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
TED THE CROSS-DRESSING CLAM
—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
THE CROSS-DRESSING CLAM
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.