A War With History: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No

The Tree of No, Sandy Florian, Action Books, 2008

The first page of Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No begins with the word “beastly” and gives readers a world bubbling and brimming and burgeoning with possibility of image and noun, “The high hitch of increase sways softly in the sun, here in our scarlet garden” and we meet the protagonist: “Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, un-clocked, first frocked, oven-ed at the core, from words no western man can wet.” On the second page, Sandy Florian continues “beastly” and dreamy, “replete and eaten” and I come upon a dream, a dream of a concept of time. And it is this second page that I become aware that language is related to time, which “becomes my authority.” And it is here that readers are introduced, dreamily and beastly, to the sign and signified, signifier and referent, and are reminded of Saussure’s Linguistics. Entering this world, the world of the word, the world that Florian has created, the world and word of the dream, and meet the protagonist “like wakening from sleep, like the beast” as dreamy and beastly, or moreover, human, as can be. And as the reader, I read, as this is good, and so I continue.

I continue, intrigued and enraptured, ensconced by the world on the pages, the words of this new world of protagonist and Montgomery, pulling me through time, and it is here on the fourth page that I realize “in this awkward position of…most awkward awakening” that “In the beginning was the word” and the word created the world, and the world we have entered is the kingdom of sign and signified, signifier and referent, absurd in its making, and in its abstract form, this story, this story made up of words has captured me in time, and I, I am now part of this brilliant world.

And just as God has created the world in the Bible, I soon learn that the characters here are creating, building, a city. Come on now, I am coaxed by the narrator, Let’s build ourselves a city. And in this city, let’s build a tower with its top to the heavens. Or else, we’ll be scattered namelessly all over the planet in our Euclidian screams. And so a city is built. Eve and Adam are there with Montgomery and Diana, and decide that no city would be complete without every kind of cattle nameable. And so a list is born: “Alentejana and the Allmogekor and the American and the American White Park…and the Damietta and the Dangi…and the Greek Steppe and the Groningen…and the Nelore and the Nguni.” Once again I am reminded of Saussure’s linguistics—that signifier and signified are connected arbitrarily. Here Montgomery’s list is a clear use of Florian’s hyperbole; species by species, a world is populated, word by word, letter by letter, this world, this city, is built.

In this world, there is also a flood, however this flood, unlike what is known of the traditional Noah story, is a flood of thoughts “rush[ing] in and my mind opens to the flowing tide with its ebb and flood, with is eighth, its quarter, its half moon, its half empty bowl, half full of fuller empty seas.” In creating a work parallel to the structure of the Bible itself, Florian inherently asks the unanswered questions: Who is the real author of the Bible? And how do we know, how can we prove it? Who [or what] is really the creator? And just because someone creates a work of art, does that mean they are God, or God-like? Or is this our “beastly” human arrogance:

In the first of the order books, I read the account of that first creation of this first
world, how in the beginning, the earth was void, how darkness was on the face of the deep, how the spirit of god moved on the face of the waters, like the spirit of Narcissus on the face of the lake. Then god said, Let there be light, and then there was light. Then god said let there be air, and let it distinguish the water.

Arrogant or not, the structure of The Tree of No makes it obvious that form follows function: what is language and how does one use (or overuse) it? If language is absurd, why not, then, create what we like, real or absurd alike…

Early on, Florian makes use of the following characters: Diana (30), Adam (29), Judah (22), Abraham (80), the fictitious Montgomery(2), Joseph (49), Homer (33), as if there are no differences between the characters known from Greek or Roman mythology, the characters depicted in Biblical text, fictitious characters, or actual literary figures. They are presented and regarded as the same. In this World, the world of The Tree of No, Diana is of no greater importance than Abraham, who is of no greater importance than Montgomery. In doing so, Florian invokes the questions: What do we considered canon? Where’s the literal in myth? Why are Biblical stories taken as literal, or truth? Can our canon be myth? And further: Where’s the proof?

It seems that Florian is also inherently asking: If someone can write the Bible, or specifically, a canon of any kind, and can create a world of characters, then why can’t I? And why, then, can’t my world, my fictional world, that I’ve created with sign and signifier, real and absurd, and with finite set of linguistic rules, be regarded as: Literal? Canon? Myth?

I asked my self as I read: Is Florian comparing, by way of her work, the tree of “no” to the tree of “life” or the tree of “knowledge”? But then later realized the answer: If knowledge is posited by language, and life can be described, articulated, remembered, created, or recreated by language, then, we must be able to create a fictional world through which we navigate and experience, just as Florian has done here. And if knowledge is illustrated and expressed, through language and the structure inherent in the system of language used, then, does it matter to which tree Florian is comparing?

Further into the work, Florian’s language seamlessly moves between narrative and borderline-exposition, and the reader is constantly surprised with what treatise-like prose comes next:

This is a true story. My actress is a dame, a doll, a devourer, a femme fatale. She has talons for feet, and the windstorm blows her wings and lioness hair in unambiguous cuneiform inscriptions, like the bones in the ankles of beasts. She is, of course, the beloved wife of Adam who seized the light. In my story, the husband and wife bicker in the bedroom. The she takes up lodging in the middle of a tree trunk.

And Florian’s use of language brilliantly leaves one tongue-tied:

Speech is the elegant postman of the mind. Eloquently speaking about the deliveries of Cicero. From the fiction to the failure. From the failure to the fall. From the fall to the flaw. From the monster of the body. Utility is the end of virtue. Justice the end of man. Of every act. Of every thought. Of every truth.

I read how thought is the thought of thought. How the soul is the form of forms. My legs ache. My eyes look. Plots are added to furnish the warning example that some men are birthed. Some are inspired. And since there can be no tragedy without motion, we walk side by side out of the scarlet garden as commas become signals for the sigh.

By virtue of the structure of language, one is bound and limited by the language we use. And to create—one is both liberated and confined by the very nature of la langue—by the tool we use to create. One can create infinitely with a finite set of terms: this is the paradox,

To approach the right light in spring. To sunbathe in the summer. To weave coats out of winter and snow. In the autumn, I see the comet catastrophe. Shooting between the words, Let there be, and There is. That is the local apocalypse. Presented by the universal blank.

Between creativity and creation there lies a calamity. So I may say, Let there be love, and in saying so, I imagine it and make it live.

Florian then takes this one step further. If language is absurd, and religion has been built upon the language of the Biblical canon, then religion itself must also be absurd. Florian comments on the literal biblical messages, the dogmatic constructs and societal rules that have been constructed, built, upon these meanings and taken as truth. The protagonist openly states: “I have a war with history.” And that “History is a meaningless enigma. The sooner it is stopped, the better off we are.” It’s statements such as these, that double as narrative and exposition, that brought my attention to the parallels between the absurdly fictionalized “Tree of No” world and the world in which we actually live.

As I near the end of the book, I encounter the section “Psalms.” Here the form of The Tree of No takes on a new and different tack; the linear, prosaic structure has been replaced by short, concise paragraphs, centered on the page. The narrator “Eve” sings:

I sing to give birth to the bread. I sing to give birth to the sommelier. My book is now called toward the pasture where every brother and sister will each pay a dollar for each dead page.

And prays:

At Christmas I pray so hallowed be thy name, Small turns, I take, I’m still becoming, but the sin in me says I.

And it appears, too, this comment is less about the fictional world and more a general social commentary.

Not only is The Tree of No a commentary on language and the use of language, it is a personal canon, a use of mimesis, a creative exploration, and a social commentary, through the eyes of one Sandy Florian. This work is an opportunity for Florian to vehemently state: this is the world that I have created, this is the world that I see, and that is how I see. I do not have to be bound by what has come before—NO—I can create the world—my reality—as I see fit. It can be real, it can be fictitious, it can be absurd.

And as I know this work is at “war with history” I am reminded that one is not bound by history, the reality that has come before, the city that was previously built, or rather, the literary canon that has come before. Inherent in the act of creation—in the building of this city, this tree—is hope:

Seven heads upon seven hills upon which one lone woman sits like a metropolis. I heard, Write this. Blessed are those who are invited to the supper. Then heaven opened to a new and brighter heaven and the earth to new soil, and when the oceans disappeared, I heard, Write this. I am making all things new.

In The Tree of No, where no thing is anything, the word is creation, and absurdity is normalcy, expected, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, for linguists and others alike, this book will leave you, dreamily, beastly, saying yes.


Kelly Lydick received her B.A. in Writing and Literature from Burlington College (VT), and her M.A. in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California (San Francisco). Her writing has appeared in Twittering Machine, the Burlington College Poetry Journal, the New College Review and ditch. Kelly’s work has also been featured on KQED’s The Writers’ Block. She is the author of the chapbook We Once Were (Pure Carbon Publishing, AZ), and the experimental work, Mastering the Dream (Second Story Books, CA). Her website is: www.kellylydick.com.

The Revolting Body of Lara Glenum’s Maximum Gaga, reviewed by Juliet Cook


Maximum Gaga, Lara Glenum, Action Books 2008

A phrase that popped into my head after reading Lara Glenum’s MAXIMUM GAGA for the first time was ‘post-apocalyptic porno poetry’. Post-apocalyptic because the land of these poems is populated with post-human creatures that are strange mutations of animal and machine. Porno because the land of these poems is riddled with extreme sex acts and meat and teeth and perverse modes of consumption and bodily fluids galore.

Another thought that occurred to me is how it seemed strangely apt that I could abbreviate the title’s collection as MAX. GAG. In a way, this collection seemed like a vomitous outpouring of grotesque hybrids in which misshapen chunks were hacked up into different pieces, also misshapen.

As I read the collection for the second time and began to think more closely about it, I questioned some of my own initial impulses. For example, why did I think that the creatures in these poems were necessarily mutants? Maybe they were more like evolutions, having transcended certain human inhibitions and hang ups and choking hazards. Maybe they were a peculiar fusion of mutant AND transcendent being. They are not simply cross-breeds of animal and machine (they are not simply anything). Their perimeters and parameters seem to mutate and/or evolve and/or shift frequently between various humanoids, animals, and machines—sometimes separately and sometimes simultaneously. They are shape-shifters. They are identity-shifters. They are hard to pin down to any particular specimen board or dissecting tray.

I very much enjoyed Glenum’s first poetry collection, ‘The Hounds of No’, which was also inhabited by a creepy plethora of hybrid creatures including assemblages of arachnid and manikin. Due to the multiple appearances of spider legs and manikin limbs juxtaposed with the blood and eggs and ovaries, that collection had more of an insectile and even fiberglass-like feel for me. The creatures of MAXIMUM GAGA strike me as more like steaming, sexual meat. It is almost impossible to read this collection without thinking about orifices. Orifices as both sexual holes and open body cavities, ready to be penetrated or excavated or to violently expel their own contents in unpredictable ways. ‘The Hounds of No’ was oddly visceral in its own right, but MAXIMUM GAGA is downright sodden with viscera, saturated with viscera, oversaturated with viscera.

The creaturely hybrids within this collection are heaving amalgamations are nymphomaniacal sensations with sinister projections of splitting open postmodern nations of human orifices giving birth to animal heads, of mammalian miscreants, of marvelous deformities, of twisted cross-breeds of porno stars and cows. Even though there are numerous different kinds of creatures conjured up in MAXIMUM GAGA land, cow-like creatures are especially predominant.

Although one of my first thoughts about the book was ‘post-apocalyptic porno poetry’, this thought could easily enough have been followed up by a whole list of possible posts that crossed my mind in the wake of this collection. Post-gender, post-human, post-porno, etc… One of the first poems in the book is entitled, ‘POST ORIFICE’, but what does that MEAN? It’s some kind of food for thought, for sure. However, in some ways, the word ‘post’ as a prefix seems problematic and overused. So many different kinds of poetry or other art pieces have been labeled as ‘postmodern’ or ‘post-postmodern’ or ‘post avante’ or post-feminist’ etc… Thus, it can be pretty confusing to try to pinpoint what all these posts are supposed to mean. Often, such descriptors seem as if they could be defined so very broadly. As such, they seem anti-precise. Sometimes they even seem gimmicky. At times while reading MAXIMUM GAGA, I thought that IT seemed a bit gimmicky. The overall content of the collection is so visceral and queasily sexual and engaging and provocative in its own right that I didn’t think it needed to rely on or lean on or be supported by any gimmicky structures or framing devises or clever tricks.

I wasn’t impressed, for example, with the back cover of the book, which presents one of the collection’s shorter poems in its entirety. This poem is called ‘INTERVIEW WITH THE QUEEN ON NATIONAL TV’ and the brief body of the poem consists merely of the following question and answer—“Q: Is it really necessary to make such abominations? / A: It is absolutely necessary to make such abominations.”

I will admit to a bias against very short poems, which often strike me as insufficient and unworthy of standing alone. Granted, within the context of this poetry collection as a whole, the piece does not exactly stand alone, but why cull it for placement on the back cover? As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a successful teaser piece, because it is far from one of the most interesting pieces of the book. It strikes me as gimmicky and overly obvious. I get that in addition to serving as a poem, it might also serve as an alternative author’s statement of sorts, perhaps a kind of retort to how some readers/critics might respond to Glenum’s poetry, but even if it does serve such a dual purpose, that doesn’t make it interesting or complex enough to draw me in. Perhaps it is meant to make a reader think ‘WHY?’, but that question would have occurred to me anyway, without the service of such an overly obvious little prompt.

Other areas in the collection also struck me as gimmicky or as framing devices or as slightly filler-esque and not nearly as vital or integral or interesting as the pieces surrounding them. Then again, every reader is bound to regard some pieces as more powerful and others as weaker when experiencing a full-length poetry tome, and for the most part, I thought that the innards of MAXIMUM GAGA were strong and provocative.

‘WHY?’ was indeed one of the questions that this collection provoked for me, which is of course a very broad-based question that could be approached form a number of different angles. Due to my own interests and sensibilities as a reader, I will be approaching this question from something of a pussy-centric angle, but my approach is not meant to suggest that this collection can only be read one way. I think it is pretty open to interpretation.

Might it possibly be TOO open to interpretation? I don’t have a concrete answer to that question, but it might be worthy of asking. In a recent interview with a literary magazine (Prick of the Spindle, volume 3.1), I spoke about my recent attraction to poetry that seems to flirt with fine lines and brush up against borders of being ALMOST over the top, but without quite plunging over. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

I tend to be interested in poetry … that borders the grotesque. Poetry that borders the pornographic and is visceral with a voluptuous horror. Poetry that experiments with such borders without dissolving into nonsense or total absurdity. Sometimes it’s a very fine line and I tend to be interested in flirting with fine lines.

Some of my favorite poets and poetry collections in recent years have involved content that seems to be walking that fine line, such as Lara Glenum’s collections (‘The Hounds of No’ and the new ‘Maximum Gaga’, both published by Action Books) and others put out by Action Books—Danielle Pafunda’s collections (‘Pretty Young Things’ by Soft Skull and the more recent ‘My Zorba’ by Bloof Books)—and several female writers who have had books published through Fence Books in recent years, including Catherine Wagner, Chelsey Minnis, and Ariana Reines’s ‘The Cow’.

Although these books all inhabit different stylistic approaches, they seem to share a sense of revolting, bodily-based horror associated with femaleness and a desire to birth this horror or abort it or deconstruct, reconstruct, or vivisect it. Several of these books and writers are also associated with the ‘gurlesque’, which is a burgeoning new poetic movement that has been under discussion at Delirious Hem (http://delirioushem.blogspot.com/search/label/Gurlesque) and elsewhere and I have been following that conversation with interest. I’m interested in the idea of juxtaposing cuteness or other seemingly innocuous girlie traits with horror, danger, disgustingness, grotesque, burlesque, sexual insatiability, etc… I’m also interested in poetic/art content in which the female body is some kind of representational battleground.

As far as MAXIMUM GAGA’s relationship to fine lines, there are places in the text (and this may or may not be intentional) where I think it goes too far and does plunge over the top. However, when I say it goes too far, I don’t mean to suggest that it suddenly enters the realm of impropriety or offensiveness. I actually relish the impropriety and offensiveness of these poetic innards. I love the idea of people who tend to get off on clichéd porno being exposed to the visceral, sexual imagery of MAXIMUM GAGA and becoming grossed out or better yet becoming queasy yet inexplicably aroused at the same time. These innards are repulsive yet compelling and I relish the idea of hapless victims being hooked by the poetically catalyzed power of their own underlying desires, then tied to the bed with steaming intestines and lobbed with bloody cow brains until they are vomiting and ejaculating at the same time.

At times while reading MAXIMUM GAGA, I was reminded of William S. Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’ and its juxtapositions of surgery, sex, and violent death; in particular, a perverse yet dynamically described scene in which non-human hybrid creatures called Mugwumps are being hung en masse and as they swing from their nooses, being choked to their deaths, the description focuses on their powerful erections and ejaculations. Unfortunately, I cannot locate my copy of ‘Naked Lunch’ at the moment, but I think the Mugwumps were willing participants in this taboo sexual climax, as if it was an extreme form of auotoerotic asphyxiation. I think it took place in a public forum and was also linked to public defecation and pedophilia. Also, when I just Wiki’d ‘Naked Lunch’ to remind myself of the names of the creatures involved, the following description of ‘Naked Lunch’ seemed rather befitting of MAXIMUM GAGA, too: “The novel’s mix of taboo fantasies, peculiar creatures…and eccentric personalities all serve to unmask mechanisms and processes of control…”.

It is not the over-the-top disgustingness of the content that occasionally seems to have gone too far. When I suggest that it has gone too far in places, I am speaking of a sense that the poet has lost some control of her own content. This may be intentional and/or linked to the nature of the content itself. However, for me as a reader, MAXIMUM GAGA is most powerful and most effective when its content, no matter how bizarre or grotesquely pornographic, still seems crafted in a way that maximizes multiple connotations, intentional provocations, and unsetting juxtapositions that are splayed out for a reason. Sometimes, the content does seem like this; other times, it seems a little looser, sloppier, and slapdashier. To me, slapdashery seems too easy. It reminds me of different kinds of meat pitched into a high-powered blender and then the button held down until the blend becomes tasteless. Again, I don’t mean tasteless as in inappropriate or offensive; I mean tasteless as in having lost a distinct taste and texture, tasteless as in undifferentiated, tasteless as in imprecise. This may provoke the question, ‘When does boundary transgression dissolve into tasteless nonsense?’

At moments, the content of MAXIMUM GAGA does seem to cross the line into scatological nonsense and/or absurdity and whether or not this is intentional, it renders those parts of the content less powerful/effective for me as a reader, because I am not a fan of careless blending or flinging. I am certainly interested in attempts to dissolve seemingly arbitrary and/or limiting boundaries, but flinging is too easy and imprecise, yielding the occasional accidental connection in the midst of messy random splats. I am not a big fan of artistic improvisation and its resultant occasional happy accidents. I do like wild imaginativeness, but I like it to be contextualized, well-crafted, and catered towards maximum impact. For the most part, MAXIMUM GAGA does seem well-crafted and aimed, but there are stretches here & there where it seems more like perverse pornographic elements and meat and body parts and bodily fluids are rather haphazardly flung together. Fortunately for my taste buds, these sections are the exception rather than the norm.

As well as MAXIMUM GAGA conjuring up Naked Lunch, another and more recent text conjured up for me was ‘The Cow’ by Ariana Reines. Reines is another young female poet who is associated with the gurlesque, deals with visceral content that includes sex and violence that sometimes borders the grotesque, flirts with scatological fine lines, and offers a stance that seems to juxtapose splayed specimen with bodily revolt. As the title of the book suggests, ‘the cow’ in its various guises plays a substantial role in her first poetry collection. The cow as meat heading towards its impending slaughter, the cow as milking machine, the cow as dowry, mad cow disease, the cow as a kind of metaphor or representational battleground for certain female concerns, consumption of the cow as a symbol of both life and death. Somewhat reminiscent of Reines in ‘The Cow’, I think that Glenum in ‘MAXIMUM GAGA’ is attempting to play with various connotations of bovinity and give the cow a new guise. I think that she is trying to recontextualize and recast the cow.

The cow has many connotations, but some of the more typical ones include bovinity associated with domesticity, docility, and a certain kind of slowness, placidity, and even stupidity. Also, although cows obviously mate and reproduce, they are not often thought of or portrayed as particularly sexual animals. It’s more as if they are milk and meat machines that just happen to be alive. In contrast, the cow-like creatures in MAXIMUM GAGA seem anti-bovine. They are anti-docile and anti-clearly defined as serving a certain purpose. They are pro-unbridled sexuality, pro-sexual pleasure, and even seem to take pleasure in their own machination, their own milking, their own consumption. They play an active rather than passive part in their own usage. They cream, they’re creaming, they’re a creamery. They’re not the kind of cows we’re used to. They may not even be real cows at all. There are decoy cows in MAXIMUM GAGA and this is just one of many multifarious and sometimes multi-layered costumes.

MAXIMUM GAGA is fixated with orifices, but a counterpoint to this is an exploration of artifice. Is it orifice versus artifice or can the two co-exist? They often seem to co-exist in a highly twisted and extreme fashion in MAXIMUM GAGA land. Instead of two perfectly-shaped breast implants, we get EIGHTEEN implants on a creature that isn’t even a woman (take that, you consumers of clichéd porn). We get a realm in which even the souls are prosthetic. We get a world in which even the language has been warped, fused with made up words, harsh hybrids, and unnatural syllabic juxtapositions such as pornotopiary, vibratron, voluptorium and creamzilla.

Even the names of the creatures are unusual in MAXIMUM GAGA. Minky Momo, for example, sounds strangely sexual, but also might be cow-like (it makes me think of a slinky muumuu or a sleazy moo moo). One of Minky Momo’s partners is called Mino (which bothered me at first, because it conjures up ‘minotaur’ and a minotaur already has its own pre-existing mythos and I wanted all the creatures in the book to be new fabrications; on the other hand, the minotaur connotations work well in both the bovine and hybrid contexts). Another creature is known as a Normopath, which sounds like a cross-breed of normal and pathogenic with an o (for orifice or orgasm) in the middle.

At moments, it seems that the orifice is posed against the artifice, but at other moments, it ALL seems unreal. We get creatures inside different creatures inside different creature costumes inside different costumes, layer after layer of costuming, a costume stripped away to reveal yet another costume (beneath which even the soul is prosthetic), leading us to question which is the real creature? Is the real creature an amalgamation? Is the real creature a construct? Is the real creature in need of layer after layer of deconstruction? Does the real creature even exist? What is real? What is artifice? What is a construct? Is everything a multi-layered construct? WHY?

It’s not only the creatures themselves that are bursting out of costume after costume or unsuccessfully contained by standard parameters. Even the creatures’ surroundings are subject to shifting perimeters. We get houses made out of teeth and furniture made out of squealing pigs, for example. Sometimes, the description of these shifty parameters/perimeters is handled very effectively; other times, it seems barely poised on the brink of absurdity, which may be intentional. Throughout the collection, the poet seems to be playing with the concept of mimesis, but mimesis has various definitions.

As already suggested, this poetry could be interpreted in a variety of directions and using a variety of approaches. I’ve already touched upon Glenum’s association with the ‘gurlesque’, which can be glimpsed in some of the collection’s description and imagery juxtapositions, such as:

“A sinister cream-puff” (pg. 30)


custard dripping down my thighs : I saw myself wearing a necklace

of cow hearts” (pg. 74)

Such excerpts seem to combine baked goods (and their connotations of sweetness and domesticity) with female accessorizing with a blatant and meaty sexuality that twists conventions of consumption in multiple ways.

One of my personal favorite aspects of MAXIMUM GAGA is how much of its content turns any standard parameters and conventions associated with what it’s supposed to mean to be female upside down and inside out. Obscene or not, I love the voracious consumption in this book, especially the grotesque yet strangely liberated/liberating sexual voraciousness that often seems to transcend gender roles or even gendered bodies.

Here is the beginning of the very first poem in the collection, ‘MINKY MOMO SPEAKS OF NORMOPATHS’, which drew me in from the get go:

“If you manage
to finagle an orifice
out of my lubricious runts

a pink sugar deer
will pop out
my nacreous cumsacks”

As a reader, I definitely get the impression of some kind of strange sex act and genitalia here, but it especially provokes my interest how this is described in a post-gender kind of way or perhaps in a multi-gender kind of way. We get orifices and penile things and indefinable things that insinuate sex, but how? This is my kind of porno and I can hardly wait to see where this goes.

Here’s another sample from a piece called ‘MINKYCORE’:

“I’m flexing my eye-pods
&feeling nasty
I milk
The Normopath
& lube out into a sea of congealed pig organs”

This offers us just enough familiar-sounding sexual language (‘feeling nasty’, ‘milk’, ‘lube’) to set a certain tone, but the context is out of whack, at least according to the standards of any kind of porn we’ve ever been exposed to before, which is saying a lot considering all the bizarre sexual fetish niches that are pretty easily accessible online these days. I suppose that ‘a sea of congealed pig organs’ could be somewhat analogous to crush porn or the slimy porno trend involving eel, octopi, and frogs sometimes being inserted, but sometimes being eaten or otherwise torn into oozing smithereens. But what on earth are ‘eye-pods’? That feature doesn’t even sound human. Should I visualize non-human creatures engaging in human-like sex acts?

Later in this poem, the eye-pods break open and

“A hundred other eyes
roll out”

The last line of the poem refers to the speaker/creature’s “thousand open legs”.

Clearly, we’re not talking about any kind of normal human parameters here. We’re talking about something excessive, we’re talking about something extreme, we’re talking about something bizarre, we’re talking about something that may be grotesque or obscene or mutant-like or transcendent or maybe even all of the above. It’s all very imaginative and interesting and strangely provocative, but again one might wonder WHY?

One of my favorite poems in MAXIMUM GAGA is ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’. That title comes with certain built-in connotations before one even enters the body of the poem; for me, many of those connotations are associated with consumerist culture’s stringently narrow definitions of female cleanliness and grooming and propriety. Women are supposed to be hairless, women are supposed to smell sweet, women are supposed to be modest to the point of secrecy about their bodily fluids and bodily functions. Keeping up such appearances is not exactly natural (or to put it another way, keeping up such appearances is much more closely aligned to artifice than to orifice), yet it is women who diverge or deviate from keeping up such appearances or who fail to adhere to the commonly accepted standards of feminine hygiene who tend to be viewed as aberrant or ugly or sexually undesirable.

Well, in Glenum’s poem called ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’, we are presented with the extreme opposite or antithesis of a woman who adheres to standard feminine hygiene. The creature in Glenum’s poem has

“ …wiry follicles & spitting fistulas
& Mino’s
semen caked under my fingernails

All that grotty jizz crusting to sugar in my ass crevice

No acetylene virgincakes
waxing mannequin

& Later on my back
my fangs slung over Mino’s shoulder

Everyone standing in the skybox could see
I was thrashing
malignancy out of every oil-lubed pore

rancid & unyielding
No facemask made out of pantyliners or baldifying grout

could cure me of my monstrous frame

or my unsightly cocklust
which from the skybox appeared exactly like
a dancing turd”

The beginning of this poem made reference to this speaker/creature having contracted the “female disease’, so here we have a female-like creature who seemingly couldn’t care less about using so-called ladylike speech or looking pretty. She unabashedly presents herself as hairy, sweaty, smelly, and out of control in the throes of sexual desire. She may be sexually insatiable and at the very least she is sexually voracious, so much so that she can’t be bothered to care who is watching; she is not concerned with converting herself into a neat and prettily packaged spectacle for the audience. Furthermore, the fact that there IS an audience (everyone in the skybox) suggests that there is substantial voyeuristic interest in partaking of her in all her messy, unstructured, uncontained glory. In a way, this poem strikes me as a lashing out of extreme resistance towards societally-sanctioned constraints of traditional beauty standards, feminine hygiene, feminine shame, and what constitutes acceptable/appropriate female sexual behavior.

This poem is far from the only example in MAXIMUM GAGA in which we are treated to extreme sex in public scenarios. There are many such incidences throughout the text, as though the creatures populating MAXIMUM GAGA land are so driven by their bodily desires that they have abandoned most parameters, perimeters, containers, and constraints.

Some might read all this wild, unbridled, and kinky sex as an indecent submission to baser desires that has led to the downfall of humanity. However, it can also be read as quite liberating, especially if one regards this landscape and scenery more metaphorically or representationally. After all, many of the boundaries and constraints that are imposed upon humanity are unnatural, repressing, stifling, or play on humans’ more fearful impulses in order to encourage them to consume.

Back to feminine hygiene, it is pretty common knowledge that the feminine hygiene product market plays on women’s insecurities that they smell bad or will be undesirable sexual specimens if they don’t buy and consume unnecessary and even harmful ‘personal care’ products such as douche and feminine hygiene spray. In years past, women were even encouraged to douche with Lysol, for which the advertisements implied that any woman who neglected to take this measure towards feminine cleanliness would be to blame if her husband lost interest in her or if her marriage failed. Thankfully, women are no longer douching with Lysol, but even to this day, there is no shortage of advertising, marketing, and even real life language that seems catered towards making women feel unduly ashamed about some of their natural bodily functions. Thinking about the matter from this vantage point, I personally find Glenum’s ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’, in all its messy deviance, to be a refreshing departure from the standard definition of feminine hygiene.

It makes me feel more amenable to some of the messiness of the book as a whole, because the shifting structures, the sometimes haphazard and out of control boundary transgression, and the ever-changing costumes make it very difficult to pin any of these creatures down to being a certain kind of desirable or undesirable specimen. A voracious sexuality permeates MAXIMUM GAGA land, but instead of serving as sexual specimens, these creatures are active sexual players. Instead of sexual commodities, they are sexual performers. Even if their sexual performance often seems so aberrant as to be almost incomprehensible or maybe even gag-inducing, I say good. It’s time for standard conventions of gender, consumption, and pornography to be chewed up and spit out in chunks that are nearly unrecognizable and I think that is part of what MAXIMUM GAGA achieves. It tries to muck up standard meanings, to open up holes that new meanings can enter.

MAXIMUM GAGA is a kind of bodily revolt, a kind of liberation awash in slippery meats and slimy fluids, with voracious and lusty hybrid creatures wallowing and reveling in the lack of neat packaging. At times, the wallowing and reveling may seem somewhat self-indulgent, but it also seems liberating for its lack of inhibitions and for its absence of preoccupation with fitting a certain physical mold in order to be perceived as sexually desirable.

Consider another excerpt from a part of the book that is formatted in a style akin to a play script:

“DED: A central component of maintaining & reproducing social order
is the management of women

The primary strategy for the control of women
is their public representation

DED: The Queen’s carnage suit
must be converted
into a docile cow “

Even lurking in the background of MAXIMUM GAGA is some kind of regime that wants to control and contain impulses that may be dangerous to production or consumption or the standard order.

Perhaps the almost absurd layers of artifice that are presented in some parts of MAXIMUM GAGA and perhaps the almost obscene overindulgence in orifices are partly meant to suggest that to escape being a controlled woman, one must escape the boundaries of recognizable womanhood altogether. One must don layer after layer of disguises so that her core cannot be pinpointed and then subjected to control OR one must expose her own holes with such furious and perverse abandon that she entirely deviates from standard parameters of ladylike womanhood. If one does not want to be pinned down as a specimen, if one does not want to be commoditized, then one most PERFORM in some shifty and provocative ways, then one must revolt against what is typically considered to be palatable, desirable flesh.


Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in Diode, Diagram, Octopus, Robot
Melon, WOMB, Prick of the Spindle and many other fine online and print
sources.  She is the editor of Blood Pudding Press. She is the author of
numerous quirky little chapbooks, most recently including ‘Gingerbread
Girl’ (Trainwreck Press), MONDO CRAMPO (dusie kollektiv 3) and PINK
LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR (coming soon from Spooky Girlfriend Press).  Her
first full-length poetry collection, ‘Horrific Confection’ was recently
published by BlazeVOX.  For more information, please feel free to visit
her website at http://www.JulietCook.weebly.com.

Kinetic Poetry: Erin Mullikin on Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon



Whim Man Mammon, Abraham Smith, Action Books



Whether you do this before, after, or while reading Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon, I ask you to do one thing: listen. Listen to Smith read his words for the sound is musical (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20366). It simultaneously calls to mind Gillian Welch’s Hell Among the Yearlings (“Carol, remember when,”) and the disjointed lyricism of Tom McRae’s self-titled album (“Every little meth”). Smith’s debut book of poetry is a hymn not to be soon forgotten reverberating with voice, words, rhythms, and feeling. Mostly importantly, the Whim Man Mammon poems are stories, histories, and legends, whose malleability allows them to become so much more. 


I finished Smith’s book in one night, pausing only to re-up on cold beer or to smoke a menthol cigarette; I needed cold fuel for the reading.  Whim Man Mammon is a journey where you feel (un)safe in a blanket of sound. I had to listen for Smith’s poems incorporate sound as power:

for rights

to the sweet talker’s scent

me and this hawk knock around

time runs out when I think of

basketball I think of sweat

bong times run



hawk does not (Honey Hawks Knocks Gin Drinks Against Me)

While Smith does not employ traditional form, he does make use of assonance and alliteration, time-honored sound devices that assist the pace of his work. It is pace that is one of the most crucial aspects of Whim Man Mammon for it is a collection that talks, talks loudly and talks back. Smith creates his own language as Whim Man Mammon overflows with bizarre lines and images, such as, though not limited to, “spanish your vein” (18), “to the hill monster” (21), and “I shall shell-weave you” (47). Within the strange boundaries of these pages, the reader begins to speak in this tongue. It grows and it grows on you. While Smith isn’t breaking any new ground form wise, he is exacerbating those fields already tilled by previous poets. Smith’s absence of conventional form, lack of punctuation, and erratic capitalization echo the strains of e. e. cummings (Xiape), who also bucked the school of formalism. Writers with startling ethos most often employ this rite of passage; however, Smith breaks boundaries well in his debut. 


Significance rises up throughout Smith’s collection, but the title of the book holds an essential key in understanding the harmonious reflections as a whole. Having Whim Man Mammon as the title of the collection is quite suggestive. Perhaps the strategic word in the title, ‘mammon,’ will conjure two references, one Biblical and one literary though based on the Biblical. “Mammon” in the New Testament simply means “money” and leads to the more significant allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Milton’s epic, Mammon is the fallen angel who advocates hard work to make Hell more Heaven-like refusing to serve God ever again. Out of all the demons mentioned in Paradise Lost, Mammon seems to be the one most closely related to the common man. It is this connection that speaks most volubly of Smith’s work. Smith’s poems resound with the life of the common man, and they do so without the effort of hesitation.  To read Smith’s work is to transform yourself temporarily into many men: a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s, a farmer, a meth addict. This, too, highlights the malleability of Smith’s poetry. These polarities of the everyday bring life out of the Wisconsin dust in Whim Man Mammon. Milton’s demonology only fuels that resurrection, and while the uprising is beautifully mastered, it is a revival that dodders on the precipice of noise.


If Smith’s book lacks anything, it is clarity.  Whim Man Mammon is text art, a combine of postmodern fragments with the symmetry of sound bytes. There are moments where one feels unsure of what is happening within a poem or what is happening to yourself as you read. There is some incoherency in, “Yes the / bless the / train eyeballs designed from / glass might be on them and the socket / is rude if exposed so hurry them man / if you will to / japan by way the second fat fish hollow roll” (Smith 36). While this is only an excerpt of the poem, when read in its entirety, I still feel lost and unable to get my bearings. I can deconstruct the said excerpt, say that I believe Smith is referring to the bright headlights of a train, but that is where understanding and coherency ceases for me. Even without a proper understanding of the meaning behind it all, there is always the sound, and the sound is what propels Smith’s collection. So, with sound that moves as Whim Man Mammon does, who needs clarity anyway? You do not have to comprehend fully each line, each fragment to enjoy the work. Truly to dive into Smith’s symphony, you must hear him read or you must read his works aloud. The sounds that drive this collection are, indeed, raw, surprising, and ultimately unforgettable.


It’s appropriate that Action Books published Whim Man Mammon for Smith’s poems are movement. The poems housed in his debut are kinetic:  they are created from energy, and in turn expel energy. To see Abraham Smith read his poetry is to watch a man on fire for the word. His tiny frame shakes and his boots stomp out the rhythm of his past and man’s collective past. When the honey hawks knock him, he’ll knock you by setting words to the natural pulse of beating wings. What Smith provides is a balance, a give and take, and this equilibrium mirrors life on its most fundamental plane: the accuracy of time, the beat of the heart, and the power of breath.