Tuesday, June 19, 2018



Comprehending Mortality by John Bloomberg-Rissman and Eileen R. Tabios
(Locofo Chaps, Chicago, 2017)

It seems fitting that Eileen Tabios, a prolific writer of experimental poetry on what is fast becoming an epic scale, should have owned a dog who happened to share the same name as that of a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and greatest warrior of that other epic, Homer’s Iliad.  With this chapbook, Achilles (for that was the dog’s name) has himself entered the literary canon. His passing in 2017 prompted Tabios to write a poem in his honor—it is the final poem in her collection titled Hiraeth (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2017). In this chapbook, the lines from this poem, which are taken more or less in the order in which they appear, have been placed in bold print and additional text has been added in a collaboration between Tabios and Bloomberg-Rissman. The text has been referred to as an assemblage / homage, that is a combination, grouping or arrangement of detail culled from various sources to create a work of art made by grouping together found or unrelated objects.

Helpful and informative notes on these sources are included at the back of the chapbook for readers who wish to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the text. These sources are wide-ranging and include political, literary and musical references and references from photographic images.

The chapbook opens in an atmosphere of wonderment. Who has not at some time in their life considered the vastness of the ever expanding universe, the impossibility of trying to measure it or contain it; who has not wondered at the unique pattern of every snowflake?  Surely there is something amazing about the bigger scheme of things.

The assassination of the Honduran environmental activist, Berta Isabel Cáceres Floras, murdered in her home by armed US-backed Honduran government-backed death squads on March 3 2016 after years of threats to her life quickly changes the mood but defiantly makes the point that her death was not in vain:

She spoke too much truth to power—not just for indigenous rights, but for women’s and LGBTQ rights, for authentic democracy, for the well-being of the earth, and for an end to tyranny by transnational capital and empire. Since her murder, it’s ever more clear what her community says: Berta did not die, she multiplied!

A visual poem accompanies the line The past is thick, and the present thin:

       Entes… Entes…

Readers will make of this what they will. For me, it conjures up the impression of a train crossing a long bridge with a series of arches.  The train is full of beings, entities…it is the journey through life.

In another piece of text, reference is made to Nathaniel Mackey’s book Bass Cathedral which is made up of letters from a musician and composer called N. to a confidante he addresses as Angel of Dust.

The poems and prose poems that make up this collection may appear on the surface to be diverse but there is much that connects them together. References to space (the sky, galaxies, the universe), physics and science—in particular radiation (Fukushima, black cones), mathematics (measurement, intuitionist mathematics), jazz (Misha Mengelberg, Eric Dolphy, Han Bennink and Nathaniel Mackey’s Bass Cathedral), human rights (Berta Cáceres), journeys (Katsumi Omori: “I must go to Fukushima,” Charles Darwin’s journey on H.M. S. Beagle, our own journey through life), grief (Pushkin grieving for Beauty, the Hondurans for Berta Cáceres, Tabios for her beloved dog and compassion (a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas) are the main threads which piece this tapestry together.

Even though all twelve of the lines [plus one symbol] from the original poem in Hiraeth are quoted in bold print, four of them [plus that one symbol] remain freestanding. With lines like Absence is a singe and But love is also / a source of difficulty words may not be adequate to express the depth of emotion that these lines convey. It is enough to leave them be.

Comprehending Mortality—a title which calls to mind Wordsworth’s ode  Intimations of Immortality (written from a somewhat different perspective)—is a sustained reflection on the state of being subject to death. The cover art of a bronze object “Owl on a Frog” [ca. 1620] cast in Austria but housed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982, is a fitting illustration of how frogs fall prey to owls and how death comes to all of us at the end of our lives.

In the end it is our fragility and the vulnerability of our planet that is our Achilles heel. We need that encaustic—that preservative wax—to protect the fragility of paper. Recommended.


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 books 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) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017).