Eileen Tabios’ latest book Silk Egg is a Wunderkammer — in fact, a series of Wunderkammers — curated with the eccentric intelligence and playfulness of a Gertrude Stein (think of the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons). Framed as a collection of novels, the book presents twelve prose poems, each of which is divided into seven short chapters. Some of the chapters — each one isolated on a page of its own — are as short as a single sentence, and in their fragmented state, give off a startling radiance:
She wished the lightning flash didn’t reveal his eyes.
Like Wunderkammers, Tabios’ text is filled with a wondrous array of surprising objects (a chandelier of gold antlers, a wet diamond on a red velvet petal, a shirt woven from hummingbird wings); it is filled with numerous textures (coral suede, white taffeta, the velvety flesh of a dog’s ear, handkerchiefs embossed with black-and-white photographs) as well as lustres (a pewter sea, mahogany inlay, glass panes veined with gold). It is also filled — importantly — with lusters, with desiring subjects and bodies. One of her characters says, “Realism…can suddenly become synonym for Desire.” Another says (with metaphorical frisson): “His cock was midnight.” This is all to say that Silk Egg is a book that revels in the senses and intoxicates the reader with both its sensuous language and its teasing swerves toward and away from a linear narrative.
If my comments above suggest that much of Tabios’ writing operates on an imagistic level, I also want to highlight her splendid use of diction, the way that a carefully selected word utterly transforms the sentence of which it is a part. Here are three brief examples (with added emphasis):
Her lid fell like a wave. A tear obviated the wink.
…his muscles armored in pin-striped wool.
Her birthland is replete with child soldiers.
That last sentence — as we learn from the “Selected Notes” at the end of the book — is a reference to Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. So if the Wunderkammer, historically, was the site of an imperial epistemology (as it housed objects taken from the colonial peripheries), then Tabios’ enchanted objects and charged fragments are presented with a sensitivity toward the trauma of post-colonial counties like Sierra Leone, Guam, and Cambodia: along with Beah, she cites writers Craig Santos Perez and Loung Ung, making sure that their words are deemed as objects of importance.
Tabios dedicates Silk Egg to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Arthur Sze, and John Yau “whose innovative outlooks” helped her “to find a path that led to this book.” It is also dedicated to the late Philip Lamantia who, in response to Tabios’ complaint that she couldn’t draw a straight line, replied, “Draw a curve.” This implies that the path of the innovative Asian American writer is necessarily a curved one and we understand such a curvature to be not a failure of straightness but a hard-earned poetics, an ovoid (and Ovidian) poetics of transformation (in Tabios’ novels, a green snake becomes a silver necklace; hair becomes cloud which becomes “rain, rain, rain”). And just as an egg is a privileged site of transformation, silk is produced by the larvae of insects undergoing complete metamorphosis. Silk Egg is, indeed, a book of changes. Here is a delicious phrase from the the very last page (and, again, check out Tabios’ diction): “the day deliquesced to cricket song.”
(Check out a sample “novel” here.)
Jürgen Köller’s mathematics website gives some advice for creating egg-shaped curves:
From the Oval to the Egg Shape
You can develop the shape of a hen egg, if you change the equation of a oval a little. You multiply y or y² by a suitable term t(x), so that y becomes larger on the right side of the y-axis and smaller on the left side. y(x=0) must not be changed. The equation of the ellipse e.g. x²/9+y²/4=1 change to x²/9+y²/4*t(x)=1. Here you multiply y² with t(x).
But to do such a thing in language? That would require the expertise of Eileen Tabios.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.