There are 57 poems, divided by three sections—“Zam Zam,” “Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf,” and “Megaprairieland.” The combination of these three sections, it would seem, is something larger than a simple Megaprairieland, and is therefore Ultramegaprairieland. Already in the double prefixing of ultra and mega, we hear the speech details common to the life-form called American, a species prone to exaggerating anything and everything while still being really completely super people.
What do we have here, in this book by Elisabeth Workman, her first full collection of poetry, though coming on the heels of several chapbooks?
I have been told by the author that the poems were written from 2007 to 2011, so a bit in the fine twilight of Flarf’s poetical heyday, though zombie spottings have been reported since then. Indeed, there are perhaps a majority of poems written in the style of Flarf, and the Flarflist along with several of its members are thanked in the Acknowledgements section, poems are also dedicated to notable members of Flarf in the Notes section, and the Flarf members themselves, along with others, provide blurbs for the book in the Praise section following the About the Author information—all to be found at the book’s end.
The overarching construction is appropriation. This is further syntactically arranged by rhythmic instances of anaphora (see “Eliminating the Hairy Obstruction”), an interest in onomatopoeia (“bang bang”), colloquial language (“so-and-so’s”), a robust confidence created by declarative sentences (“I will love you / there”) and a sometimes caffeinated exclamatory tone. The humor ranges from far-flung silliness (“I, too, am Chuck Norris”) to tongue-in-cheek (“Inside the antichrist / / poetry.”). In addition, there is a gleeful space given over to fantasy, to embracing possibles, and outlandish and agreeable anachronistic couplings and triplings.
The content chosen, while much is appropriated, does seem to have some particulars within of interest to the author. Namely, religion and myth. These show up with frequency. Mormons show up, Cyclops, Jesus, Bodhisattva, Persephone, Sith Lords. The first section’s title “Zam Zam,” is both, unspaced as Zamzam, a very important holy well to Islam in Mecca, Saudia Arabia, and also, spaced as Zam Zam, the name of a cola company in Iran. Millions of followers go to the Zamzam well to drink the holy water, the water of God, as part of the hajj. The soda is considered, in perhaps a tagline created by Iranian marketers, the soda of the hajj.
I mention the combination of the holy and the commercial here, because this gets to one of Flarf’s principle grinning activities: it redistributes value, complicates and questions value. It puts everything on a similar level. There is a wonderful unsprungness that this creates, while also presenting the reader with questions about importance, lack of importance, judgment, necessity, comedy, the tragedy in comedy, and so on. In fact, the origin of the movement is explicitly this attack on commercialization, commoditization, in the poetry industry, wherein the original Flarf poets wrote deliberately terrible poems to see if commerce would oblige, and it did, revealing that commerce has no judgment, no idea of what it is saying, nor does it really care, as long as the sayings make money.
However, there is enough of something other going on here that I’d like to simply note Flarf, without fully putting this book under its column. There is a very strong lyricism, a considerable attention to line-breaks, and deft lexical shifts. This is not to say that one cannot have this while involved with Flarf, but whereas Flarf tends to always be there to mock seriousness, or perhaps sensitivity in general, there is a subtle otherworldliness with Ultramegaprairieland, somewhat atypical of Flarf. One such poem is “Firth of Fourth” which, I think, shows Workman writing sinuously, thinking things through musically:
Firth of Fourth
What’s needed is wee
a what in which
you are not needed,
a warm trill of
social rehabilitation: og. tisk.
undertow. a kiss. Kin
orbits thin inevitabilities, needs
certain certainties, reliable lenses
in a long ago
past tense, the idea
of destination at firth
& inver after, go forth,
I will love you
there. There, sky kills
forecast. See the we
conned, kingdom slept, mouthing
the subtitles, the druthers
of the inner reel.
A palace of deft
inhalation! Convenient trench warfare!
& not to be missed,
the tavern of the two-headed
lamb. Some nominal movement
like a sigh exhales
Ultramegaprairieland begins with a cat’s voice (“meow meow”), not a human’s. Actually, that’s not right. It is a human estimation, rendered in words, to duplicate the sound that a cat makes. It doesn’t say “meow”—it says something else. But this gets placed in for all cat talk. This humorous earnestness of and/or interruption by humans sets the book nicely, because there is a constant composition of fictionalized occurrences, phrases, all seemingly real, or possible. Much of the work operates within this giddy universe, with many American pop-cultural identifiers, like Bambi, Oz, William Shatner, Kanye West, Big Gulp, The View showing up. The human-made interferes with everything natural/nature-made, causing collisions, or just the as-is, the now, the multiplicities of occurring, as in her poem “How Now, Muff-Fed Rumpus?”:
And finally just the sound of security guards
hanging out in a meadow. With the bib on
sort of. Sort of feeling my heart
beating royal people, their mantles trimmed
with ermine, Mentos looming just beyond
the unforeseeable American diet.
One can hear André Breton’s cry at the end of Nadja, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or not at all.” Workman’s work argues definitively for the imagination, for frolic, for the “make” in “make sense.” The charm of Ultramegaprarieland resides in its accumulation of the unexpected, and the ways she creates the unexpected, rhetorically, syntactically. The poems can change course quickly and then again, through line-breaks or completely new information. This can be thrilling musically, too. The poems play with different frequencies often. As John Cage said, “If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.” The poems can draw in, like a black hole, the stuff of the internet, in all its florid uncrated eccentricities, and through her construction, editing, selecting, her own additions, an eerie, anxious, and yet majestic place—and process—appears. As in the beginning of her “Dangers in the Workplace”:
Whenever someone speaks disparagingly about Detroit,
a fever spreads to wingspan, waves the hips to and fro:
I like you.
The otherness I spoke of earlier seems to peek out here and there, of concerns and thoughts that may be hindered a bit by the Flarf conceit or made stranger by them. It is hard to pull out specific instances of this, of a kind of emotional or spiritual intelligence, as it is a general feeling I had throughout, but I will put forward a few here:
Just a drop opened splendor.
A drop to elude eons, to solder
the dominant sense of noon.
—from “Lost Migrating Bird”
At twilight thousands
of landlines remain ringing, millions
of pheromones left unrequited. Vibrations
lurk like magnetic fields in which
we are watching each other watch each other.
—from “We Are By Parking Lots And”
From all the universe
commingled perils rush
to unlock a scandal that will test
the very limits of our morality:
stalactites cluster pompadours,
in short, how
thinking goes wrong.
—from “Ptolemaic Poodles”
In fact the river courses
through ten countries
before it dumps
into pure consciousness.
—from “Vespers for a Staged Reunion”
Did you find something to understand among imported urns,
the prism room, its mirrored eggs, did it exude a luster
relentlessly afar, as if caves, cavern, rockfall
were part of a greater radiance that meant I miss you
—from “A Brief History of Shooting From the Hip”
Throughout this zany, energetic and humorous book is this rather sensitive threading, nearly dipping out completely at times, but coming back in later, often unexpectedly. Workman has many graces: the ability to break a line in a way to pause a thought, to be instinctively lyrical, to be inventive in form, to have the courage to show humor, to create interesting images, and to show vulnerability in a world so often hidden in self-protective sarcasm, but she has the additional gift that is maybe the most rare: she has something to say. This is why she should be read. The humor is fine, is notable. The Flarf is well-done, well-orchestrated. But it’s the other worlds here, the somewhat transcendental, that captured me, and it’s these that I hope to see even more of in her books to come.
Additional reviews, importantly highlighting other areas of the book, can be found here and here.