Thursday, February 12, 2009

Baytan's Cartographies of Desire

Baytan’s Cartographies of Desire

by Ralph Semino Galán

The Queen Sings the Blues, Poems 1992-2002 (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2007, 102 pages), Ronald Baytan’s long-anticipated first volume of poetry, charts the beautiful but bleak landscape of homosexual love and lust, queer desire’s many blissful fruitions and equally numerous frustrations. The 47 poems comprising the compendium map out, as the sequencing seems to suggest, the metamorphosis of a Chinese-Filipino’s gay imaginary from a fairy tale princess to the proverbial queen of the world, a fact that is later confirmed in the illuminating exegetic essay written by the author himself which serves as the tome’s postscript.

Divided into six sections, the collection also immortalizes the queer spaces --- gay bars and bathhouses, cafés and discotheques, backrooms and motel suites, weekend resorts and performance venues --- in Metro Manila and its environs, which are also subject to mutations and permutations. For these liminal places existing in the outermost limits of spatial legitimacy have a temporal if not seasonal dimension, making them vulnerable (and thus valuable to those who will mourn their eventual closure) to the whims of the very same habitués whose epicurean predilection are perversely protean or even mercurial, to say the least.

Cine Café (the topic of discussion in the poem “Seafood” which is dedicated to this fledgling critic) typifies a Filipino queer space in the Metropolis that has undergone not a few transformations due to its former clientele’s lack of loyalty, and the fact that high culture is difficult to market while casual sex (often anonymous) sells like hotcakes. Conceptualized as a venue for the screening of art films, as well as an alternative setting for poetry readings and photo exhibits, Cine Café has then degenerated into a popular blue bar complete with a video room featuring pornographic movies and a shadowy backroom where anything and everything goes in the lascivious dark.

This does not really come (pun intended) as a complete surprise, for as Aaron Betsky articulates in his book Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire, “The purpose of queer space is again ultimately sex: the making of a space either for that peculiar definition of the self as an engine of sexuality or for the act of sex itself.”

But I have sashayed too far on the rarefied catwalk of queer theory. So before I get carried away with my critical ruminations, allow me to accompany the poet-persona in his imaginary high heels (Note: There is a black stiletto beside each page number, not to mention a blue one on the front cover.) as he initially makes tentative forays into the better-lit avenues of gay love until he finally delves deeper into the darker alleys of homosexual desire.

The first part of the book titled “He who sleeps in my lap” contains lyrical verses that shimmer like shantung silk for the sheer strength of the persona’s unbridled faith that true love exists, and that failure in passionate connection is but the obverse side of the same romantic coin. The innocent persona in these poems believes in the workings of destiny (“Crossroad” and “Star-crossed”) in determining the beginning and the end of the affair. Nevertheless, being a true-blue romantic, hope springs eternal in his homosexual heart “that when he wakes up/ I shall be his dream.//” [“He who sleeps in my lap”].

In “Procrastinations” and “The Queen Sings the Blues”, the second and third sections respectively, the persona becomes more daring as he explores the steamier if not seamier side of the homosexual landscape. Aside from Cine Café where one encounters “spent phalluses/ That have shed copious tears/ In rooms filled with longing.//,” Baytan also commemorates the other queer spaces that have shaped his Otherness. But most of these remarkable gay landmarks are gone, like “Giraffe” (“Saints in drag abound/ Here, and men/ Await their first taste/ Of brotherly love.//) and “Blue” (It’s drag night once more./ Same old Shirley, Whitney, Tina,/ And Mariah in boas and sequins/ Belting about love, love, love./”).

The fourth section, “A Cycle for Rodney,” textualizes the persona’s gay (but not necessarily happy) relationship with a foreign national, which is emblematic of postmodern love affairs, interracial or otherwise. The five poems trace the trajectory of the homosexual liaison, from its hopeful birthing (“Bless me, Mama,/ Because like you, I know// Love has found me.//” [“Beginnings”]) to its inevitable demise (“You thought Love is forever./ And now all you have/ Is the parting/ Kiss, the last handshake,…” [“Endings”]).

As the title suggests, the fifth part features poetic “retellings” of Chinese legends and tales about the homosexual persona as a faithful lover and/or beloved as he appears in the Middle Kingdom’s history and lore: “The Cut Sleeve,” “Mizi Xia, Jade,” “Long Yang,” “Pan Zhang,” “Ruiji,” “Ruiji, Mother of Chengxin,” “Quan,” “Qinshu,” and “Emperor Wu, Confession.”

Baytan’s affirmative action in showing these heartwarming examples of gay love countervails his initial statement in his exegetic essay that homosexual romance does not last forever. The poems, in his own words, “emphasize love’s endurance and the joys of finding the One. I decided to retell the Chinese legends and tales... to show contemporary readers positive models of same-sex love in the old Chinese world. The men in the narratives may not have heard of the word “gay” nor saw themselves as “homosexual”… yet the power of the bonds between these men should suffice to tell the reader that love is possible.”

In “Crossing Borders,” the sixth and closing section, the wizened but world-weary persona reexamines his sensual and sexual experiences, making him realize in the process some life lessons with regards to homosexual love and lust. He comprehends for instance in “Distance (ii)” that the body has a language and a memory of its own: “And so I learn/ The body is not transient/ Nor forgetful;” and in “Threshold” that “desire/ Is a habit, a calling of flesh/ And spirit to repeat/ Presences…”

But the most powerful piece of this final cluster, if only because it is the most confessional and thus presumably the most honest as well, must be the last poem which derives its inspiration from the verses of both Louise Glück (“The Sensual World”) and Pablo Neruda (“XX: Tonight I Can Write”). Unabashedly titled “La Puta del Mundo,” the poem perfectly capture’s the persona’s eternal search for love through lovemaking and the resultant disillusionment that goes with it when the beloved decides to leave: “Why should it matter then if I could not/ Keep them or count them? I have lost// Faith in the possibility of encounters,/ In the meeting of lost halves.//”

Baytan’s lush lyrics, both in its luxuriant and lustful sense, plot the emotional arc of the Chinese-Filipino’s homosexual heart as it swings like a pendulum between desire and despair, love and longing, sex and solitude.

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