What narratives arise from the sheer power of remembering? What comes out from images that evoke memories long forgotten? Eileen R. Tabio’s Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir (2016) and Lawrence Lacambra Ypil’s The Experiment of the Tropics (2019) confront memory personal and collective and harnesses the same to tell stories.
Eileen Tabio’s 2016 poetry collection Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir evokes both feeling and thought; memory and forgetting. Containing twenty-seven poems, numbered in chapters, the book presents them in a non-chronological order starting with Chapter 8 and ending the memoir with Chapter 19, putting all the other chapters in between. In Chapter Zero, the book presents “Somebody’s Coda,” which provides an alternative ordering of the chapters, this time in chronological ordering. The titles have dropped the phrase “I forgot” and been replaced with the imperative “Forget,” suggesting a time shift from past to present. Somehow, too, this list suggests the freedom the book affords to readers: any alternative approach to the book is legitimate and equally meaningful. A reader may start experiencing this memoir with “Chapter 2: I forgot an Archipelago” where the persona recalls her “birthland” and end full circle with “Chapter 16: I forgot Eyes Widening to Pull in More of the World.” Equally valid is starting with “Chapter 8: I forgot the Language of Scars,” as the book does, and ending with “Chapter 13: I forgot the Spiral That is Memory’s Perspective.”
As the reader navigates through the “amnesia” in this collection of verses, she is keenly reminded of memories, both the persona’s and her own, as the opening line would invite: I forgot. All the poems and all the lines of the poems begin with “I forgot,” inviting the reader to listen to the persona tell her what she has forgotten. Yet at the same time, the opening line “I forgot” works a spell on the reader as it takes her into a tour of introspection and makes her ask herself: what have I forgotten? Unconsciously, or rather consciously as recalling memory is a conscious process, the reader makes her own list of the things she has forgotten.
In this very act, the persona’s claim “I forgot” becomes a paradox. The persona in admitting what she has forgotten has in effect reclaimed the very memories she has lost. On the reader’s side, “I forgot” is an invitation to reclaim an experience. Such experience is heightened by the lull of the sound of “I forgot,” the stress of the I and the abrupt sound of the last syllable prepares the reader for what comes next. In anticipation, we hold our breath: what has she forgotten this time? Deliciously, we travel with the persona in this experience of recalling: “I forgot the taste of your mouth was song of Licorice… / I forgot the joy of eliding the vocabulary found in margins.” Some forgetting, and equally recalling, can become quite challenging for the reader as the persona comments on memories built on what she knows: “I forgot Arthur Rimbaud who said the bears are dancing but what we had wanted to do was move the stars to pity / I forgot Jackson Pollock teaching the harmony of feelings in riot.” Unacquainted with the artists and their works commented upon by the persona, a reader may need annotations or a quick web search. A longer and much concentrated comment on artists and their works would necessarily qualify the poems as works of ekphrasis; but only one poem (“Chapter 25: I Forgot the Binary of Refugees Vs. Art”) in Amnesia seems to hint at this. What the rest of the poems do is alternate and contrast personal memory with something collective, or at least what others may know.
Perhaps this is what is most interesting in this collection: how the persona claims to have forgotten personal memories and yet such memories can be someone else’s. They could be mine; they could be yours. They could be somebody else’s memories. Thus, the persona’s recollection of her roots from the Philippines and her leaving the country to live in another reveals the struggle of a life in between cultures, of diaspora and exile, where one can be torn between sentiments of home on the one hand and dreams and survival on another:
I forgot my grandmother, her gum-teethed cronies and other wiry residents of a patient village beaten by the sun.
I forgot that to return bore no relationship to survival, which instead related to you whose path crossed mine in a new land.
I forgot the country whose scents stubbornly perfume my dreams.
(“Chapter 1: I forgot all Ancestors”)
Yet, the persona who claims amnesia in this memoir has harmonised the past and the present, the homeland and the new land, forgetting and remembering. When the persona claims “I forgot this is not my narrative,” this could possibly mean it is mine or yours, or ours. Because memory can be so tricky, the persona questions memory itself: is it hers or someone else’s that she has heard and made her own? Memory can also be owned, and it is as much the persona’s as it is the reader’s.
The book ends with fellow poets (John Bloomberg-Rissman, Shiela Murphy, lars palm, Marthe Reed, Leny Strobel and Anne Gorrick) responding to the poem “Chapter 6: I forgot the Plasticity of Recognition.” All the poem-responses but two begins with “I remember,” providing a counterbalance to “I forgot.” This engagement with fellow poets, may be an engagement with the word and the world. In fact, it is what the poet has been doing all along in this book: to engage with texts, with visual art, with other works. Amnesia’s 1,146 lines are birthed from the poet’s reading of, and engagement with “27 previously-published poetry collections.” The 1,146 lines may be arranged to form several poems, many of which have already appeared in previous publications. For the poet, while the poems may be made randomly,[i] the lines were crafted with love. Thus “subjectivity” is always present. This poetics, this engagement with other texts and the randomness of putting together lines in a poem, may relate to the poet’s Babaylan Poetics. The Babaylan were precolonial, ancient healers and community leaders in the Philippines who had access to both physical and spiritual world. The seemingly random topics in Amnesia cohere with Babaylan’s poetics: that everything in the world is connected. The book achieves this by using the phrase “I Forgot” to scaffold and hold together all the random memories. This insistence is a form of refusal to the logical-linear, and masculine narrative of the English language, an “enforced tongue” in the poet’s birth country.
Reading Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir was a breathless anticipation of what comes next. But I should not have read the poet’s thoughts on her poetry (Babaylan Poetics and the MDR Poetry Generator).[ii] Although her explanation clarified why some lines in some poems may appear to some readers arbitrary and incoherent to each other and to the overall thrust of a poem, I would have preferred to be left baffled and questioning. But then again, the woman poet here tells a narrative that may or may not start linearly. Rather, the story can spiral from one end to the next, from past to present, from her “birthland” to another country. She is after all, “I forgot … a connoisseur of alleys!”
Lawrence Lacambra Ypil’s The Experiment of the Tropics is another engagement. Here we see the intersection of images and texts, of poetry and prose. What comes out from these interactions are verses that [re]construct stories of a bygone era, forgotten but whose effects still linger and are a lived experience of the people of the archipelago. Creating stories out of old photographs of Cebu during the American colonial period, in this collection the poet offers delightful conjectures and a glimpse of the oldest city in the Philippines. “There is a River” reimagines the fascination people had for the spectacle of water being damned:
There is a river. And then there is a man.
There is a skirt. And then there is a woman, three women, their feet dipped
in the water.
A dam is built in Bolocboloc and it is called progress.
A dam is built in Bolocboloc and families on weekends congregate in circles to
watch the show of water spilling from the mouth of a river to the mouth of a
It is magic, says the girl standing at the edge of the pool tilting her head to the right.
It is magic,
says the man holding his arms above the water …
Poems such as “Fiesta,” “The Mountain Fell,” “A Parade was a Way of Walking” continue in this light tone tinged with humour and ending with a startling image/thought. Others provide contrast to the light tone. Three poems with the same title, “The Nature of a City” in prose form investigate the organism that is the city and the lives people live in it—fast-paced, self-effacing.
The nature of a city depends on the direction its people are moving. In the morning,
towards. By evening, away. The wealth of a city depends on the density of this
movement and its speed. There is conflicting evidence to suggest that the slow pace
of traffic moving away from the center of the city at six in the afternoon, past the
pharmacy at the corner into the wide industrial roads that cut through the fields of
fallow over six small bridges and six thin rivers into smaller and smaller towns
until one gets to a house with the light left on in the kitchen is the best indicator of
a city’s development or demise.
The first of the three puts together a picture of an exhausting routine. It started, in the three lines, with a factual observation, a verity even. The first line is offset by the next two lines, which are short and terse. The contrasting length prepares the reader for the fourth line that delivers a poignant blow couched in a much longer sentence and complex syntax: the city may be developing or dying, or ironically, both. Yet before we come to the alliterating words “development” and “demise,” like the traveller during the rush hour of six in the afternoon (in the tropics, 6pm is afternoon still), we are taken slowly through the journey, like the slow pace of the city traffic. The poem achieves this through the long sentence, evocatively sonorous, where the main clause (“There is conflicting evidence to suggest that the slow pace / of traffic moving away from the center of the city at six in the afternoon … is the best indicator of / a city’s development or demise.”) frames the intervening phrases (“past the / pharmacy at the corner into the wide industrial roads that cut through the fields of/fallow over six small bridges and six thin rivers into smaller and smaller towns / until one gets to a house with the light left on in the kitchen”). Thematically, while the main clause suggests the inevitability of change and industrialisation and the futility of ever stopping it, the intervening phrases serve too as “interruptions” if not resistance to the deluge brought about by urban life. The “pharmacy,” the “thin rivers” crossing “fields of fallow” and the house of the traveller who left his kitchen light on are familiar scenes that may remain the same despite industry and progress. These images are juxtaposed with “wide industrial roads,” “small bridges” and the “slow” but inevitable “pace of traffic.”
Perhaps the best poem that encapsulates the book’s narrative of a city—its encounter with change— and its varied tones and subtleties is the titular poem “The Experiment of the Tropics.” Seemingly random images scatter in the poem: nut, bolt, wharf, nail, railroad, pipe, portico, solid colonnade, riverbank, night guards, soda parlor, red tin can, quaker oat, tennis court, cheese and grape, brandy biscuit. Before the reader questions the relevance of these images, we see lines that hold together the entire poem:
The color and the texture of
a solid colonnade of Inday‘s silence
which was her sense of water flowing across the experiment
that was the tropics:
The earlier images spoken in the poem including the mention of a “plan,” and a “master carpenter” now make sense: these are the impositions of the coloniser in the tropics and the randomness with which the persona speaks of them suggests the conceit of the good intentions:
That revivalist thing style which as the master
carpenter implied went beyond Road Port
Nut Bolt Wharf
Amidst these impositions, the people remain silent as represented by Inday, a household endearment for the help. It can be said, that it is to the likes of them that “progress” as the colonisers claim remain most baffling; not to the persona who seems to have made sense of all the impositions:
Acquisition That American thing and even took part of it
We munched on its brandy biscuit
We ordered two of it.
While the persona has engaged with these impositions, his wry tone contradicts his seeming acquiescence. Visually, the poem appears experimental, too. The random images, evidence of “Acquisition that American thing,” that in the final analysis are equivalent to material culture and imposed and consequently worked out identity of the colonised, are made more random by the spaces the poet appropriates. If it were an “emblem” poem, it is difficult to make out an image. Rather, what one sees is a visual experiment, very much consistent with the theme of the poem: that the tropics is an experiment of the American west. This revelation may be a common memory!
After reading Eileen Tabios’s Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir and Lawrence Ypil’s The Experiment of the Tropics, the reader inadvertently draws a list of memories in her mind; from one end is personal, the other collective. At times, the boundaries become blurry.
[i] A computer application called the MDR Poetry Generator has in its database 1,146 lines crafted by the poet. The Generator can combine lines randomly and is able to create poems, many of them already appearing in previous poetry collections.
[ii] See the poet’s notes on Babaylan Poetics & the MDR Poetry Generator, page 89.
Alana Leilani Teves Cabrera-Narciso was chair of the Department of English and Literature in Silliman University from 2016-2018. She is married to Giovanni, a civil engineer with whom she has two children, Alessandra and Gamaliel. Currently, she is a PhD student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.