It's a trope of the last Empowerment Century that personal trauma makes for great art. That false understanding has led to the development of effective art therapies, some really bad art, and even more really bad poetry. (Most of all, it has led to the establishment of a new performance discipline -- one-woman shows -- but that's another story.)
Yes, when trauma poetry's bad, it's horrid. But when it's good, it's very very good: a transformation of personal compulsion towards pain into a shared compulsion towards the sublime. That's been poet and cultural worker Joël Barraquiel Tan's project throughout his career. His second book, the incandescent Type O Negative, throws away as much of the chat and meter and matter of poetry as the poet can get away with, digging toward the vein of fire that, whatever its source, animates both poetry and memory. Tan finds it more often than not.
The book is divided into two sections. "Thicker," is about Tan's Philippine childhood and his family, the title both a reference to the relative density of blood and water, and a carnal take on the figures and obsessions of those tasked with his upbringing. "Bug" is about death, primarily death by that bug, AIDS, but also cancers, toxic shock, even roadkill: the nonviolent, nontraditional deaths of the marginalized American. The lacuna between this before and after -- the poet doesn't say -- is that much-storied "immigration experience," which Tan parodies and disposes of ruthlessly in his introductory "ars poetica filipiniana:"
to pass mangoes 'round
until they're bruised
abscessed from over handling
or lament the bread
warm hands of dying
enough to be defined
by exile or empire
or scorn the
love of whites. Just
isn't enough to be brown.
To put it plainly, the trials of the immigrant pale when shoved between "Thicker" and "Bug," between, on the one hand, Tan's father's palpable and disturbing sexuality, and his childhood sexual abuse/awakening by a teenaged uncle; and, on the other hand, his American queer coming of age during a time when mentors, guides, and lovers were falling to AIDS by the quilts-ful.
"Thicker" twines deliciousness and debilitation so closely together, we don't know how to name this childhood sexuality: an outrage or a gift. Contrasted with "Thicker's" deliberately lush free verse, "Bug's" discrete pieces, each dedicated to a dead friend, regulate panic and devastation within traditional poetic forms. Tan's favorite form is the pantoum, its rocking, hesitant forward motion mimicking the fearful movement into relationships, sexual liaisons, and simply forward into a life that offers the same tragedy, over and over.
Type O Negative is haunted, on both sides of the lacuna, by deathbed scenes: Tan's grandfather, father, mother, nanny, and a whole generation of friends. The first piece in "Bug," a pantoum titled "minutes," counts off the 10-minute increments allowed to each friend of a dying man to say their goodbyes. You realize later that this is the scheme of the whole book, incremental seances to revive and again dismiss the ghosts who are more powerful in the poet's memory and imagining than the living.
And yet the book is not a book of the dead. The child Tan and young man Tan, in these scenes, are played by today's poet in youthful drag, and not by the ghosts of his former self. These are conversations between the remembered dead and the now-living, adjusted for the benefit of an audience. For Tan, like his predecessor Li-Young Lee, is both held to and blessed with a devastating, dramatic family background, whose details are a mine of symbolism for every hot topic of contemporary life. Tan's pain is not our pain, but the beauty he transforms it into is ours for the reading.