Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Deer Head Nation

K. Silem Mohammad

Tougher Disguises Press ($12)

by Aaron Kunin

How to create a community through poetry: 1) A poem can describe an existing social organization such as "adolescent girls in America." 2) It can describe a society from an earlier historical period: "I spent 20 years in the army / of the most powerful nation on earth / the army of the Pharaoh / biting kids in your street." 3) It can invent one--for example, Martian teenagers, magical kittens, "the army of the negaverse," etc. 4) It can even invent the symbolic rituals through which societies define themselves: "many pledge allegiance to the 'blood god'/ I pledge allegiance to the freaky horse/ who watches over me as I sleep."

These examples of community awareness are quoted from K. Silem Mohammad's poetry collection Deer Head Nation. The title suggests a commitment to nation-building: this book wants to be America, although it may not particularly like America and may occasionally demand "DEATH TO AMERICA!" In any case, the "head nation" designated in the title is not exactly singular. For one thing, it's a pun: it both describes a nation of people who collect and display deer heads as hunting trophies (or, more simply, a nation in the shape of a deer head), and, in the respectful but impersonal language of form letters, it addresses that nation as a world superpower: "Dear Head Nation." This addressee is also not singular; since nations are in conflict, both the militant "deer head nation" and the "raghead nation" have some pretensions to being recognized as the "head nation." And Mohammad's America is not singular either; behind the oppressive "voice of America ad nauseam"--a monoculture where everyone is apparently saying the same thing, "the same deer's head for instance / appears over and over"--many distinctly articulated voices, including "the voice of Yogi Bear," project their own self-images as collective identities.

Thus, 5) a poem creates a community by incorporating multiple voices through quotation, allusion, and influence--intertextual rather than international relations. The poems in Deer Head Nation are a little coy about their use of source-materials--in "Spooked," the first poem in the collection, "the voices have no source"--and the front matter and jacket copy are disappointingly unforthcoming about Mohammad's methodology, but it's apparent that most of the language is derived from internet searches for keywords or phrases. In his word searches, Mohammad tends to prefer language that's inarticulate, vulgar, anti-literary; some of the words in this collection have probably never appeared before in poems. (Also, for a book of computer-assisted writing, the ethos is surprisingly low-tech: the basic model for artistic technique is a preserved and mounted deer head--"warning: skinning a deer head really and truly sucks"--although some poems imagine a post-apocalyptic "public transit system of hovercrafts.") This language is then presumably reduced, arranged, divided, and otherwise doctored. The collaged results are sometimes relatively seamless ("NAFTA, 6 pesos to the dollar / that is downright spooky"); less frequently, the presentation emphasizes the prior situatedness of the materials in a computer-generated word list ("Misfits Attitude.mp3 Misfits Braineaters.mp3," etc.).

One might also argue that 6) a poem is an expression of a community of poets. Deer Head Nation is a state-of-the-art collection of a kind of writing that's sometimes called "flarf." (The term was originally supposed to designate uses of language that would be inappropriate in poetry, but now it seems to be primarily associated with poems based on internet searches.) Some of Mohammad's colleagues in flarf writing (Drew Gardner, Gary Sullivan, Katie Degentesh, Jordan Davis) make cameo appearances in the charming, witty, and only mildly offensive poem "Puritan": "there's a bunch of people in Drew's pants / and not forgetting Gary's pants / police also noticed a bulge in Katie's pants / . . . we are in 'Jordan's Pants' / oh great--/ let's go find Michael Jordan's pants." (I'm using the term "offensive" in, if possible, an objective sense, although anyone who claims to be offended by this book is probably being disingenuous. What did you expect from a poem called "Puritan" in a book called Deer Head Nation? Which is just to say that 7) a poem is also part of a community--a collection of poems, or a sequence such as "Deer Head Suite"-- and should be judged mainly for its behavior within its peer group.)

Finally, 8) a poem establishes an artificial community among its readers. Everyone who reads a poem is connected to it and to its other readers--an occult fact that Mohammad cheerfully exploits in "Full Summary and Analysis of Paradise Lost" and in "Wallace Stevens," poems that recount misinformation about the lives and works of major authors--e.g., "Satan turns into a cute little cherub / . . . 'spent $17,000 on a new car,' he laments." Because the context of reading is a social one, poetry acquires its real significance in use.

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