Marylyn Tan’s Gaze Back

Marylyn Tan’s debut poetry collection, Gaze Back (Ethos Books, 2018) is impressive in its creative resistance to standard methods of poetic expression. Winner of the Singapore Literature Prize (Tan is also the first woman to win the award for English poetry), the collection places emphasis on femininity, lesbianism, race, and spirituality through the perspective of a singular female lyrical voice. These poems are also incredibly playful, utilizing a flow chart, photographs, programming language, and occult symbols in ways that are artfully rebellious and inventive. Tan’s primary strength as a poet is the way she uses the lyric form to convey ideas about what it means to be marginalized—to exist outside societal norms. However, Tan’s poems are noteworthy for the way they carve out their own space of empowerment, how they create their own ecosystem as a way to reaffirm individual lived experience in order to form a deeper understanding of what it truly means to not only exist, but to flourish against counterproductive forces (sexism, racism, and homophobia).

Religion is one of the primary institutions Tan critiques in her poetry—and she does it to great effect. “Cursing the Fig tree: The Holy Prepuce & Other Delicious Recipes” specifically critiques the dominant portrayals of Jesus. In the third section, titled This is My Body, Tan writes about Jesus as if he were a teenaged girl—and the results are impressive. Here are the first few lines:

in the beginning
the word was made flesh

jesus, taught the shame of a
sinful body, of a receptacle-like body, a true
vessel of Christ. jesus being taught to keep his
legs closed

turns out
the chalice of the holy grail
is a menstrual cup

What is noteworthy about this feminized perspective of Jesus is how it draws attention to sexist conditioning. The first thing Jesus is taught is “the shame of a / sinful body, of a receptacle-like body.” More explicitly, he is taught to internalize feminine shame. The poem continues:

jesus’ mom telling him to
            GET RID OF THE BLOOD
with bared teeth &
barely-concealed disgust

jesus’ schoolmates chanting
           PLUG IT UP, PLUG IT UP
in the girls’ bathroom

throwing tampons at jesus
convinced they would fit
in the holes / in his hands & feet

the stigma of the stigmata

Here, female shame is applied to the wounds of Christ; menstruation and martyrdom become intertwined in complex and poignant ways. Also, readers learn how female shame is internalized through familial relations (the mother) and harassment (the schoolmates). Another impressive aspect of Tan’s poetry is her use of tone and how it enhances the reader’s experience of seeing Jesus as a teenaged girl. Here is an example:

jesus pulls his robes a little tighter
doesn’t want to be one of those prophets

at the last supper / subsisting on celery & water
this is my body       this is
my blood. tonight we dine
but will throw it back up / roman catholic
                                                           vomitorium

The speaker employs dark humor, focusing on Jesus as a teenaged girl concerned with chastity and the thinness of his body. The line “doesn’t want to be one of those prophets” shows how he has already internalized societal notions of purity and sinfulness, and the tone reinforces it. Jesus also develops an eating disorder as a way to force the body into accepted ideas of what it means to be attractive and thin: “subsisting on celery & water / tonight we dine / but will throw it back up.” The phrase “roman catholic / vomitorium” is especially important tone-wise. It is brilliantly ironic and truthful in its criticisms of Catholicism’s role in body shaming.

Tan also addresses the idea of Jesus as a public spectacle in this poem, which offers a deeper perspective on what it means to be a visible female body. As the speaker states, “in the beginning / the word was made flesh / & some people say / that word was yes.” The word “yes” is important because it pertains to consent. The speaker continues: “this is my body, for public consumption / this is my body, salvation of swarming crowds.” Jesus was a very public figure, and in this poem, Jesus is a public figure in the form of a teenaged girl: “jesus has lost count of how many times / his ass has been stroked… / by the faceless faithful… / WHO TOUCHED ME / jesus said (Luke 8:45).” Tan explores permission and consent through Jesus as a martyred figure, as a figure who cannot employ any type of agency over his body and those who touch it. The inclusion of Luke 8:45 is clever on Tan’s part; humor is used to soften the harsh realities of the public’s spiritual and physical abuse of Jesus as a teenaged girl. Additionally, Tan investigates blame, particularly the way female victims are blamed for the way abuse is inflicted upon them:

jesus finds walking on water easier
than walking home alone at night
jesus walks with nails / clenched between his knuckles
if he didn’t want to be crucified
he shouldn’t have manifested in human form
if he didn’t want us to tear it
he shouldn’t have worn a one-piece seamless garment
he shouldn’t have let the holy spirit in him
doesn’t he know how many people
the holy spirit’s been inside of?

This section of the poem demonstrates how Jesus would be regarded if he were female rather than male. His persecution is turned back on him; he is stripped of his blamelessness. Instead, he is at fault for his own persecution: “if he didn’t want to be crucified / he shouldn’t have manifested in human form.”

This poem also employs an interesting shift toward the end that deals with concepts related to BDSM and trauma:

maybe jesus still awakes dislodged some nights
the memory of thorns crowning his temples
& the only way he survives is by resurrecting the incident
but this time he controls / who flagellates him
whiplash trauma / requires exercise to heal /

Here, persecution and martyrdom transform into moments where BDSM has gone too far, where Jesus has lost all agency in the act, resulting in trauma: “the only way he survives is by resurrecting the incident / but this time he controls / who flagellates him.” Memory becomes a way to heal from the trauma of spiritual abuse. The speaker continues:

jesus’ safe space

is a tomb hewn in rock
a safeword like a great stone
rolling across his tongue
amen / amen / amen
amen /

amen

Spirituality and BDSM are fused to create a new way of envisioning Jesus. The metaphor of Jesus as sufferer is combined with female submissiveness/suffering; “amen” becomes a very poignant safeword. The last part of the poem is especially gripping:

they nailed him to the cross with his legs closed
like a good girl /
like a good girl
jesus
crying silently in the garden of gethsemane
so as not to wake the others
allowing judas to kiss him / rather than resist him

jesus / still can be a Cool Girl if he wants

this is my body / take it & eat it
& never
ever
mention the blood

What is important to note here are the connections between BDSM culture and religious culture, how they are intertwined, interconnected, and how they converse with each other. By placing Jesus in the position of a teenaged girl, Tan exposes the sexual elements of religious belief. Jesus becomes the submissive female who “still can be a Cool Girl if he wants.” This part of the poem addresses the fine line between abuse and trauma that exist within both cultures; Jesus as martyr and Jesus as submissive female are similar in many ways, reflecting the harshness of the societies that attempt to shame and control and utilize their bodies for their own benefit.

The beauty of Gaze Back exists in how Tan creates poems from a conceptual point of view and what those poems expose through their various literary elements: lyric, voice, form, and overall creative energy. Tan’s biggest strength as a poet is her voice and how she translates it through the lyric. She is a wonderful experimental poet as well, utilizing a variety of formats for poetic exploration and discovery. Most importantly, it is the way she draws attention to the margins of society that makes her poetry especially meaningful, and by doing so, creates new spaces for thought and understanding to develop and flourish within the larger poetic imagination. With this goal in mind, Tan’s work will only become more refined, more poignant, and more vital to the concerns of contemporary poetry as she continues to write.

November 2, 2020