Sunday, August 12, 2018



Evidence of Fetus Diversity edited by Eileen R. Tabios
(Locofo Chaps, Chicago, 2018)

In mid-December 2017, media coverage revealed how, under the Trump Administration, officials at The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the nation’s top public health agency, were discouraged from using seven words or phrases: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.

While reported as a “ban,” the matter was subsequently fleshed out to be one of gauging the political temper of the times and CDC staff concluding that these words would be best avoided in order to garner Adminstration support for its various (proposed) programs.

In an exploration to determine what it might mean to avoid using these words, this anthology was created within seven days after Eileen Tabios sent out a call for submissions. The response was swift and to the point and, given the strength of feeling exhibited here, just the tip of the iceberg.

Twenty-four poems by twenty-four poets (including the editor) make up this anthology. The contributors bring with them a wealth of experience and come from a variety of backgrounds: a folk musician, web-designer and cartographer; a Latinx public health professional; a student of somatic practices and writer on teaching and ecopoetics; a professor of Theatre and teacher of theatre history, research and directing; a librettist; an ESL instructor and visual artist; a math teacher and a graduate pursing a Masters in Asian American Studies and a Masters in Public Health.  In keeping with the spirit of the anthology, diversity is key.

What is so immediately striking about it is the freshness of the writing – you can sense the anger before the ink has dried on the page – and the variety of styles in which the contributors put across their views. There are long and short poems, the short ones being made up almost exclusively of the “banned” words. Each in their own way offer up a tightly-constructed argument.  In "[Fetus]" Barbara Jane Reyes gives us a prose poem consisting of a single paragraph on each “banned” word; in "banned mots," Mark Young offers us a piece of his unique brand of humour as a way of making a point:

Outside the verdant
    Meadows Funeral Home
         in Atlanta is a sign that
             says Go out in Style at a
                 budget price. &, slightly
            smaller: In Coffins, Caskets
       & Urns that have fallen
   out of favour because their
design is science-based.

In "Shoptalk," Aileen Cassinetto charts in footnotes the number of times these terms have been used in peer–reviewed journals and / or tweets by the President of the United States; Sacha Archer offers us a vispo – patterns of a fetus in the womb – made up entirely of the “banned” words; Janice Lobo Sapigao gives us a sestina, (evidence-based, of course!); and Eileen Tabios provides us with a poem whose text sits inside a Google Translate box: English to Filipino.

The anthology is neatly structured. The placing of each poem has been carefully selected to offer variety and contrast. Jose Padua’s contribution, "To My Father on What According to Evidence-Based Assumptions Would Have Been His 102 Birthday", makes for an excellent opening poem because it harks back to a previous age and helps to set the present time in its proper context or show just how much it is out of context. Its emphasis is first and foremost on language. It opens with these lines:

You’re not here to see this.
A president you would
have called a son of a gun,
not knowing the harsher, more
colourful, more beautifully
profane curses we have
in the English language.

This is one bookend of the anthology. The closing one is by Veronica Montes and is appropriately called "The Year in Review" – a term used to head up an essay frequently used in academic circles and peer-reviewed journals to sum up the year’s achievements…a title that is, in this case, a quiet irony in itself.

Behind these poems a number of themes are explored. Many are to do with vulnerability. The vulnerability that comes from having to deal with issues of discrimination in all its forms, of finding one’s place in an increasingly alien society, the push for social justice and positive change.

The fact that the “banned” words are the most frequently used words in the whole anthology, that they often appear in the titles of the poems for extra emphasis, that the title of the anthology itself manages to make use of three of the “banned” words is proof of the notion that, as any parent or teacher knows, attempts to ban something or discourage something often have the opposite effect.  These words, however, are vital to our humanity. What is the point of getting a handle on the truth if science and education is not science or evidence-based?  Diversity is everything, we have no right to deny anyone their life. To pretend that vulnerability does not exist is to be in deep denial. It is a very real fact of life and a part of being human.

The reverse alphabetical order in which the biographies of the contributors appear at the back has not escaped attention. In keeping with the rest of this book, even this small change in the way we do things is sending out a signal. Another take on the last shall be first and the first last.  Fully 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).