Mark Anthony Cayanan

This long piece—intended to be an aggressive display of candour, its persona’s penchant for self-aggrandisement couched in specific historical and material conditions—is a love poem. Its starting points include Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, as well as a book by Primitivo Mijares; a biography by Ronald Hayman; an essay by Massimo Pigliucci; fiction by John Cheever; news/feature articles by Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, Helen Coffey, Joyce Ilas, Esquire Philippines, and The New York Times; novels by Ben Brooks; and poetry by Anne Carson.


Ben Ben Ben Ben Ben

 

The narrator who foretold my life says passion is like crime
both welcome the weakening of society because they can profit off it

A month has passed in the novella and the locals are dying
as though thinking of you could make cholera a sunset backdrop

The barber who trims and darkens my beard says I’ve no fear of the disease
my personality plagiarised from my favourite characters, all magnetically staring out into the void

I think I’m alone because I manage romance
with a girlish evasiveness that’s a front for sexual frigidity

When a man’s already in front of me, too loose, the wanting slips off
my mind scrambles ahead to the ride home and Tim Tams before bed

I’m being facetious though not entirely incorrect
I pine for life-altering tenderness but prefer it in the abstract

Outside St. Mark’s I feed on impatience like the other pigeons
or like the sweet medicine death-smell of Venice I wait in ambush

+

More than wanting the reward I want to be the reward, the boy
who knows his beauty but not its magnitude, bending over a prie-dieu

I wish to be in a situation where I could say Am an attendant lord
though I’m pretentious I haven’t gone beyond the required reading

The one dénouement of all plotlines I repurpose for what you think of me is
in retaliation I write poems about impossible men with hairs on their backs

Sad Ben, sarcastic Ben, Ben who wakes at noon and pees while waiting for his tea to steep
and sighs loudly as he writes and microwaves burritos for brunch

You’re Tadzio plus adult acne and the threat of a paunch and an open invitation to destroy me
though I won’t die for you yet you’re dreamt of the way he is

Your friends keep tagging you in pictures of smoky cafés, face turned away from the camera
I want to step into their bodies or be the thing you’re looking away at

Ben of the macho sentences, Ben as bracing as a papercut, as permanent
Ben, you’re mainly incontrovertible proof

+

Mann cultivated a public image of Teutonic reserve
among friends he was prone to nervous trembling and convulsive sobbing

Whenever nervous I replay in my head that scene in Clueless that references Monet
I use it as a conversation starter, it’s one of the few insights I have into myself

I borrow Mann’s biography from the library to discover why my impulses override my tact
when in his diary he draws a parallel between his sweet tooth and covert desires, he gets poetic

Extra fastidious he writes about his daily walks to the market to ogle shirtless workmen
in his fiction he defends himself when he writes about other people

All I want is to prove I orchestrate my life with the efficiency of a single mother
yeah that’s another lie

I’m the videoke singer who licks the corners of their mouth between lyrics
I make every heartache ballad salacious, vaguely offensive, absurd

If in me are anxieties that need unpacking would you want to hear me
if not you then I want them exorcised with everyone’s ear pressed against the door

+

The first time we shared a cigarette, just to connect you said
you preferred brawny men who could suffocate you, I looked at my hands

I congratulate myself for charming you into changing your preferences
never mind your girlfriend

The year you were born, overweight and swishy I had as much potential as a 349 bottle cap
I love you enough to look for confirmation in newspaper microfilms

Erap was the comic relief in the vice-presidential debates, needless to say he won
funny things stupid people say grabbed headlines 28 years ago, as they do now

A woman in her 20s was found stuffed inside a suitcase
she wore green basketball shorts, a cord around her neck, and a baby tee

Bakit Ako Mahihiya was showing at Ali Mall, not sure if it’s a remake of the 1976 film
some days your beard’s still scratching against my cheek, Ben

When I was born a man died from a cigarette he flicked at a bunch of balloons
do you know that a bunch of balloons is called a festival

+

I feel weird whenever your novel refers to a Southeast Asian
had to put it down when the Thai girl on the webcam plays with her nipple

At 16 I offered my married neighbour a blowjob
just because summer took too long and it seemed an important thing

You’ve gone over the age of Keats when he died
not enough time has passed for me to leave myself behind, fervently I giggle at your jokes

I’ve begun dating younger men, I’m embarrassed about it
I rely on Korean moisturisers to camouflage the fact

Before you’re 30 your dishevelled pompadour will transition into a combover
Aged-out Asian Twink isn’t a porn category, it’s why I don’t upload nudes to Grindr

Wouldn’t you say we’re perfect for each other
we deserve a maisonette in the suburb, we’d take turns vacuuming the carpet

You’d write your books and by 7:30 I’d set the table
for each other let’s be someone’s dreams, outside dailiness marooned forever

+

Love makes Aschenbach realise how much he neglected his looks
his intelligence made him assume beauty was an unnecessary capital

Translators differ on Aschenbach’s lipstick shade
Appelbaum and Heim: raspberry, Luke: cherry, Lowe-Porter: strawberry

The point is he gets a horrible makeover, the kind you never see in romcoms
the point is it gives him enough hope to magnify the obligatory disaster

My role models are either abject homosexuals or doomed women
why don’t you ask yourself what that reveals about you

Walking into a room I pretend my hand isn’t mine and turn on the light
then recoil in dismay at my undisguised face, puzzle that one out

Aschenbach concludes his hope by eating lukewarm strawberries
he continues to stare longingly at the water before the epidemic bests him

Because hope has turned me into a bat inside a cave, I make screeching noises
still essentially alone though the acoustics are much better

+

The one time I asked about your girlfriend after your fourth lonkero
you said Sometimes you wake up next to a person and wonder why you’re there

I’ve never experienced the luxury of being so bored you have no choice but to stick it out
this is a hint, Ben

Meanwhile I’m always dishonourable from a distance you won’t bridge
poets can’t soar upward, only commit extravagances, says Mann

And in the end hunger for a new naïveté, the severity of wanting only the feeling itself
for encouragement I curate a Spotify playlist of pathetic indies

When I run errands in Cubao everyone bops terribly to it as we do to fear
I want to keep sighing your name while I’m in the back of a Grab

Today I think about newly elected senators and keep all the doors locked
a man who’s beside himself, says Mann, dreads becoming himself again

You’ve moved to Bulgaria, no longer sober you go drinking with the ballet dancers
are you finally single again, why haven’t you declared your intentions

+

Just so Tadzio remains untouched by the epidemic and the worshipper’s fearful awe
Aschenbach considers telling the boy’s mother to flee Venice

In Aschenbach’s dreams his fear is a brutally insistent flute
when a heavenly VO shouts The foreign god, Mann drops a brick into a beaker of water

In a field stands a gigantic wooden dick, worshipped by satyrs
this chapter-five dream is an orgy or a buffet or yet another unsubtle contrivance

In my mind Gloucestershire is your neighbours climbing up the roofs of their semi-detached
it’s 2007 and being a teenager with drug issues you go back down for your bass

But a three-foot flood’s just another August afternoon to us
and by us naturally I don’t include you

I pretend to be so used to horror I make off-colour jokes about it, that’s my aging persona
like Mariah I contort my boxy body into sultry poses

I fold a frozen lake into my luggage before separately we leave
out of your lyric curtness I engineer elegiac caesuras, slightly lurid and regretful

+

Smooth-skinned boys grabbing onto he-goats, Aschenbach’s dreams
are Nick Joaquin dreams, the boys goad the goats

For Joaquin smooth skin isn’t so much an indicator of youth as a given
hands tugging down my thermals, you already know this

Our post-coital talk would’ve covered random topics
the Hollywood starlet who honey-trapped the former president and then survived

In the recording you could hear Marcos begging for a blowjob
reason gives way to violence, the headboard bangs against the wall

Dovie Beams wipes the saliva off her underboob, he asks if she enjoyed it
no matter how white you are there’s only one answer to a dictator

Eventually he tires of her and she wouldn’t have it
she takes the tenderness in his letters and builds a press conference out of it

In her final years she has a golden pool installed in her Beverly Hills home
she dies free of him on the eve of Rizal’s death anniversary

+

Mann says art is a war, a struggle people can’t keep up for very long
I hope for the rest of my life to be as privileged

In Berlin you’d be the best person to keep drinking dinner with
you’d nurse a beer on the subway, I’d match your repartee

Everywhere cigarette butts wedged between cobblestones
I scuttle past streets that smell of piss and I’m flung to Manila with you, would this city do

I worry about the Philippine fishing boat rammed by a Chinese vessel
then get distracted by my hair collecting on the shower grate

I want to fly out to where you are, gallivant, order unpronounceable drinks
nothing but a backpack with underwear, mouthwash, your books as proofs of devotion

But as you know I’m a middle-middle-class citizen of a poor country
between you and me lie a hundred-dollar visa fee and a plane ticket

Spontaneity is a gift of the lucky
I have to retreat back into my low-cost longings

+

I show Jov a video of you singing Like a Virgin
I cover my mouth when he says The British have bad teeth, no

Sir Thomas Rich’s School added a swimming pool in 1966
the potted history of your school says it was closed in the ‘80s but reopened in 1995

On Wikipedia’s list of nationally significant events is a teenager who died
from drinking too much water while on Ecstasy, you were three and six months and 10 days

You got yourself a writing career at 17, fuck higher learning
at first I went straight to envy, now I wonder what it says about your inner life

You showed me your KS5 band covering The Pogues, thank god you outgrew that phase
instead you’re always in a puffer jacket, through my window you can hear These Days

I enable my self-absorption, I’m silly enough to think it makes me interesting
I make obsequious bows, apologise to the world and my betters

I have to open another website to figure out what potted means
though I’m not dumb I don’t know English

+

Aschenbach knows his last few days are his last days
the city government disposes of the sick, each one floating away like The Lady of Shalott

Professing love to someone who says it too easily is the second most exciting carnival ride
impertinent to stop a man who’s about to jump into a river, says Wilde

I deal with chronic depression through pathological self-mythologizing
or I sleep a lot, watch the same series until heart and soul I’m Kelly Kapoor

I don’t ask but I wonder if you’re still somewhat hot
if I press your jacket to my nose are you still your special odour

Wherever you are come back from the bottle shop, shake the snow off your boots
out of your stories I’ve built a house we wouldn’t want out of

Don’t you like editing your sentences until they’re basically just verbs
I have so many verbs to give and so smash three plates, startle a cat for emphasis

I’m true as a Ponzi scheme and assembled from defence mechanisms
but let me be the most compelling version of myself with you

+

Love’s a wheel rolling downhill, said a poet back when jeepneys were a new invention
I especially enjoy fresh tread marks decorating my cheek

Mann offloads his gay shame onto his characters, makes the kyphotic music lover kill himself
ambition was his antidote to self-disgust

I write long poems about shame, they’re decent-sized flats
if enough people tell me how brave I’ve been I’d at least have use for it

I consider being funny but I only bring it out
when kindness, an offshoot of my need to be universally liked, proves ineffective

Since I was 14 it’s been my dream to be the person someone masturbates to
at what age does transformation stop meaning various other possibilities

What is the cure for shame, my shame indisputable as the mole on my nose
I’m one of my lesser faces, Mann excised his by disfiguring Aschenbach

I check in on him, collapsing on the beach
and having depended on him for guidance, of course I end up thinking Why not

+

After years of erotic austerity comes abandon, in Mann as in Freud this means oblivion
punishment unretractable as academic tenure

Before it arrives Mann finally calls Aschenbach delusional
with Apollonian arrogance reasserting his moral ascendancy

And the world enters a new politeness, shame discarded like last millennium’s plastics
like the unlicensed gondolier in chapter three, I try accepting disappearance

Ben, though I’m afraid of living as myself I don’t want to be unafraid

 

BIO

Mark Anthony Cayanan is from the Philippines. They obtained an MFA from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and are a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. Their third poetry book, Unanimal, Counterfeit, Scurrilous, is forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing in 2021. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sporklet, The Margins, Overland, The Spectacle, and Lana Turner. They teach at the Ateneo de Manila University.

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