Pasaribu, Norman Erikson. Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Western Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2019. RRP: $24.00, 96pp, ISBN 9781925818109.
Emerging Critics on the Editor’s Desk
2021 marked the first iteration of a new Westerly initiative: our Emerging Critics Program. Designed to support both the Higher Degree by Research community at UWA, and to work in partnership with Pelican (UWA’s student magazine), we hoped to provide editorial guidance and mentorship, as well as publishing opportunities, for a small group of up-and-coming critics. The fruits of this process will be seen on the Editor’s Desk in special posts spanning December and January 2021-2022. The successful applicants for the Program were chosen in two ways: nomination by Pelican’s 2021 editors, Riley Faulds and Millie Muroi, and by the Westerly team after applications from HDR students across the Humanities. We’re so pleased with the calibre of work our first Emerging Critics have put forward, and can’t wait to introduce these new critical voices to our readers!
Content warning: suicide.
Poets and writers attempt to create a feeling of intimacy between their work and their readers. The intimacy in Norman Pasaribu’s Sergius Seeks Bacchus is given weight by its subject matter: the tragedy of homosexual love in a world fraying under its own religiosity. Homosexuality in Indonesia, though ostensibly legally tolerated, has considerable socio-cultural stigma attached (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Pasaribu reaches for his readers by putting them in the position of a limited secret keeper, and his work seems to suggest this act of reluctant sharing has cost the poet something dear. In his world, we are given the responsibility of observing moments that, by all expectations, we should not be privy to. A notable example, in ‘Poetry’, is an uncomfortable insight into the anguished turmoil of a persona who wishes to ‘come clean’ to his wife about his homosexuality (7). In the poem, love is placed under a shroud of diffidence and documented in agonising detail, all building to an expected emotional apogee. Yet, the potentially dangerous and liberating moment is consciously omitted, leaving the reader unsure of the ultimate value ‘judgement’ made by the persona and compelling them to work out for themselves if the persona actually unmasks himself. This leaves the reader with a feeling of doubt—an unknowing which is shared with the persona, and captured in the very first line of the collection: ‘What was he thinking here’ [emphasis in original] (1).
Sergius Seeks Bacchus is a collection of emotionally loaded reflections on love, blended through observations on domestic life. Despite the tragic subject matter of the work, the poems maintain an extraordinarily resilient outlook, with a curious mix of religious imagery and niche theological references helping to infuse the persona’s viewpoint with a persistent hope. So, if you’re expecting over-the-top gestures of romance or unrestrainedly happy depictions of love, then this collection is not for you. However, if you view love first and foremost as an act of resilience, then you will find something in the writing. Pasaribu’s hope is best expressed in ‘On a pair of Young Men in the Underground Car Park at fX Sudirman Mall’, in which:
As Aelred of Rievaulx said, there is nothing more exquisite
than to love and be loved, which is true even though
they know also the world isn’t ready for us.
The two young men even wondered sometimes
Why they were the ones who had to show love
can bloom anywhere, even in the dark (46)
Despite the oppression Pasaribu details, despite the persona witnessing horrors and tragedy, and despite love being a finite thing, the poems never fall into bitterness. Instead, they hold on, with a stubborn weariness, to that feeling of hope. This allows the collection to be more than just a lamentation on lost love. Rather, it describes the complicated journey of trying to account for and rationalise tragedy. This attempt is displayed in ‘Lives in Accrual Accounting, Yours and Mine’, a dense poem that alternates between accounting terminology and musings on how tragedy is integrated into our lives. The poem provides a distinctive break in the collection, and could be seen as a conscious effort to provide the reader with an emotional reprieve, furthering the hopeful slant in rest of the poems:
[…] it’s a shame that our Net Profit has to undergo
a fiscal correction because of how Revenue and Expenses
are calculated for the purposes of accounting and taxes. But
this doesn’t mean we labour in vain. It means we labour
in the hope of perfection (32)
Alongside the hope Pasaribu writes, his collection remains steadily sobering because of its depictions of the cost exacted upon homosexual men in a deeply theocratic society. This allows him to angle towards an unresolved Gordian question: should gay men unmask themselves to pursue happiness even in a hostile world? Sergius Seeks Bacchus does not seek to answer this question, rather it dutifully attempts to show the costs of either answer, again leaning into doubt—or, at least, ambiguity. The high price of ‘unmasking’ is shown in horrific depictions of suicide and death. In ‘What the Dead Ask from the Departed’ we see this in full form:
You began skipping class. You were never in your kos.
I remember thinking. Is this happiness? Leaving everything for someone?
This tantalising glimpse at happiness is then shattered:
But one night you showed up sobbing, I caught
something from him, your neck swollen, teeming with blisters
like a piece of barbari bread.
Your face was so pale, like a bean sprout germinating in darkness,
so perfect. You vanished again some days later and I didn’t try to find
you. Just before Christmas I heard you were dead:
the blood from your wrists flooded your parents’ bathroom floor. (12)
Pasaribu’s persona is forced to watch this kind of trade-off play out with deeply mixed feelings. And this, perhaps, is the crux of the collection: that despite the emotional cost, the tragedies and burdens described do come with hope, happiness and a form of acceptance. The poems suggest that love, first and foremost, can endure, even through the doubts that form the centrepiece of the intimacies Pasaribu shares; in his collection, the persona invites the reader to ‘see how I feel every day’ (21). And, he challenges the reader to, ‘show me how to be happy’ (21).
Charles Fedor (he/him) is a writer on Whadjuk country. He hopes to pursue English Honours at UWA interrogating the manifestations of emotional repression that Queer people experience within the romantic canon.