shifts emphasis away from author to reader in determining the poem’s effectiveness — metaphorically the opposite of colonizing as the position of the speaker/author is destabilized.
MDR also affirms what I call “Kapwa poetics” — a poetics based on the indigenous Filipino value of interconnection among all beings and things. There’s an image from precolonial Philippine times of a human standing with a hand lifted upwards; if you happened to be at a certain distance from the human and took a snapshot, it would look like the human was touching the sky. Filipino novelist N. V. M. Gonzalez mythologizes this human as a creature who, by being rooted onto the planet but also touching the sky, is connected to everything in the universe and across all time, including that the human is rooted to the past and future — indeed, there is no unfolding of time. In that moment, all of existence — past, present and future — has coalesced into a singular moment, a single gem with an infinite expanse. This is the space in which I strive to write poems, thus my calling Kapwa (partly) a “poetics.” In my poetry, I strive in part to explore/reveal the interconnection of all beings and things — through poetry, I wish for no one or nothing to be alien to me.
I extrapolate “Kapwa poetics” from N. V. M. Gonzalez’s notion of the Filipino as a “mythic man.” Scholar Katrin de Guia summarizes this important contribution by one of the Philippines’ National Artists in literature as a “mythic person” who is “content with ‘Being-at-Home-in-the-World and Being-Human.’ … Gonzalez points out that Filipinos are a people whose past is rooted in the cyclical time of their ancient myths. During this era of wandering seas and strange storms, life went on in cycles of planting and reaping, sailing and arriving, walking and finding. These were … times of primordial oneness with the world, where the sky was so near that people could touch it with their hands. The ancient ones were able to connect to anyone and everything at all times.”
Linear time was introduced to the Philippines only with the encroachment of Spanish colonizers who enforced Catholic belief. But while Christianity’s time-bound basis caused a dilution of the ancient mythic self, memory remains. Thus, Filipinos favor two levels of time: the sacred and the profane. “Sacred time,” according to Gonzalez, “is a point of freedom and abundance — the suspended moment in a time of utmost creativity … where man and creation are one.” That is, says de Guia,
From the wholistic perspective of the mythic man, the world was just created. No divisions separate the past from the now, the adults from the children, the men from their myths and their dreams, men from their fellow men of the men from their fellow beings. There is no need for walls to separate the creator and the created. Microcosm and macrocosm are but one — a continuity. Some people call this ancestral Filipino outlook kapwa (the shared Self).
For practicing Kapwa poetics, I try to write poems within the space of “sacred time” and, indeed, wrote such a poem entitled “Sacred Time” in 2010, where the persona moves effortlessly from the closed space of a kitchen to the openness of “days of / touching sunlit / sky.” Relatedly, Kapwa poetics would encourage that there is no dispute between intentionalized authorship and the randomness with which the lines are combined from the MDR Poetry Generator — for, All is One and One is All.
In addition, if indigenous time is not split between past, present, and future, how then can one forget? That element is reflected in the MDR poems which begin with “I forgot.” Once one articulates what one is supposedly forgetting, isn’t one then remembering?
MDR’s approach also is reflected in the choice of Pacita Abad’s 2000 painting, “Avocado,” for gracing the front cover of MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION. I consider a poem to be, among other things, a mirror to its reader(s). Reflecting “Kapwa,” (interconnection of all beings), the poet begins a poem and the reader finishes it and does so with their interpretation. The latter means the reader brings to the poem what ultimately will become its significance — in this sense I consider the poem a “mirror” as the poem also becomes about or reflects back its reader. There are nine mirrors on the canvas — while their alignment (three by three) promotes the visual characteristic of harmony, the plurality of the number also reflects how the same poem can generate different significances or reflections from different readers, or from more than one reading by the same reader.
One might conclude that positive receptivity to the MDR project affirms that saying, We are all indigenous.
MDR’s publication history has tended to reveal mostly those who accept or like the poems, e.g. the editors who published them. As book author, I’ve also not been exposed to much negative reception (for example, I suspect that those who received review copies focus on reviewing books they like versus panning those they don’t, so that any review I’ve received to date has been positive). As well, I assume that the distinct majority of readers of the MDR poems are those in the so-called “poetry world” which, at a minimum, means poets or poetry readers who are used to the idiosyncrasies that abound in poetry. Thus, I have started introducing MDR to a varied, often non-“literary” audience, at a variety of workshops and class visits. In March 2018, I visited two high school math classes to introduce poetry even as MDR was offered as an example of the mathematical concept of permutations (or possible combinations, in this case, of poetic lines from MDR’s database). In April 2018, I also brought MDR to a local bookstore for a reading/workshop as well as to a college humanities course on “Home and Belonging in the Twenty-first Century.” I preferred audiences beyond literary-oriented groups to reflect Kapwa’s notion of interconnection.
During my MDR events, I presented each student or participant with the book MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION where each line in the database is presented in a numbered fashion. I then asked them to formulate poems by picking a group of numbers at random between one and 1,167. They then found the lines associated with each number, and wrote down the lines to create new poems. After determining each poem’s text, participants then collaborated on titling the poems (I had anticipated that the titling of a poem would help show whether the participant found something meaningful in the result). What was intriguing to me was that not once did someone from these varied audiences challenge any of the resulting poems as a “failed poem,” even as we obviously were discussing a radically different method to making poems than through conventional ways based on authorial decisions.
Nonetheless, given the nature of randomness, I’ll always have a space for doubt in my mind until all possible combinations — and poems — have been generated through MDR and judged by readers. To date, I’ve created about 140 poems through MDR. The total number of poems (in math jargon, “permutations”) possible to be created through the MDR database can only be estimated as it is a huge sum. According to approximation formulas applied to MDR by Carl Ericson (my son’s former high school math tutor) and Errol Koenig (then a student at Johns Hopkins’s Applied Mathematics and Statistics Department), MDR’s possible total number of poems is a number that has 3,011 digits. Errol, for one, derived the number through the equation 1167! − 1167, a number that roughly rounds to 1.129300103 E+3010 [that is, 1.129300103 × 103,010]!
While inspired by Montfort and Strickland’s project, when it came to creating MDR’s poetry generator, I wanted the process to be manual. I did not want any distancing between the poet and the words. In this case, reading through my prior twenty-seven poetry collections to create the “I forgot” lines meant that my subjective “I” was fully and personally involved in the creation of such lines. In other words, despite the potential randomness of line combinations to create new poems, the new poems do not eliminate authorship because of how — the personal manner through which — the lines were created.
I thought it important that there be no disavowing or distancing of authorship from the work, an element I consider particularly important as a poet of color. There are enough forces (from gatekeeping to racism) and would-be aesthetic trends (e.g. “the author is dead”) that would erase the subjectivity of a poet (and any other artist) of color. Identity may ever be in flux, but the “I” always exists. Without that “I” the speaker does not exist. Without the speaker, the concerns of a poet of color would not exist.
With this essay, I return to the MDR project and throw out four numbers to create a new poem: nine, five hundred, 867, and 1,111. I turn to the MDR database and pluck out the lines bearing these numbers:
I forgot any reason for you to hold my hand as the day unfolded.
I forgot those dolls — for a moment, their eyes had relaxed.
I forgot the bottle emptying as another day gave way.
I forgot the poem whose page was a glass pane etched with words — that paper would be too soft a field for your hand leaving my waist.
Well, I suppose that’s a depressing poem. But I offer it to you with the title, “No Second Guessing.”
2. The following books and chapbooks were created by Eileen R. Tabios through the MDR Project: 44 RESURRECTIONS (PostModernPoetry E-Ratio Editions, 2014); I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS (Moria Books, 2015); DUENDE IN THE ALLEYS (Swirl Editions, 2015); AMNESIA: Somebody’s Memoir (Black Radish Books, 2016); THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Prime’s Anti-Autobiography (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2016); THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016); EXCAVATING THE FILIPINO IN ME (Tinfish Press, 2016); WHAT SHIVERING MONKS COMPREHEND (Locofo Chaps, 2017); HIRAETH: Tercets from the Last Archipelago (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2018); and MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION: A Poetry Generator (Dos Madres Press, 2018).
3. MDR’s poem “Excavating the Filipino in Me” was displayed as visual poetry in “CHROMATEXT REBOOTED,” a visual poetry and arts show organized by the Philippine Literary Arts Council at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, from November 6, 2015, to January 17, 2016. The exhibition was curated by Alfred A. Yuson and Jean Marie Syjuco.
9. Poet and decolonialism scholar Leny M. Strobel recently tried MDR’s approach to poem-making. She writes about it in “MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION: A Form of Babaylan Poetics,” January 13, 2018.