Friday, May 30, 2008

Mangohig's Visual Pleasures Versified

Mangohig's Visual Pleasures Versified

Desire in its many declensions is seldom tackled in Philippine poetry with such a great amount of candor and charisma, for sexual matters, like so many things better left unsaid, have always been considered as a taboo topic in our traditional, almost medieval, Roman Catholic society. But Arvin Abejo Mangohig, in his first volume of verses titled The Gaze: Poems [Quezon City: UP Press, 2004, 87 pages], dares to transgress this forbidden ground twice over by textualizing the dangerous geography of gay love and lust.

The 74 poems in this collection chart the homosexual body's manifold hidden valleys of pain, as well as its mountain peaks of pleasures. For Mangohig commemorates in his gay erotic poetry the consummation of passion and its aftermath, love reciprocated or unrequited, and the myriad constellation of stars and scars connected to the fantasy/ reality dichotomy of romantic relationships.

The title poem provides the thematic thread of the entire collection, which revolves around the bittersweet landscape of casual encounters and sexual escapades: "I am what makes you go to fractal places/ what makes you believe in meetings by chance." ["The Gaze"].

There is much voyeurism and scopophilia in Mangohig's work, and nothing and no one is spared of his persona's penetrating homosexual gaze: nameless gay men having sex in restrooms, lovers real or imagined, himself masturbating, even the lovemaking of his own parents. Here are some exemplary samples: "When I saw them, my first two men, making love/ right in front of me, beautiful in their context,/ in a public toilet, in the middle of the day,/" ["Anonymous"], "After the first bout of lovemaking, spent/ yet strangely very much rested, gathering energy,/ I would ask only lovers who I knew loved me back/ when and where they got that particular scar//" [How Not to Forget a Lover], "Days and weeks and months of staying inside/ the house, touching no one but myself/ I feel my skin growing thick above me,/ ["Metamorphosis"], "Someday I will ask my mother/ how they made me: doggy-style?/ missionary? some position that/ can be represented by a number?// ["The Voyeur"].

Mangohig also celebrates certain components of the male anatomy in a subsection of the book aptly titled "Body Parts." In evocative-cum-provocative poems like "wrist," "armpit," "nipples," "ear," "birthmark," "toenail," "pubic hair," "back," "thigh," "eye," "finger," he catalogues every minute detail of the homosexual physique. But my personal favorite is "asshole," in which the paronomasia becomes both sexual and self-depreciating "… puckering/ like an asshole being rimmed, asshole/ that you turned out to be,/ asshole that I loved.//"

Jamake Highwater, in his very fascinating book titled The Language of Visions: Meditations on Myth and Metaphor, compares "The Hanged Man" of the tarot pack with homosexuality as metaphor. He avers, without batting an eyelash, that "Homosexuality haunts the public conscience because it is feared as a latent and contagious matter of choice. Yet, through all of this, homosexuality remains a profound metaphor of the unbounded possibilities of desire, just as homophobia persists as a symbol of the limits of the capacity of human beings to cherish one another."

Interestingly enough, Mangohig makes use of the hanged man as a central trope, whether consciously or unconsciously, in one of his poems: "I am hanging upside down. I have fallen/ off the earth for sure this time…" [Out-of-Body Experience]. For the homosexual situation is a life in suspension, but this inverse position is also the source of his resistance, if not outright rebellion, against the strict moral codes of patriarchal society. Since the hanged man, despite his predicament, manages to smile playfully at the world and its prevalent heterosexism, which the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde describes as "the belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance."

But the best poems in the collection are those that deal with genuine desire and true love, for Mangohig is more than capable of rhapsodizing the heartfelt sentiments of a hopeless romantic. In pieces like "Bodies," "Our Own Good," "At the Train Station," "Last Night," "The End of the World," "The Heart-Gut," "At the Library," "Since," "Faithfulness," "First," "(Postmodern) Love Poem," and "A Lover is About to Break My Heart", the poetic persona's byronic self comes to the fore, volcanic but vulnerable, hurting but hurtling through the coordinates of homosexual time and space.

The most poignant of these love poems deserves to be quoted in full: "For no reason other than love/ while shaving I think of you and grow careless// So that my face has become/ a record of the slips of my razor// Each nick adding value/ to my history of bleeding.// ["Shaving"]
Mangohig's gay erotic poetry pushes the envelope of what can be properly verbalized in verses, and thus valorized as art. But by daring to speak about what for most people is unspeakable, he defies the conventions of polite society and good literature through what Jonathan Dollimore labels as a "transgressive aesthetic."

Adventurous readers who want to be startled by the stark images of gay desire and spellbound by the sharp insights on homosexual love should grab a copy of Mangohig's book while supply lasts.

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