Leny Strobel


Notes on THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems and New 1998-2010 by Eileen R. Tabios
 (Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2010)

My Relationship to The Rosary:

I am not Catholic and do not pray The Rosary and so do not remember how I came to memorize Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. Perhaps from the catechism class in elementary school or from hearing the rosary recited at funerals, masses, and other Catholic rituals that seeped their way into my consciousness.

I’ve always felt envious of my Roman Catholic friends. Growing up non-Catholic, I was forbidden to set foot inside the cathedrals and so the glimpses that I got of the ornate altars, saint statues, stained glass windows, frescoes, and places of rituals made me wish that my own church wasn’t so austere and bereft of such symbols. To this day The Rosary, as a symbol that carries History, fascinates me.

The Rosary has five sets of beads called decades; each decade is composed of one large (Our Father) and ten smaller beads (Hail Mary). A small bead in between the decades is for Glory Be.

The Rosary is a contemplation on the sorrowful, joyful, glorious, and luminous mysteries of the life of Christ and his Mother Mary.

If, according to indigenous Filipino theologian Melba Maggay, the Filipino encounter with Catholic Christianity was a mere exchange of symbols, of trading brown anitos for images of Mary and Jesus, then is the Rosary really an anting-anting, a Christianized amulet, by which the believer invokes a power greater than one’s self? Or a means of accessing the spirits and the spirit world?


My Relationship to The Thorn Rosary:

Archbishop Fulton Sheen:  The Rosary is the book of the blind…the simple, the aged… this first epigraph to Eileen Tabios’ 18th print poetry book, The Thorn Rosary: Selected Prose Poems and New 1998-2010, startles me. But I get it. It is apropos to open this book with this quote. The power of the rosary is beyond description … and this is true as far as it has been almost impossible to articulate the conflation of religion and colonial epistemic and psychic violence. Whatever has been written and said about this, something else is always left unsaid. In the Filipino experience, it is a rare poet who dares to do so.

Perhaps The Thorn Rosary is a trope for that stale tongue, how to find maps in snow (Fatima Lim Wilson) or as Paz Benitez would have it: If you are a good Catholic, you cannot write poetry; you have many confusions (21).  But what to make of these confusions? Paz Benitez didn’t foresee that someday a poet would find a way to create Beauty out of such confusions. Eileen Tabios does.

The Thorn Rosary represents a decade (plus 2 years) of prose poetry by Eileen Tabios, selected by the book editor Thomas Fink. For almost the same number of years, I have engaged Eileen’s poetry as a lover of language, as someone who has learned to intuit meanings out of abstract language. What I have written about Eileen’s poetry [1] is an answer to the invitation of Poetry, to the power of language—when sometimes I feel it is all I have to touch the ineffable and make it fecund. For as David Abrams has eloquently written in The Spell of the Sensuous, my imagination, as a modern person, has been alphabetized and consequently, now aches to reconnect with the mind’s sensuous aspect.  I have found Poetry, specifically Eileen’s poetry, to be this vehicle.

Perusing The Thorn Rosary, I am thinking that I could perhaps sort out the poems in this book into its own mysteries—sorrowful, joyful, glorious, luminous—as in The Rosary. But how?

I do not know how. But I do notice, through the process of fishing, [2] that I could string my own beads in this book:

Page 25 There is only the Breaking of Silence
Page 27 She was beginning to understand/some pale bravado/in her horizontal line
Page 37 You are lost the instant you know what the result will be
Page 40 Intuition in its first spiritual moment is the pure form of artistic imagery
Page 43 something other than what it is
Page 53 Duende —it exposes with insistence just a half-breath away from savagery
Page 55 I carry the light of all countries/everywhere I go
Page 69 You wished to know how long I can retain my Idealism
Page 111 That absence is a clearing of space for the Reader
Page 135 as we both know, speaking the Word is speaking Identity?
Page 139 one that treats you, and the world you live in, with equal respect
Page 151 Fly Luminously, Please
Page 157 Many alternatives exist,
Page 173 because I truly, truly want to be good
Page 229 healing power [that] comes from woundedness
Page 237 How much do we need to know to master the past?
Page 257 How would I stop pondering the imponderable
Page 262 to bring a poem into the world
Page 267 You y You are We
Page 297 I’m walking the angel home to its body,… in unborrowed light

After making the twenty notations above, I noticed that I have often chosen epigraphs. Now I consider these as the dividing beads in this rosary I am making which clues me in on the various themes throughout the book. Without a narrative to follow, I choose instead to let my imagination dance, let my eyes lead me to found phrases, lines that speak to me—out of which I make my own rosary. In the Catholic Rosary, every mystery would contain five beads, twenty in all. 

This is the success of Eileen’s poetry. See Thomas Fink’s and Joi Barrios’ essays in this book—they too have tried to ride this Beauty, tried to frame it within certain boxes (the former as an extension on work done on the prose poem form by Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery and Language poets; the latter as following up on early female Philippine poets and storytellers)—still these poems always escape their boxes.  How slippery to categorize a poem like “Enheduanna #10”, replicated here in its entirety:


And you find it difficult to leave New York City.  You chased her as a ghost peeking around street corners, lurking within the brow of a sunlit sky, ducking behind other women who wear her colors as expensive reproductions packaged by faux scientists in white coats, and dined with her in a private club whose mahogany-paneled location also now slips away from your memory.  It is difficult to leave the island which failed to be small enough for your fingers to limn through hers as she shyly turns away from your burning gaze.  As you see the air beyond your round window shimmer from the roar of the airplane’s engine, you feel a blurred face toss a wave of hair to fall as a drape over a fragile eye.

“All that is left today of the church in this riverbank hamlet are four bullet-scarred walls.  The roof was blown off.  The wooden pews are splintered, the statue of Jesus smashed to pieces.  The floor is covered with blood and maggots, evidence of the worst loss of civilian life in a single day in Colombia’s seemingly endless civil conflict.” And you frown as you anticipate that this latest news from Bellavista, Colombia will cause her eyes to leak diamonds that will etch her cheeks before dropping as rubies onto a cold hotel floor.

You have learned enough to realize her fingers falter now as she writes this last poem from your perspective because ten is the Buddhist number for perfection.  You have learned enough to know she prefers writing Beauty, like how Bianca Jaigler uses a soaring lady’s slipper orchid to sculpt the image of an alighted butterfly.  “Like a bouquet of Phalaenopsis orchids and Renown Unique tulips in a vase wrapped in stems of Cornus flaviraea green (yellow-stem dogwood)” staring at her now from a magazine as she writes your presence.  As, once more, she helplessly writes your presence.

But it is her time to leave your mind, and write from hers.  From her midtown hotel, she already feels the loss of a skyline robbed of “twin towers, shimmering silver, perfectly symbolizing the limitless aspiration and promise of New York City.”  She reads the same newspaper you are reading and empathizes with those “hunger(ing) for an anchor in the clouds.”  To be a poet is to be in the moment so that one chooses well how to absent one’s self from the work.  She feels she chose well by succumbing to your “I” through ten poems.  Now she must release you to gather in the pain she expects to find in this city, to spare you from an anguish she recognizes she must hold as her own.

You understand all of this for you are a man with a steel spine.  But you have learned enough so that you are moved to whisper as you look down over a city of skyscrapers piercing the clouds, “In England there are glazed chintzes with sprays of rose, peony, hydrangea and gladiola whose names evoke the life of country houses: Bowood, Amberley, Sissinghurst, Sutherland.  There are linens called Lamorna or Serge Antique which come not in white and gray but toast and oyster.  There is a tapestry fabric called Marly, from whose complex greenery small red berries occasionally burst.  In London there is a room from where I shall always read and write you.  My Love, oh my dear Love, you never imagined my longing, my missing you.”

While “Enheduanna #10” may contain elements of the traits noted in Fink’s and Barrios’ essays,  it’s worth noting that it also manifests the (Filipino) indigenized point of “kapwa” (shared Self or shared Identity), and would seem to emanate from what Filipino novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez’s  view of “sacred time and space” as he wrote about “mythic man.”  Specifically, time and place is conflated within “Enheduanna #10,” befitting how, as Gonzalez described this mythic time, the human standing on earth could reach up to touch sky and in that moment of (inter)connection, the human is connected to all creatures across all time and lands. Despite the deep emotional persona-content of the poem, the poem was partly constructed by Eileen collaging in text found randomly in various reading material physically surrounding her as she was writing the poem.  What trust the author placed in interconnections!

And, if the angels are doing their work, the reader who lingers around these poems soon returns to the body, sets the book down, stands up and simply begins to …. Dance!

(At this time, I have put on Grace Nono’s CD, Diwa, http://www.skyinet.net/~taomusic/gracenono/disc_diwa.html  and I take a break…..)

Resuming writing a half hour later:  The angel coming home to its body shows up in Eileen’s life as well. Eileen is now mother to 14-year-old Michael. If you want to see how she performs the dance of motherhood as embodiment of her poetics, check out her The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys (http://angelicpoker.blogspot.com/) blog.  Check out the final new prose poems that close the book…here we see that what is bracketed is also visible; e.g., from “Synopsis #1”:

Under his left eye, he has a scar that people never see but recall in memory. [Once, a famous painter whispered,” When you see the glass, you do not see its transparency.”] (305)

Nothing hidden. The light breaks through. Shadows no longer threaten. All is illuminated.

While it may not be possible to walk the angel home to its own body except in its borrowed tongue, English, it is possible to do so in unborrowed light.


Once upon a time the eyewitness to the rituals of a Babaylan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babaylan ; http://www.babaylan.net ) told of her altered states of consciousness when she did her healing, her communing with the spirits. They didn’t understand her language but they accepted the efficacy of her relationship with the spirit world. They trusted her. They knew she had access to this world. (Why else did the Spanish friars in the 15th century  embark on the project of exterminating these Babaylans?). [3]

Does a poet like Eileen also perform, symbolically, the role of a Babaylan? If the Babaylan is able to ferry a person in-between worlds, or is able to summon a wandering soul back to the body, or plead with the spirits to be kind and generous, or negotiate a propitiation—can a Babaylan-inspired poet do the same?

Sometimes reading poetry, for me, is learning how to dive for one’s own meaning. In diving one learns, senses, embodies. This I have learned from my engagement with Eileen’s body of work over the past decade. [4]

If according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, The Rosary is “a meditation for the blind, the simple, the aged.” is it then possible that the The Thorn Rosary is that which pricks the meditation in order to return us to our own bodies? Our bodies that aren’t blind, not simple, not aged.

Isn’t this the work of  babaylan poetics—to walk the angel back into its body in unborrowed light (see Eileen’s Babaylan Poetics blog at http://babaylanpoetics.blogpost.com ) . Eileen creates her own light, a luminosity that is also sorrowful, joyful, glorious…the light is unborrowed because it has already taken upon itself all that there is—the world into the poem. It doesn’t ask for a return, only an invitation to dance. The dance of the babaylan.

Isn’t this what the babaylan does? She dances. In wholeness. In ecstasy. A body out of time and space. And when she doesn’t literally dance, she writes Poems that dance. The Poem, like this one, takes your hand and leads your sensuous mind, this mind that descends into the body to become whole and sacred:

after “on God (en Garde)” by Archie Rand

The farmers are monitoring the sky. Rain dilutes sweetness in the grapes. Knuckles knot into themselves, mimic the knees of hundred-year-old grapevines. The cabernet hang like purple testicles. I am always fingering a bunch. Sometimes I pinch off a globe, split its skin before my lips and suck at its membrane. The farmers measure brix mathematically. I want my body to determine truth like Cezanne painted rocks instead of images. When I see the winged shadow glide over the fruit-laden fields of September’s wine country, I know better than to question how my body doubles over. How my mouth gasps. I feel blood flowing out of a creature, somewhere, felled on its path. Its last vision will be a vulture’s open beak. Sweetness, let the harvest begin under the most livid sun. “Sweetness” —perhaps I mean You, dear “God.” Lord, I am praying for life and living—I am making poems. (161)

Hail Mary, mother of Eileen. Blessed are we and blessed are the fruits of our wombs….


1)  I have written various essays about Eileen’s Poetry here: http://home.jps.net/~nada/strobel.htm; http://www.haruah.com/item.php?sub_id=5413; http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/952997020X/the-secret-lives-of-punctuations-vol-1.aspx;

2)  Fishing, in the work of Vince Rafael in Contracting Colonialism, refers to the practice of Filipinos (during the colonial period) who didn’t understand Spanish but would listen to a Spanish friar’s sermon and fish out words that they vaguely understand and then later would make up their own meanings about those words.

3)  See Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous on the reclaiming of the Babaylan tradition in the diaspora. http://babaylanbook.wordpress.com/

4) Eileen’s question to me: Why haven’t you dealt with the issue of sexual trauma in your research on the decolonization process? triggered a long phenomenological meditation on this topic that eventually resulted in my writing about the Babaylan tradition and practice.


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