LODESTAR By Danton Remoto
Monday, April 14, 2008
Aside from Ladlad 3: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing that Neil Garcia and I just published, two new titles show the strength of the gay universe. One comes from the tower of academe; the other from the street corner sangfroid of a beauty parlor.
Ronald Baytan has finally collected his poems in The Queen Sings the Blues (Poems 1992-2002), published by Anvil, the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award winner for Publisher of the Year. In these 47 poems, Baytan show the arc swinging from desire to doom, love to loss, beginning to ending. It is “a decade’s musings on the catwalks of desire . . . from bathhouses to bars, from trains to rooms, from the closet to the stage. . .”
Lest my readers from the Catholic Women’s League and the Opus Dei berate me again for destroying their Monday mornings, let me just quote for you the less “scandalous lines” from this book. For truly, Baytan belongs squarely (pun intended) to that school that produces “raw poetry” as opposed to “cooked,” poetry that is “confessional” as opposed to “cerebralized.” This was a school that gained headway in the 1960s, when the likes of Robert Graves and Philip Booth, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath trawled the subterranean depths of their private pain and private glories to produce gemstones of words that still shimmer to this day.
It’s a word sharp with longing, as in the poem “He Who Sleeps in My Lap,” which was first published in our bestselling and ground-breaking Ladlad 1 anthology. Listen: “My friend/ who sleeps in my lap/ loves someone else./ He says he is a man/ and a man needs a woman/ and I disagree./ We argue until he grows/ tired of talking/ and sleeps in my lap/ on this chilly night./ And I sigh,/ knowing he loves/ someone else/ but still sleeps/ gently in my lap,/ innocent, not knowing/ that I am here/ slaughtering/ one wicked wish/ that when he wakes up/ I shall be his dream.”
Mercifully, our wonderful persona has moved from falling in love with a straight man to falling in love with another gay man. It is a world of plenty, a virtual cornucopia, as in the poem “Seafood.” This luxuriant poem catalogues the many pleasures in a carnal paradise, using the world of the marine kingdom as encompassing metaphor. It’s a poem salty with desire, and it ends like this: “Tonight we go/ Home heavy, and I kinship know:/ Tomorrow will serve another catch/ Of love we could never have enough,/ Of victuals we simply could never love/ Enough.”
To that we say, as the Speedy Gonzales of our childhood TV cartoon days would put it: “Arriva, arriva, andale, andale!”
Pain limns some of the poems, as in “Confession Or, to Mama and Papa Reading Chimera.” In the interest of full disclosure, Chimera was a glossy literary journal that I used to help edit in the late 1990s. One of the controversial works we published was Baytan’s poem, “Bottom.” This new poem was written in reaction to the poet’s parents reading the poem. “As your eyes travel through/ My poem’s pauses, I flinch,/ I swallow/ the hemlock/ of your silence.”
I don’t know how it is now, but during our time in the 1990s, we never told our parents about our gayness. Like many Filipino families, the silence of the lambs was the name of the game. My parents only “knew” when my atrevida sister gave them a copy of Ladlad. My father, who was with the military, said: ‘At least they used white book paper for the book!” And my mother, retired Music teacher, chimed in: “Oo nga!”
In another poem called “Distance,” Baytan writes about an affair that is separated by oceans and time zones. The poet seems to be a non-believer in long-distance relationships. Oh, we have all tried to forge them, to make these long-distance affairs last, but as Baytan wisely observes: “In my mind, you are present/ In all things. But the bed/ Betrays me: It remains half-full./ The quilt of your voice/ Stretches across the continents/ But it cannot keep me warm enough./ Love is all proximity/ And nothing, not even the thought/ You are thinking of me, can/ Equal your return.”
And the silk, satin, and sequins of syllables sparkle in the shimmering poem “Queen,” as well as in an “Elegy for Benjie,” the Queen of Africa. “Yes, Benjie,/ Life is one long drag, one long pageantry,/ But nothing is ever foolish/ Because no queen ever forgets,/ Or is ever forgotten.”
The reigning queen of the beauty parlor is also the topic of Mga Kuwentong Parlor ni Wanda Ilusyonada, published by Psi Com. The writer is anonymous, and it’s a witty and comic romp using gayspeak. “Ang librong ito ay Rated PG. Pa-Gurl. Ito ay koleksyon ng mga kwentong popular tungkol sa pakikipagsapalaran ni Wanda Ilusyonda sa mundong in need for a total makeover. Sa gitna ng mga split ends at patay na kuko ay mga eksenang kabaklaan at paggu-good time, mga pang-o-okray at mga chenelyn bangungot sa buhay. Pwede kang matuwa, pwede ka ring mag-inarte. Pero chikka lang. Ganyan si Wanda, ang pink sheep ng pamilya. Saving the world one chakka at a time bago man lang rumampa.”
The tone is cheeky, the attitude is lighthearted, and the book is funny. It is a far cry from the song “Luhod” of Joey de Leon in his so-called CD that still makes fun of gays as mere denizens of beauty parlors, reducing us to our sexual orientation. I like Joey generally, and once even served as a judge in their Super Sireyna gay beauty contest in Eat Bulaga, but I cannot let pass his recent, condescending attack on gay men. It is just so painfully obsolete. Maybe our good comedian has to overhaul his considerable cache of comic verbal tricks to capture again a younger audience that no longer makes fun of gay me.
Like in this book, whose pulse is set firmly in popular culture and the contemporary world. “Akez si Magdalena, si Mulan. Si Zsa Zsa Zaturnah, si Valentina, si Sailor Moon at lahat ng karakter sa TV, sine, at komiks na pangarap naming magsuot ng costume. . . Akez ay isa sa mga anonymous names sa chatroom, naghahanap ng booking and/or relasyon.”
Or how does one come out to one’s parents? “Sabi daw nung vehykla na bet nang mag-out. ‘Nay, pakiabot naman ng ketchup sa nag-iisang bakla sa mesang it.’ Tapos inabot ng nanay niya ‘yung ketchup . . . sa Tatay nila!
There are many other laugh-out- loud episodes in this book of vignettes, and you’ve got to read them to believe them. Enjoy!