Or Why the Tiger Stance Rocks in Mads Bajarias’s Pepsi Tastes Funny When it’s Christmas Eve & You’re Alone Eating Canned Tuna (CentralBooks, 2008)
first published in the Philippines Free Press, 14 March 2009
To the aspiring writer with a finished, unpublished manuscript tucked away and toted in the ubiquitous frayed knapsack or cooler-than-cool postman’s bag, ready for whipping out at the merest whiff of an impromptu poetry reading, there are few things more unthinkable than going down the route of self-publishing. If not perceived as pedestrian, that is, sans lofty literary aspirations—an option sought only by sappy sensitive souls with something to express and share with a small circle of intimates—self-publishing, which also goes by its more disparaging pet name, vanity publishing, is seen as smacking of arrogance, subject to no other standards but the writer’s own, lacking the seal of approval by designated literary authorities (possibly even a last resort resulting from their rejection), and therefore not worth serious attention.
Certainly, there are more than enough sloppy, self-indulgent books out there, but if some of them are self-published, a good number of them are not, are even adorned with reliably dazzling markers, say, the stamp of a Palanca Award or the imprint of a university press, and available at your friendly neighborhood National Bookstore (that chain which carries local books at the cost of an arm and a leg and your firstborn, something only commercial publishers can afford). Conversely, once in a while, a self-published book—one with low visibility in the marketplace, often accessible only via small bookstores or prior knowledge of the author or an undergrad class with an unusually adventurous required reading list—makes its way to a reader somehow and surprises with its peculiar synthesis of wit and candor, its unaffected approach to complexity—things I find in Pepsi Tastes Funny When it’s Christmas Eve & You’re Alone Eating Canned Tuna, Mads Bajarias’s first book of poetry, printed on demand by CentralBooks.
In “dreaming the ultimate fight to the finish,” a poem involving a confrontation over siomai in ChowKing ends with the speaker in fighting form: “Coolly, I stepped back/and assumed the tiger stance…” If Bajarias were to strike a pose to approximate the attitude of his first book, a mock-serious tiger stance seems most fitting. Many of his poems are filtered through a sensibility whose defaults oscillate from amused to spaced out to blasé rather than let-me-break-your-heart solemn, the garden-variety stance generated by poetry preoccupied, as is Bajarias’s, with alienation, heartbreak, domesticity, and death in the pop culture-infested, capitalist-consumed, rent-anxious life of the urban dweller. Sure, there is pain and pining, but with a cast of characters including girls in shampoo commercials and anchorsluts, with guest appearances by Sonny Chiba, Rick Moranis, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Jean-Luc Picard, these poems, fortunately, cannot keep a straight face for too long.
There is much tenderness in Pepsi Tastes Funny, a refreshing joyful attention to animals, particularly cats, as complex, communicative creatures (the dogs in the book are mangy, the birds differentiated—maya, frigatebird, Arctic warbler, sandpiper—but the cats, all apartment-based and cared for, reign supreme and are called by name—Scratch, Dutch, Cuervo, Spoon), and a healthily unabashed macho love for women (as in “Her face is the only face/you don’t think of/when you jerk off” in “she’s the one”) but moments most vulnerable are rarely seized upon as opportunities for poignancy and high drama (I think the few poems that go down the road of unadulterated earnestness are the clunkiest of the lot). Instead, Bajarias keeps things lighthearted, be it through downright comedy, playful irreverence, or—what I think is most difficult to do—calculated non-commentary. If, in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rainer Maria Rilke shakes us awake with the sudden appearance of a chasm of silence between most of the poem (a description of a headless sculpture) and its last line (“You must change your life.”), where one’s life is, without warning and with finality, directly and drastically implicated in the object one observes, in the hands of Bajarias, the same strategy—the sudden jolt, the chasm of silence between most of the poem and its end—makes us mindful of our sleepwalking without insisting that we wake up, the effect absurd and hilarious, as in “struggle slacker,” where a meditation over cat vomit and human vomit and rent just about due culminate in the lines “I looked at myself in the mirror./oh, call it a life.”
A master of the incidental-turned-momentarily-central, Bajarias is Richard Brautigan-like in his penchant for snapshots, sudden endings, and single statements most sexual. “Goobye” in entirety: “our pet Cuervo died/last year.//Cuervo was my/good friend.//We both hated karaoke/and car alarms in the morning.” In the poem, “there’s no telling,” a memory of the speaker’s grandmother fishing things out of a hanky juxtaposed with a girl fishing money out a Ziploc bag ends with the most unceremonious of lines: “‘What?’ she said.” And then there’s “O,” in entirety: “All the art men’ll ever need is the look of a woman with cum on her face”. There is no air of profundity here, or if there is, the profundity is tongue-in-cheek. Deadpan humor, yes, and often the sheer nerve of open-endedness, the poem hitting its final note by taking a deep breath and making that incomprehensible sound, mouth hanging open, about to say something more—only it doesn’t. The effect is a distractedness that immediately relinquishes the incident-turned-moment to the elusive yet again. In some of the lengthier poems, the open-endedness is achieved through accumulation and circularity, such as the ghazal-like “sutra in laundrytime” and sutra in shopping-mall time,” as well as the poems “marketing secrets of jesus christ revealed!” and “fateful turning points when the hero must,” where the stanzas can each function independently (I think the stanzas of the “sutras” and “fateful turning points” can even be read hopscotch, not just in sequence) yet also add up to make a whole.
In line with its sensibility (the collection is subtitled “Ramshackle Poems of Tomfoolery, Confusion & Heartbreak”), the language of Pepsi Tastes Funny is appropriately casual—at times too lax for its own good (also a Brautigan problem), resulting in some poems being either uneventful or longer than necessary—yet punctuated with images quite precise and vivid, their presence welcome and startling against the dominantly unscripted flavor of the poems. A line from “natural disasters & the smell of true love”: “In the restaurant, a nebulous waitress took my order.” Another from “some days feel like a train ran over your heart”: “The room is a thicket of belligerent trinkets.” A poem called “creamish,” in entirety: “The mammalian kiss desires whiteness within a gash of twilight tightening”. Bajarias impresses because he doesn’t try to do so; he lets the poems hang loose, allowing his lines to assume various degrees of unfinished-ness, foregoing the polish here and there. While I appreciate this quality in the individual poems, I’m not as much of a fan of the looseness when applied to the book itself. Pepsi Tastes Funny doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in arc, and while some poems, given their placement in the book, seem indicative of progression (as in the lighter poems of urban ennui at the beginning of the book as well as the string of poems on death toward the end), there is no compelling argument for the book to be read from start to end. Given the feel of the collection as a gathering of poems written over a period of time, the reading of it can also be loosely committed, not observant of the order in which the poems are arranged.
Bajarias has said he is already more than happy if friends and family read his work, the impetus to self-publish his first book (a second book of poetry, which he also intends to self-publish this year, is in the works) a consequence of his detachment from literary acclaim or even mere claims of literariness. The capacity of his poetry to yield many pleasures, however, is a clear sign that Pepsi Tastes Funny speaks to the reader interested in words, and what a loss it is if this book remains only in the shelves of a handful, whether due to the lack of machinery to get the book to readers, a problem perennially afflicting typically cash-strapped self-publishers, or to the lack of glitter in the shape of awards and blurbs by literary luminaries—audience-attracting paraphernalia which self-publishers, precisely because of their investment in autonomy, are allergic to, or in the case of Bajarias, simply detached from. But if poets like Bajarias can produce wonderful books through means that are off the beaten track, I don’t see why equally imaginative readers can’t step out of the usual channels to find and read exciting work, no matter what the award-giving bodies and literary authorities don’t say.