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It is tempting to pile up adjectives in front of poet Joël Tan’s name: gay, Filipino, Californian, activist, eroticist . . . . I can’t believe that Tan would resist such labels, claiming “I want to be just a poet.” I always want to smack such people, and I think I could enlist Joël Tan in such a beatdown, for here is a poet who embraces the layering of subjectivities. “Yes, I am this and this and that too and a little bit more and some of that other thing you can’t even label,” his poems seem to say. For they are full-bodied, adult, complex, living, breathing entities. The collection Type O Negative is aptly named; these poems course with life. To pick them up is to have blood on your hands. We are all implicated in the repetitions and evasions they enact.
The opening poem, set off from the two sections that follow, is a statement on the aesthetics that shape what is to come: “ars poetica filipiniana.” The poem shares the features of most of the poems in the volume: demotic, narrative, entirely in the lower case. All techniques that enact a stream of consciousness. The central conceit: if we could trace the poem “collared & powdered in language” back through its images in the poet’s mind to the poet himself, we would find a person of a certain family and race with a particular job and sexuality, but it would not be enough. The poem and the poet can’t resist the lure of the ineffable—not just what is desired but the very nature of desire: compulsion and obsession.
The first section, “thicker,” explores the meaning of family (the blood that is thicker than water) for the poet growing up in the Philippines. There is much repetition of primal events during the poet’s childhood—a dawning awareness of same-sex attraction, what some (though not perhaps the poet) would call molestation by an uncle, the complex relationships with an adoring/disappointed father, an overbearing/distant mother and a jealous/distracted nanny who will become his father’s second wife. There is also repetition within these otherwise loose free verse poems through the use of refrains and, occasionally, tercets. These structuring mechanisms reign in the free verse that carries us along by sonic devices, utilizing unusual breaks within and between lines.
The second section, “bug,” with its portentous epigraph from the book of the prophet Joel about the plagues of biblical times, resonates with the poet Joël’s experience as an HIV educator/activist during the AIDS plague in the United States. We encounter a poet who has seen a lot of suffering and death but is still able—or, perhaps, therefore able—to celebrate the life-giving forces that combat despair in the face of an epidemic. Fighting a bloody battle, the poet remains sanguine. In this section, repetition is the very essence of the poetry. Most of these poems use recursive forms: villanelles, pantoums, sestinas.
Why so much repetition? Partly, the Whitmanesque desire to contain multitudes. But mostly, the enactment of a repetition compulsion, to compensate for absence, cope with trauma, work through repression, attempt mastery over loss. Tan repeatedly asks difficult questions: Is the sex between the poet’s child self and his uncle abuse or initiation? Do sensationalistic stories about bug chasers fascinate because they disgust or intrigue us? These are part of larger questions: What yokes together Eros and Thanatos? Do we embrace or run from such freedom as we are able to obtain through struggle? Are the mechanisms the same for desire and trauma? Joël Tan is willing to imagine possible answers, taking us along on his journey of discovery.
TYPE O NEGATIVE
by Joël Barraquiel Tan
Red Hen Press
Paperback, $19.95, 109p