Jul 29, 2007

Nada Gordon: Folly

In a 21st American culture where simple dichotomies rule – good vs. evil, us vs. them, “as if it were a choice between OUD and BANJO” – Nada Gordon’s recent book of poetry, Folly (New York: Roof Books, 2007), is a self-conscious play and mix, an affected performance, a dandy language parade in sequins, wigs and false eyelashes where everyone is (good&evil) and they are us in the crumbling shortcake (eat me) world. A burlesque romp through language, Folly is corrosive precisely by virtue of its complexities and its ambiguities – there are no absolutes here, seriousness is constantly undercut by humor and frivolity interrupted by profundity.

Gordon’s omnivorous text includes material appropriated from wildly eclectic sources in what feels like a surreal carnival. In it, we encounter an odd cast of characters, from Bollywood’s “Asha Bhosle, in a mirrored choli” (“Vagabond Imperialism”, p.21) to Emma Lazarus, author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty, who says, “Why America Sucks. Corporate Pigs, it’s not going to work anymore.” The Chorus, comprising Loquacious the Snail, Melissa, a Chameleon and Mr Fucko, a Hamster, replies: “America sucks dick! America sucks dick!” (“Why America Sucks”, p. 65). Some pieces, such as “Abnormal Discharge” seem to be culled from listserves or internet chatrooms: “chlamydia thru blood transfusion? … VERY SCARED should i be worried about this? Jeni” (p.22) But the most surreal dialogue must be God’s exchange with a Star-Shaped Pillow, Fat Thing, Rusty Helmet, Earthquake, The Skull on the President and Google. When God says “I feel so impotent”, Google says, “Did you mean to search for “I feel so important.” God finishes: “I feel so important” (“Viagric Importunings” p.59). Viagric indeed.

But Folly is more than simply a loose collection of poems. The book is structured like a play – three acts and an intermission – or, more accurately perhaps, an opera or a musical (think cabaret or pantomime rather than Wagner). From the carnivalesque cover to the decorative flourish beside each poem’s title, the book itself is a complete performance, including passages of dialogue from a cast of thousands (well, a couple of hundred anyway), epigraphs and asides that continually disturb the integrity of individual poems. With its baroque language, the voluptuous words of Folly strain to express themselves, dance on the rim where words whirl towards the point of inadequacy, the overload expressed in the poem “Porpo-Thang”: “There isn’t a place in this world that doesn’t sooner or later drown in the porridge of upload.” (p.25)

The Wisdom of Gerrit Gerritszoon

The first obvious reference point of Folly is Desiderius Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and it is worth returning there in order to unravel some binding threads (aside: while researching this section, I discovered Erasmus’ real name was actually Gerrit Gerritszoon – now why would you want to change that?). Erasmus was an interesting character: a Renaissance Greek and Latin scholar but simultaneously a Christian scholar who spent much time and effort trying to reconcile Classical learning and Christian doctrine. Written in 1509, his Praise of Folly engages humor, satire and parody in its depiction of corrupt and hypocritical clergy, written at a time when the hegemony of the Catholic Church was under threat (and less than a decade later, the fragmentation began). Erasmus’ main character is Folly, a Classical “goddess” born of Plutus and Youth (suckled by Drunkenness and Ignorance) who exposes the inherent folly in everyone. Rather than Wisdom decrying foolishness from the pulpit (as we might expect in a Classical/Christian text), in Erasmus’ text, it is Folly who is praising herself, producing a dilemma of uncertainty for the reader. Designed to shock, provoke and question the state of medieval values, Erasmus’ rhetorical paradox also posits the coexistence of irreconcilable truths – how can we believe Folly praising folly?

Erasmus’ narrator, Folly, is a complex character, at times reflecting intellectual pomposity, at others child-like innocence. There are, for Erasmus, a variety of follies – from harmless triviality to dangerous lunacy (and everything in between). Uncomfortably for men of reason, Erasmus’ Folly also has moments of profound insight, making it impossible to distinguish folly from wisdom. Folly is above all human – ignorance, error and foolishness are all characteristically human qualities. Indeed, from a purely rationalist perspective, love is man’s (sic) greatest folly. Or folly is man’s greatest love? Erasmus not only makes clear our dependence upon folly for human happiness but also shows us that even the (reputedly) wisest man in Christendom wasn’t above having a good laugh, particularly at his own expense (he includes sly and comical references to himself). Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Gordon, Erasmus’ most beloved deity is female.

A discharge which forms an encrustation

While Erasmus’ Folly begins by “spouting a hotchpotch of words”, Gordon’s Folly opens with: “Who isn’t envaginated in rhetoric?” (“Vagabond Imperialism”, p.21). And the book certainly utilizes the tactic of “envagination” to critique Erasmus’ patriarchal assumptions about women. Gordon quotes Erasmus in the preface: “That an ape will be an ape, though clad in purple; so a woman will be a woman, ie., a fool, whatever disguise she takes up.” So Gordon took this cue literally in ACT ONE, entitling it, “An Ape in Purple Clothing” and continually evoking the most extravagant ornament and costume so beloved by Erasmus’ woman: “they garnish themselves with paint, washes, perfumes, and all other mysteries of ornament” (aside at the bottom of p.21). Like Erasmus, Gordon also includes herself in the text, most memorably in a comical narrative about the book itself between Nada (the author), James (the editor/publisher) and Folly. While Folly interrupts with “Have I got a proposition for you!”, Nada explains the book’s structure to her editor (and, of course, to her readers):

“An Ape in Purple Clothing” affectionately addresses the follies of sex, gender, and decoration; “A Very Boring Society” the folly of the social – of church’n’state™; and “A Dissonant Gaiety” the folly (PBUH) of poetry. In my third section and in Erasmus’, the irony doubles back on itself to negate itself – transforming into genuine (if cynical) praise.” (“A Conversation”, p. 68)

While Gordon’s aesthetic might contain echoes of Luce Irigaray or Hélène Cixous’ “feminine” language, in an American context, Kathy Acker’s deconstructions of patriarchal narratives might be a more direct precursor for Gordon’s envaginated performance. Certainly Acker’s appropriation and reworking of classic texts, her juxtaposition of “literary” language with “vulgar” language and even her sense of humor all find parallels in Gordon’s Folly. A line like Folly’s query to “redolent Ahnold” serves to illustrate all three parallels: “would you, could you, learn to felch / deceitful Beauty’s steely meany?” (“Decency in the Arts, p. 61)

Gordon’s writing might also been seen in the context of post-Language aesthetics, particularly the subversive strategies of Flarf. Much Flarf poetry is characterized by the appropriation of a wide variety of linguistic material – “The world is just one great big beautiful verbal quarry, after all” said Gordon in a 2003
interview – and its messy poly-vocal quality is a logical extension of Language writing’s challenge to the notion of authorship. But for Gordon particularly, the impact of Bernadette Mayer’s process-generated aesthetics is evident (Gordon wrote a thesis on Mayer’s work). In this way, Gordon’s work may be read as a poetic performance text created through various experimental processes, in which the process of sifting through the verbal quarry may well be as important than the creation of discrete, stable “poems”.

There may be more than a touch of Dada in all this absurdity, as noted by Rick Synder’s recent overview of Flarf (in
Jacket #31, October 2006). If so, I’d place Folly in the provocative tradition of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire – the masks, costumes, bizarre dance and puppet performances, wailing chants and even, yes, poetry recitals – rather than, say, last year’s MoMA survey of dead Dada masterpieces. Gordon’s poem, “Fountain”, confirms a Dada connection, via an homage (?) to Duchamp, critically noting Dada’s sanitation:

The world smells
like a urinal
mint today – I guess
from all the “cleansing.”

(“Fountain”, p.53)

The poetry of Folly is less characterized by (self-conscious) “poetic” language than verbal discharge, more or less codified. At times the writing is clear and rational (as in the lines above from “Fountain”), at others, tortured and confusing. This latter state is best illustrated when Gordon patches in non-native speaker’s English with its warped grammar and poetic associations. In “Human Are Always Growing”, for example, Folly (wino-mumbling) quotes a string of “bad” English sentences:

Everybody is exactly watching the irrational TV companies programs.
If every people except irrational to real, people are going to nihilistic or machine.
Saddam has weapons of mess distraction. (“Human Are Always Growing”, p.55)

The final line is more suggestive than the official media line and suggests instead the tactics of distraction utilized by the US government and official media in the “irrational” Iraq war. Finally, it is worth mentioning again that the serious subject matter is challenged by the humorous tone that runs through much of the dialogue in the book. While some may have trouble finding a clear ethical stance amongst all this folly, as literature, Folly can also be placed in a long tradition of tragi-comic dialogue and characters in English language poetry from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Joyce.

“The folly of a carousel is the folly of life: lugubrious, sporadically hyperactive, ultimately terminal.” (p.12)

Nature Got Loose Identity and Changed Shape

As Stan Apps noted in his recent review of Folly, Gordon’s “poems reject existing standards of taste as too exclusive to be applicable to democratic society” (
Jacket, No.33, July 2007). The reference to taste made me think of Folly as camp. In "Notes on 'Camp'", Susan Sontag linked camp to an excessively decorative sensibility that might apply here, a sensibility she describes as a “disengaged, unserious, ‘aesthete’s vision’ characterized by the spirit of extravagance.” Further, Sontag writes of the paradoxical nature of camp in terms that may help illuminate Gordon’s project:

“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn't reverse things. It doesn't argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different – a supplementary – set of standards.” (Section 34)

And further:

“The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.” (Section 43)

While Sontag’s camp is usually linked to a specific gay 1960s sensibility, the aesthetic might be understood in a much broader sense. In a contemporary context, how might we response to the “oversaturated” image-world of 21st century American culture? For Gordon, it seems the response involves utilizing similar means of artificiality, hyper-reality or virtuality, but always with a complexity and ambiguity that contemporary mass media lack (“good & evil”, “BANJO or OUD”). In this way, Gordon’s critical theatricality presents no clear ethical stance, but instead forces the reader to actually participate by thinking (which can be a distressingly uncomfortable at times).

Following this in another direction, I wonder if Gordon’s hyper-intensity and excessively baroque language might also create a passage through to a heightened awareness of bodily sensations, as in this quote by Juliet in “Soapy Erection” (p.28):

His lips that licking my folded claspings send up
through the nerves puffs of melody from my painted

Oily nipple, thrill of entry. Contracting tongues to
Activate the hearts, dual doumbeks in the craving

Carnival Elsewhere

“It’s not that the personal is the political. It’s that the interpersonal is the political.” (Nada Gordon, A Conversation with Tom Beckett,
Jacket, No. 23, August 2003)

Finally, Gordon’s performative text creates an elsewhere space that might coincide with Bakhtin’s ideas about the carnival. Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (published in 1965) presents a vision of collectivity in just such an elsewhere space that is also, for him, a space of liberation or emancipation. Bakhtin’s book on the 16th century French novelist François Rabelais celebrates the lust, bingeing and excess of the medieval carnival, a space marked by the suspension of hierarchies and prohibitions. Rather than simply anarchy or a safety valve for releasing societal tensions, the elsewhere space of the carnival creates the potential for negotiating new relationships. In his analysis, Bakhtin focused on the festive culture of the marketplace and the street, rather than the high intellectual culture of the Renaissance (Rabelais is presented as a kind of last gasp of the medieval before the abstract universal theories of Descartes et al. Might Erasmus also be included alongside Rabelais, with his ambiguity, sensuality and emphasis on heterogeneity?). Carnivalesque literature, argues Bakhtin, could function as a challenge to the highly privatised world of mid-20th century capitalism.

As in the medieval carnival, for Gordon and her cast, disguise, mask and costume are key aesthetic devices. Gordon’s fundamentally unstable characters, emphasis on sensual language, uncodified verbal discharge and the combination of sacred and profane suggest a carnivalesque literature for the 21st century. Furthermore, her emphasis on the vernacular, or more precisely, mix of the vernacular with “high cultural” references, also link Folly to Rabelais’ carnival world.

For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is a refusal to submit to the hegemony of the cultural status quo, with the suspension of heirarchies allowing multiple voices to be heard (particularly those that are usually suppressed or ignored). This polyvocal ideal of the carnival could be seen as a corrective within a highly uni-vocal dominant culture (in his case, of Stalin, in Gordon’s, the mass media culture of 21st century USA). Importantly, the carnival clears space for voices of those usually silenced and allows us to enter into new dialogues with them. Gordon’s inclusion of the voice of Sunny Pain, a New York subway beggar, in “Nothing is Untitled” (p.92), is a key example. Pain’s voice appears in this context:

“hit me! dance dance (pulsing) dance dance

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Sunny Pain.
I’m homeless and I’m hungry.
If you don’t have it
I can understand it
because I don’t have it.
But if you have a sandwich,
a piece of fruit, a little change,
I’d really appreciate it.
Have a good evening”

While the “dance dance” introduction accurately suggests the rhythm of Pain’s voice and the singsong quality that comes from endless repetition, I imagine it in Folly’s carnival sung over an upbeat (pulsing) dance track. Is the inclusion of Pain’s generic song trivializing poverty, celebrating it or condemning it? Well, perhaps none of the above. While Gordon’s elsewhere carnival is inclusive, it may also be a disturbing intrusion of the contemporary “street” into the world of “literature”: “Mother of heaven, habibi, don’t you feel intensely uncomfortable?” (“Vacuously Impermanent”, p.43)

In the context of New York, Gordon’s elsewhere carnival seems particularly challenging. This is a city certainly not noted for its joie de vivre – New Yorkers take themselves very seriously. While the city is characterized by hierarchical and exclusive culture(s), Gordon’s inclusive carnival flattens the hierarchies and allows for all kinds of odd imaginary interactions. Provocative and engaging, Folly constitutes a complex critique of the contemporary American image-world of reductive consumer “choice” (BANJO or OUD, Coke or Pepsi, good or evil) with
no clear winners. "Minty swirl of mutant life / in jerk and lunge /of futile strife." ("Extreme Smile Makeover") American poetry for the 21st century?

Further links:

Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly, e-text:
Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964):
Nada Gordon, “Form's Life: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer”:
Nada Gordon, interview in Readme:
Two poems by Nada Gordon in EOAGH, A Journal of the Arts, #3:
Previous post on Elsewhere, #2, by Gary Sullivan and Nada Gordon: here