“Thy bones are made of dope”
–The Rose in January, Geoffrey Nutter
Steven Karl’s Dork Swagger creates a generous and aware space in which to think about what the late 80s / the 90s / the early 00s was to bodies, to humans, to clothes, to parties, to music, to our poems, and to our abilities to categorize such slippery / soggy / silt-y things. While reading, I think of GO, a movie starring pleather, Katie Holmes of Dawson’s Creek, ecstasy, Scott Wolf of Party of Five, The Clinton Surplus, “Steal My Sunshine” by Len, and a particular kind of shoulder length hair. I think, when reading the line, “But fuck hippies & fuck being high with you” (“We had so much fun being high…”), of the first time I understood that adults around me discussed current hippies (Winnipeg Folk Festival hippies, Dave Matthews hippies, Phish hippies) differently than the way my father talked about the hippie he was. I think of watching VH1’s I Love the 90s, a series meant to be a joke on and an easy way to profit off of nostalgia and Mariah Carey (“What decade dares to dance to this?”), in high school. I remember the comedians and the former sitcom stars holding up Liz Phair CDs. I remember realizing that someday culture was really going to start making claims and distinctions about this era I was supposedly growing up in. I remember realizing I was going to have feelings about it I couldn’t understand or imagine the complexity of as someone wet and dumb inside of it, as someone on my way to Denny’s wearing a Calvin Klein t-shirt and my mother’s old jean jacket with the sheepskin collar.
While I’m waiting for an airplane back to Minneapolis, I look at the photos in Bill Berkson’s Homage to Frank O’Hara, at incredible male artists smiling by a pool in speedos or belted slacks with white t-shirts, and think of HOW CONTEMPORARY they must’ve felt. “Quick say / Something about the / Impermanence of youth” (“Field of clovers. Clovers knotted in hair”). How was it or can it even be different from the contemporariness I feel now? What is the edge of the world ever like? What is our generation(s) called again? Generation Y, Generation X, Generation Why Do All The Young Black Men Have To Die?, Birds Wearing Headphones, Millennials, Gap Commercials About Khakis, Irony vs. Sincerity at XXXI Mardi Gras Super Bowl, “With this face. / With this body. / There are 200 / People that make / Up one of me. / Each more obsessive. / Than the last” (“With this face”)?
When Lena Dunham’s character, aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, says to her bewildered, weary TV parents on GIRLS, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation,” we laugh at her. 1) Because Dunham’s character, unlike Kanye West, who made almost exactly the same assertion in 2008, doesn’t know how to WORK at such a thing, to be brave and ambitious in the face of such a thing. 2) Because how presumptuous! Because how different we are! Sprawling in a million different directions / a million different American Apparel models! You don’t even have to live in NYC to be a young, burning star anymore. You just need blood made of student debt, a slowly accumulating set of tattoos, and a reason to give yourself entirely to loving a great deal in your idea of the world. In others words, how are you painfully aware that you are alive? “I hated childhood,” says Mary Ruefle, “I hate adulthood. And I love being alive.” The voice and poetry Steven Karl creates to carry us through this book manages to hold all of that casually / deftly.
The voice of Dork Swagger isn’t one that concerns itself with being the voice for all of a generation, but it absolutely could be. This voice concerns itself with being someone who was there, who is here now. When a voice concerns itself with being someone who was there, who is here now, it can’t leave out any reason why it is there, why it is here now. That means talking about Eddie Fiola, slackerdom, Boom Shaka Laka, the lecture on Rethinking the Human as an Object of Interdependence you blew off at Columbia, the art you made in spite of that, pleats. This means working Ben, Bree, Bill, Steve, Vee, Robert, Roberto, Don, Minji, Hitomi, Amy, Sandy, Christie, Malique, and Malik B (“I’m going to write…”) into the poems. Making them shudder to a hard beat. Joining them. It means keeping the poems title-less as Karl does, letting them loiter in a parking lot together, beautiful and suspicious and unintentionally near to / far from each other.
Black Flag cassette blasted.
Dogwood petals rotting on streets.
SK8 OR DIE. Hail the grind.
Everyone comes back dressed head to toe in black.
Dear Presidents twitching like elephant asses covered in flies.
I represent CLUB HOMEBOY
(“So revved &…”)
Cultural decoration and coronation in poems has, in some sense, a steadily weakening reputation as being a potentially frail propeller, a kind of shallow, blinking exit sign meant to come across as funny or ironic that can end up coming across as avoidant, a failure to engage with how disgustingly complex any puddle has to be. We need to say weakening because of poets like Dana Ward, Lauren Ireland, and Steven Karl, who insist that the language and emotional layers of their pages be interfered with by something that doesn’t feel like interference at all during your smoke outside the bar / your dive off the quarry wall: slang, the desire to desire what your friends and lovers desire, seeing your friends and lovers desire what you desire, the situations around all breeds of exchange. What happens when all this consumption and need becomes part of the force that makes poetry increasingly critical and capable? The poem excerpted above is rubbing the reader hard into an unwashed swatch of skin. It’s delighting in the harshness of culture’s influence, of the inevitability that we’ll find a way to use it to be more alive, to feel stronger, to feel part of something important. Skaters and punks and Dork Kings with middle fingers. But the skater and the punk and the Dork King and the middle finger, in this poem and everywhere else in the book, are quick about pointing elsewhere and deeper. The young (sometimes unsure) rebel is easily at home in poetry. Poetry is the fire escape where the dark parts of the party spill out, the sudden cause of joyful contrast and distortion against the big safe scene inside. The skater and the punk and the Dork King and the middle finger, they don’t give a fuck as expected. As the poem continues, it’s clear that they don’t give a fuck because they do. They can’t help but care about and acknowledge destruction because it’s everywhere, it’s part of the Slurpee you inhale. It’s in the person you’re kissing. And they notice. We notice.
Your identity gives my identity anxiety.
There is puke accumulating in my mouth.
To feel sick.
Sicker still, your manipulations of power
Enter my dreams & a massacre has begun.
Dear Presidents, you have become the song.
Dear Presidents, your collective murders have become the song
(“So revved &…”)
Dork Swagger’s poems don’t fight consumerism or late capitalism’s dents in language or consciousness or art by rejecting / refusing to acknowledge them. They best them and better them. THERE IS A BETTER MIDDLE FINGER. The speaker is acutely aware of the consequences of these institutions, of what a President can do, but doesn’t agree that they inherently create blockage in a body still attempting to thrive and grow up.
Bitter melon & bitch
Good morning, I’m a grouch.
Today I will rid my mouth.
Of all this excess waste
(“Stop doing that thing…”)
They are a meaty part of what creates a flowering, an “evening writh[ing] with potential” (“Hello from another hateful day”), especially within the personal relationships of the book. As Dork Swagger progresses (a surge, a surge), the poems swig deeper into the people they love, they sense their ability to get closer. “Dearest Hitomi, / The days stretch into the sky then become obliterated. / Somewhere beyond where the blackness pales there’s a faint light” (“Dearest Hitomi”). On one page there is a happy anniversary and it has Schubert and wine and cheese. This one page has, yes, maybe a growing relationship to “mature” objects, but the love present here isn’t presuming to be more important than the love present on other pages, as the objects present in the scene might be allowed to suggest. “When people are ready to change they change” (“Your painting is like the sound of a drum & the sound of…”). There is exquisite balance between looping forward towards a possible future and looping back through a dense, glistening pack of memory. A thickness of movement between them some might call dancing, power.
The last six pages of the book, Notes, are someone dancing after the lights have come back up, an epilogue towards lingering and the continued full feeling of darkness. The pages spill out and spill past, telling us, in small clusters of paragraph shape, about the songs and Black Sabbath one more time, about Vans slip-ons one more time. They tell us more stories about the names (a few new names creep in), more “ambient ugly” (Notes), more swagger. “Exit from the dream, which is still three sizes too large” (Notes). The excess that comes out the mouth is waste, sure, but the wastoid knows it’s also love, the capability we have to engage with both. It is the capability we have to recognize waste and love’s increasingly tangled presence within each other. How exactly do adults grow “out of touch” with youth, with other generations? I think it might be pretty simple. You can’t dismiss how in touch young people need to be and are, how they are constantly touching or wanting to be touching each other, their music, their parties, their wild / important stupidity. They are absolutely saturated in intelligent feeling, in all that creates them. So is anyone who is alive. I read Dork Swagger and feel like I might turn to you and say, I plan on BEING this way, maybe forever.