“NGH WHT” from The Dead Emcee Scrolls Saul Williams

MTV Books, 2006
Review by Michael Scharf

In 2006, Saul Williams published “NGH WHT” as the lead poem of his collection The Dead Emcee Scrolls (MTV Books). Like “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “NGH WHT” is a serial poem in a Christological set of 33 cantos.

The song form and lyric are often understood as related historically and hierarchically: songs came first, but lyric, while derived from song, is the higher form.

Discussing the related Dylan-a-Poet? problem, Joshua Clover says something like “the songs are not lyric poems: they’re songs.” Different expectations, and no hierarchy implied. The same move can be made with It Takes a Nation of Millions… and also with versions of the page/stage problem: performance poems are performance poems

The fact that a new set of critical categories is in the process of being formed for digitally recorded poems means that digital audio reproduction of poetry is probably a form in its own right.

One also thinks of forms that begin as written lyric and end up something else: Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s “Auflösung” (a lied, though not the first), and Schönberg’s setting of Jens Peter Jacobson’s Pierrot Lunaire (sprechstimme).

It’s wrong to think in terms of a hierarchy of ‘related forms’. The relation is something more like ‘forms that have shared elements’. Form, like genre, and other categories wired through desire, is a spectrum.

But: for the last 30 or 40 years, at least part of form has not resided in the piece, but in internalized, and shifting, modes of reception, or expectation. It’s thus possible to project the structures of lyric writing, its constraints and particularities, into and out of other forms.

It’s hard to do, though. Reception theory is pretty well entrenched, but the insideness-intrinsicness thing is constantly reinforced.

It’s a beautiful definition. Even with the integral and the space inside it, though, it implies up and down. It also completely fails to capture the material part of lyric writing. (I know he was talking about his own thing, and leaves room with the interrogative, etc. I’m not trying to say it’s not a major statement.)

When I see Drew Gardner perform one of his poems with a keyboard or full ensemble, the primary structure of reception I’m deploying is “poem.” Ditto when watching Brandon Downing’s Dark Brandon: Eternal Classics. Yet there’s very little that’s conventionally lyric-like about those works.

I think what I find so amazing about “NGH WHT” is the way it allows – and encourages, with a kind of taunting – the projection of multiple structures of reception that haven’t been deployed together before. I think that’s part of what people mean when they talk about a poem’s embodying a unique perspective: one ascribes an anticipatory consciousness of that multiple projection to the poem’s author/‘author’.

Here are some of the tropes that are in play for me in reading “NGH WHT”:

The trope of the lost greatness of hip-hop surfaces not just in the alliteration and rhymes but in the canto’s tonality and posture, which recall the meticulous position-paper-like quality of artists of the late 80s and early 90s. References elsewhere in the book to specific influences and peers reinforce that feeling. The elegiac tone (which that comes in more forcefully later) and the canto structure itself recall Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

The trope of High Black Literature, and the culture exchange’s expectations of Williams’s own work with respect to such, are deployed brilliantly within hip-hop’s rhetoric of competitive cutting and boasting. “Bigger Thomas I promise” is at once a non-ironic identification with the character Bigger Thomas’s violence, an identification with Richard Wright’s literary projection of himself into tropes of sexualized black male violence, a promise of literary greatness in the creation of a character equal to Bigger Thomas, an ironic comment on the expectations that surround a Serious Black Artist, and a mirror held up to rap – and its cultural achievement – that shows Bigger behind them.

In the contractions of NGH, BCH, etc.: tags, but also pop concrete, and a churchy block grandeur that recalls biblical repetitions of JHWH. The contractions also brilliantly represent the unrepresentability of the loaded terms they denote: “WHT” has a particularly unstable set of meanings, careening from what to white.

I also find myself reading Williams’s speech-like rhetoric as a taunt to a literal, reductive reading of “I HATE SPEECH” poetics. In a literal version of I HATE SPEECH, identity work, and the kind of direct statement that often characterizes it, is seen as a limit on the kind of ideologies-destroying free play that IHS poetics sought. Many of the identity tropes that fuelled Black poetry of the 1970s – a close identification of ‘author’ and “I,” and a belief in the possibilities of radical self-determination through language and otherwise – show up in hip-hop (to the point where an artist of the era took the name of Speech). Williams makes one read these tropes as multiply historical (i.e. he makes me see those same modes in 70s poetry, 80s & 90s rap, and non-ironically in “NGH WHT”), and as politically efficacious in a manner that eluded IHS poetics. A literal, reductive reading of IHS is a straw man, but it was in play for me.

The poem’s opening line limns the taboo quality, in high work, of gender and race stereotyping, and announces its code allegiances with vernacular takings-back. At the same time, the over-the-top dick swinging of the first stanza proclaims both the exhaustion of the tropes, and of the author with them. It’s not that the terms don’t still have a huge charge, and it’s not that bringing that into ‘poetry’, and troping that bringing for the author’s own use and furtherance, isn’t part of the move here. The whole maintains an exquisite balance between all of that and a knowledge of the limits of, and the pain inflicted by, BCH discourse.

I don’t think this poem has gotten the attention it has deserved at least partially because it was not released within conventional poetry channels, another way in which convention determines reception.

Text Loses Time, Nico Vassilakis

Many Penny Press, 2007
Review by Eddie Hopely

What furthermore presumes settled matter. Nico Vassilakis’ Text Loses Time is too generous, embedding visual, material, dimensional, memorial, and aural reading potentials into each corner and gesture of a page. This variety of reading lens functions as an invitation to participate in the generation of visio-textual networks whose meanings have become spatially destabilized.

“Porto Middled” opens with shapes being whirled and distorted into relationships provoking, simultaneously, the alphabetic and imaginal. An alphabet as character emerges throughout this book: letters as titles, reacting to grid based syntaxes, arranged into (what would be called concrete poetry if only they would decide) shapes and forming causal relationships among themselves across sign or sentence boundaries. “Negative Alphabet Alphabet” approaches tense cinema in a series of single sculptural maneuvers.

Vassilakis writes with a spectrum of textual layouts, attempting to accommodate a breadth sufficient for the exploration of a porous and multiplicitous poetry within units of meaning hinged by the situation of words and (& as) shapes upon “Generally the page and / its two dimensions.” Excellently paced, the structure of the whole work seems to mirror individual sentences rife with sound and image play, alternately punctuated and open, blending. A block of considered two letter signification (from “Vowelist / for voices” (the typography is much more even on the page))

of of fo if fi of
fi if foe f of fi
af fe of fi of fo
fo fi fa of ef fa
fo of f oaf if if
if fu ef fo fi uf
fa fo fi fa fo fe
uf if of fo if fu

disseminates its influence into subsequent and previous sections. Disruptive canals of reading present themselves, circumnavigating aggregations of meaning imposed by the organization of sequential planar data within the book-form.

A density of syntax achieved through multiplication of word function. Constellations suggesting couplings and reading orbits across, around, outside of, and through bounded pages that intensify and enmesh, eventually (re)articulating themselves as fragmented memories informing future activity: cyclical resolution that changes the nature of the original cycle.

In “Species Pieces / after Perec,” short descriptive and suggestive sentences fold into one another, each portion of poem titled by every other letter of this alphabet, in dialogue across the series. The C. section features the page’s third thin dimension (“A / memory attached to the / narrowness of it.”), flashing before the eye when turning back to formulate connections between the former (A.) and present (C.) pages, evoking the ‘between’ of meaning and memory-(re)making that concerns Vassilakis throughout. […]

narrowness of it. They
were called boats because
of their shape. A
description of the unfinished
project. The film, a film, as shown

[…] Shape to boat to “C.” to ‘bōw.’ Placing a reader momentarily outside of text and normative (linear) authorial inscription while solidifying each surface of the object as readable seems to further implicate the corpus in transit/production (through space, data,) as a text of ‘how’ inextricable from a situated text of ‘what’ or ‘where.’ “The texture of it is nothing to speak of, but you’ve thought of it already, the kind of paper, its dimensions, its similarity to other textures you’ve known.”

By presenting an impossibility of total or closed strategies within polysemous signs featuring multi-syntactical signifying properties, Vassilakis interrupts the construction of naturally hierarchical subject-positions while calling into question a dissection and recontextualization of meaning that attempts to negate a relationship with its historical or circumstantial origins. Mediated tele-access to place, event, and persona, implied currents of fear; performances judged as definitive of a subject, archived: “The song never erased. You speak and it hums. THE POLICE CAN KICK MY ASS.” A project highlighting the communicability of portion (“Alphabetic bits” as “visual vocabularies”) speaks to the spatio-temporal distances at which a reader/writer finds him or herself from a site of examination.

“Again sadly a colander by the sea.” Vassilakis provides enough loopholes, particularities, and minutely constructed inhabitable spaces to make this book almost endlessly productive. The object is a pleasure to read from and interact with, slightly wider than its height and providing large surfaces for the eyes to work upon.

Breathalyzer, K. Silem Mohammad

Edge, 2008
Review by Kareem Estefan

Testing the sobriety of poetry communities, message boards, and our “deer head nation” at large, K. Silem Mohammad opens his latest book with an obscure diagnosis: ‘the nuisance is staring / into words as if they were crystal’ (“Breathalyzer”). Breathalyzer presents this idle gaze from multiple perspectives, both ‘zoom[ing] in on the figure / staring vacantly’ (“Dulce et Decorum Est”) and occupying that figure’s position: ‘I’m awake staring / at a puke pink neon “4:00”’ (“Collateral”). From whatever point of view, Mohammad’s subjects seem stunned by sensational images, of which he offers many, while trading in Hollywood’s continuity editing for a Surrealist jolt and, just as often, the anti-linearity of stutters and tautologies. Whether these poems register as intoxicated, their numerous “speakers” – Mohammad is a veritable PA system, amplifying thousands of anonymous voices – occupy something of an insomniac consciousness, pretty much knocked out but always on the verge of throwing up.

Breathalyzer’s opening couplet offers a formula for dismantling the spectacular image. If ‘the nuisance is staring / into words as if they were crystal,’ a paragrammatic method of staring into words could transform this nuisance into a new stance or even a new stanza. However, the next stanza undermines the activity of poetic revolt:

the blueprint rises
the thing so desired
does not exist nor then
we continue breathing

Awkwardly, ironically, Mohammad’s poems tend to foreclose movement, continuing to breathe and forwarding the stare. He signs off “Breathalyzer” with over-the-top resignation: ‘as for advancement, honor / as of dust into the lungs.’ The nuisance, it appears, is staying.

As far as that nuisance Flarf goes, Mohammad’s poems stand out as sublime. For the most part, Breathalyzer constitutes a potent realization of the “mainstream poetics” Mohammad characterizes as “the global video game we live in everyday.” Consider this paragraph from the prose poem “ABABA”:

Rudolf Nureyev, Jesse Owens, Pius XII. The OED and antibiotics have cut the toll in
death and misery. Unlikely stories. I became a Counter Intelligence Team. Old in 1952
and scared to death as a rifleman. Zoomie. I had great respect for my “grunt” brothers.
We do not seek violence or death. You were my first guinea pig. Space: 1729. Baltimore
Ninja Death Squad. “Seasoning the Obese” (Slayer cover). “Marines Hymn” and
“Baby.” It shines on death, where he sits. That’ll fix things.

Like a more flippant version of the “Findings” section in Harper’s Bazaar or an outrageous parody of Silliman’s “new sentence” – the poem begins ‘Hello, this is Ron’s toaster’ – “ABABA” hits at the literal meaning of “mainstream” which Mohammad recalls: “a forceful, central current that carries in its path all the debris and livestock and entire vacationing families that get vortexed into it. In the mainstream dead athletes mingle with ninjas, guinea pigs and cannibals, and we are told that the ‘OED and antibiotics’ will fight death. In the mainstream subjects are diffused, overwhelmed by data, knocked out and notified, ‘That’ll fix things.’” The sequencing is not comforting like ABBA – which evokes a simple rhyme scheme, marketable Swedish pop, a Semitic God, memorable beginnings and ends – but continually regenerative like spam: ‘The cold dead deaf deal Debby grove growl gruff guano guard Roman romp rood.’ The alphabetical lists of unrelated words found in certain spam emails (and flarf poems) allows them to plow through most filters, passing the sobriety test. A poem like “ABABA” is mainstream in Mohammad’s terms because it is both ‘aggressively public’ and ‘shameless.’

In many respects, Breathalyzer is a tamer – or simply “less Flarf” – book than Deer Head Nation. The Google-sculpting process, if at work, does not command the reader’s attention in most poems; Mohammad’s source material is often broad enough to render null the already feeble distinction between “found” and “original” poetry. Still, certain poems, like “Exorcist Voice,” obsessively circle around one phrase:

I’ve been having this dream where I am driving around
my old neighborhood doing the exorcist voice
surviving day to day and pondering how time disappeared

it goes something like this I now present the exorcist
it’s the exorcist the exorcist opens her mouth
I’m a different kind of exorcist

From the uncanny first stanza, so familiar aside from the title phrase, Mohammad enters emcee/deejay territory, boasting, mixing and scratching. His set is spot-on, a barrage of idioms, images and pop culture references that on the one hand demands that one ‘look at the bigger picture no destroy it’ (“Jesus Christ”) and on the other presents subjects with so little agency they hardly remember to interject, ‘oh yeah, my point is I feel like my vote doesn’t count’ (“Anti-Ass”). “I Said to Poetry”’s lazy, truistic putdowns were penned by a community, whether or not Google yields results for the closing couplet: ‘what a sad violent fact it is / that poetry is just a bank or something.’

Out of this gleeful stupidity come some of the really tame poems, and those are the ones that are most identifiably Flarf. Cordoned off in the final 25 pages of Breathalyzer, as if only Flarf devotees – y’know, all 38 of them – will make it there, poems like “Today’s Goats,” “Abstract Poetics,” and “The World of Gourds” are aggressively stupid, repetitive and obscene. Here’s some of Mohammad’s “Abstract Poetics”:

over here it’s all dumbshit metal/rap teen pop
kiss my ass hardcore and black metal
spoken in the universal language of dumbshit
oh lord I was on some fucking strong ass drugs
I’ve been a completely dimwitted metal shithead
what u really hate is having a dumbshit who thinks
I am not the part of him that kisses ur ass
now that my ass has reached a new audience
with my MA in dumbshit studies
I’ve even been writing bad love poetry again

The ironic title is a little saddening, because the formerly exciting idea of a “mainstream poetics” far from Robert Pinsky might indeed look something like this. Easy to turn off and immediately recognizable, Mohammad’s “Abstract Poetics” fails to register as offensive or funny – it just invites you to change the channel. As a critique of poetry – mainstream, abstract, MFA – that is ‘spoken in the universal language of dumbshit’ but falls within the formal conventions of poetry, it’s too easy to skim and ignore. The poems in Deer Head Nation avoided this trap by introducing each line with odd diacritical marks that de-familiarized the language. The best poems in Breathalyzer effect a similar transformation through the introduction of violent, heterogeneous images to pre-fab phrases, like the opening stanza of “Unobstructed”:

love is a Pakistani Mirage fighter jet
frozen, strange
like it had, you know, bubonic plague

Part Hallmark, part Toys R’ Us, part CNN, the metaphor is spooky, devastating, ironic, mainstream. Nuisance or new sense, it’s an image that leaves us staring.

Death Notices, Meg Hamill

Factory School, 2007
Review by Diana Hamilton

Published in 2007 by the Heretical Texts series of Factory School, Meg Hamill’s Death Notices takes on the form of the obit in both senses of the phrase: it both constrains itself to the form and confronts it head-on; most pages of the book are poetic ‘death notices’ for the victims of the war in Iraq, named as specifically as possible given the anonymity that so marks our confrontation (and maybe, in a sense very much in line with this book, that makes that confrontation bearable) with the death of civilians. Hamill would send “truth in lieu of flowers” to the services for the victims of the war, in a phrase whose repetition is one of the strongest of the work’s effects. It is this sort of ambition, her outright declaration that she “want[s] to create a bridge between all the different kinds of humans / all the dead ones even all / the oppressed and all the caged ones” that sets the book up for the necessary failure the invitation to respond to tragedy evokes. This is not a failing diagnosed by review, but by the text itself, which must acknowledge that it “do[es]n’t know how to make bridges” despite the urgency the book takes as its starting place: after having listed the numbers of the dead in various categories as known at the time of publication, she writes, “I can’t write that many obituaries, though I’m beginning to understand why I must. The fact that there are 367,294 Iraqi civilians who we couldn’t say are alive or dead right now is indicative of both the impossibility and the urgency of the project”.

The impossibility of the project is not merely a result of that mathematical sublime, but of position, of the necessarily problematic attempt to witness what you didn’t see, to suffer what you didn’t suffer, to attempt to restore the individuality of the dead in an effort that collapses all those individuals into one perspective. Hamill would elude that last risk by inviting the voices of many other people and sources to meet within the book’s pages. At times, the narrow blocks of justified prose that characterize most of the text are left behind for a poem in italics spread out across the page, and it is in these poems that the voice is most clearly appropriated. This formal differentiation can be seen, though, as a disclaimer of sorts, reassuring the reader that this is someone else speaking, that it is not Hamill who has “a picture of the world trade center / hanging up by [her] bed”. Despite the book’s struggle to identify with the unidentifiable, certain voices can only be invited into the margins. My repetition of the author’s name is not just a tick of too much exposure to literary criticism: an author is altogether present in this text, one who types names into “[her] ibook g4 [to] find the details”, who lives in Oakland, who knows that “the examination of it is just as prone to egoic fundamentalism as the non-examination” but who examines anyway, and whose presence threatens to render all the names she would keep so very separate (casting those “that signed up for killing” out from “the mothers who are beating their chests”) just a sentimental moment in the poetry (nearing its use as a dirty word) of one person.

The Heretical Texts series takes as its project “work that breaks down (in) communication as a precedent and accompaniment to revolution”, a mission statement that may struggle to meet up with the author’s apparent faith in communication as something recuperative. Maybe this is a result of the book’s subject, which would confront a lack of communication, a namelessness that haunts the tragedy of the war in Iraq so far. Hamill’s work is strongest when it navigates the failed connections between people and events without trying to resolve them. The sometimes earnest ambition that marks a project that would offer witness to some number of the deaths that go unaccounted for all too often is countered by the impossibility of that witness, and by the fact that the author’s sources are available to all of us: they are various websites and news sources sewn together (the book offering a potential remedy to failed connectivity after all), they are the often painful, unresolved findings of a poet who is no more a witness to the tragedies she takes on as the rest of us/US, the conflagration of country and plural first person object pronoun that points to the impossibility of the dissolution of country into “us”, to the un-resolvability of so many positions. That the research materials for Hamill’s project are so readily available threatens to undermine the hope on which the project might rely: if the ‘truth’, so to speak, is already out there, delivering it (in poetry or any other format) may not offer anything previously inaccessible. It’s not like poetry, after all, has a wider readership than the book’s sources. Hamill asks:

is awareness of these bad things [. . .]

in itself curative

could it be that healing begins at the moment when
we learn to sustain our gaze
on all the bad and all the stunning things just
keep our eyes looking
past the time when we want to stop looking

The answer, in my understanding, is emphatically no: there is no cure here. There is a whole other danger: that of truth-telling and its pretense, that of guilt and its impotence, that of poetry and its ambition. If there is something to be recuperated from the experience of the last eight years, it ought to be a call to constant suspicion of ideology machines, of anyone who shows up armed and convinced.