Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, translated by Tiffany Tsao. Artarmnon, NSW: Giramondo, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-925818-10-9
I began writing this review during Easter, which in retrospect seems rather appropriate. Norman Erikson Pasaribu, in Sergius Seeks Bacchus, interrogates Christianity and its rituals, and the presumption of an exclusionary principle in which the Elected partake of the joys of paradise and resurrection. Throughout this collection of cascading sadness, the poet counters the exclusionary through a kind of imagist rationality in order to celebrate a longed for inclusivity of gender in all its possibilities. The exclusionary is layered, as a member of the Christian Batak community in a predominantly Muslim nation, and most essentially as a gay man in a conservative society.
The scope of the book, however, does not seek to make marginality the poet’s imprimatur but to insist upon a glorious inclusivity. By employing the aesthetics of distance, which reminds me somewhat of the technique of Ocean Vuong, Pasaribu orchestrates a visionary inclusivity counterpointed with tragic examples of ruined lives, lives cut short in brutal and sordid circumstances, lives which suffered exclusion from family, and were tethered in social ridicule and distaste. As a counter-narrative to this the poet sets up images of a society transformed where the excluded can be fully present, in love and ordinariness.
Sergius Seeks Bacchus begins with some highly charged personal poems. ‘Erratum’ presents a break with the family:
and here, not long after his first book came out,
as his family sat cross-legged together and ate,
he told them it wouldn’t end with any girl,
much less the Toba or Karo kind,
and here as he stood by the side of the road
that night, all alone, cars passing him,
Don’t ever come back, Banci,
and he wept under a streetlight, frightened
as the first drops of rain misting his hair,
The poetry then moves outwardly from self-reflection to the wider world and to encompass suffering as family, as faith, as prototype at the beginning of Christian history. In the titular poem, Pasaribu looks to the early Christian lovers, Sergius and Bacchus:
…With him you’ll rise
up to heaven and wonder at how familiar
it all feels. Hand in hand, you two will stroll the streets,
introducing one another to everyone you meet.
The locus of the catacombs reveals its modern equivalent in ‘On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Car Park at fX Sudirman Mall’:
…A friend dismissed
their feelings as unnatural urges
but each of them knows who he is now. Both
are sure the longing they feel is genuine longing
and the love in their hearts is the same love
that made Sergius and Bacchus one,
and the loneliness they feel in their vacant rooms
is no different from John Henry Newman’s from 1876 to his death,
What follows is a series of poems dedicated to those who have died young and broken. Christy, in ‘Cooking Instant Noodles at the End of the Rainbow’:
…wanted to be buried cute –
in pink ribbons, foundation, a little powder,
blush, mascara, and a frilly dress.
…They found her body
underneath a bridge. She’s been saying she missed
the taste of her mother’s sayur lodeh.
In ‘What the Dead Asks from the Departed’, a friend falls in love:
…But one night you showed up sobbing, I caught
something from him, your neck swollen, teeming with blisters
like a piece of barbari bread…
…Just before Christmas I heard you were dead:
the blood from your wrists flooded your parents’ bathroom floor.
Pasaribu successfully opens up this world of sadness, incorporating it into a paradisaical vision of inclusivity. This is seen at its most epiphanic in ‘Scenes from a Beautiful Life’ where in ‘an imaginary park/in the heart of the city’ complete with ‘the grove of pines, the grassy lawns/dotted with all kind of flowers’:
All the waria in the city work there.
Males-to-females as gardeners and street sweepers,
security guards, vets, and arborists,
landscape architects and accountants,
recreation managers and lifeguards too –
ready to dive in after anyone
who can’t figure out how to get back
to land. They’ll never go hungry again,
never have to wait for the cars
that slow, then stop.
One integrating feature of the collection is the employment of the Tree as a protean metaphor. There are suggestions of a wider cultural metaphor through such symbolism as the Tree of Life, or in referencing the Crucifixion, through the Tree as Sacrifice, but the overriding sense of the presence of the Tree is through loving connection, as a panoply of leafy green in verdant inclusivity. A withering of foliage is suggestive of the absence of truth. In ‘Poetry’, the closeted protagonist presents a candid appraisal:
This whole time, loneliness has been your leafage,
green and shaggy and lush. What a fine tree,they all think,
on the verge of buzzing with bees and bursting with fruit.
But you’re withering,
your trunk and twigs diminishing, the benalu
in your branches eating away at your heart.
In ‘He and the Tree’, a number of approaches are brilliantly entwined, with the poet seeking ‘forgiveness for his grandad, the palm oil/company’s founder’ from a tree weeping for ‘his childhood friend who had been ripped/from the earth.’:
The tree regretted not telling his friend that he loved him.
If he were here, he would take him to a church. At the altar
they would be joined together before god, who had three branches
– like a tree – and their children would fill the lot, every
single square inch, so that someday everyone who passed
would think a forest had sprung up in the city’s heart.
In ‘Curriculum Vitae 2015’, the poet reflects on the trauma of childhood, with shunning from family and community:
6) Some of the neighbours forbade their kids from playing
with him and his brothers because his family was Batak
10) One Sunday morning, his father took him and his
brothers to jog and play soccer on a badminton court
nearby. You banci! His father screamed in front of everyone.
However, at almost 23, the poet ‘felt that he was male. And he saw it wasn’t bad.’ (57)
In this big-hearted, sometimes grungy and ultimately celebratory book, Sergius and Bacchus imagines a time:
whenever anyone is walking alone in the dark they will
hear from every window on every building on both sides
of the street, voices reaching out, ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’
Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about the Asian region. Her latest book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020).