It’s no secret that an appropriative style—where objects identifiable as belonging to past eras are sewn together—is in. Atop—or perhaps below—this larger swell there also happens to be a contingent of artists and writers interested in the ugly, grotesque, and vile. By combining offensive or gruesome artifacts, they actualize an antagonistic attitude and doomed worldview while opening up the floor for discussion about repression and its totalizing force. This aesthetic seeks to be fundamentally tasteless; it refuses pressures from societal fear, guilt, and editorial decorum. By dredging up the buried, it attempts to beckon what is drowned in contemporary forms of censorship, be they self-inflicted or otherwise—so topics like torture, racism, poverty, or the manipulative nature of art in general can uncannily bob to the surface in an ugly sheen.
One might term it “abject art” and you can find it in many museum exhibitions, TV programming, pop music, and small press catalogues. Wangechi Mutu’s exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art this past fall was full of animal-human hybrids cavorting across blood-spattered canvases with insects and their body parts collaged into disfigured, self-mutilating forms.
Meanwhile, the Mike Kelley retrospective at PS1 displayed curatorial moves to shock and awe an otherwise clean, bleached-white museum. Green, penis-tipped swastika banners, glowing plastic crystals from Superman’s Krypton populated a generally noisy atmosphere across all four floors. The cluttered-together video installations were capped off by a looping film projected on the underside of PS1’s geodesic dome that depicted, among other satanic rituals, a trio of boys painfully singing in holy trinity garb—a performance inspired by a photograph Kelley found in an old yearbook.
This brings us to the fundamental logical problems of this art, or at last another, perhaps series of tired accusations: if ugliness is the point, then what sort of critical apparatus are we to bring to bear in our discussion of the work? If it is fundamentally about revolt, are the pieces making a mockery of concrete militant struggle with their childlike and tantrum-esque performances? If the work is meant to be excessive, to overflow, does this mean we’re abandoning concision? Does the frame of the picture no longer matter? Are we to imagine a new set of rules? Abject art is fundamentally about having a lot of fun with the things we’re not supposed to have fun with. It makes us laugh and grow queasy while also making us think. In the Dean Young poem “Glory,” the speaker says, “deep in the male-feathered brain… [of Daffy Duck] … is the need to fuck, or fuck up everything beautiful, including the Parthenon.”
In the poetry world, the loudest expression of this need can be found in titles published by Action Books, edited by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, whose work, coupled with Göransson’s translations of Aase Berg, make up the fabric for a kind of collective nightmare. Lara Glenum’s POP Corpse lies among them and stands out as an extreme text amongst extremophiles—it’s a reinvention of Hans Christian Anderson’s and Walt Disney’s subsequent reinvention of the fairytale The Little Mermaid, taking the form of a virtually-impossible-to-perform lyric play.
Göransson enters the book in editorially incestuous ways, as we discover in the “Booty Call” and in the acknowledgements page: all the words from a character called “The Smear” are cut-up lines from Göransson’s own dark epistles and colonial pageants. The French surrealist and playwright, Antonin Artaud and ultra-brooder Plath also lord over the work. From here, Glenum embarks on a farce starring a teenage mermaid called “XXX” who’s on a quest to have herself made a real, working vagina (as this version of the mermaid has none). Mermaid stories are a well-trod path in any creative writing workshop, and it’s to Glenum’s credit that this one feels wholly fresh, and actually becomes a genuinely enjoyable read.
Beyond being the obvious signifier for porn, our protagonist’s name also brings to mind what is excised, X-ed out. There are enough incisions here to make any preteen parent squirm. In one scene, XXX tries to cut herself a vagina with an X-Acto knife, and proceeds to moan and finger the wound. The violence is excessive, and that’s the point. The opening monologue electro-shocks us numb with a series of pronouncements borrowed from Georges Bataille’s list of “unproductive expenditures,” as the speaker’s “suffering has become frivolous and ornamental,” participating in “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts.” In tandem with these expenditures, it may be tempting to suggest that Glenum seeks to bring all that Freud cites as uncanny into an underwater burlesque, but Freud makes clear that fairytales do not qualify because in the fairytale, the fantastic is the norm, so nothing appears out of place in their constructed reality.
While the first few lines of the section, “Club Me [Opening Score],” may be shocking to some: “The seal flesh bezerking in my pants/ says no + yes…Sink yr seabunny fingers/ in2 my creamo dreamo seal meat,” Glenum establishes this as the rhetoric the world of POP Corpse must assume, so that by the time The Smear enters with a sequenced gown covered in goat feces and a hole cut for his genitals to dangle out (painted red), we’re actually enjoying what a trip into the land of the revolting brings. Beneath the shock is a desire to make all that has been banned acceptable: S&M, malleable genders, nihilism, sex-work, and the expressions of feminine lust in general. In the 1980s, when the performance artist Robert Flanagan hung weights from his scrotum and dangled his body over a gallery on the Lower East Side, sure he wanted to shock people, but he was also advocating for his way of life—advocating for what gave him pleasure.
Glenum announces she is, “trying to speak in a different register/ The register of candied decay/ the filthy register of the halfbreed/ which is/ my own.” By articulating her theoretical framework, she tosses in the first ingredients for her lip-gloss pastiche. The use of buzzwords frequently used by her and others associated with Action Books like “interiority” and “kitsch” were the only moments where I felt removed from the book. One could argue that this feeling of estrangement is again, always, part of the point. In this way, POP Corpse attempts to preemptively take part in Internet forum-based conversations about itself. Relentlessly hypermodern in this way, Glenum employs hash-tags, shorthand, and emoji-esque symbols she makes unique to the world of promiscuous mermaids.
One string of these wingdings symbols is nearly translatable. First, a heart, with its tip whipping playfully to the left followed by an iconically Roswellian Alien face, a front desk alarm, two megaphones (the latter in use), a sword, waves, a speech bubble, and a fish finishes with a question and exclamation mark combined into one symbol, the interrobang: “‽.” We could digest this as: “teenage love is alien and alarming, so we’re going to make it loud until it kills you, buries you at sea where you’ll finally hear the fish speak and become victim to an aggressive line of questioning.” On the next page, there is what appears to be a set of eyes, reminding us that we can now actually see, or it’s a suggestion that, vis-à-vis the Internet, the book itself is watching us, panoptically, always. (Or that the “Internet” is.) These are also an extension of the many hybrids at play, as the text overflows from the textual disciplines into the visual, while also reaching beyond the poetic into the essayistic and theatrical.
The hardware of the dot-com era enters the text interestingly as well. When XXX attempts to cut a working orifice out of her fin, she also films it with a webcam, so all the undersea denizens can watch. Here, she runs into the problems of representation, as when asked about the incident at “The Royal Disorder Panic Party,” XXX claims it’s “performance art,” while one of the other mermaids, “Pursed & Puckered” says it’s “more like torture porn.” This derogatory labeling is reminiscent of the frenzy by poetry critics to name trends in contemporary poetry, with the hope of being the one credited in posterity. Glenum engages with the surface-oriented and fragmented work that Frederic Jameson describes in his famous essay, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” but the work also succeeds, in its sprawl and insistence on excess, to enter other zones of representation. If John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in A Convex Mirror has become an iconic example of post-modern poetry, with Glenum, the post-modernism is accelerated, fragmented further, and combined with gothic, abject stylings as well as nods to Poe and Lautréamont. To put it cutely, it has become self-portrait in a disco ball—the mirror has been shattered into a thousand webcams, the self reinstated as merely an appendage on one, hive-like blob.
In the essay, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Jameson defines “pastiche” as “like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a mask, speech in a dead language.” Everywhere Glenum collages dead languages and styles. In the Bell Jar, Plath hears her beating heart as sounding like, “I am, I am, I am.” Glenum takes this promise of selfhood-survival, swallows it, and reverses it to: “I can die & die & die.” Climaxing in hemorrhage, both Plath and Glenum must deal with their bodies’ impossibilities in versions of a mortal, human world. While Plath’s Esther Greenwood must deal with the pain of living, Glenum’s XXX must fight her way from an eternal abstinence. They are both indebted to and stand against the happily ever after-fairytales preceding them. Hans Christian Anderson’s own grotesqueries in the original Little Mermaid appear in Glenum’s epilogue: “the witch laughed so loud & disgustingly that toads & snakes fell to the ground, wriggling about… ‘every step you take will feel as though you are treading on knives, as though blood will flow, now stick out your tongue so I can cut it out as my payment.’ ”
In the initial Little Mermaid, readers are left wondering if Hans Christian Anderson’s mermaid will ever escape the “daughters of the air,” as her freedom and ability to attain an immortal soul is dependent on her and other little girls’ good deeds. In contrast, Glenum assures her star lovers of eternal naughtiness. XXX finally receives an actual snatch and The Smear’s cock goes “up and up and up.” The two join a “rogue art collective” and are “hawt 4evah.” The former grouping indicates what presses like Action Books seek to create with the work they publish; aesthetic bodies more fundamentally extremist than experimental that, in the words of editor Joyelle McSweeney, seek to “go all the way.”
Glenum marches with other practitioners of the gurlesque, a femme movement in contemporary poetry that collects behind a need to mock and subvert feminine stereotypes. The pornographic gaze enters here as well; specifically, Hentai and tentacle porn inform Glenum’s farce. While XXX is in rehab (the “Slice Ward”) for cutting herself, she writes in her diary, “Girls should not be 2 visible/need to b Xed out/ We stage our own extravagant deaths/ & squirt all over/ the camera/ <Post to feed>.” By exaggerating her characters’ propensity for overt, kinky sexuality and broadcasting it, she forces us to deal with the myriad ways we may actually be complicit with real world objectification in pop culture’s many spectacles. In the world of POP Corpse, everything is exterior, too visible. We’re beckoned in to not only see, but participate: “YOUR COCK BELONGS UP THE ASS OF THIS BOOK.” A sloppy reading may accept this pronouncement as somehow anti-feminist in its embrace of promiscuity and “#slutever,” but herein lies the magic of Glenum’s various appropriations. By putting the inevitable artificiality of art at the forefront, she un-alienates a culture of sexual violence and shows an exaggerated instance of how it exists in literature and pop culture.
As part of this artifice, Glenum also revels in sonic pleasures and linguistic invention. In her opening pronouncements, we hear lines followed by their necessary spoiled correctives, such as “The ha ha albino sky / rotting like meat in my throat.” Embraced ugliness aside, having sky inside one’s throat is a rather pretty image, and the “t” sounds in “rotting,” “meat,” and “throat” have their own pleasant if halting rhythm. Much of this book feels good in the mouth in this way. One cannot help read bits of it aloud to friends. Neologisms like “self-harmalade,” “frakentime,” and “humanalia” should have their own staying power in discussions about pop music, the body’s inherent plasticity, and the feeling we have in the 21st Century of having abandoned history in general.
More than just the same story of the tragic hybrid positioned against a rigid world of binaries, in POP Corpse everyone is a sicko, which makes sickness the norm. In the underwater kingdoms of the sea, all our freaky thoughts find a utopian enclave. We can say whatever we want, whenever we want; the lewd mess in Internet comment streams is brought to the theater; and we’re invited to “cannibalize ourselves into art.” Glenum’s is an appropriative aesthetic actively combating the vintage look, as her work refuses to sanitize history as well as refusing the world of homemade soap. Other practitioners of the abject find themselves at a similar crossroads between nostalgia and a need to violate any dressing-up of that nostalgia. In popular culture, we find this urge in Adult Swim favorites like Tim & Eric, with their VHS-filtered ads for diarrhea pants or clip-on ponytails made from horsehair that little girls can soak in candy juices and suck. Always there’s the accusation that this is nothing new, that folk art has always been in inherent opposition to high art, and that those who intentionally rebel are eventually coopted into the regime they stood against. Even the stuffiest museums have featured nightmarish works by Andres Serrano, Paul McCarthy, and Kara Walker in recent decades. And what we call abjection now was commonplace in the lower Baroque stylings of 17th century Germanic works. But every era needs its advocates for the ugly, and not merely to contrast with the beautiful, but also to aid a wider search for truth. Today, the abject surges again through poets like Glenum, and the ahistorical, twee collage that has become the basis and bane of young urbanites’ visual framework is offered it’s own salvation atop what begins to feel again like an honest depiction of history—on a mountain of ugliness and violence.