Sergius Seeks Bacchus is the debut poetry collection by Indonesian writer and poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated into English by Tiffany Tsao. Rooted in Pasaribu’s identity as a queer person of Batak descent and Christian upbringing, Sergius Seeks Bacchus is an exploration of past, present and future histories, of truths and fictions, of the deeply personal and the universal. At its centre is the seeking, the ever-present urge towards something or someone.
Throughout, while Pasaribu makes ample use of the free verse form, the collection also features prose poems, two contrapuntal poems (“Inferno” and “Purgatorio”), and a list poem (“Curriculum Vitae 2015”). His work also engages with, and makes reference to, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Christian Bible, interweaving them with the collection’s queer narratives.
The collection evokes figures from history and literature. These figures include the titular Sergius and Bacchus (5), Theophilus (51), Christy (9), Leo (35), Tony (28), and a handful of unnamed characters. Time is fluid as we travel through Pasaribu’s present in poems like “Erratum” and “Curriculum Vitae 2015,” to the distant past in “Theophilus,” a Biblical creation story retold. These poems hold space for loneliness, for the fear that “[y]ou will never be with the someone who loves you the most” (italics in original, 51). The weight of this fear increases when we remember that these poems exist in the context of the systemic and religious homophobia of Pasaribu’s Indonesia. But Pasaribu does not shy away from the inevitable pain, violence and grief wrought by this environment. Poems like “Cooking Instant Noodles at the End of the Rainbow” and “What the Dead Ask from the Departed” stare at death, unblinking. “Cooking Instant Noodles” is marked by the quotidian, and this tone remains even as it reveals that “Christy’s gone. They found her body” (10). Death and grief are facts of life. And like many things in life, they are eventually “swept away by strangers shuffling by” (13).
But this is not a sentimental collection. Whatever grief, whatever pain, whatever melancholy, it is rooted in the strange and funny reality of life. Pasaribu evokes a deadpan humour that surprises and disarms:
Tony came out to his parents, and hasn’t been home
since. He called his mother at her office.
She sobbed, ‘Tony come home. Don’t be scared.
Mummy will take you to Doctor Frankie,’ – as if I’m attracted
to men is like having diarrhoea. (italics in original 28)
Meanwhile, Pasaribu’s imagined worlds and futures are strange and at times unnerving, like the utopia in “Scenes from a Beautiful Life,” or the AI-like voice advertising life-changing software in “A Flyer.” But imagined afterlives are here, too, and they are full of hope. In “Sergius Seeks Bacchus,” the two lovers “rise / up to heaven and wonder at how familiar // it all feels” (5). The moments that many of us take for granted are the same moments depicted as distant dreams: “Hand in hand, you two will stroll the streets / introducing one another to everyone you meet” (5). “Finding Leo” gestures towards a different kind of afterlife: “He doesn’t know what lies post-door, / that he’ll finally have the right to call his life ‘life’” (35). The kind of life he seeks is defined in “Curriculum Vitae 2015”:
20) He will grow old. You will grow old. Together
you both will grow old, and be wed before the Three-
Branched God – the tree-like god – and have a child
named Langit. Your descendants will fill the Earth so that
whenever anyone is walking alone in the dark they will
hear from every window on every building on both sides
of the street, voices reaching out, ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’ (58)
Pasaribu’s present is too often an unforgiving place. Even so, the poem “On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Car Park at fX Sudirman Mall” declares that “love / can bloom anywhere, even in the dark” (46).
As a queer woman of Filipinx descent and Christian background, my reading of this text has allowed me to both see and be seen. Pasaribu tells a truth plain and human, stripped to reveal its strangeness, its absurdity, its pain. Sergius Seeks Bacchus invites reflection and stillness, and provides a balm to heal the ache. Yes, the world may be cruel and lonely. But this collection offers a quiet but rigid resistance against that world’s desire to maim the queer spirit. There are pockets of joy, and the knowledge that the world will not always be “mysterious” (30). Even as, in “Aubade,” “everything / is fading away,” this loss gives way to “a new day,” a day where “fear is far behind” (29).
Norman Erikson Pasaribu. Trans. Tiffany Tsao. Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Sydney: Giramondo, 2019.
Kaya Lattimore is a queer, Filipinx Australian writer, and is currently a Hot Desk Fellow at the Centre for Stories in Perth, Western Australia.
This review was provided in collaboration with the Centre for Stories in Perth. (https://centreforstories.com/)