Narcissus, Mark Anthony Cayanan’s first book of poetry, is out. You can read a few poems from the collection here. What follows is my introduction to the book.

“I tell you this is a story about doom—/and it is the I, who is irreparably itself and will stay/inconsolably so.” Desire, even when directed at the self, is not exempt from triangulation, and in Mark Anthony Cayanan’s Narcissus, the third party that drives a wedge between the I that turns to itself is the I that turns against it. To live a long life, a seer warns, Narcissus must never get to know himself. The terms of the prophecy solidify when, by way of a curse, the beautiful Narcissus—beloved by many and lover to none—falls in the direct line of his own rejection, doomed to desire his reflection and suffer unrequited love.

Narcissus’s futile attempt to fuse with himself becomes a theater of tragedy composed by the change of a letter—the desire for is demoted to as, a simile in place of the thing itself, role-playing rather than being, his reflection and not Narcissus. That union remains impossible even within the (allegedly) indivisible is—to appropriate the language of antiessentialist thought—the condition of the unstable, fragmented, multiple self. Or, in the language of disorder, schizophrenia. Or, in the language of Hollywood: acting.

More specifically, it is the kind of acting that never quite marries the actor and her character, the audience never lulled into verisimilitude. And in Cayanan’s work, particularly in the section “The Main of Light”—which is overtly gay, and also overtly confessional, and also overtly cerebral—a primary channel for deploying his cast of subjectivities is the actress as actress in character, be it Dina Bonnevie swelling into orgasm in Ang Babaeng Nawawala Sa Sarili, or Anne Sexton splaying out her psychiatric struggles on the pages of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, or the author’s own mother Emma as dancer swishing her grass skirt onstage. Where the I who is he performs the actress performing the role, there is, at most, a perpetual state of becoming, the personae neither fully absorbed nor fully distinct—much like the drag queen who, in donning a woman, does not delete the man, and whose self, consequently, is an act exposing its pretense.

It is out of this polyphonic configuration, abuzz with ventriloquizing and posturing, that Cayanan fashions his version of the dramatic monologue as uttered by the postmodern analytic lyric speaker. The most believable manifestation of true, within these terms, is artifice that announces itself, conscious of, if not conjuring up, an audience. As the composite speaker in a poem starring Greta Garbo—she of the manly voice—in Grand Hotel sums up: “‘I vont to be alone.’/I vont the vorld to vitness it.” If faith must be professed, then Cayanan invests it in flaunted fractured façade, and so it seems only logical, almost calculated, even, that he worships in the cult of celebrity, where beauty is blatantly constructed and unapologetically consumed, a suspect sublime.

Narcissism is a charge not even the confessional poets who practice utmost restraint can escape, and Cayanan easily admits to this—the seductive trap of self-analysis sashaying into “image building”—expressing his own unease in the mode he takes interest in: “This is the danger with looking at the world:/so much goes on that one can feel guilty about/looking into the self.” Certainly, the empowerment derived from confronting the personal turns impotent when viewed through a pinhole that accommodates the I and nothing else, reduced to sheer auto-mythologizing or shotgun pathos. But a more panoramic sense of the world in which the self is situated does not necessarily translate to a more candid or honest and less self-indulgent speaker, though indications of such qualities may make the persona a more likable one.

Despite knowledge of its undesirable proclivities, Cayanan eschews the convenience of shying away altogether from the confessional, opting instead to make that which is smitten with itself his poetry’s dominant subjectivity as well as its subject of scrutiny. The egotistical self merits an eye cast upon it that is equally judgmental—or so Cayanan’s “Placelessness” series claims, and as his meta-confessional work unfolds, abstracting the I and choreographing its self-awareness via formally aggressive poetry excessive in its evaluative digressions and qualifiers, its skepticism over anything heartfelt soon rears its haughty head. Smooth-talking, deceptive, and obsessive, what Cayanan’s poetry does, declarative by sure-footed declarative, is strip sincerity of itself, sincerity being—like what it professes to go against—a stance, and, when particularly manipulative, a spectacle. Refusing us the illusion of our own trustworthiness, Cayanan’s work is fiercely unconspiratorial yet terrifyingly intimate. Know thyself, the book urges, and then more urgently, a caveat: don’t ever let what you know fool you.

20 February 2011

Mark Anthony Cayanan's Narcissus. Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2011.