Sergius and Bacchus were fourth-century Roman soldiers. In secret, they were also Christians. They would pray in isolation but were eventually found out and executed for their faith. Parallels between their secrecy and that of so many queer communities across the globe has turned them into something of a symbol for queer visibility. Now, in this intimate collection of queer poetry, Norman Erikson Pasaribu has taken the names of Sergius and Bacchus – and what they represent – for his collection’s title, phrasing it as Sergius Seeks Bacchus perhaps as a reflection of the repeated theme found in the book’s pages: that of uprooted unrest, searching, longing. Seeking.
Queerness and Cruelty
In an interview with Electric Lit, Norman himself discussed the counterparts of his own writing and that found in Christian history, as well as his own connection with religion. He recalls: “I attended my old office’s Easter mass, and the priest, who was a Toba-Batak man, threw homophobic slurs during his sermon. I ended up excusing myself and cried outside the hall. After that, the desire to go to church gradually diminished.” Despite this tumultuous relationship with religion, the impact it has had on Norman and his writing is painted widely across his poetry. He decries its ability – its willingness – to abandon queer people, to make pariahs of them.
“You get it, poetry is only beautiful in books
And the Heaven they talk about is out of reach
In poems that never talk about you.”
In the three-part poem Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso he remarks of a queer man in Paradise: “See him here, with all the Lost and the lives never His.” In Theophilus, a poem named for the ‘Friend of God’ said to have written the Gospel of Luke, he retells the story of Creation as a man seeking basic human needs: “The sun’s so strong. I’m parched.” Each time, God delivers, but when the man remarks, “It’s so deserted. I’m Lonely,” God says nothing, and a voice says, “You will never be with the someone who loves you most.”
There is a wider breadth to the wanderings of these poems, too, as they concern themselves with the broad strokes of love as it exists today. The awkward and rigid binaries of heterosexual relationships are examined through a piteous lens, and the secrets of frightened, closeted gay married men are exposed. A cynicism is raised against the state, in a quintessential Kafkaesque manner, as Norman jokes at how governments and industries may find a way of turning emotions, feelings of love, and life experiences into commodities. In a darkly funny move in the poem Lives in Accrual Accounting, Yours and Mine, he pokes at how the analogue fluidity of life and its moments both light and dark might be measured in a digital, tangible way. Not felt but known and catalogued.
“Their body will understand that these feelings are perfectly normal, endured by every soul within every human being.”
Much of the poetry in Sergius Seeks Bacchus is freeform, unrestrained by rhyme and metre as, perhaps, the lives of the queer people of Indonesia should be allowed to be. Much of what we read here are stories which play with perspectives, from the omniscient narrator who knows the hidden thoughts and motives of secretive people, to the second-person-driven stories that force the reader into the shoes of an unlucky innocent that might, if the dice had been rolled differently, be them.
In an interview with us, translator Tiffany Tsao remarked on the importance of carrying forth the artist’s tone, emotion, and intention: “Finding Leo was immensely difficult, even though it’s one of the shortest ones! It took me months to figure out a version of the last two lines that Norman and I were happy with.” Working together with the poet himself proved, unsurprisingly, key to delivering a faithful and workable translation. The last lines of this poem, by the way, are:
“He doesn’t know what lies post-door, that he’ll finally have the right to call his life ‘life.’
No more storing up loose change in heaven yearning for his time on earth to end.”
Translating poetry – an art form that works by playing on words and their meanings, their sounds and their lengths, the ebb and flow of their shape on both the page and the tongue – is arguably the most difficult kind of translation. But Tsao went to the furthest lengths to ensure Norman’s heart remains tacked to each of these poems, whatever language they are read in. And that is certainly felt, through and through.
In Indonesia, queer people face prejudices and dangers. It is also a nation predominantly Muslim, but with a felt Christian and Catholic presence. Queerness and religion, the way in which these two interact, wage war, and cause heartache when mixed – this is all felt with both deep sorrow and a flighty wit in these poems. Norman has the ability to smile and laugh in the face of adversity, to occasionally see the light shining between the gloomy, dark trees. But there is still fear and nervousness, the need to look over one’s shoulder when risking being who they simply are. Existence is difficult, and it is made more difficult by cruel external forces forged by other human beings. Through Sergius Seeks Bacchus we feel all of this. Sometimes we laugh, and sometimes we cry.