In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads. This month, Farah considers the work of Hanif Abdurraqib and Marlin M. Jenkins.
Vintage Sadness x Capable Monsters
I am always thinking about the pop culture poem. Functionally, it begins with ekphrasis; poetry about a piece of art. In my limited formal poetic education, I think of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as the prototypical ekphrastic poem—I remember it as a poem of questions, constructed in a way that imagines both the figures on the urn and the urn itself alive, wondering, contemplating, existing. What is the life of art outside of its frame? Of course, ancient art is a “worthy” subject, and Keats a canonical poet to cite; I find myself resisting the simple assignment of ekphrasis to the poems that entice me so deeply because of their subject matters—this does not remove them from the tradition they obviously belong to, but it’s different, to me it’s more. I wrote about Lip Manegio and Sennah Yee’s collections in past columns, how their engagement with music and film respectively was both enchanting and instructive. So much of what I hold dear has been called frivolous, dismissed on lines of gender or genre or commercial success; as a result, I spend a lot of time trying to convince others to care about what I care about, to believe what I love is worthy for them to love, too. I love obsessively, compulsively—the soundbytes of my favorite things are endless, bouncing and colliding and interacting in severe and strange and beautiful ways each time I sit down to write. This month’s pairing is one of permission: these two chapbooks have granted me paths for considering the art I love, two more models of the pop culture poem that I hold dear—Vintage Sadness by Hanif Abdurraqib and Capable Monsters by Marlin M. Jenkins.
I saw Carly Rae Jepsen in concert for the first time on October 21st, 2022; it was the same day that her album The Loneliest Time was released, and also the birthday of my dear friend Jess, who I attended the concert with (these details already make it an important day). My main pre-show preparation was listening to Jepsen on the podcast Object of Sound, interviewed by Hanif Abdurraqib. I was delighted to listen to artists I admired in conversation with each other, to hear Jepsen’s process before seeing it in action. I followed the interview with Abdurraqib’s essay in They Can’t Kill Us Till They Kill Us, on attending a show on the EMOTION tour. He writes,
Some musicians don’t carry on much interaction with their audience because they have no interest in it. With Jepsen, you get the sense that she is just so excited to play these songs that nothing else matters. She is the person handing you a gift at Christmas, tearing into the wrapping paper before you can start to, with an eagerness that says, ‘I made this gift for you, for all of you. And I want you to have it, while there’s still time to enjoy it.’ It is hard for me to imagine anyone wanting an actual friend this close to them, asking them to feel everything.
That last line clarified my attachment to Carly Rae Jepsen, despite the other music in my rotation primarily being of the “sad-girl” variety—that quality of too much-ness, of I am making this so I have somewhere to put it otherwise I might explode, of will you hold it with me?
That day put me on a Hanif kick this year, reading and re-reading his books, spending more time with his writing than any other writer—besides Etel Adnan, maybe—excavating the depth of his influence on me, as a poet, essayist, editor. I was particularly excited to return to Vintage Sadness–a chapbook of music poems–now that I had a solid relationship with CRJ, knowing there was a poem about her to engage with anew. In the poem “CARLY RAE JEPSEN – E*MO*TION,” he writes:
In the interview, they asked you if you believe in love at first sight. You said, I think I have to. You didn’t say we are all one hard storm away from dissolving, vanishing into the frenzied dusk. But I get it. I know what it is to walk into the mouth of an unfamiliar morning and feel everything. I touch hands with a strange who gives me my change at the market, and I already know their history. I suppose this is survival. I will love those who no one else thinks to remember. This is all that is promised: there will be a decade you are born, and a decade that you will not make it out alive.
I treasure these moments of simplicity, rendered so tenderly and seriously to the tune of Jepsen’s response; the speaker is not engaging necessarily with the song, that asks us, what could we do with all this emotion, but the position that the songwriter takes in the face of her work—a duty to love immediately, fiercely, quickly. In my pragmatic killjoy moments, love at first sight is as irresponsible as it is frightening. To give that intense of an emotion away to a stranger ranges from disappointing to dangerous, but what if I allowed it? As the poem reminds us, there will be a time in which we are no longer able to love. There are two certainties and they are life and death—if you are reading the poem, you’ve already been given one. I love Carly Rae Jepsen for her giddy almost-ness, the possibilities she presents between those two certainties; Abdurraqib’s poem sobers that giddiness, deepens it; what are the stakes in this desire? What is it to live without it? I think of another canonical ekphrastic poem, Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that ends, “You must change your life.” How often the way we extend art leads to us wondering how we are spending our time, our life. I prefer Mary Oliver’s interpolation of this famous line, in “Swan,” as an offering rather than an order:
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
In the way that Oliver’s poetry renews my attention to the trees and fauna in my neighborhood, Abdurraqib’s renews me to the act of listening; pay attention to what happens while the song plays, again and again, and notice what has changed in you. Art can grant us a path, but we may not always be ready to accept it.
The prose poem is one of my favorite forms, both to read and to write. It feels like my default state, an inelegant block that communicates abundance. The prose poems in Vintage Sadness reflect the diverse potential of the form, presenting breathlessness alongside control, reverence alongside humor. This is present in “KELIS – MILKSHAKE,” expertly and beautifully, as well as in “OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN – LET’S GET PHYSICAL.” The latter begins, “& o! Olivia, I can tell by the way your neck is pulled into a tight arch & the soft parting of your lips on the cover of a record that has known more than its fair share of hands,” and moves into a series of lines that begin “& so when…I give thanks,” repeated; again, I am reminded of the way poems can wake me up, attune me to my surroundings; I know the cultural significance of “Let’s Get Physical,” can hear it as an earworm on command bright and spandexed, mourned Olivia Newton-John when she passed for everything Grease was to me, but I cannot say before the poem that the song inspired gratitude. The speaker continues,
& I know this is truly not what you mean, Olivia, when you summon the boys horizontal but let us not stand on ceremony we will all be laid horizontally when the world is done having its way with us & due to this, I remain thankful, for what a burden it must be, being asked to exist for an entire life of rising & again falling for another’s pleasure & o, Olivia, I wish to know the devil but not hell itself
And I understand, then, this honoring, this awareness and gratitude of having and continuing to move a body in all of the space it is able to inhabit. This poem is breathless, apt for a song put to life with sweaty men and gym equipment; I read it aloud while the song played, trying to stretch the ekphrasis the entire 3 minutes and 44 seconds, and honestly, truly listen for the first time—I suppose this was a song of body worship, then, all along.
Before I was anything I am now—woman, writer, whatever—I was a child, and I was a gamer. I learned to read formally, yes, with the usual tools—my mother guiding my finger on a sparsely populated page, giving me her fourth language as my first. But, I want to owe the closeness and speed with which I read to video games, sitting next to my brother while he sped through the dialogue in Ocarina of Time, wanting so terribly to know what was going on that I trained my eye to move as quickly as possible on the screen. There is something innate about my attachment to Nintendo games that nostalgia feels insufficient to describe; Zelda and Pokémon, in particular, were as present in my pre-memory formation years as the Arabic language and Midwestern winters. I struggled with the question of audience when I first started writing poems. What well was I pulling from to create, what were my intentions outside of the easy, or stereotypical? Marlin M. Jenkins’s work was clarifying; finally, I had Capable Monsters, and I knew how to fill in the blanks in what I wanted when I read, when I wrote–video games, too, could be rendered poetic.
Video games are comprehensive, immersive art; what I love so much about them is the fact of immersion growing from the interaction between listening, looking, and tactility. Where How Do I Look? used reference to build an argument, We’ve All Seen Helena utilized the speculative toward embodiment, and Vintage Sadness is vivid, emotionally rich ekphrasis—like video games themselves—Capable Monsters takes on all of these techniques of the pop-culture poem to build out its relationship to self and being othered, to existing and living, to playing. The book opens with the poem “Evolution;” I love its last stanza, so much, the collection’s argument in action right away–
I was a monster
I am a monster
but with different teeth
What is a monster, what does it mean to be monstrous? What traits are destabilized, rendered as obscene and worthy of terror? Often, in horror—a genre I am still training myself to be comfortable with—this is a central concern, but it is only in reading Capable Monsters that the monster aspect of Pokémon really registered. I think of the games’ consideration of human-Pokémon relationships, the not-quite-pet role Pokémon play–they are gods, but they are also community members. They can be our friends, even when they previously caused harm or inspired fear, this careful line of human-and-creature interaction; in the way that Abdurraqib’s poems make me listen to songs differently, Jenkins uncovers an innate appeal in a series I have loved all of my life, and brings these themes to the surface.
PokéDex Entry #1: Bulbasaur carries the note, “A strange seed was planted on its back at birth. The plant sprouts and grows with this animal.” The beautiful poem that follows muddles the line between Pokémon and person–
Research says trauma
from our parents may live
in our DNA. The bulbous
nucleus at the center
of each cell like a bulb,
ready, dangerous, the sprouting collage
in each of us. I let
my seed grow, sprout, open
everything given to me
at birth: awesome and visible,
my awful nourishment
I love the shape of this poem, the way it gently weaves down the page, like a creeping vine with snags in its descent, and the questions it asks—what weight does the little dinosaur carry on its back? When we are drawn to this creature, what resonances in our own bodies are replicated? Bulbasaur is my favorite starter from the first generation. I like how choosing it makes the beginning of the game easier, to be honest, and how the blooming flower, as it evolves, is such a recognizable sense of progress; can we embody what appeals to us? I am drawn to familiarity even in a fantasy world, where anything can be true. Jenkins’s poem pinpoints the potential in this image, further past the ease of gameplay.
The poem “PokéDex Entry #150: Mewtwo” is essentially a persona poem; the line borrowed from the PokéDex reads, “Mewtwo is a Pokémon that was created by genetic manipulation. However, even though the scientific power of humans created this Pokémon’s body, they failed to endow Mewtwo with a compassionate heart.” Canon is a loose thing in the expanded Pokémon world—which Jenkins acknowledges in their endnotes—but this assertion is surprising in the larger context of what the games seem to attempt in the relationship between player and their Pokémon. Here, perhaps we have a Pokémon with more sentience than most, as brought upon by humans, and made more monstrous because of it. The poem reads,
Do not mistake this stillness
for death; do not come into this cave
unless you have come to plead,
to pray–here where night
is meaningless as atonement,
as functionless tail. Here an intellect
and armor; here a graveyard
of whatever has challenged me.
Which version of the story
did you learn?
Before we capture (or just get its health to zero and bounce, but why would you do that?) Mewtwo after facing off in the Cerulean cave, we do not have access to the PokéDex entry. But we do have access to journals that depict the creation of Mewtwo, to which this poem refers in the last line quoted. I love the drama of this speech, the pseudo villain-monologue energy, and the dimensions it adds to the gameplay. Like Keats’s Grecian urn that speaks, the poet asks, what if the creatures we are meant to capture could voice that interaction? Can they inspire guilt in the player, of the narratives we have taken as true? It is a commentary on monstrosity, of who decides what it is and isn’t, what is made– “This story isn’t new–/men created this and then, the options:/submit or be outcast.” To perform against the norm, to be othered, to be made into a monster because of it. The outcast Pokémon, is, too, arguably the most powerful—and isn’t that energizing, for those, too, who have been made monsters?
The intent for this column was to put two collections in conversation, meant to be read back-to-back in an evening. Chapbooks are a great option for this, since they are short, but these two in particular make me excited about the after; what will you listen to after spending time with those songs? What will you reach for after reading the last PokéDex entry? Isn’t there so, so much time?
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