By Denise Low and Thomas Fink

(May 2022, Napa Valley)

White roses bring
snow amidst

The same white
of ashed

The same white
of pages

of solutions with
consolation existing

by smoothening issues
into virtual

flattening substance into
white roses

as if wars

against the climate
against Kharkiv

Kyiv, against Chernihiv
against Mariupol

Kherson, against Mykolaiv
against Odessa

Sunflowers whose gold
whitened into

Denise Low:  I have been following your daily walk posts on Facebook. Is this poem written in response to those walks, directly or indirectly? What influence have the walks had on this poem and/or your other writing?

Eileen Tabios: Indeed, this poem wouldn’t exist were it not for my daily walks. I’m currently living in a rental house while we try to remediate our home, which was hit by one of California’s mega wildfires. When I approach this house, I mostly do it by driving on a driveway that leads to the garage. From inside the garage, I enter the house through a door into the kitchen. This is to say, I rarely spent time on the front yard since our outdoor living occurred in the backyard. When I began my walks, I would start by walking out the front door and thus got to know the front yard terrain. As I walked out one day, I noticed the border of white rose bushes. You can see a picture on Moss Trill which published the poem in May 2022, shortly after I wrote it.

Low: The title “Candescence” (a weaker version of incandescence) suggests the idea of a state of glowing or shining, which in turn suggests a possibly aesthetically pleasing effect, yet by the end of the poem the term is conflated with a destructive “white” and “whitened”—voids and afterglow of bomb destruction. How did you come to that word? What implications do you see in re-imagining the usually positive end of the polarity black-white to be a negative?

Tabios: The roses were gorgeous and even luminous under the sunlight. For me, it evoked snow because California had long been suffering from the drought and perhaps I was wishfully thinking that the roses could be snow, implying water, to alleviate this problem.

But the image of white also reminded me of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through the first protest poem I wrote on it, a monostich as follows:


All roses became gray.

I pictured that “gray” from white ash since the Russian shelling of Kharkiv turned the city into ash. The Russians invaded just about two months before I wrote the poem. I believe I saw images in the press of the bombed-out city. So the white component of the rose image evoked, for me, the white ashes of Kharkiv. Because what was evoked was a tragedy, I deliberately chose a more muted version of “incandescence,” thus, “candescence.”

Thomas Fink: Though it is part of the final section, “Poems for Ukraine,” in your new book BECAUSE I LOVE YOU, I BECOME WAR, “Candescence” is situated in Napa Valley, your home turf. Why did you wish to emphasize this location?

Tabios: By “location,” do you mean Ukraine? I emphasized its location because the Russian invasion was a timely event that related exactly to the themes of the book that included wars, as noted in the title, BECAUSE I LOVE YOU, I BECOME WAR.

But if, by “location,” you mean Napa Valley, the emphasis was organic. I live in Napa Valley and if the political is personal, I incorporated my “self” by using my location. This relates to a hidden—and an unexpected—personal response to Russia’s invasion which I had not anticipated because, truthfully, I’d not paid much attention previously to that part of the world. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolded at about the same time that, in another part of the world, the son of Martial Law dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. was elected to be the new President of the Philippines. When I look at the rigorous bravery of the Ukrainians in fighting back against Putin’s invasion, I wished for that same rigor and moral fortitude that I thought was lacking in many Filipinos who voted for Marcos, Jr.  So I placed myself—through my location and the roses in my front yard—into the mix of poems for Ukraine.

Obviously, the above is a personal matter that need not be of concern to the reader, but it answers your question. Fortunately, I feel the poem works without knowledge of my answer. The reference to Napa Valley under the title then simply could be—as has been used in other poems—a location of where the poem was written.

Low:  Short lines work so well here. How did you make choices as you crafted your lines?

Fink: And what prompted you to utilize the reverse hay(na)ku form—which, like the one-two-three of the regular hay(na)ku, makes enjambment very noticeable—for this poem?

Tabios: The poem is written in a new poetry form I conceptualized over two decades ago, the hay(na)ku, which is a tercet with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words. That word-count constraints explain the shortness of lines. Variations to the core tercet form are allowed, and my poem is written in “reverse hay(na)ku” where the word count is 3-2-1. (Interestingly, I just found out that Charles Bernstein also conceived of this variation but called it “ku(na)hay”—his poem with the same title appears in The Best American Poetry 2008.)

Nowadays, I write a lot in the hay(na)ku form because I find it to be an encouraging form. That is, while it might be daunting to write a poem when one is unsure of what to write, the hay(na)ku’s beginning of merely one word or, if in the reverse variation, only three words eases the pressure for me. Like, surely I can muster one word or three words. I find that if I can get past the beginning of the poem, the poem then flows with ease.

Yet I more often write in the reverse hay(na)ku form because it begins with three-word lines—I think that’s easier than one word, in part because I’m really more of a maximalist rather than minimalist. This reminds me that one tip to writing great hay(na)ku is to avoid single-word lines where the word is an article like “the,” “a,” “an,” and so on. A single-word line should not lose impact simply because the line is one word, and these articles are too passive or flat. For example,

White roses bring
snow amidst

it would be as effective, in my opinion, in the non-reverse form to read

roses bring
snow amidst drought—

But you can’t say the same with the second and third stanzas. The second stanza of

The same white
of ashed

would be, in the non-reverse form,

same white
of ashed cities—

That first line of “The” is not resonantly effective.

As well, this poem is a hay(na)ku variation by being a “chained hay(na)ku” or a hay(na)ku with more than one tercet. As you, Tom, noticed, this form does enact a propulsion—a forward flow of energy in its reading that’s applicable here, especially in the poem’s second half.

Fink: The poem seems to lament the fruitlessness of “virtual images” as “consolation,” with the anaphora “as if” guiding a brief catalogue of what cannot be consoled and how “issues” (of climate change and Russia’s war against Ukraine) are not solved. First, what is the resonance for you of the adjective “virtual” preceding the noun “images”? I take it that the “white roses” of the first tercet are not the same as the “roses/blossoming” as a result of the “flattening” of “substance,” but if I’m off base, say so. Given your oft-articulated poetics linking poetry, love, recognition of commonality with all beings, and in general, the positive effect of poetry, am I correct to think that “Candescence” does not actually second W.H. Auden’s assertion, “Poetry makes nothing happen” in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” but has some other rhetorical intent?

Tabios: Well, kudos on the wide range of this paragraph that presents three different questions! So, first, “virtual” resonates (for me) when applied to images because of the ubiquitous place of the internet / social media / smart phone cameras within our culture today. So an “image” could be what we see in person, but I bet we are seeing, or paying more attention nowadays, to as much if not more images generated virtually. And that poses challenges, such as it relates to your second question.

The first tercet’s white roses are the same and also not the same as what’s referenced in the middle of the poem because the first reference relates to actual roses that I (or the poem’s protagonist) is seeing/smelling/touching. But the later white roses are its photographed image that becomes virtual. The changeover is of course a metaphor for how important—and actual—matters (like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) become flattened into their online reports.

Finally, as to the third question of whether “Poetry makes nothing happen,” the poem does not intend to echo Auden’s assertion. But neither does it deny its possibility. Whether a poem can make something happen is part of the poem’s effect on the reader. And each reader is different from another. For instance, would this poem make a reader(s) reconsider what’s happening in Ukraine and take action, rather than just being an online voyeur to that war’s unfolding? Note that this poem is open-ended on this issue because it’s not the poem’s responsibility to exhort the reader into a particular action (it can be the case for other poems). That said, and relatedly, I as the poet—not the poem—remind readers that there are ways we can support the Ukrainians as they fight back against Russia’s invasion. I, for one, have supported World Central Kitchen’s initiative to help feed the thousands of families who have had to flee from their homes in Ukraine—here’s Newsweek’s coverage:

Low: This poem caught me off guard: the contrast of snow and drought, yes, but at the phrase “ashed cities” my heart responded with sorrow; this emotion built all the way through to the arresting, grief-filled final lines. Would you consider this in an elegiac tradition and why? If so, in what ways yes and what ways no?

Tabios: Without being conscious of it in the beginning, a few years ago almost every poem I wrote started to be in the elegiac tradition. No doubt, that resulted partly from how turning older has made me more aware of mortality and that its constraint was not only for me as my body aged but for the planet as it struggles under the attacks inflicted upon it by humans, the planet’s most dangerous species. Russia’s war in Ukraine is existential in part due to its political implication—are we still, in this day and age, going to revert back to allowing a strong-man dictator to create or inflict such a momentous event that’s killing so many people, and happening through technology in a manner where no one on the planet can turn their eyes away?  That issue and other concerns, in my observation, have prevented environmental impact from receiving full attention since the priority is—must be?—on the war itself. Note that the poem cites first “the climate” before it lists the attacked Ukrainian cities and then Ukraine’s national flower, the sunflower.

Yes, the poem is elegy—to paraphrase, another sunflower… whose gold is whitening into gray.


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