Eileen Tabios’ 147 Million Orphans (MMXI-MML) (gradient books, 2014)

I just finished reading Eileen Tabios’ fascinating book 147 Million Orphans (MMXI-MML), a long serial poem which takes its title from the commonly estimated number of orphans in the world.

According to Tabios, this is “the first book-length haybun poetry collection”; after the haibun, pioneered by the seventeenth-century poet Bashō, the “haybun” is a mixture of hay(na)ku and prose.  The hay(na)ku, of Tabios’ invention, “is a 21st century diasporic poetic form,” which consists of “a tercet-based stanza with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words.”  Each haybun in 147 Million Orphans is inspired by hay(na)ku which contain words from Eileen’s adopted son Michael’s school project (which encouraged him to learn 25 new English words a week).

The book amounts to a powerful (and polyvocal) meditation on orphanhood, adoption, parenthood, education, the poetics of language acquisition, and multiple authorship.  It’s both lyrically intense and structurally adventurous.

Midway through the volume (at MMXXX), collaborative haybun appear, giving the book a surprising and dialogic texture; in early 2013, Tabios invited several poets, including myself, to respond to “assigned” hay(na)ku with prose.  She also enumerated two other constraints: “1) I’d like you at the outset of writing to keep in mind a general theme of orphans. If the writing takes you beyond orphans as a subject, that’s okay of course.  2) This is actually optional: It’d be good if at least one phrase (or sentence) within the prose poem must be considered acceptable to be presented with a strike-through over said words (the strike-through can be interpreted as ambivalence over the words, or any way you look at it).” Other eventual collaborators include William Allegrezza, Tom Beckett, John Bloomberg-Rissman, Michael Caylo-Baradi, Patrick James Dunagan, Thomas Fink, j/j hastain, Aileen Ibardaloza, Ava Koohbor, Sheila Murphy, and Jean Vengua.

This is my contribution to the book, which occupies the “MMXXXVI” position:


tribe savage

intricate complex thesis


We were born into a dowerless present, heires of uninhibited civic-spiritedness. On occasions an electric brightness would shoot out over the radioactive wastes of the earthly cytty in traceable lines assembled by an analogous but discontinued destiny. The wild and pharmaceutical path merged with a popular replacement image, which awkwardly isolated the rise in echoed incense from original asylum. Manufacturers charred the captured mesh of crying isolates. In the western soulcase, research will be delayed. Distributing fuel, we know so little of flight. Like the category of “chance,” the thesis of oure enteric minds was cut from the very top of an impossible page.

[A Note on the Text: The haybun above was derived only from language found either in the hay(na)ku provided or in definitions and quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary entry “orphan, n. and adj.”]

Being presented with a number of constraints, I–somewhat paradoxically–decided to impose another one and “borrow” words from the dictionary in the same way I was borrowing words from Michael’s 8th grade school assignment.  From another perspective, I “adopted” the words, placing them into a textual home.

A free PDF download of 147 Million Orphans is available through gradient books and print copies are for sale through Lulu.

~ by Michael Leong on September 1, 2014.

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