Kitchen Press Reviews

A site devoted to reviews of poetry chapbooks, books, periodicals and anthologies

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Anger Scale, by Katie Degentesh, Combo Books, 2006.

The Anger Scale, Katie Degentesh’s first collection of poems, is another offering from the Flarflist Collective . Each poem in the book, Degentesh explains, “is titled with a question from the MMPI, or Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychological test consisting of 566 true/false questions that has been the benchmark for determining people’s mental pathologies as well as their fitness for court trials and military service since the 1930s. Updated in 1989, the MMPI-2 is still relied upon for the same purposes today.” The title of each poem is a question from the MMPI. Degentesh wrote the poems “by feeding phrases from the statements into internet search engines and piecing the poems together from the results pages.”

In one sense, then, the poems in The Anger Scale are definitely Flarf. In a way, though, they aren’t, or at least are a departure from Flarf as it is typically defined. Degentesh’s poems don’t really adhere to the common definition of Flarf as “A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’” They do, however, “take unexpected turns,” and are “jarring,” often brilliantly so (The Flarf Files).

That aside, the major accomplishment of The Anger Scale is its deft exploration of the two machines of hierarchy it puts into conversation—Google and the MMPI. Just as the MMPI is used to determine people’s mental pathologies and competencies, Google does something similar to web sites. A site that ranks well on Google will be seen by end-users as more “fit” to provide them the information they are searching for.

Degentesh’s poems are filled with the subtleties of this dichotomy. Take, for example, the opening stanza of the wonderful “I Loved My Father”:

I loved my father and I loved Jesus.
What was I to do?
I felt like a canoe
That was being pulled apart by two strong men

Dichotomies abound—between the self and other, the domestic and the spiritual. And in tone. This poem, on the one hand, is very tongue-in-cheek, ironic, absurd and funny. On the other, it can be read as genuine and kind of heartbreaking. (The same can be said for basically all the poems in The Anger Scale.) The speaker is someone we can at once sympathize with and laugh at, and when we do so we are also sympathizing with and laughing at ourselves.

Any book based on criteria used to tell us who and what we are psychologically, how we rank as human beings, must be as equally absurd as the questions asked to determine that ranking, but at the same time actually reveal something about us. When you get past all the nuances in tone, the unexpected turns and linguistic jarring, what you end up with in “I Loved My Father” is a sense of the inherent cruelty in being in any type of human relationship, and a reminder that much of the way we define and redefine ourselves is often in opposition to the people and forces that surround us. The poem concludes:

He looked at me and knew I had stolen it.
A man will be hated by his own family.

I hated Listerine and I hated my father.
I do not know whether he is alive or not.

I took what I wanted, and left him spoiled behind me.
I was reborn in Ireland, in 1753.

Of course, not every poem in The Anger Scale is a hit. On a poem by poem basis, that is disappointing, but does not detract too much from the book as a whole. More than anything, The Anger Scale is an innovation. It not only stakes out new poetic territory, but also is, to my mind, doing something new within the Flarf movement itself, rather brilliantly challenging and expanding on the ways Flarf has thus far been defined.

--Justin Marks

Sunday, November 26, 2006

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

On my mind while reading Rodney Koeneke’s Musee Mechanique was the question of whether or not one can adequately review a collection of Flarf poems without going into a detailed discussion of Flarf itself, especially in light of some of the controversies that have surrounded it. According to Koeneke’s Afterword, “The idea [behind Flarf] was to enter the most absurd or inappropriate search into Google and sculpt poems from the results.” For him, “Flarf seemed like a way to get new kinds of beauty into the poem that wouldn’t be possible without the Internet.” That, I think, is all one needs to know about Flarf to appreciate Musee Mechanique.

Musee Mechanique is broken into four sections—FIRE WATER BURN, ON THE CLAMWAYS, MY SERVICE ON PARNASSUS and VERSE. CHROUS. VERSE. “On the Clamways” is probably my favorite section, though that’s more of a personal preference than anything else. On an anecdotal level, it reminded of a brief passage in Moby Dick in which Ishmael riffs on all varieties of chowder, including cod and clam, and whether or not consuming too much chowder could make one a chowder-head. I also liked how it focused directly on food, one of the book’s obvious preoccupations. It’s silly and absurd, but in a way that results in poems that feel and sound new.

Take, for example, “OK to Kiss a Clam?”:

Clam Shell Bowl Set
—trail of drips and bubbles

targets victims in a very specific way: a way
designed to promote the spread of the disease.
People infected with “the clam”

At some level know it, in fact like it.
Doug the clam guy spreading my feet

“Better than your grandma’s clam chowder”

bowl gift set for TED

What I love about this poem is how far it goes in such a short space, as well as the surprise of all the rhetorical twists. One could read this poem simply as an ad for a “clam bowl set” with a parenthetical subtext that touches on cross dressing, disease and general perversion (Doug the clam guy spreading my feet / “Better than my your grandma’s clam chowder” is really creepy in a making-sense-through-non-sense sort of way). The poem is also impressive in how well it incorporates prosaic everyday speech. Here I’m thinking of lines like: “targets victims in a very specific way: a way / designed to promote the spread of the disease.” These lines are both repetitive and wordy, and in another poem, would indeed be truly bad, but here they resonate and go a long way to maintaining the energy of the poem as it bounces from one idiosyncrasy to the next.

There are a lot of poems in Musee Mechanique that are as good, if not better, than “OK to Kiss a Clam?”, and it is, on a whole, a very interesting collection that does at times achieve Koeneke’s highest sense of what Flarf can do. At the same time, it is an uneven book, and has its share of poems that, while entertaining, ultimately feel like little more than a collection of the absurd language Koeneke found in his Google searches. “Misogyny in Islam,” for example, is funny, but isn’t much more than a parody, full of phrases like, “Hey gurl / my page is betta than urs…” and “Hey cities of loud distress— / get yo’ ass free wireless.” To its credit, “Misogyny in Islam” does make one attempt to be more than parody with the penultimate line of “Hey. How do civilised people kill responsibly?” Unfortunately, the last line, which reads, “hehe…bye: C-U later…,” undercuts the metaphorical possibilities and promise the previous line introduces and brings the poem back down to the level of simple parody.

My main criticism of Musee Mechanique, however, is that by the end of the book, the poems start to sound the same. I admire and applaud Koeneke’s efforts to embrace “‘bad’ or socially unacceptable speech,” as he puts it, and his attempts to open up his poems “to registers of speech not usually considered poetic;” speech, in short, that other readers of poetry and poets alike would deem wrong.

An unintended side effect of that, however, is that the juxtapositions of language, the particular type of white noise presented in these poems, loses steam. As Koeneke himself says, “What makes the idea of the avant-garde so difficult now is the speed” at which “everything new becomes quaint” and “accumulates, in just a few years, the stately enchantment of the old.” This is not to say that Musee Mechanique has become quaint. Rather, it's a book that on a whole is strong, but ends up feeling a bit worn out and predictable by the end in terms of sound, rhetoric and impact.

--Justin Marks

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Email justinamarks [at] gmail [dom] com to request a review copy of any of the following

Among Other Things: Poems & Proposals, by Zach Barocas (The Cultural Society)
OCHO #1-8 (each issues is 8 pages)
Whirligig, by Christopher Salerno (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006)

I will update periodically, so please check back often.