Wednesday, February 14, 2007



first adventures of col and sem by Dan Waber
(Kite Tail Press #21, 2007)

Boy oh boy did this book ever irritate me!

So. Yeah, yeah: there I was thinking myself oh-so-smart. So intelligent. So insightful. So wise. So visionary. So so Moi. Etcetera etcetera.

There I was all a-perky over my sharp little self that I even thought to be the one to reveal to the universe “the secret lives of punctuations”—to reveal what punctuations really think, to reveal their usually hidden lives.

A scholar even affirmed the brilliance of my work with punctuations—in this case, a decolonialism scholar. Here’s deep-thinker Leny M. Strobel who, in an essay I’m amazed I didn’t bribe her to write, notes:

What happens when the elided, marginalized and invisible take on center stage on the page?

As I write this, I am reading Postcolonial Melancholia by Paul Gilroy. He asks the same question but in a different but related context. How can we avoid recyling the narratives of an imperial past that has become useless to the present? How do we deal with the post-imperial trauma (of Britain and by extension, the U.S.) that must rely on these recycled narratives to keep the dead empire alive? How do we deal with the Other who now lives in the (dead) empire’s center? How do we get ride of racism that is at the root of Other-ing?

His reply: De-familiarize the familiar. Dis-entangle ourselves from the old narratives. Withdraw our consent from the empire’s attempt to continue fanning the fires of racism and xenophobia in the name of protecting the empire’s image of its glorious past. Face the reality of the traumatic consequences of colonial conquests.

Could it be that one way of doing that is to begin to look at the greatest tool of the empire of the 19th and 205h century: the English language and its grammar rules?

In a way, I see Eileen de-familiarizing punctuations in these poems. In giving them new and not-so secret lives, she challenges the reader to conjure new relationships, new images, new stories.

That essay is part of my 2006 book, The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (xPress(ed). That’s right: “Vol. I”. Someday, I thought, I’d insightfully blather out the gems Vol. II, then Vol. III, Vol. IV etcetera to a universe breathlessly anticipating my insights.

Well. Suffice it to say, Dan Waber may have just aborted that particular journey.

Boy, did he make my blood run cold with his first adventures of col and sem. His bloody book bloody well presents punctuations’ real lives, not through my suddenly-lame strategy of utilizing words but by presenting, indeed, the punctuations themselves!


Here’s an example from my “Parentheticals” which seaks to reveal the secret lives of parentheses:

(dungeons: a waste of marble)

Contrast that with this excerpt from Waber’s book. The book opens with the phrase

they meet

and then punctuations centered on each page. That is, each of the sets of punctuations below are presented one to a page, centered, on a page:

: |

. . |

. | .

. / .

. \ .


! / !

. / ,

. / ?

! \ .

~; :

By presenting images that encourage one to imagine a narrative of a first meeting—a narrative based on mere tweakings of tiny marks—Waber indeed proves himself a master of both minimalism and concrete poetry. The way a straight vertical line relaxes into a slant or the way a question elicits the emphatic answer of an exclamation point—both can aptly mirror the tonal shifts of such a conversation. The latter, for example, could symbolize how col and sem discover something pleasurable in common…!

“Col” and “sem”, I assume, are short for “colon” and “semicolon.” That their names are cut off means the reader has to be the one to complete their identities into, respectively, Colon and Semicolon. This involvement of the reader is synchronistic with how, for the overall project, the reader engagement is critical for the successful unfolding of a meaningful narrative.

I don’t know whether postcolonial issues entered into Waber’s poetics as he explored punctuations. But he certainly did achieve what Strobel admired about “de-familiarizing punctuations ... In giving them new and not-so secret lives, [Waber] challenges the reader to conjure new relationships, new images, new stories”

All without words. Words suddenly unnecessary. How irritating for me to see how deftly Waber proves that saying: Poetry isn’t words.

Even his byline is witty. Not just “by Dan Waber” but instead:

Dan Waber

Colon, get it? Colon: and then the book unfolds.

Sigh. So. This is a witty project sure to be enjoyed by readers who, unlike me, don’t suffer from the delusion they know punctuations better than anyone. I am forced to recommend this book, even as it makes me throw my pen against the wall. Let those letters fall!

The Queen is Dead! Long live the King!

Through Waber’s devious fingers, the punctuations arise!


Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou.


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