K. Silem Mohammad
Roof Books ($13.95)

by Morgan Myers

With 2003’s Deer Head Nation, K. Silem Mohammad gave us the first published collection of Flarf; with The Front, he may be aiming to create the last. Not that the book makes any grand pronouncements or offers any epoch-shifting innovations—quite the opposite. Mohammad has recently promised a post-Flarf era, and with his Sonnagrams—scrambled Shakespeare sonnets that combine Flarf’s goofy aesthetic with Bökean anagrammatic techniques—he seems to be in the process of creating one.

Mohammad’s Sonnagrams have been turning up in his readings and in various published forms for a while—most recently in a chapbook of the first twenty from Slack Buddha Press—and the full-length collection that gathers them may signal Flarf’s graduation as strongly as Deer Head Nation signaled its coming out. But The Front isn’t that book. Instead, it’s more like senior beach week—this is Flarf on holiday, free from the Bush-era political landscape that injected so much dark satire into books like Deer Head Nation, and equally free from the overarching thematic and conceptual gestures that have characterized so many Flarf collections, from Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson to Nada Gordon’sFolly. The Front gives such last vestiges of poetic seriousness the finger, and then goes straight for the crude, absurdist laugh:

two methods for generating the Fibonacci Sequence
1) with her monkey
2) up your ass

Not surprisingly, the book suffers from occasional bouts of senioritis. After all, it was that justified political outrage that made Flarf’s air of condescending mockery feel righteous, and those overarching conceptual gestures that opened up fresh poetic territory. More than that, the best Flarf poems have always used their silliness as a kind of rope-a-dope to set up devastating emotional haymakers. While Mohammad doesn’t completely pass up powerfully poetic lines like “I hope I am never reborn and iridescent” or “I guess I feel like articulating / the poetics behind dead people / which live on our eyelashes,” there’s a curious kind of hollowness to the book’s affect.

So curious, in fact, that it’s tempting to take that hollowness itself as the book’s unifying theme. It is, after all, called The Front—which, as the title poem reminds us, can mean a facade as well as a battlefield. The space between sincerity and irony, sympathy and ventriloquism, poetry and slapstick, has always been the no-man’s-land that Flarfists have fought to claim. The Front may represent Mohammad’s effort to push that battle to its (il)logical conclusion, to confront us with a poetry that really is the assemblage of empty samplings that Flarf is so often dismissed as being, a pure front without the fractured ghost of lyric subjectivity lurking behind it.

More likely, though, the book is simply the work of a poet totally unafraid to be “merely” entertaining, a quick victory lap and last hurrah for an aesthetic that seems to have thoroughly won literary and institutional legitimacy. As a culmination of Flarf’s original project to dismantle all kinds of stodginess in poetry, this amounts to a powerful statement in spite of itself.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010