Friday, February 1, 2013


Earlier today I read Eileen Tabios' latest book The Awakening in 4 gulps.  4 gulps with breaks in between for thoughtful chewing and a little mental flossing.

As you may have guessed, The Awakening is comprised of 4 parts: 3 long poems and a brief fragment on Ms Tabios' poetics.

Each piece of the book is substantial and deserving of sustained attention but I want to focus here on the lead-off piece, a twenty page poem called "The Erotic Life of Art: A Séance With William Carlos Williams.”

“The Erotic Life of Art” is a marvelous meditation on art, artists and sex.  Its cast of characters is large and its range of reference is wide.  Van Gogh, Gauguin, Michelangelo, Pope Julius II, Da Vinci, Cellini, Dr. Williams, Titian, Jose Garcia Villa, Rembrandt, Li-Young Lee, Goya, Rodin, Delacroix, Jackson Pollock, Rimbaud, Wayne Thiebaud, Renoir, Seurat, Madeleine Knobloch (Seurat’s mistress who was anonymous until after his death), Tabios’ husband, Degas, Ezra Pound, Gainsborough, John Ruskin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Modigliani, Eluard, Duchamp, the Baroness, Dali, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and others constellate in its pages.

“The Erotic Life of Art” is a long associative poem of quick shifts, but there is nothing gratuitous about it.  It’s incisive, sometimes humorous, and it bristles with energy and intelligence. 

It’s written in couplets.  Here’s a taste for a flavor of the way it moves:

                              “Our good doctor,
William Carlos Williams, remembers one Finnish

word taught by a family servant: Hamahakquivergo.
I raise this dissonance because, truth to tell,

I am wondering if I have written all these words
so far only to manifest the one Finnish word

Dr. Williams knows: Hamahakquivergo means Cobweb.
Would it be awful to have spent years writing a poem only

to discover it is over a cobweb?  I intended to write on
the tangled skeins of transmissions from sexual acts (I in-

tended to pluck from the narrative of Nigel Cawthorne’s
amusing and amused book, SEX LIVES of the GREAT

ARTISTS.)  But haven’t we all noticed by now that history
may be a circular matter rather than a linear progression?

Cobweb. Hamahakquivergo.  Well, let’s clear the throat
and continue:  I like what I hear about Titian as a lover

for he seemed kind.  Have we all not been children once?
Why is Kindness such an underrated virtue?”  (4-5)

Why indeed?

“The Erotic Life of Art” is an extraordinary vortex of concerns, an impeccable “Pow-em.”  I would encourage you to enter it and linger as long as you can.


  1. I look forward to reading this.

    Tom - I haven't forgotten to mail the thing I was supposed to mail you -- and will do so soon.

  2. I only saw this now, Tom, ten days after posting, but here goes anyway.

    As it happens, the way (y)our good doctor knows, or spells, 'cobweb' in Finnish is quite intriguing. First of all, there's no 'q' in our language. And secondly, although we have a 'g', we wouldn't use it this way. I'm not getting into specifics of that, but it seems to me Dr W. never actually saw the word in writing. Instead, he's trying to imitate what he heard. What was probably said is, obviously, "hämähäkkiverkko." (See, to produce a hard (double) K-sound we just put two k's in a row.)

    Then again, not even that is quite right. Basically, to produce that compound word for cobweb we put together the words 'hämähäkki'(spider) and 'verkko' (web). But, actually, in this case we need a genetive! So, finally, the proper formulation would be 'hämähäkinverkko', where the 'n' in the middle signifies the correct case. (It's like saying 'cob's web' instead of 'cobweb'.) And no, losing the other double K is not a spelling mistake but a small peculiarity of the way Finnish works.

    How's that sound, or look, to you?

  3. That said, I must admit Dr Williams did amazingly well, getting it almost right.

  4. Thanks, Karri. I had a feeling that you would have something to say about that silky signifier.

  5. Interesting -- that (silky) slipperiness of language.

    Thanks Karri,
    p.s. the typo might not be the good doctor's but his biographer from whose book I cited ... must check...

  6. Come to think of it: In our present spelling system, the hard K-sound is always done with a 'k' (either singled or doubled). However, in archaic forms, say, in texts written a few hundred years ago, you could find instances where a 'g', or even a 'q', would be used instead. I strongly suspect, though, that Dr W. had been privy (or privvy!) to such usages. Then you nevver knough, do ya? He may, or may not, have play-yed wiff oss. (The last word is "us" in Swedish.)

  7. I mean, look at English: silent g's, and silky eiches, all over the place. Vanish nighght and let there be lighght!