Vile Lilt by Nada Gordon (A Review)


Roof Books 

114 pgs. | $14.95

The Femmage Manifesto

As an artist’s statement, the visual artist Miriam Schapiro once set forth the idea of femmage. She defined her movement to include some of the following restrictions:

1.It is work by a woman.
2. The activities of saving and collecting are important ingredients.
3. Scraps are essential to the process and are recycled in the work.
13. The work contains photographs or other printed matter.
14. The work has a functional as well as an aesthetic life.

Femmage is also used in the marketing materials that come with Nada Gordon’s Vile Lilt to describe Gordon’s most recent poetic effort. What does it mean to apply the terms of femmage to literature in general, and to consider Vile Lilt, in particular, a demonstration of it?

Forget, for a moment, Schapiro’s definition of femmage. Consider the world naively, etymologically. The suffix –age is a French convention with no literal meaning of its own. Rather, it is added to verbs to form their respective noun forms, as is the case with cognates like assemblage. Following traditional grammatical patterns, Gordon is therefore writing about femming. For Gordon, who gained notoriety as a member of the Flarf Collective, such apparent nonsense is to be expected. Yet, once one delves more deeply into Vile Lilt, it swiftly becomes apparent that this book is Gordon femming.

Femmage, of course, has to do with women’s writing. To contextualize femmage temporally, it is much closer to the gurlesque than l’ecriture feminine. The Gurlesque, a term that gained prominence via an anthology of the same title edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg. As Glenum wrote in Jacket Magazine, “The Gurlesque describes an emerging field of female artists now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s who, taking a page from the burlesque, perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.” Since camp is at the heart of the gurlesque and is not a device often deployed by Gordon, her work is not fully situated with those poets. Further, that campiness often takes the form of the ultra-girly, Lisa-Frank-notebook-and-sparkly-shoelaces world. Even when Gordon does borrow tropes from that universe, such as the unicorns she references in her earlier “Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas.”

But Gordon’s work is certainly not the more sincere work of thewriters of l’ectriture feminine, either, and Gordon’s work, though itdoes explore sexual difference , does not seek gender commentary asits primary objective.

So then we are left, circuitously, with femmage, with Gordon only at home in a not-really-existant-school-she-created. What are the properties of femmage one would include, were one to create a Femmage Manifesto for poetry? For starters, Gordon gives us reading notes in “Poetry Is Junk,” a poem written for a feminist project:

Look, this a zither of affect: its octaves are multiplied
by the vocabulary of others, and if I feel it more intensely
then so will you. The beautiful girl inserts the dildo
and turns it around, shivering in pleasure. It gets covered
with her secretions: primal cream. The writing is the dildo
and the girl, and the secretions. It’s like learning other languages.

And like any language, there are rules to be successful at femmage. One guideline that Gordon brings to the forefront of her own work is to “have outfluences, not influences.” As she writes in her blog, “Because I so often inhabit others’ poems from the inside, and then set about transforming them, it may be more accurate to talk about my outfluences.  I have rewritten poems by many poets: traces of the originals streak the poems themselves.  I like to think of beings and also artworks as porous, leaking into each other in all sorts of ways. In Vile Lilt, for example, I rewrite poems/texts by Marianne Moore, Dana Ward, Havelock Ellis, William Blake, George Herbert, Brian Ang, John Keats, and The Internet. I also rearrange the dictionary a bit.” But do not limit conversations with other poets to rewriting. Make obvious references (“No ideas—balloons and butter in things”), Gordon writes in “A Shunt of a Song). “Steal with love and out of sympathy,” as Gordon advises in “Poetry is Junk.” Refer to friends quoting Mina Loy in online status updates. Poetry is not a monologue.

Nor is poetry a silver goblet from which one can only drink precious wine. At times, Gordon’s riffing on other poets (like her “Often I am permitted to return to a diorama”) serves to dismantle their authority and resituate them within the voice of femmage. The most remarkable example of this comes from a passage of Robert Frost stuttering which Gordon uses as the epigraph: “But the, that’s, uh, the, to the,” the epigraph concludes, leaving readers wondering if they’ve just read a kind of language poetry or simply more evidence even “the Greats” are human too.

Gordon is slippery in her references, making sound declarative statements about them on one occasion, then dismantles the power of such loaded words in other lines. “Hand Pulled Noodles” offers several examples of this. “In my Orientalism, neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability,” she writes, returning to the ultra-conceptual discussed here momentarily.

Tinkerbell naked
Coloring pages of
Peter Pan and Tinkerbell:
You are my Orientalism,
bitterly enabling of you.
Sufficiently superficial
my Orientalism. Sufism.
Poofism. Proustism.
What would Säid’ve said?
Meaning or sound?

Gordon writes in the same poem, sharing a textual space with reified concepts, silly wordplay, and an aesthetic free-for-all likely honed during her Flarf years. “Since all words are already concepts, I’m giddy with concepts. / Let’s call instead, with Lippard and Chandler, this thing we do ultra-conceptual. That sounds better, like dish soap”, (“Poetry is Junk”) Gordon writes. Some of Gordon’s concepts are indeed still Flarfist ones more in keeping with her earlier work.

As she writes on her blog, “I think I like “Droop Loss Slave” and “Wildcats Can Be Revealed (Vile Lilt)” the best. In these poems the vocabulary is quite various and rich, as are the sources. Many of the words are woven in from online lists of obscure words for spammers hoping to evade detection. I use the words in service of cadence and emotion. At a remove from simple “expression,” they amplify the aesthetic power and complexity of the lines in the way that a wisteria vine climbing over the face of a building makes one more fervently desire to enter or inhabit it. Such baroquerie, to me, redounds upon the quality of the emotion as well, making of the poem a fearfully poignant code.” Further, her book features the use of emoticons, double exclamation points, and other markers of Internet diction that also serve as markers of contemporary Flarf.

Flarf is not Femmage, but what is Femmage in poetry remains hazy with Gordon steering our boat. In her case, it is a leaky and ostentatious pirate ship where we climb aboard never knowing where the treasure will be found.

Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer based in Madison, WI.

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