Review of Marylyn Tan’s Gaze Back (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2019)
by Samantha Neugebauer
The term “male gaze” was introduced in the 1970s by filmmaker and scholar Laura Mulvey, who wrote, “Woman's desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.” Mulvey’s term put a name to the sexualized objectification of women in film, but the idea that women exist for man’s visual pleasure extends across all genres of art and media. In recent years, film director Jill Soloway has explored the idea of a female gaze. Historically, in a female gaze, a woman gazes upon herself while thinking about how a man would perceive her sexually. Soloway wants to reconstruct this female gaze by “tak[ing] women, people of color, trans people, queer people and put[ing] them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects.” This is exactly what has been achieved in Marylyn Tan's debut trans-genre poetry collection, Gaze Back. The assertive title instructs women, perhaps including herself, to stop looking at themselves for the pleasure of men and, instead, gaze back at the world.
In the collection's first poem “Nasi Kang Kang,” Tan sets out her agenda in this manner:
according to malay folklore
a woman who feeds her husband or
boy friend with nasi kang kang
can have absolute control over him
Nasi Kang Kang, which has a hissy sound and a provocative cadence in English, is the act of a woman straddling “a pot of fresh-cooked rice” and pouring her “vaginal fluids, including menstrual blood” into the pot, as Tan explains throughout the poem. Recalling Laura Mulvey, we see that Tan uses the literal bleeding wound to subvert the "existing hegemony that others and places minorities in position of disadvantage.” In her poem, Tan explores the potential for women to wield power over men. Nevertheless, this desire for power is not simply to reverse hierarchy. Rather, Tan frames this poem as a “shitty science experiment” to investigate how women may reclaim language and transcend their position of disadvantage.
In Gaze Back, Tan’s varied poetic forms explode lyric conventions. Read as a whole, the book is reminiscent of early modernism’s use of collage. Her new poetic potion includes: the occult, Catholicism, programming code, internet search function, a flowchart, geo-locations, urban photography, and even street signs. In “Sexts from the Universe”, Tan writes in large letters, “This entrance is not accessible to the disabled” and lower on the page, in a smaller font, like a caption, “Sign at the entrance of a train station on a marble wall leading to stairs descending with no lift or ramp in sight. Bras Basah, Singapore, 2016.” Is this a real sign? Does it matter? According to activist and attorney Deborah Kaplan, one of the main goals of the disability rights movement in the US is to “move American society to a new and more positive understanding of what it means to have a disability.” In Gaze Back, Tan seems to desire a similar redefinition of the capabilities of the disenfranchised in her native Singapore. Her work rejects dominant power structures that limit an individual’s freedom and ability to utilize public knowledge to their advantage. Furthermore, re-inscribed in a poetry collection, her sign raises the question: who are really the disabled?
In addition to such unexpected re-inscriptions of public semiotics, Gaze Back blends old and new forms of female empowerment in its postmodenist collage. Tan is a student of both linguistics and witchcraft. Her poetry calls on both occult practices, traditionally linked to women, and computer programming, a specialist field often seen as lacking gender diversity. For readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of the occult or programming, poems such as “UNICODE HEX” and “C:\Users\Marylyn.Tan\UnDocuments\Queer Bodies” may feel intimidating. However, within their complicated forms, there are slivers of invitation for the uninitiated, which feel feminine. Rejecting the typical structure of Western fiction, described by literary critic Jane Allison as following the male sexual trajectory of "intensification to the point of climax and consummation,” Tan questions if there are better models for women. Such interrogation of form has historically been seen as a liberation. Consider free verse, for example, which D.H. Lawrence saw as a means to "get away from the stereotyped movements." In Gaze Back, not only does Tan want the liberation of free verse, but she also creates new poetic forms, like computer code, to write within.
Like other postmodern writers who focus on reader-response, in her author’s note, Tan muses, “I learnt to play with the dynamic tension of the author-reader relationship, and walk the tightrope between challenging the reader and creating pleasure for them.” In a world that rarely elevates the female (or non-heterosexual) experience of sex, Tan’s “tightrope” speaks to the way many women experience sex (especially with a man). How can she both pleasure and educate her partner? The same question applies to the experience of writing and reading. To walk this tightrope, Tan innovates on the poetic form, confronting the very notion of what a poem is and, by extension, the possibilities of female eroticism.
In “C:\Users\Marylyn.Tan\UnDocuments\Queer Bodies,” Tan subverts conventional ideas of women in computing, and then she interrogates the non-automated coagulation of sexual identity, gender, and behavior:
type (sexual_orientation) :
if “instances_contact_penis” < 1:
“GOLD_STAR” = +1
“ATTRACTIVE” = -1
“FICKLE-MINDED” = +1
“LIKELY_TO-CHEAT” = +1
“WILL_LEAVE_FOR_MAN” = +1
“ANYTHING_BUT_PENIS” = -1
In this excerpt, Tan illuminates raw language in its own exoskeleton through the form of computer code. Her imagery suggests how deeply our sexual preferences and prejudices are programmed within our bodies. At the same time, the poem suggests how the poet’s work is similar to the coder’s: both the poet and the expert coder can speak in and from non-verbal languages.
Still, it would be a disservice to Gaze Back to summarize this book by the narrow themes of identity politics or to place it solely in the context of today’s viral #metoo feminism. Tan’s work also probes at the intersections of Catholicism, Greek Mythology, kink, consumerism, and the history of erotic art. The 4th-century BC sculptor Praxiteles is said to have been the first man to sculpt a naked female. His sculpture of Aphrodite may very well be the first victim of the male gaze. “According to legend,” historian Paul Barolsky writes, “a youth defiled the statue, as if it were Aphrodite incarnate. The very stain he is said to have left upon the statue was thus a sign of the erotic power of the sculptor's illusion.” Less remarked upon, the power also belonged to the male adolescent who dared to defile a goddess.
In Tan’s poem “Bedroom Nude Coffee Table Book”, a male “performative signalling photographer” is showing photos of his “project,” which consists of “the raw portrayal of raw girls being unguarded & raw.” For extra kick, this poem takes place inside a Starbucks.
[photo: a jawless girl
sprawled crumple-skinned parquet
in the hours where no one knocks
looking up online curses
for exes involved with
yeast infections &
lesbian bed death
The form of Tan’s poem mimics the action of scrolling through a camera or phone and quickly, unquestioningly, absorbing the images of others without much context or with artificial context. In some ways, this is similar to a dispassionate stroll through a museum, in which case, only the highly erotic or unusual object may grab one’s attention. In the same poem, the photographer states in full capitalization and italics, “EUROPEANS REALLY LIKE LOOKING AT/ ASIAN GIRLS, NAKED/...DOING EVERYDAY THINGS.” Here, Tan embroils nationalism and fetishism in a conversation she has already begun on the politics of sex and power. The problem is exacerbated when the European expects or demands the art piece to become the reality, as Pygmalion did in the Metamorphosis, when he believes his own sculpture of Aphrodite is far better than any real woman, as do many men in present-day Japan, who are choosing to live with silicon dolls of women. Sometimes these men form partnerships with their dolls and other times, the men live with their dolls as well as a human wife and children.
Gaze Back is erected on the premise that the entire body, and not just the eyes, will and ought to gaze back. Tan's imagined body is a wonderful landscape, gazing upon even the most pungent and disobedient forms. The final section of Gaze Back, titled UNICODE (HEX), could be considered the most enigmatic of the collection. The section is divided into two halves: “HEX ED” and “re: origin story/ARCHETYPAL EVIL.” Prefacing 'HEX ED' is “origin story”, which could signal the origin of the poems, humanity, and/or Tan herself. As the 'ED' in the title suggests, Tan is set to instruct her reader by forging poetry from the treatises of the occult and various religious traditions. Here, she writes:
your tender spine
against the corkboard
got the bartholomew goat
got the slippered champagne.
In her footnotes, Tan writes, “A bartholomew goat is a method of preparing mutton with the goat having been flayed alive and crucified upside-down, that is, headfirst towards the dinner table.” This section of the poem comes under the alchemical symbol for urine, which is a square box with a dot in the middle ( 🝕 ). Earlier in the poem, Tan has promised a “ritual to explicate each unicorn (hex) symbol in everyday/extraordinary usage” and she does just that, which can sometimes create the atmosphere of a more esoteric list poem. Still, this image of urine ( 🝕 ) compounded by the image of a crucified goat staring at you from his/her/their spit (as well as the cross-cultural and cross-genre symbolism of goats) is the epitome of Gaze Back. This is a poetic collection told from the voice of the goat, from the eye on that spit, that has already been in the flames and now is going to de-code that experience for you.
Migrating from the constraint of exploring alchemical symbolism, the last poem, “re: origin story/ARCHETYPAL EVIL,” subverts reader expectations one more time by focusing on her ah kong (grandfather). Here, Tan blends her own origin story with the various archetypes of patriarchal relationships, fusing the poetic with the transgresive: “I maintain/ your ‘breasts’ are a chest—/ your ‘clit’ is a cock—/ no matter what‑—.” Readers are returned to where they began at the start of the collection, a reversal of language, power, and sight. Tan ends with an image of the biblical magi, those foreigners from the east who finally found the young savior. She writes, “the magi/ have been seeking you/ an eternity.” One has to wonder if Tan imagines her readers as the magi pilgrimaging to her for enlightenment.
Samantha Neugebauer is an Instructor at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is on the editorial board of the Philadelphia literary magazine Painted Bride Quarterly, a staff writer for the Paris-based magazine Postscript, and a contributor to the podcast Slush Pile. Samantha has presented on experiential learning, English monolingualism in higher education, and first-year student experiences throughout the world, most recently in Beirut, Lebanon. You can find Samantha’s stories, poems, and reviews online or connect with her via social media: https://samanthaneugebauer.com/.