Duration Press, 2007
Review by Alex Linhardt
A great French poet once listed three imperishable principles:
1) The body is vulgar;
2) There is always a time for suffering; and
3) Nothing was more horrible than the Siege of Orléans.
Brandon Brown’s barbarous Kidnapped judiciously amends these axioms for the modern age:
1) The body is a crude Iraqi marionette covered in urine;
2) If we can’t make time for suffering, well, we’ll just have the Mumbai branch take care of it; and
3) If you thought the Hundred Years’ War was too long, you may want to grab an InStyle or something because this War on Terror looks like it could go a while.
Kidnapped is a luddite treatise, an erotic memo, a speed-freak diary, and a molten clump of infinitives burning through the Talkback on a Huffington Post page. In Brown’s brutish cartoon history of 21st-century pop torture, rendition is a universal condition of human life. The very act of being has been indelibly altered by a near-decade of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and is now entwined with physical degradation, sleep deprivation, corporal punishment, and sexual abuse. History is rewritten and then grafted onto the flesh in tortuous doublespeak. The parameters of existence have been redefined by the Military Commissions Act, and our vigilant Commander-in-Chief declaims: “The United States does not exist. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values.”
This may all sound a bit draconian, even farcical, but Brown knows no one ever got rich off poetic appeals to political pragmatism. His point, I think, is that the hyperbolic has become humdrum, and no one has noticed. Confronted with the abominations of the last decade, we generate literary and lifestyle clichés at gunpoint:
It’s just a nonstop thrillride of over -the-top sheer leisure
Your heart races as you experience the amplitude of complete rest
By the wispy susurrations of the swim-up bar, or by the pingpong tables
You’ll nearly collapse dead in the face of how prone you are
Until one ambassador began to wiggle around the other’s lungs
It may sound odd to have no choice but to party
But party you will, shut up. The homeland extends its homogeneity
It’s simple, concoct customized pigeons and set them sail outward
The getaway in which Be did not get away at all but the opposite
You’ll find it difficult to even stand up by the time you’re done partying
For Brown, the citizenry can only describe political deceits and war crimes in terms borrowed from amusement parks, casinos, and movie blurbs. Anxiety and anomie cannot be addressed in any public sphere or medium – “no choice but to party” – and hence the unease skirts under the surface and sinks in our tarry lungs; if you want to ventriloquize press releases, it seems, just start writing until you pass out.
It’s the legacy of 9/11 articulated through hippie ontology and online pornography, prompting vague and compelling equivalences between reading, being, breathing, compromising, fucking, and flying airplanes into skyscrapers. Nearly every page offers a novel analogy between eroticism and eradication, and perhaps that makes Brown sound like a sophomoric aesthete – certainly that’s some of the appeal here – but consider the book’s epigrams, one by Eliane Scarry on the sonorities of violence, one by Alberto Gonzalez on the nature of deportation, and one by Larry Kearney:
“THE SHOTGUN AND SOMEONE
HAVE SAID SOMETHING
Behind every symphony is a homicide; even the most accomplished speechwriters can’t silence the erotic melodies of murder coursing through our news cycles, fashion magazines, and love poems:
One of the more popular recreational activities is this one
Tonsil hockey, where one tongue tries to turn the tonsils
In be’s throat into a puck and then put it into a net
Which is also housed by Be’s throat? In the house of throats
This is how you decode the difficult and universal ciphers of
Torrid howls of pleasure disguised as Terror’s howls of torture
You’re wrong if you think that the language is French
Let’s make a little rhapsody with skin flutes
In foreign affairs, we take pleasure in torture; domestically, we torture ourselves through endless pleasure. This must be why sadism is the essence of gracious diplomacy. Brown is interrogating this representation of codification in general – “the sentence of exile” – that the structures of 21st-century life – linguistic, cultural, economic, whatever – are unable to even express the ethical dilemmas they purport to redress. As the poems proceed, oppositions and ironies fade into an obtuse academia, sometimes shifting from stripper clubs to botany: “The fruits, tantamount to yes, are instances of the genus no.” This move is further compounded in withering rap rhythms that invoke both Slick Rick and post-structuralist claptrap:
The slate was clean as a crypt despite its opacity; by the time the hacksaw come to fulfill its hacksawocity I’m prepared to defer at utmost velocity.
Disharmony of dislogic appropriation, good thing! I was hyperinterrogated, hearing that my brunt was my opacity, suddenly I was fucked.
Even Brown’s own critical poetics can’t withstand the lures of the lurid:
This is your content, book, so content yourselves to having to contend
With interminable omnipotent party planning.
In Kidnapped, this insuperable unity of violence and language has always persisted; violence as an awful lyricism, and artistic endeavor as the crass gesticulations of subjectivity under enhanced interrogation.
The relationship works the other way as well. Brown suggests that your TiVo’d On the Record episode is a digital readymade, an objet d’art of mindless exploitation. The imperative of Kidnapped is simple: If you want to apprehend the extraordinary machinations underlying technology, terrorism, and torture, throw away your pedantic tomes. Instead, sift through the detritus of vernaculars developed by basic cable and read a ton of poems. Indeed, Brown has one of the most concise descriptions of the act of reading I’ve ever encountered:
Every demand you propose will be met by a yes
And every statement made to you will be simple and uninterpretable
Nowhere will hermeneutics be apparent or interesting
It’s simple: sit back, shut your eyes, and give up the yes