‘Remember the story’s new ending’

Alice Hiller explores recuperative new work from Jay G Ying.

Wedding Beasts Jay G Ying 

bitter melon poetry £3.00 [digital PDF version]

Queering the legend of St George and the dragon, Jay G Ying’s pamphlet, Wedding Beasts, A Poem calls to account the silences that have existed historically around LGBTQ+ lives and loves, while also feeling towards articulating these spaces, with an ambition comparable to Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s work, included in issue 1 of harana poetry last year.

 

Fabric plays a determining role in Ying’s pamphlet. Ahead of the title page, a sheet of tracing paper gives the reader a line drawing of emptied garments hung like bodies on a washing line across the page. They depict the installation of 31 wedding dresses suspended along Beirut’s seafront in April 2017, by the artist and activist Mireille Honein, to whom the poem is dedicated. The purpose was to draw attention to Article 522 of Lebanese law, which allowed a rapist to be exonerated if he married his victim, and to crimes of oppression and societal silencing more generally.  

 

The dresses feature as ‘real’ items within the described landscapes of the poem. They also link at multiplying levels to the legend of St George, and his slaying of the dragon, after the dragon was first tamed by having the princess’s girdle slid over his neck. Rather than delivering itself as a single or simple narrative, Wedding Beasts jump-cuts points of view, time-frames, and geographical locations. Requiring readers to open themselves to an experience of complex, tangential coherences, they suggest these are the only way to comprehend what is being shown and explored. The text begins with an image of intimacy – and injury:

 

            I must confess the omen of blood from my cut palm

felt irresistible to your tongue.

 

At first reading, the lines seem tightly furled. But, like a paper flower expanding in water, no sooner does the reader imagine the blood, than the tongue of the ‘you’ is seen licking it clean. The exchange is both a prediction of loss, and a radical sacrament – the more so when read in an HIV/AIDS environment. It is as if a second couple, a different Adam and Eve, are being offered up to us to regenerate the creation myth into alternate levels of possibility, often using sumptuous post-Miltonic diction, and languorous Paradise Lost line-lengths.

 

Keeping with the red-toned colour palette, the action then slides into the two male lovers lingering ‘like rust’ over a photo of ‘that lone soldier’. He is every way an object of desire – ‘His red beret sore his rifle pointed to the / wet breeding sand’. The lovers then somehow enter the same landscape. The speaker reveals that the soldier ‘passed us on the esplanade’ while ‘we whispered into nearby stones / split and plugged from salty water’.

 

Spider-webbing between past and present, and imagined and real, on the third page we learn that the lover’s name is Raphael. Given to the angel most associated with healing, it was also the name of the Renaissance painter whose final work was The Transfiguration. The painting depicts the moment when Christ appeared to be taken up into light, as he explained to his disciples Peter, James and John that he would die and rise again. It is taken to be an allegory of how a visual representation can enact an abstract concept, and make it comprehensible, in the way that the scenes and narratives of Wedding Beasts do.

This does not make the narrator’s ‘Raphael’, previously addressed in the second person as ‘you’, anything other than a fully contemporary man. The speaker reveals: ‘I wanted to catch Raphael unaware eyeing up the soldier’s barrel /  his bulge that head’s austere butch buzz.’ But even as he reaches to capture their desire, the speaker flexes the image beyond fixed time:

 

I wanted my two cuts of his molten psoriatic nape between my teeth

            an archaeological tan to be trapped in brass

I could not help myself adore his slant scarlet beret

                        the sun’s carbuncle above us like a warning of rebirth

 

                        in a vision I want to cast and keep in bronze

                        I later find melted down

 

                        liver-spots like petals of paraffin waxing on the buff floor

 

Percussive, tongue-busy, the diction and imageries are innately homoerotic – the ‘bulge’, the ‘butch buzz’, the cum-shot of ‘petals’. With his ‘archaeological tan’, and ‘flaring herald’, the soldier is as much a statue of a Roman legionary patrolling the further reaches of empire, as he is a contemporary Lebanese recruit. The effect is to suggest that this encounter between male lovers, and gazers, has shimmered itself through the centuries, populating and repopulating the husks of bodies always waiting on the margins of the land, like the hanging wedding dresses.

 

The connection between the dresses, and the bodies, is reinforced when the soldier’s apparently cutting down the wedding dresses on the Beirut seafront immediately prefigures Raphael’s death. We learn:

 

I watched him unstitch every hole like an order from the sky

                        for the newly felled muslim threads

 

            Whipped in a vortex along life’s litter they waited to rebuild

                        their bodies on a paving now too damp for rain

 

                        thirty white horse heads unable to be worn to the block

 

Immediately after, on the facing page, the speaker then announces ‘On the morning of the twenty-third of April / the church bells rang their white noses and you died.’ Detail upon detail insists that this is a real loss, of a real man – but one who reaches beyond his single life:

 

Your bare chest was like a city yet that pencil hiss on the architect’s

paper was always so furious and you died

 

            All your ancient and future bodies crowded the unbuilt rooms in my dream

 

            And in your death your chilled white paper made corpus by the verses

                        of the hymn storming our open windows:

 

                        I WILL NOT CEASE FROM MENTAL FIGHT

                        NOR SHALL MY SWORD SLEEP IN MY HAND

 

The hymn is Blake’s evocation of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, where the poet is determined to build ‘Jerusalem’, in place of the exploited, degraded world in which he lives. Ying’s speaker is working on a comparable poetic and revolutionary project. Building spaces of the imagination, the narrative undoes the layers of restrictions cramping queer lives, and their options for loving self-realisation. The speaker asks Raphael to teach him ‘how to draw out everything that is missing’ and ‘quests to bring his ashes home to all the open cradles on this earth’. Ashes here are the seeds of new beginnings, as well as the embers of the dead, and the speaker also seeks ‘Ways to wrap up shame’.

 

These come in the ‘thirty visions for the first thirty nights after your death’. A double spread of numbered fragments, which follow the long poem, they feature Raphael and the speaker as both dragon, and George, and end:

 

30. Had you seen what I saw when I woke you would have

      realised there was nothing I would not do and nowhere I

      would not go and nobody I would not slaughter in order to

      find you and bring you back.

 

The fragments also inform the close of the long poem, which returns to the image of the licked, cut hand with which Wedding Beasts begins. Rather than being tightly clenched, and needing to be teased open through interpretation, it now follows through into a fully realised visual sequence:

 

            Remember the story’s new ending

            Remember I sliced my skin on that bench pulling my hand too quick from

            yours

                        one globe of blood ruined that linen shirt

                        every year knotted in my hand like a shrinking flowerhead

 

            Remember the fishing poles that punctuated the beach

                        like the dark hairs on your arm

                        as I called out to your spirit   

                        as I blew the ash from the memorial page

                        as I washed your graphite sheen from my skin

Ying cannot transform what has been – but his words help us to see what is now with new eyes. His words open fresh paths back and forwards through time, and give forms of holding to previously ignored and disregarded materials. This is the “new ending” – a story told – not denied or hidden, as the original hand clasp on the beach had been. Wedding Beasts closes:

                        Raphael I saw it  Raphael I did it

                        Raphael I lived it  Raphael I loved it

© 2020 harana poetry

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