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Nada Gordon’s poetry is robust and vivacious, so eager to endorse and circulate experience and language that it is guaranteed to challenge, and probably offend, any rigidly defined aesthetic position. Her work presents human inadequacy, tackiness and dumbness as a grand Rabelaisian spectacle, a parade of vacuous and sparkling half-assedness of which Nada is the Queen and drum majorette. Nada is sympathetic to human frailty, which she presents in its active dimension; she presents to us an incomprehensive language created by people who are unable to know exactly how pathetic they look to others (although they often suspect it, and sometimes resent it). Nada’s poetry asserts democratic values, the right of all to speak and be heard, even if their voices are deficient or grotesquely strange. Nada assimilates any and all voices into a bottom-up mess, resolutely anti-hierarchical; her poems reject existing standards of taste as too exclusive to be applicable to democratic society.
In other words, her work is trouble, the trouble of communication in a diverse society with mediocre educational institutions and demagogic lowest-common-denominator political rhetoric—Nada dramatizes the trouble that is the basis of our politics, the voices that are ostensibly empowered but are in fact untrained and ignorant of standards. She loves these voices and includes them within her own. The final spectacle of democracy is the sight of standards and norms disappearing under the pressure of desire; Nada shows us the erosion of the hierarchies. “We,” the democratic composite we are becoming, do not want the aesthetic positions anymore: we want a bird’s eye view of our tackiness instead. Nada’s voice is a place where “we” admire our own failure to conform to high expectations. This is an aesthetic position that has no proscriptions, that is only descriptive of the range of democratic possibilities and failings.
Nada’s newest book Folly mixes material that Nada seems to have originated with material that she seems to have borrowed or otherwise “appropriated.” An example of the latter is her poem “Harmoronity” which is basically a simple explanation of how to achieve a harmonious society, a sort of Harmony for Morons how-to text, written in what seems to be the language of a new immigrant to the United States, one who is still mastering English. Here is the poem in its entirety:
If one who control all sound do not accept other people to making sound, it would be a very boring society.
Do you know some person do not specking for you or opposite situation so you are stuff, much more all people can not speck and make sound.
I believe that it is a very serious problem of society.
Sometimes, we would not hear kind of sound.
We, though, avoid or control about sound. It do not putt other people.
Obviously, the rhetoric of the poem serves the purposes of the speaker very well, for the most part. The speaker hopes for a society where he/she will not be discriminated against for making different sounds than other people, in this case the sounds of an immigrant English that is often non-standard—what a native speaker might call awkward—but nevertheless mostly communicative. The speaker of the poem calls for society to be less boring and more diverse, by being more accepting of the sounds people make, of the various possibilities of word order, accent, and relative opacity or transparence. The speaker is sure that the sound s/he makes “do[es] not putt other people”: there is no need for other people to be put out or upset by listening to him/her.
However, there are other suggestions to the word “putt” that tend to unsettle the speaker’s rhetoric. The image is evoked of hitting other people like golf balls so they roll away; this is a very comic, incongruous image, which I enjoy contemplating, but its incongruity puts the speaker at risk of being seen as a “moron,” unworthy of being listened to, and just at the moment when s/he was trying to close the argument, clinch the deal and convince us to be tolerant. Worse yet, the word putt is close to the word “poot”: one way of reading the final line is to see the speaker’s rhetoric “farting” at exactly the wrong moment, spoiling the argument’s conclusion and spoiling the poem.
So, “Harmoronity” distills the drama of a nonstandard speaker asking for legitimacy and to be listened to, a drama that resolves with the speaker’s lack of control of English spoiling an otherwise rather effective rhetorical appeal. It is a tragedy, and it is a tragedy because of an inadvertent fart joke, a joke that was heard but was never made.
Like the speaker of “Harmoronity,” Nada Gordon is never able to “avoid or control about sound” well enough to limit the tone and content of her poetry to conform to a definable aesthetic stance. She does not want to; instead, through error and incongruity, she aims to explode the notion of aesthetics as a limited economy. Nada refuses to write as if she lives in a world where the speaker of “Harmoronity” would be refused a sympathetic ear; therefore, everyone of Nada’s poems demands a sympathetic, tolerant ear, and for everyone else these poems will be nothing more than a few interesting lines spoiled by the blemishes and absurdities that Nada insists on including. At last an American poet is standing up for the notion of tolerance in a big way, rejecting the standards in favor of a liberal and open ear and mouth.
Her poem “My Eternal Dilemma” presents a conversation between Wisdom and Folly, in which the two discuss how little they are loved. Here is an excerpt:
Folly: SPORK, punkbunnypopsicle, punkbunnypopsicle, I’m lonely, no one loves me
Wisdom: [hands outstretched to audience] Daddy! NO one LOVES ME!!!” The Wiseman says, “You must take revenge on them. . . using the power of the Dark Crystal!” Suddenly, the black rings enclose on her.
Folly: [twirling parasol] I want a family, I want friends, I want everything that I don’t have, I am a blue Elephante, I am blue because I am sad, No one loves me.
Wisdom: You have Chocobo ghost to love you! [looks all innocent and hurt]
Unlike me. . . no-one loves me. . .
The emotion is genuine, the desire for connection is real. This is not to say that Nada herself feels the emotion, but someone feels it, and Nada is at least sympathetic to it. Standards of tone by which a communication is evaluated, standards that view “authenticity” as a product of limitations on expression, will make it impossible to experience this poem. The poem’s communication does not proceed according to these rules about what emotion and desire should sound like. Those rules are academic now; America does not know or follow those rules anymore. America says, “punkbunnypopsicle, I’m lonely.” “punkbunnypopsicle” is an emotional concept, a lyrical discovery. The bunny that was different, who dared to act out, has been frozen on a stick. “punkbunnypopsicle” is a victim of society. And no one else is left to love foolishness, except “Chocobo ghost” and other copyrighted characters of Squaresoft’s gaming series Final Fantasy™. And as for Wisdom, no one cares about Wisdom at all, only about rules and regulations, bureaucracies of tone and form.
I honestly hope that aesthetic strictures and proscriptions will not prevent readers from appreciating Nada Gordon’s work Folly, a book that imagines a truly tolerant approach to poetics, lyricism, and communication, a book that is delightful and vibrant as well as being a necessary addition to American debates about the democratization of poetry and the form which a democratized poetic should take.