April 20, 2011

Review by Yu-Han ChaoType O Negative by Joel Barraquiel Tan

TYPE O NEGATIVE
by Joël Barraquiel Tan

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
ISBN 1597090182
2009, 109 pp., $19.95
http://redhen.org

The overall impression one is left with after reading Joël Tan’s Type O Negative is that of something beautiful being dashed to bits, broken into a dozen lyrical pieces. An elephant named Karama, the poet’s parents, the poet himself, the people of Manila, and dying friends are all eviscerated in terrifying detail into vivid, exotic images.

As a young child, the poet enjoyed elephant sheets and begged for elephant toys. But against this backdrop of childhood innocence, he has already heard rumors of human parts mixed in the animal feed at the Manila Zoo. In “manila zoo / gajendralila,” an elephant at the zoo, Karama, charges into the elephant pit’s rock wall while the young poet watches:

The 3rd blow  cracks the hoary stone
surface   the 4th  snaps her right tusk
zoogoers             motionless         stunned
the frightened cries of children

The elephant is broken, bloodied, tusk shattered, and this image introduces blood and violence early on in the collection as well as in Tan’s life.

Tan’s visceral images of his parents frequently recall body parts and bodily functions. He describes his father’s body with graphic detail in “flash”:

hip bone & belly hair
black triangular flash
tight cherry sac
the graceful swing of papa’s sex

In a moment that Freud would have enjoyed greatly, the poet, seeing his father’s sex through his thin briefs, wants to scream “give that to me! / that belongs to me!” The theme of Oedipal desire or penis envy continues when the father brags to the child that his wife was a virgin.

she took
it like a natural   never cried mama
never does   & the blood
thick & dark

(“sinanglay”)

In a later poem, “elements,” thinking of his mother, her pregnancy and his birth, the poet repeats “shit blood piss cum,” a metaphor for sex and birth all at once while contemplating the image of his mother as a decaying shell. In similar explicit detail, Tan describes his young self from the eyes of a lustful uncle:

flash fry    pudgy little thighs
butter baby
sweet tender hocks   fatty folds

(“sweetmeats”)

Butter and hocks reduce his body to cuts of meat and food, symbolizing a relationship shaped by sexual desire.

In “sweetmeats,” Tan’s Manila Chinatown is also deconstructed into disparate parts: “parasols & pencil skirts / blouses cut low push squeeze plump / powdered cleaves” and the colors are “jackfruit yellow green mango / ube violet starfruit crimson.” In describing his early life, family and Manila, the poet uses foreign words which upon initial reading may leave some readers confused, but the poet provides a note on terms at the end of the book, where the reader will see that gajendralila is a man playing the elephant, tuli means circumcised, and probinsiyana is a hick.

The above poems take place in the Philippines, with its lush scenery, exotic flavors and smells, and the lines often convey a poignant mix of nostalgia and guilt. The poems in the second half of the collection, set in America, seem more focused on stark realism, sexuality, and the poet’s friends, some living with HIV or a “brain tumor, heart-shaped” (“minutes”).

In “gift giver,” a nameless figure who could represent either a person, personified disease or death, “offers the faceless a virus, a destiny a proper name” which involves “the bloom of lesions & the feast of sores.” Another patient who laments “never learning tango or French or the drum” Tan depicts in visceral fragments: “poison blood lung lesions virus rotting the brain” (“knowing nothing”). But even in these gruesome scenarios, the language remains vivid and beautiful, contrasting the bloom of what might have been flowers with lesions and juxtaposing a delicious feast with repulsive sores.

In Type O Negative, Tan contemplates childhood, sexuality, disease and death in lyrical fragments so gorgeous and vivid that readers from any background certainly will appreciate their beauty, especially with the aid of appended notes.

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Yu-Han Chao was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. She received her BA from National Taiwan University and her MFA from Penn State. The Backwaters Press published her poetry book, We Grow Old, in 2008, and she is a poetry editor for The Rose and Thorn Journal. For more writing and artwork, visit www.yuhanchao.com.