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Literature : review

21st Century Infospeak Prophet and Poet of the Internet

by D. Foy

After stumbling across the work of an anonymous, unknown poet, D. Foy became so enthralled and confused that he couldn't keep himself from further investigation.

Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.

—John Ashberry

I was introduced to Ben Austin, or rather Austin brought himself to my attention, when he followed me on Twitter. His profile intrigued me. It featured no name or picture, just a handle and curiously-named Tumblr site, murooned.tumblr.com, which, once I’d navigated to it, featured nothing but a series of “poems” written by . . . nobody. I scanned the site for the person behind these poems, but found . . . nothing. I didn’t understand.

Looking at these bits of writing on murooned.tumblr.com, it occurred to me that, despite their poetic form, I nevertheless found it difficult to call them poems. Obviously, thankfully, poetry has for a long time had no rules. There’s nothing inherent to any poem by which we can call a poem a poem. Anyone more than a little interested in poetry knows this, and at some point or another has to have encountered a poem that made them wonder, if only for a second, just what it was before them. I certainly have, though until I read Austin’s work, the last was long ago, when the page I’d turned in some anthology was printed with the words of Emily Dickinson.

Like hers, not one of Austin’s poems has a title. None, properly speaking, conventionally speaking, feature a “character” or “person.” None present either an introduction or conclusion, leastwise in the typical sense. None, bizarrely protean as they are, adhere to any obvious logic or follow some plainly discernible course of development. None for that matter adhere to any sort of nonsense or anti-sense or senselessness or absence. And, finally, this being the real kicker, none even display any “poetry.” For all of that, however, or rather, maybe, as a result, each of these little works is somehow disturbing in the best sort of way, each arresting, each ineffably beautiful. The writer’s anonymity, I later realized, was nothing if not appropriate.

My intrigue with the human behind these writings now piqued, I tweeted “it,” saying:

@benba57 Your poems are cool. What’s your name, please, if you don’t mind my asking?

3:47AM - 23 Aug 12
@dfoyble I’m Ben Austin IRL ;D Thanks for noticing my poems, that’s a great compliment I luv your website and James T. Greco ;)

5:07 PM - 23 Aug 12

By the time I received Austin’s reply, I’d learned through further investigation that he was in the process of publishing a book (??PG-13??) with the DIY company Blurb. I had also launched my own website/blog and begun to post essays about things that interest me. Hoping to read Austin’s book with the idea of writing about it, I tweeted:

@benba57 Thanks Ben! Where can I get your book?

7:48 AM - 24 Aug 12

And that was it. A few days into September, I received a package from Austin, via Blurb, containing the aforementioned PG-13.

Let me make no bones. Austin is a 21st-century infospeak prophet for a generation of gizmo-glomming, comic-scanning, tabloid-gorging, acronym-slurring, graffiti-bombing, gang-banging, pornography-ogling movers and shakers and artisan-“artist”-entrepreneurs, a generation of surfing, posting, blogging, tweeting, commenting, liking, following, gaming, socio/politico, post-post-post po-mo warriors and heads, spenders and geeks, fruitcake lumberjacks and academic jerks, mavericks and hipsters and misfits and tweens and slackers and addicts and pundits and pervs and dystopian, antihero, g-man punks.

Ben Austin's poetry is the manifesto of Charlie Brown had Charlie Brown come to life to write it.

Ben Austin's poetry is Rilke gone sour.

Ben Austin's poetry is teen spirit nirvana.

Ben Austin's poetry is the nightmare of Dynasty Bush.

Ben Austin's poetry is a heteroglossiacal algorithm for the dovetailing of Dr. Seuss, Donald Duck, Don Draper, and all things The Onion / Huffington Post.

Ben Austin's poetry is post-Flarf anti-Flarf with a funny hat and ginormous balls.

Ben Austin's poetry poetry is ecumenical satire mumbled from the lips of Lucian's ghost.

Ben Austin's poetry is history writ by a tard.

Not one of Austin’s poems runs for more than sixteen lines. And yet in most of them, as in Blake’s grain of sand, we can’t help but to catch a glimpse of all the world. It is, this world, of course, ever so far from the world of Blake. It is, this world, when it comes down to it, ever so far from the world we ourselves inhabit, even as it is this world’s actual clone.

Austin’s poetry, truly, is a poetry of the Internet and for the Internet, a world that exists in the midst of its nonexistence; in which all things seem but never are; in which what was now is and what is will soon be but was or worse: a cache in code, the supersonic motion of the quantum on a screen, we ourselves, yes, this world of the machine, our faces reflected in its ceaselessly morphing glow.

Any one of Austin’s poems can be all of these things and so much more while simultaneously receding from anything like a platform or stance because, like the Internet, Austin’s poetry never assumes a body, it never assumes a shape, it never assumes anything at all with which to make a platform or stance or from which a platform or stance can be made. Its idiom is the idiom of the Internet, which is the idiom of seven billion people speaking all at once:

Poem #24, from PG-13:

Bro tip #88:
Be Street Fighter 2,
not Street Fighter 1.

A comprehensive, fictional Facebook suicide
is exactly the kind of multi-media approach
to learning parents are always asking for.
Dr. Seuss cosplay is getting really popular
in rural America.

I’m buying sexy bloggers Lytro cameras
to maximize multi-focus hotness;
don’t worry, my rich aunt finally died,
so I’m flush with ca-aash.

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Revery, begins by way of Paul Valéry to get at the quandary with which Austin’s poetry confronts us. “One of the great sentence workers,” Bachelard says, “one day made the following remark: ‘You have certainly observed the curious fact that a given word which is perfectly clear when you hear it or use it in everyday language, and which does not give rise to any difficulty when it is engaged in the rapid movement of an ordinary sentence becomes magically embarrassing, introduces a strange resistance, frustrates any effort at definition as soon as you take it out of circulation to examine it separately and look for its meaning after taking away its instantaneous function.’ . . . . Reverie,” Bachelard concludes, “slow reverie, discovers the depths in the immobility of the word” [my emphasis]. I say Bachelard only begins to get at the quandary presented us in Austin’s poems because they are Valéry’s “curious fact” exponentially compounded: The “strange resistance” offered not by a single word stripped of context but by whole sentences and paragraphs torn of sense and ground, first, through their appearance in contexts implausible to their typical function and, second, in the wake of implosions triggered by, and from within, the sentences and graphs themselves.

How, then, does the reader enter this stuff? The task is deceptively complicated. It’s not as if the thing before us is a block of iron and obsidian. Certainly it’s not the stuff of Finnegan’s Wake or “The Waste Land” or an Oulipo-esque piece of S+7 or some Conceptualist thing like Christian Bök’s Eunoia, each in their way the slap of a gauntlet to our face. Something subtler is at play here, something more mysterious, closer, it seems, to the workings of a hypnotist over time. Austin’s poems implant in the mind a feeling or notion or tic, and often many, whose full implications remain latent until at some random time, by what we never know, they’re activated, and their secrets quietly rise, like tiny bubbles of sadness and vision and wit. But again, that’s all later, after we’ve looked at them and been perplexed by them to the point that we’ve dismissed them as linguistic trinkets or stepped back to ask again the nature of what’s before us.

I thought to pierce the work by according it some taxonomic status, yet that didn’t play well, either. Order, family, genus, species make no sense against an entity absent kingdom, phylum, class. The only bounds within which I could certifiably enclose these phantoms were those of language itself. I kept returning to the label “poem,” if only in deference to the work’s “poetic” form, but that was about the extent of it.

Luckily I found help through a recap of Modern Poetry 101.

The Imagists wiped out poetry’s sentiment and flair that the thing the image represented could speak with the mouth it was. The Dadaists on their heels opened the door of poetry to absurdity and farce. The Futurists advanced to kill syntax, punctuation, meter, and the like by way of freeing up the word itself to have its way, how, where, and when. Come the Black Mountain poets and projective verse, the poem was souped into a hot rod for the utterance of one sui generis perception after the next, a mode of composition against whose perceived confines the Martian poets, and then the Language poets, deployed, on the one hand, alien tropes and extraterrestrial humor to clear the fog of habit through which we see the everyday, and, on the other, for example, tortuous syntax, odd synecdoche, and parataxis a la Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein to breach the reader’s field of perception and force her, as it were, to participate in the meaning-making game. Finally, in the first decade of the 21st-century, we got the Conceptualists, a gathering of self-proclaimed master assassins and hallucinators of repair. And then, for better or worse, we somehow got the Flarfists, too.

In suit with the cavalier/eff-you/irony-irreverence-anomie rocks/snark-snapped-in-monotone/_je ne sai quois_/anti-sincerity-sincerist mode that largely characterizes the Y Generation of “artists,” the Flarfists cobbled up a neodadaist, ass-in-your-face anti-poetics by dispensing with poetry in general and aesthetics in particular. The “point” of Flarf—”a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness,” as Flarfist hierophant Gary Sullivan writes—was to “be wrong, awkward, stumbling, semi-coherent, fucked-up, [and] un-P.C.” by bringing “out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text,” by taking “unexpected turns,” and by “doing what one is ‘not supposed to do.’” Michael Costello says that, according to the Flarfists themselves, Flarf wasn’t “a movement, never was, because it has no principles as such, beyond some characteristic compositional techniques that developed along the way (collaging Google search-engine results, etc.).”

I’m not sure about the extent of Costello’s irony, but I’m confident of the Flarfists’s. Their refusal to own the nonexistent movement they knew damn well they hadn’t made was itself a function of the nonexistent movement, clever and ironic, certainly, but also arrogant, distant, unaccountable, glib. At the same time, they couldn’t have been more true. Flarf wasn’t a movement—it was . . . flarf: the faintly lingering stench we’d smell if a piece of fluff could fart. Surely, this was the end, if not of poetry, of something.

Flarf may have influenced Austin, as he himself admits (albeit without going so far as to confess sharing its bed), which perhaps accounts for why, at times, in their deliberately aloof and occasionally “silly” complexion, some of his poems seem to waft of flarfiness. Yet to lump him with that movement on this or any other basis would be a mistake.

The Austinian poem treats of farts and fluff, among so much else, not only with farts and fluff, but also with heart and soul and sadness and mirth, and with gravitas, too, however hidden, and with ridicule and ferocity and wit. Reactions against nothing, Austin’s poetry exists of itself, only to give, to show us all, that is, the parts of us we hadn’t seen, and might never have, without it.

Poem #25:

I saw you buying Clorox,
so I came up behind you
and grabbed your waist with both hands
and kissed the back of your neck
in a CVS aisle.

A Camaro ran over a parking meter
by a gay club across the street
called The Twisted Spoke,
right before we went through the automatic doors.
A huge flock of birds all died
suddenly in Arkansas near the Spring River.
We read the Huffington Post,
so we really didn’t care.

There’s a Baby Harvard daycare center
that makes the kids hold an invisible “rope”
when they walk to the playground.

So, again, just what is this thing before us? A love poem? An anti-confessional? A meditation on millennial pop culture? An environmental polemic? A narcissistic whisper? An oblique evaluation of modern education systems and parenting technique? A parable of life and death? It’s got all the elements to be any of these, or a combination thereof, or none of them even, but something else instead, something much more, perhaps, a 50,000 foot fly-over of existence itself, maybe, the hopes and dreams of Adam and Eve banished from the Garden, all of mankind’s egoism, aspirations, tenderness, bounty, idiocy, corruption, gluttony, and shame, all of our love and all of our hate: an “I” and a “you”; a waist, a neck, a kiss; a bottle of bleach in a drugstore; a sports car in a wreck; a nightclub (gay); a flock of birds inexplicably perished; a river; a blog; a daycare center whose children play at a playground got at with invisible “rope.”

Names aside, from beginning to end, the shimmy this thing does keeps us fast in worry. Nothing’s sure, we feel, the world’s up for grabs. And so it is. None of Austin’s world is “real.” What he speaks of are but imitations, ideas, simulations and dissimulations, copy-catted by rote and 1-2-3. And when his poems aren’t giving us a “world” of the in-between, they’re showing us one of voodoo plastic, where all things have been rendered into products and brands and types.

Here, in the way that tissues are no longer tissues and photocopies no longer photocopies, but Kleenex and Xerox, bleach isn’t bleach, but Clorox. And drugstores are CVSs (or Rite Aids or Eckardses or Duane Reades), and cars are Camaros (or silvermist Saturns), and newspapers are blogs, this name and that, and opinions, horribly, are facts.

Here, in fact, people scarcely are people anymore, either. We’re ideas of people got with vulgar typicality from the frauds that are “celebs.” More holograph than human, “we” float through life as through an ether, acting out behaviors and feelings we’ve read about on a screen and romanticized from there, ultimate simulacrums, visions within visions within visions (Baudrillard via Borges), themselves so remote from anything original we could as easily pluck one out like a card from a deck and call it good—love, for instance, or the motions of love: the infinitesimal trace of an ancient drive broken free of whatever storehouse in our DNA to percolate up and, with the caress, at last, of our minds’ far parts (a whisper from another world, another life), compel us toward each other, even in the midst of the least romantic activity in the least romantic scene: the taking of bleach from a shelf in a store. There’s only an “I” here, there’s only a “you,” quite literally disembodied: a disembodied I grabbing with disembodied hands you’s disembodied waist and kissing with a disembodied mouth you’s disembodied neck.

Yet no sooner has this act been consummated than it vanishes like everything else.

Snap—the moment’s gone, into the cloud that isn’t a cloud but a word for the idea of some amorphous, unidentified place, a computer, that is, a “server,” specifically, whose location we haven’t the faintest.

The act has vanished, all right, but it’s been replaced, seemingly inexplicably, by an accident. It is not, however, the driver of the Camaro alone who’s been blindsided. We too are equally shocked, though just for a time: there is, in fact, a code. The gesture of intimacy we glimpsed was a mistake, and a dangerous one at that. Too often our overtures of tenderness are made in vain. Too often, even the most insignificant of our gestures is defeated or unrequited, and we’re reduced again to the flaccidity that is status quo.

The lurch and thrust of the poem is the lurch and thrust of the world it reveals. The pain of love is too great; any effort toward it is therefore immediately thwarted by subsumption in reference or direct refraction to some spectacle, abstraction, product, celebrity, or good, all of which, ultimately, epitomize the distance we’ve carved between our inner lives and our simulations of them.

In this instance we witness a car crashing not into another car, but into the nemesis of all drivers, a parking meter: taker of our money, beacon of the meter maids and men that slither through our streets in a kind of brutal anonymity, empowered with the ability, it so often seems, of warlocks and witches. In the moment of our meter’s expiration these androids appear from nothing to give us the ticket whose fine we may ignore at peril: failure to pay will draw scrutiny from the Eye whose Gaze by the hour grows increasingly difficult to elude.

It’s no accident, either, that this parking meter fronts The Twisted Spoke, a nightclub for gays whose name with its proudly overt reference to the flaw in the design—the canker in the blossom, that is, the worm in the fruit—suggests a world of debauchery and corruption, for I if for no one else. I is certainly aware of the club’s existence. I knew its name well before going through CVS ’s “automatic doors.” And though love may abort in the drugstore, from the wiles of the world beyond, we are by comparison safe. For it’s not just the city over whose dangers we must fret. Away in the wilds of Arkansas, something ominous looms: what can explain the mysterious deaths of an entire flock of birds?

And yet, and yet: even as I speaks this terror, I gainsays it with slacker superfluity:

. . . so we really didn’t care.

There’s refuge to be found in news that’s not news, on a blog called the The Huffington Post. Which precisely is the point. For us whom other diversions (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll) in the face of our mundane calamities reckon mountains too big to climb, what do we nowadays do but run off to the mall or, as here, dive into the black sea of the Internet, the one on our desks, on our laps, and in our hands—especially the one in our hands—what crazy power, huh?—where we lurk and surf and tweet and troll and follow and like and chat and ping until the real world draws us back to attend to real world things, until the things of the real world repel us yet again, enough to drive us back to our anesthetizing sea?

The sorts of things that will drive us back are pretty easy to guess:

The endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drive us back.
Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico drive us back.
Pandemic bigotry, xenophobia, and religious fanaticism drive us back.
The insatiable greed of stockbrokers and banks drives us back.
The crookery of megalopolistic corporations drives us back.
Governmental venality drives us back.
The collapse of sovereign currencies around the world drives us back.
The extinction of species and the pending extinction of species drive us back.
The imminence of environmental cataclysm drives us back.
The threat of instantaneous nuclear annihilation surely drives us back.

Great and small, atrocities flash across our gizmos and TVs, but after a moment of zinging our messages to and fro, we nearly always link on out to the easier, more entertaining sights on other sites, spectacles, mostly, since with the spectacle, as Roland Barthes astutely noted in his essay on wrestling half a century back, we the public have full reign to abandon ourselves to its “primary virtue . . . which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what [the public] thinks but what it sees.” Barthes knew: The bulk of us don’t like to think, much less to act. To think is to question, to question’s to know, to know’s to act, and to act, hurt. We only want to say we think and know and act. In “reality” we prefer the vertigo of our circles, spinning from nightmare to sea of black to nightmare to sea of black, telling ourselves as we do, Hey, wow, the change of scenery sure is nice . . .

The Austinian I won’t say: I want to love but don’t know how.

I won’t say: I’m afraid in this world, where at every turn I might be run down, shot, asphyxiated, poisoned, blown up, drowned.

I won’t say: And even if I could love, and even if I found another to love and be loved by, and even if we two loved and lived and had a family to live with and love, how could I? I stand no chance, we stand no chance, the children I’m afraid to have stand no chance in this touch-and-go, rat-race existence unless, among so much else, I enroll them in an ultraprivate preschool without which they’ll never make the ultraprivate middle-school-prep elementary school requisite for the ultraprivate high-school-prep middle school requisite for the ultraprivate college-prep high school requisite to compete for a spot at Harvard, Berkeley, Duke, or Yale, the degree from which will grant them access to the world of elegant fakers and bakers that dictate now, as always, whether they’ll fail or succeed.

I won’t say: What has it come to that I must drive the children I’m afraid to have to the preschool whose playground I’m afraid for them to play on, even after they’ve reached it with invisible rope?

Ultimately this poem, like the majority of Austin’s poems, is for me a Leibnizian monad, a lone entity of specific, unique qualities that through a sort of humanitarian hocus pocus manages to give us back to ourselves in ways we didn’t know we are and, more often than not, have done all we can to avoid. Into these fifteen lines Austin has magically managed to pack our culture at large, and even the world at large. No particular thing is at risk here. What is at risk is everything. Much more can be said about the poem, but the bottom of it all, that it reveals the whole of our trembling fragility, together with the preciousness, really, of us in that fragility and the risk innate to it every second of every day, is what makes this poem the splendid thing it is. It is a poem that laughs as it cries and soars as it dies. It is a poem sick with a hopeless yearning that nevertheless mocks itself, however quietly, for having had the audacity to exist, much less to speak its name, but which even so it insists to speak.

And audacious as it is, self-mocking as it is, Austin’s poetry insists to speak, it seems to me, for the plainness that that insistence has good reason. This is the way we are, his poems say, blind as we are to so very much, paramount among it the perfection of a world made blurry with our ideas. Things, actually, couldn’t be better. We fuck up, and will fuck up again and again, but the world takes care of itself, the way it always has, regardless of us in our puny ways. At the end of his life, this was Leibniz’s message. “If we could understand the order of the universe well enough,” he said, “we would find that it surpasses all the wishes of the wisest people, and that it is impossible to make it better than it is—not merely in respect of the whole in general, but also in respect of ourselves in particular.” Austin is a poet. And surely he knows it. But he doesn’t once mount a soapbox to crow it. Instead he hides his poetry inside his poetry, like the anonymous sage of yore hiding jewels in the pocket of a hair shirt. The only way we stand to find these jewels is to don the shirt. Until then, the shirt will remain merely a shirt, no matter the eyes with which we see it.

My beehive arrived from bees.com
and was easy to assemble.
The bees had to be revived
with a cup of warm water,
which seemed reasonable.
I don’t think they were freeze-dried
or anything, just in a deep sleep for shipping.
I’m ready to get started.

D. Foy's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, The Literary Review, Frequencies, and The Georgia Review to name just a few. His story, "Barnacles of the Fuzz," came out in Forty New Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, edited by Cal Morgan, and an essay on the American laundromat is due out soon in Snorri Bros.'s Laundromat, an homage in photographs to laundromats throughout New York City, available from powerHouse Books. His novel, Made to Break, will be published by Two Dollar Radio in February 2014.