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
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.