Monday, July 28, 2008

The Anger Scale & Musee Mechanique

From the ashes of Traffic, Modern Americans has managed to procure the smoking review below that was meant to appear there. Thanks to Sharon Mesmer for letting me post it here.
The Anger Scale, Katie Degentesh, Combo Books, 2006
ISBN 0-9728880-2-0

Musee Mechanique
, Rodney Koeneke, BlazeVOX [books], 2006

ISBN 0-9759228-0-7

Katie Degentesh and Rodney Koeneke have produced two expansive, generous collections of flarf. Does that seem like a strange, slightly oxymoronic thing to say about flarf, that naughty, “not okay” spawn of Google and the many generations of the New York School? Many things have been said about flarf, but one thing that’s been overlooked is the expansive “meta-mind” aspect of it: how, by constantly incorporating bits of the posted poems into the new poems, the content of each subsequent poem reflects the collective sensibility and contains the indelible stamp of its origin, no matter who wrote it—like Tin Pan Alley meets TAZ in Darwinian cyberspace. One of the pleasures of being a member of the flarf collective is observing with delight how the poems produced by the list members are constantly morphed by the poem-responses to them. Of course that kind of riffing on your friends’ poems can be (and has been) construed as exclusionary in-joking. But the generosity I mentioned resides in precisely what is included, what gets incorporated, which is just about everything. In The Anger Scale and Musee Mechanique, eloquent phrases culled from search engine results are allowed to stream into goofiness (also culled from search engine results) …

Things are good, good is sweet, sweet is gnarly, and gnarly has
the musty reek that reminds me of the cow fetuses
I had to dissect a couple of months ago

(Degentesh, “I See Things or Animals or People Around Me That Others Do Not See”)

I remembered a door that turns in upon the slothful,
I remember the slothful in bed. I remembered
Oprah’s trainer is Bob Greene. Then I remembered them
under my mattress.

(Koeneke, “I Remember”)

. . . beautiful images become silly, then get beautiful again …

If it’s all in your life, you can create
a whole kermess of distinctions
or a single phrase that, centuries hence, will be remembered
as a shorthand for a kind of beauty
dominated by McCartney’s overbusy basswork.

The vowels of the text
form a short but very important obbligato
in the wheezy symphony of what you are …

(Koeneke, “Obligate Nose Breather”)

Come hither purposely
with typhus vapors
And I will spit in
the piano room

(Degentesh, “Someone Has Been Trying to Poison Me”)

… and Internet lingo meets “the poetic”:

And even though I haven’t won a game yet (!!!)
the breath of life is vivid and arresting.

(Degentesh, “I Do Not Tire Quickly”)

emo? hard core rock? punk rock? post-punk? grunge?
In the neighborhood of make-believe the big oak tree.

(Koeneke, “X the Owl”)

Degentesh inhabits the overarching organizational conceit as well as the linguistic minutiae of her work with a careful attention to—heck, I’ll go out on a limb and say love of—the quotidian: the everyday selves that emerge from her poems are shifting amalgams of familiar personae. And they “speak” via the organizational conceit: the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, an assessment consisting of 566 true/false questions designed to help identify personal, social, and behavioral problems in psychiatric patients. Degentesh describes how she employed the inventory to Google-sculpt the poems in the “About This Book” section:

“Once I had access to all the questions, I began to use them to write the poems themselves by feeding phrases … into internet search engines and piecing the poems together from the results pages.”

The poem titles are statements from the inventory. Thus the arbitrary and magpie-ish flarf system (which makes fun of verity) is reined in by the use of another arbitrary system, the MMPI (which passes itself off as verity) and suggests that readers graft the question “what defines ‘mental health’?” onto “what defines ‘poem’?” Both sets of questions are unanswerable if not looked at through the prism of history. But since flarf delimits history by its use of Google-sculpting, a constant “now” speaks that is both funny under examination and critical of itself. The poem, “I Do Not Tire Quickly,” starts off the collection (Degentesh’s debut, by the way) with a surprising statement: “Even if your heart is messy, I will clean it up.” It’s a tender impossibility, for what is a messy heart? And how can it be “cleaned”? And who is the person who believes it can be done? The word “heart” appears in this book at least six times, and I don’t think that’s a fluke: the personae that Degentesh channels—those amalgams of search engine personalities—are always a little vulnerable, and the poet throws that vulnerability into vivid relief by her choices regarding the lines that buttress (or, perhaps, leap off of) that quality:

I have not had sex, etc.
I have been experiencing some darkness in my soul

(“My Soul Sometimes Leaves My Body”)

When I’m near someone missing an arm or leg
I feel weighted down by clothes,
the faithful, and celebrities

(“I Feel Uneasy Indoors”)

This “I” changes a lot–sometimes it’s robust, linear, at other times fragile, intuitive. The personae come across like disembodied voices–the new ghosts in the machine.

The machine is never far from either of these poet’s methods, of course. In Koeneke’s “Afterword” (where he discusses his involvement with flarf and its compositional methods—just as Degentesh does, in part, in hers), he says, “It’s not the machines that are shocking, but the use we keep putting them to.”

What’s shocking is the generous uses we’re putting them to: we’re more connected to each other, and to strangers, than ever. Koeneke speculates that this “connectivity” in its various guises is our ghost dance for the post-9/11 era, “a time when one kind of America dropped away and another, more unhinged one emerged.” Musee Mechanique begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees … The computer has become an outside-the-body-brain, and we are undecided as to whether that’s a good thing or not. But Musee furnishes possibilities to consider: the opening salvo, “Use Dips to Initiate,” sets up—as the first poem of The Anger Scale did—an interesting (im)possibility robustly passed off as verity:

Whisker was first used
in the air-sparging tube
to regulate transient voltage dips
for the whole modular village

hordes of unshorn unicorns
served as insecticides …

That a whisker could be used for anything, or that hordes of unshorn unicorns could serve as anything, actually seems possible for a second, and then your thoughts run parallel to the poem itself:

that tape shall be used in every threaded fitting.
that Cheese dip appears at the Welcoming Committees.
that Outfall from dips and lead-off ditches be fed
to native plants …

There’s a damn good chance that cheese dip does appear at welcoming committees, and that’s the funny “duh!” moment that runs through poems like this one and “Sky Hook”:

sky hook? It’s a thing that attaches
to the sky.

Well, duh! And it’s utilitarian, too …

Marines shimmy up it. Sky Hook Structure
establishes “snakiness,” provides shade—protection—
from aerial predators.

Many of Koeneke’s poems explore the issues of utility and correctness in a world besotted with possibilities:

thing is cute for the first 5 minutes, then
starts to wear thin—dummy comes to life,
takes over carnival. How do you set things right?

(“Evil Dummy”)

Kitty Goes Postal—
wants pizza.
Kitty has hat & cape and looks
like a magician …

Then the pizza guy [not the cute
pizza guy, worse luck]
comes to the door and says, “Peace, Kitty!”

(“Pizza Kitty”)

One aspect of Musee that works its way stealthily to the surface is the skillful—oh, okay, I’ll say it: poetic!—manipulation of phrases. In “Let Arch Rot,” there’s incredible riffing on the words “let” “arch” “rot” (and also, at the end of the poem, on “drop/droop”)”

Stems which do not branch, but arch,
posts that droop and rot, sagged forward,
cracked: the body falls. Springs now

hang that much lower. One drop
to make arch floral, thought:
then day drooped.

That kind of music wends its way through a flarf fable, too:

a grackle and a sparrow
(the grackle is a creature
of the night, the sparrow of the day)
both in song, a song of night and sorrow
with this important difference:

the sparrow trills for vespers;
the grackle he sings for his life.

(“The Grackle and the Sparrow”)

Whereas Degentesh’s personae were filtered through an “I,” Koeneke’s flow through a “My,” especially in the section called “My Service on Parnassus.” “My Cream” discloses the troublesome vagaries of the poet’s existence within the ghost dance:

Beauty yields to grunting: girl/boy harmonies,
fecal toms, worried strings …

Spring offers its business solutions
to that vacant e-kiosk, me: Blake’s Zoas,
Yeats’s gyres, Pound’s dollars, my cream.

“My Cream” is a special kind of sonnet: the idea behind lines 13 and 14, the usual final envoy of the form, are laid bare, and then something else gets added:

In sonnets, this line should act as a pivot: if sweet,
will gently curdle, if dark add creamy tincture
to grunts of private grief

But, happily, it doesn’t end there, but goes on with images of chimps in the gloaming, and ends with the unafraid-to-be-lovely “O stars …

In both these collections, the language and methods of poetry are constantly redefined, refined and expanded. And in that expansiveness, there’s room for everyone.

SHARON MESMER is a two-time New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry. Her two recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books) and The Virgin Formica. Her blog is

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