Citizen Cain by Ben Friedlander
(Salt Publishing, London, 2011)
I hope Ben Friedlander needs no introduction. The mojo of his scholarship and poetry have been well-displayed for um so long. His scholarship is lively and useful—what more could one ask?—but here I speak of his latest book of poetry.
I should right off say that Ben is an exponent of Flarf. I want to speak on Flarf before I direct my attention specifically towards this one work of Ben’s. As a critical term, Flarf tends to overshadow the work it means to describe. I aim towards clarity here, wish me luck.
For the past 10 or so years, Flarf has been a lightning rod. Maybe I mean lodestar or bellwether, the point is, people have discussed Flarf in that public, Boolean way that sometimes lacks for satisfaction. To orient you, I offer my understanding of Flarf.
Flarf betakes itself of Google searches and the weird word groupings people find in them. Plenty of work has been attempted similarly, without the name Flarf attached. Flarf represents a social, and therefore attitudinal, connection of several nameable writers, all of whom use certain techniques to produce their work. Ben numbers among that ilk.
The social connection bears importance with Flarf, both in the friendship of the various Flarfists, and also in the social, or sociable, tool that the Google search engine manifestly (albeit weirdly) is. The Flarfists and friends created an email list, to share work and precipitate discussion. The list was (and perhaps remains) by invitation only. Tim Peterson invited me to join the list, and, without bearing evidence of Flarfian work or submitting to the Official Flarf Tattoo, I became witness, and modestly a contributor, to the adventures on the list. Thus my connection with Ben.
I mean, Ben sent me a copy of this book, some work of which saw light of day on the list, because of my membership on the Flarf list. My own Flarfian contributions were (and are) labored and sullen. Alas, because humour a-bursting defines a strong element of Flarf.
I guess that’s been one pissa preamble, but I just wanted to note that Flarf is fully objectified as a subgenre within the ranks of Poetry. And Ben works in the mode. Yet Ben’s work has its own escape velocity, about which I hope I can prepare Gentle Reader.
The first epitaph sets the pace: “Write a giggly ode about / motherfuckers”—Robert Creeley. Well, that’s part of it. One notes an insolence towards the native disasters by which we less than thrive. The air is full of satire and sardonica in these works, in tone and armament, but that’s only the front part. In back, one discovers a delectable search.
Look at some of the titles here: “Somebody Blew Up America”, “Gimme a Break!”, “What is an Internet Author?” Joe Lieberman”, and even “Yngwie Malmstein”. Something’s happening here, what it is aint exactly clear. It is enough for people to question whether this is poetry, one of the dumber debates going.
There’s no saying (nor should there be) whether Ben harvested all this from Google searches or if he made it up. Just from the titles you see a radiant stew of happening things, all weighted and limber and realized and forgettable. It is a harvest of culture, our wiggy, affluent child.
The poems radiate on:
“The ontological status of news that stays news
takes a long time to load
with a dial-up connection.”
That begins “The Pound IRA”. That sentence addresses Pound with twisting execution, amplifying our own “modern” conundrum of “news”, the reprobateable Fox. And more, beginning with the nifty pun of the title.
Disjunction and disruption shape the effort here. I am taken by the voices—desperate, vital, and crazy—pounding and propounding thru out these works. The whole weighting system of culture seems thwarted by the collisions. From “Jew”:
“Preaching Gospel to Megadeth fans, the Jew
is a new partner
who prevents infection.”
The Internet has allowed us to broadcast the creamiest dope. It may be the same thing as yattered in conversation, but broadcast into the wide variety, we see the sumptuous clutter of our effortless brains. Who do we think we are?
“Jew” mentions Sonia Sanchez, and I feel nervous because I do not know who that is. Culture, as aggregate of social concerns, impends. Is Sonia Sanchez that writer who wrote that thing or is she that singer who lip-synced on SNL? Onwardly, Ben writes (however the words came to him):
“Zucchini soup with tousled-
haired children seeking inroads
To a poisoned well of tears”
It is hard to explain the poetic displacement here. The train of thought draws cars of unconditioned response. To wit: Zucchini soup brings Martha Stewart to mind. Tousled-haired children asks a plodding sentiment, antipodal (let us say) to Ms Stewart. Poisoned well asserts crazy history, stupidhead at work. The junction where these exploits occur, the poem, sweats eagerly. The “special sin that arouses God’s anger is in reality an aborted baby.”
Gathering weirdness from the net provides little challenge. Every goofball, including you and me, has lent a nutty assertion to the Internet’s compiled overall. A poem from that roiling murk: that is a different story. It is hard in using this resource to meter the disruptions, and hitch disjunction properly to a fanning reverie of sense. That’s (my) experience talking. To combine the disparities into a thing to comprise demands a peculiar embrace. The poet must endeavour this job.
And that’s a crucial point. This writing may consist of randomly-hewn chucks of Internet chatter, but definite motivation and impetus moves behind the scenes. Poets who “make up” their poems thru “inspired” converse with the muse often offer the mere repetition of fine sounding poeticality. That inspiration seeks its lowest level, so to speak, as in the familiar or done thing.
The poems in Citizen Cain reflect an author’s viewpoint and care. Internet mining sets a limit to the control of sometimes bogus inspiration. The element of surprise, and the mocking of taste (taste as in the grand envelop in which Samuel Johnson made such orotund pronouncements), deflect author manipulations in favour of something radiant and obstreperous. The method aims towards an escape from the simplifying gravity of the studied product. Surprise, I say again, is key
In summing up lowest common denominator style, I find Citizen Cain fun, twisting, centered, tractable, and intractable. Those adjectives suggest the buoyantest of possibilities for poetry. We should all use our computers and our Internet searches as vitally.
Allen Bramhall is the author of DAYS POEM (Meritage Press), among other things...