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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Michael Gottlieb reviews
The Anger Scale
by Katie Degentesh

Combo Books, 75 pps

This review is about 3 printed pages long.

This Thing They Call Flarf


There are a number of ways you can go very, very wrong when taking a standardized test. The testing companies have names for most of them. One way you can really mess up is called ‘misgridding.’ If, somehow, you skip a row when filling in those little bubbles — if for example, you forget to fill in the answer to Question 12, or fill in the answers to both Question 12 and 13 on Question 12’s row, then every single answer you provide from Question 13 through to the end of the exam will be wrong... Exactly one row off. The name for this way of going very, very wrong is ‘misgridding.’

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      Of course, some might think that the kind of answers you end up providing could be very interesting in their own right.


What happens when a project makes us forget the tools it uses to create the effects it has upon us? Not that we want, or need, or should forget the methodologies, the processes, nay the ideologies that have been employed to create what we have here before us... but what does it mean when all that begins to fade away, outshone by the light of the ‘activity’ itself, the work itself... so that at the end of the day, we do not care — and perhaps we should not, should never have, should never have to — care how this was produced. It is legerdemain, it is all legerdemain, that is our stock-in-trade, our inventory.... This is what we stock, the merchandise changes season to season — fashion (and we to, are we not, enmeshed in a kind of world of fashion? And shouldn’t we?) changes — as it should, as it must - but the effect — what it is intended to do, what poetry’s job is — that doesn’t, we can argue, that never changes.


      So... this new methodology, taken to the proper extreme can work, must work, and here does indeed work its will upon us — in its own way (and we can return to that) but, finally, in the same way as all magnificent art — that has the power to pick us up... to put us down at a very different place... to make us see the world in a very new and different way.... So we see that, yes, this is the same world that we thought we knew but it is indeed different in some incalculably vital ways from the world we thought we knew — and by looking at, reading through this work, we now see the world we thought we knew in a vitally different light... and for that we are better. And, none of this could have happened save for the gracious intervention, this felix-error , this happy accident that consists of — reading this book. This is — is it not — what art is supposed to do? To do for us? To do to us?


      And while we can argue that how this work accomplishes this feat is secondary - the fact that it accomplishes it at all, as is the case with all great work — the primary fact — how it accomplishes its task offers important lessons for us all.


      The author’s note, as well as a good amount of commentary about this book have made clear at least a part or a dimension of the methodology employed... the terms and conditions of a widely deployed standardized personality profiling test here serve as a kind of armature for a riot of response... That is to say, the poems start with the questions or statements that are used in a universally deployed psychological assessment tool.... Those questions or statements, those triggers form the titles of each poem. That this kind of assessment tool may in fact be a wildly inaccurate predictor of future behavior and is more often employed as a tool to school or repress behavior very well may be the case — part of us, for a good number of us, certainly wishes it to be so... but for the purposes of this work, that reality or condition may (one must stress ‘may’) in fact be of secondary importance to the reality of this test’s ubiquity. We have to recognize that is likely to have been administered to millions of individuals in the seven or eight decades since it was first fielded.


      So, what has the author done here? She has taken some of those questions or statements that form the strata or basis of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and laid them out as, as it were, a grid... and then she has immersed this grid or frame, or trap (like a lobster trap), into the nearest thing we have to a currently up-and-running collective consciousness/unconsciousness. Then she hauled up her catch. And that collective un/consciousness is the web, the internet itself.... which is actuated or realized or effectuated or made actionable or decipherable — let us for a moment stipulate it so — in the Google realm. Then she sits back and sees what the depths offer up (or, at least, we assume that is in fact the degree of agency she devolves upon this activity and that search engine’s capabilities). And this is what we get... pure, terrible, frightening, hilarious, scarifying, doom-girdled, evanescent, malodorous, uplifting, pathetic, transcendental poetry. Poetry from the depths, from the cockpit of humanity — or so it seems — itself.


      This is terrible. And terrifying. And soul-searing and hopeless. And, at the next moment, it bubbles with insouciant hope and rebellion with a rooted force. The kind Pound saw in a bulb waiting for Spring to come.... That cannot be denied. This raw, untamed.... In the pages of a poetry book, produced by one of our own (so — we must stand back and offer proper acknowledgement...).


      This is poetry’s job... to offer this up to us... so we can understand better: this is the world we live in. This — perhaps — is what has made it the way it is — and, now that you have seen this, and understand this, the rest is up to you. What will you do with this knowledge?


      The poet’s job is simple — to offer all this up... but, as I suppose we can all aver — not all that easy. To see it here executed so elegantly is so extremely heartening. This is our job — someone ‘gets it’ .... And has done it... the tools almost don’t matter at all... it nearly doesn’t not matter that it was this standardized test that was employed... or, that search engine.... Just get another randomizing tool of the sort we’ve been making use of since some servitor started handing out scrolls of the I Ching in the Forbidden City... or, at least, since Cunningham and Cage, and Mac Low first took a long second look at the loose change in their pockets.


      It is the force — the power of the tool.... The agency we know it can summon up from within itself to crack open the carapace — the comfortable, respectable, spurious, hypocritical shell of convention (whether bourgeois or academic or avant garde or correct or corrupt) and display for us the terrible - heartening — disquieting, disgusting... ultimately (hopefully, reassuring) workings within... This is the ‘real’ world that it is our job, as artists, as poets, to get ‘out there,’ to share with our audience (however defined). It is not easy work. It is not easy to show it clearly — and that is why we always need new tools — like those offered by technology these days. But, ultimately — most of us would likely probably agree - technology is secondary. This is our job, our vocation, our responsibility. We’ll pick up whatever tools are handy. And we either accept this responsibility or we don’t. This poet has accepted hers, and now it is our responsibility to pay attention.