Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (Faber, £10.99); Frances Leviston, Disinformation (Picador £9.99).
2015: the year of car hacks, the ‘quantified self’ intensified by health apps and Fitbits, and of ever leaking cloud data; the year that exposed Amazon’s extensive metric and data-driven analysis not only of its customers but its employees, and Google restructured its company so it could spend more time attempting to bring the internet to remote areas via helium balloons. Two collections from 2015 take on this information age and pose questions about how poetry might respond to or challenge it.
Sam Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Marriage wears its post-internet status proudly on its sleeve. Like the poet’s first collection, 81 Austerities, the poems here were published first as a blog, and loudly signal the language of the web: ‘Thanks for Sharing’ concludes the five-line ‘the new sunsets’, with its appropriately bland celebration of ‘Sunset thru the trees’. More urgently – though often not really discussed in in some reviews of the book – the poems of Riviere’s second collection are made out of the web. The book was written by Googling the title of each poem and rearranging the results, in a technique of that belongs (at least as far as certain internet commentators are concerned) in the ‘Flarf’ tradition. The 72 poems here echo the 72 days of Kim Kardashian’s first marriage not in any direct reflection on the selfie-obsessed entrepreneur/master manipulator of viral celebrity; instead according to the algorithm by which Riviere has combined two sets of nine words in eight different ways (borrowing terms from Kardashian’s make-up regime as section headings), 72 is the inevitable number of two-word titles he produces. Less clear is how Riviere has decided on the title words themselves. One of these being ‘hardcore’, however, the reconstituted text is clearly harvested from pages concerning the internet’s most unique and enduring products. These are not only the new brand of celebrity created by ‘hardcore’ file-sharing fans, but hardcore pornography:
if it were all wrapped up in a box and sent to you
that box would read ….
Beautiful Pornstar Cleopatra Hardcore Orgy (‘beautiful hardcore’)
Tellingly, another of Riviere’s title words is ‘sincerity’. It is, of course, the rejection of sincerity or authenticity which accounts for there being few conventional or stand-alone poems here. ‘the new heaven’, in which the heavily repeated lines become a mock-religious refrain (before directing us to ‘…The New Heaven & The New Earth’s official profile,/ including the latest music albums, songs, music videos and more updates’) is notable both for its length and for the sense that it crafts a response to the webstream in ways other than adopting its language. Elsewhere within Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, only occasionally does an ‘I’ emerge which might be mistaken as biographical. And, of course, this is the point. Appropriating the inarticulate and fragmented language of the web, the poems conceptually make an atomised wifi-dependent consciousness part of their very investigation. ‘How much remixes can you make’ asks ‘infinity hardcore’; ‘I DO NOT OWN OR TAKE CREDIT/ FOR THIS SONG’ reads a line in ‘american dust’, underscoring the shared and impersonal methods of composition at work here. In this way – Googled, borrowed, cut-and-paste – the poems echo the web’s multi-authored randomness, its eternally reconfigurable nature, endlessly passing from one subject to the next. ‘After the internet’, this work and its fans proclaim, ‘poetry can never be the same’.
Yet another definition of internet or post-internet poetry might be poetry which shares the conditions created by the internet. That is to say, poetry which is – like Kim Kardashian’s first marriage – if not bullshit exactly, then virtual rather than ‘real’: poetry which is mechanical in its techniques, self-advertising as a substitute for the sustained and silent slog (in the manner of some Twitter activity), and designed for immediate, though perhaps not lasting, appreciation by ‘like’-minded fans. Kim Kardashian’s Marriage clearly has its swiping, smartphone finger firmly on the cultural pulse, but by point of contrast it was a shock in the late 1990s to discover that Medbh McGuckian’s poetry was largely composed of assembled fragments of borrowed text, while no such scandal has followed Riviere’s provocations. McGuckian’s postmodern antics (like Paul Muldoon’s) posed a challenge to a literary culture still invested, to some extent, in ideas authorial authenticity and coherence – while also anticipating the conditions of hypertext in a frankly weird way. These conditions having arrived, however, it is less clear whether Kim Kardashian’s Marriage marks a critique of contemporary tastes or merely a reflection of them.
Disinformation, Frances Leviston’s second collection, also concerns itself with pervasive discourses which cloud what might be understood as ‘reality’, and how both identity and poetry may be complicit with ‘false data’. A recurrent motif here is the notion of untruth, revealed at what looked set to be a point of disclosure. In the title poem, a woman preparing for a birthday party ‘suddenly glimpses the screen of false data behind which she lives’. It concludes:
Out the kitchen window
the whirligig turns, metal spokes
merciless as diagrams
cutting the air
no clothing softens, tiny gems
icing the nodes where their lines intersect.
every extant leaf is fixed
with glitter where the glue’s dried clear.
The confusion here between the natural and the constructed, with its near-invisible glaze of glue, is picked up throughout several keenly-observed object poems in the book’s first section. In ‘A Token’, a cocktail umbrella is ‘a finch in the Dolomites/ glued to a tree’. ‘IUD’, with its self-explanatory interest in the artificial regulation of reproduction, gives way to ‘Iresine’, a flowering plant which appears both artificial (‘shocking pink and plasticky-looking’) and oddly sexual (a ‘flinching clitoral architecture’. Google Images confirms that this is accurate). Best of all, ‘Parma Violet’ celebrates, apparently effortlessly but within a tightly controlled alternate rhyme scheme, a old portrait ‘supposed’ to be of a distant cousin or great grandmother. In fact it is revealed as ‘a junk-shop likeness of a stranger’, whose invented identity and history makes her, in turn, no less kin.
In these poems, up-close prosaic description (‘cylinders of sausage’, ‘yellow cheese’) give way to disorientating effects. ‘The Bridge in the Mirror’ gets us somehow from a bathtub to political protesters, and a ‘mini-bar committee’ described as both ‘draft dodgers’ and ‘working class heroes’. In ‘Trimmings: Periptero’, image piles on image so rapidly and elliptically as to approach free-association: ‘Apparently/ peripatetic, it pops up/ wherever I go, glistening/ on my shoulder: gold epaulette,/abatross…’. There is a slightly self-conscious seriousness at work here and its message is we do not know what we think we know. Disorientation too might be the theme of ‘GPS’ – which is, of course, not about a GPS but a snow globe. This image of the sealed world, under its ‘smooth glass dome’, is picked up again in ‘Paperweight’ (‘the earth’s atmosphere in miniature’) and suggestive again of the way in which Disinformation perceives distorting cultural forces seamlessly encircling us all. The political and economic dimensions of this false consciousness are not far away. ‘Pyramid’, in which a saleswoman touts ‘a lifestyle just like mine’ sees construction work halted and the (housing) bubble burst in its witty final lines;
Through the cranes’
necks the cloud-burst rings,
across the clad-
stone hotel still missing
its penthouse, it punchline,
like the old cartoon
where a skeleton drinks champagne.
Yet if Leviston often looks so hard at things that they go out of focus, poems from the book’s final section confirm that it is, nevertheless, worth looking. Here note-booky poems such as ‘The Taiga’, ‘Caribou’ and ‘Kassandra’ scrupulously observe and document their environments and experiences. The obvious debt to Elizabeth Bishop (as well as, elsewhere, to the syllabics of Marianne Moore) is another welcome sign Disinformation’s ambition – and also indicates an alternative approach to that of Sam Rivierie in the difficult terrain of contemporary poetry. In a world where the distinction between reality and virtual reality has grown bewilderingly tenuous, it suggests an impulse to look beyond the bubbles of disinformation with which literature too may be complicit (a tech-enhanced obsession with the new and awesome, not to mention standards of evaluation driven by metrics) to the irreplaceably human in poetry. That is, for language which accurate, deep-rooted, slowly-grown: a little less ‘sunlight thru trees’, in fact, than actual sunset through actual trees.