By Adeena Karasick
Talonbooks, 128 pages, $19.95
New York Transit system’s Poetry in Motion series are coming back, and commuters are able to stretch their necks towards the MTA-curated chance of momentary transcendence amidst the array of newspapers and magazines, flashing screens of iphones and all manner of other unnamable devices. Adeena Karasick’s recent book, “This Poem” does not promise this sort of transcendence. Rather, it attempts to beat the information overcrowding at its own game. Karasick’s work proclaims itself to be “sick of your unzipped files / your empty typologies // (your references, preferences, profiles all pulsing / and compressed) - /// and just wants you to be its / bloggy woggie google boy / at Avenue C”.
“This Poem” is Karasick’s eighth collection. A professor of media studies at Fordham University, she walks the line between academia and street art, theory and performance. Karasick is well known for her multimedia work and electrifying live shows — and so even on the page, her poetry tends to reach toward other art mediums and sprawl across categories and dimensions.
In general, poems are thought to be something of a bridge between writers’ and readers’ imaginations — a device used to evoke an emotional or mental space, a multilayered experience. But what if, as Karasick’s latest book seems playfully to suggest, a poem is an independent being of its own — with its own opinions, moods, sass and wide array of attractive hang-ups? After all, a result of a collective experience often turns out to be something beyond the sum of its elements. That’s true for anything from a regular conversation to your Facebook feed, from the stock market to religion — and it is especially true for language, which is perhaps what Karasick is driving at in her composition. “This Poem” is about itself as it is coming into existence:
Celebrating its curves
getting all buff-
ered up, and
wants you to know
it is lexically
and feels amazing, internally
It is fingering its text box
Filling its fun bags
while smacking its ass-
symmetric ruckus sallow spigot stuttered caesura
spewing its bonnet honeypot
Maestro of experimental jazz Anthony Coleman, in conversation with the author of this article, has described Karasick’s work as “language poetry made sexy.” Language poetry was an avant-garde literary movement in the 1970s that, as its cohorts went on to inhabit academia, had generations of influences in propelling poetry — and meaning-making, in general — into new places not normally associated with poetry. For these poets, language has been more than a mere tool; it’s an actual reality in its own right. And while some practitioners of the genre (such as Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman) have tackled the idea with a great deal of humor, the works of some of the others, which are saturated with philosophy and complex concepts, have been fascinating but at times dry. Karasick’s work, while inspired by the agendas of language poetry, is anything but dry: Funny and playful, it is at all times seductive and filled with naughty innuendos, as the excerpt above shows. Here, as throughout, the poetry:
comes to you with an explosion of brattiness
all festive and vulnerable
like a shag bang slutty punk foreclosure
In this excerpt, the first two lines are fairly straightforward and clear, but the third takes a leap beyond. Propelled by word-music, it teeters on the edge of overload, finally emerging with the final and unexpected word “foreclosure.” The reader may not know what exactly the line means, but it’s clear that the “foreclosure” does not quite refer to the housing crisis — but perhaps a crisis of another, more delightful sort. In her essay “Hijacking Language,” which appeared in the “Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture” anthology from University of Alabama Press (2010), Karasick traces her creative lineage to medieval kabbalistic writings, which, as she points out, “urge the reader to experience language in ‘non-traditional ways’ — extract it from its use value and encourage one to somehow get inside these cosmic and erotic fields of discourse, harness language’s inherent power, and experience the sensation of ever-expanding ‘meaning.’” As the poet mentions in the essay, the premise of Kabbalah is that the word is created through language — divine pronouncements. And so, too, the world of Karasick’s poem is creating itself, instantly layered, tumultuous and beautiful, as:
It is sculpting the subjunctive
scratching its i’s out
outsourcing its tsuris
Now, anyone would be on board with outsourcing one’s “tsuris.” But, in the light of the two previous lines, this isn’t exactly about taking a load off one’s shoulders, or getting rid of problems. Clearly, Karasick’s creation takes its “tsuris” seriously, as a responsibility and a badge of honor. In fact, could “outsourcing” mean something else here? Perhaps it is about finding a new source for a flurry of poetic and philosophical problems, so as to inspire a whole new spate of poetry. As she says in the “Hijacking Language” essay, Karasick is after the “meaning that is not fixed but in flux, fluid; a logic that is often illogical; a rationality that is not irrational but relational and affirms that like the text itself we must embrace contradiction, conflict, discordance.”
“This Poem” is interspersed with plates of gorgeous full-color collages by Blaine Spiegel. More than a few of these collages riff on the image of the CAPTCHA, an online test used to distinguish humans from computer-generated programs. The CAPTCHA works by visually distorting text so that we, but not programmatically generated bots, can still discern the intended word and thus be identified. That seems like a particularly apt metaphor for Karasick’s project, which would not allow for a passive, “robotic” participation, but instead constantly teases her reader into participation. It is a constant invitation to be amused, to contemplate and to marvel. After all, one does not often meet a poem that “wants you to enter it like a one-click flickr stream / nestle into its bosom of / zippity slippage, ciphers, ellipsis / its flotsam-fraught funhouse / fancy-pants flossy fanfare.”
Jake Marmer writes frequently about poetry for the Forward.
This story "For Adeena Karasick, Multimedia Is the Message" was written by Jake Marmer.