THEY DON’T KILL YOU BECAUSE THEY’RE HUNGRY, THEY KILL YOU BECAUSE THEY’RE FULL. By Mark Bibbins (Cooper Canyon Press, 2014)

 

The metabolism of public language is perhaps poetry’s most important function in the modern era: Eliot digesting an anomic post-war chatter; Ginsberg mouthing the new and beat diction of a nuclear America; The Language poets breaking down banal industrialized syntax altogether. In his third collection, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full  (the title itself is already a mouthful) Mark Bibbins cultivates what Felix Guattari in his brief but brilliant Three Ecologies calls “dissensus,” intaking the smooth, commercial discourse of our present age and spitting out its bent and broken parts. “Haliburton sounds like a posh couch / or a horse with thicker-than-average legs / who wins all the races but is revealed / to be a robot,” he writes acidly in “Historical Action Figures.” Or (from “Storyline”): “The way things are going, children / will have to upgrade to more amusing.” It is easy at first to mistake Bibbins’ work for a particularly depressive strain of New York School, but the similarities—a playful camp style, heady wit, and a wry cosmopolitan posture—are primarily cosmetic. While a poem like “The Perspective Fairy” may initially call a figure like O’Hara to mind, the aesthetic quickly evolves (or devolves, as the case may be) into something much more menacing. Over and over again in this collection, poems start on a pun or a clever observation and then alight in an altogether scarier terrain. The process is made literal in the brilliant “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine” series, a six-piece tour de force that comprises the heart (or the stomach) of the book and includes terrifying lines like: 

 

First I was fellating an African despot

for his diamonds, next I was paying

 

a hooker to give me back 

my teeth. 

 

~

 

Sometimes the little lady and I prefer

 

to call my pecker The Wishbone.

I don’t know who’s luckier

 

but all my wishes

work for me.

~

 

[…] Jesus was all for share-

holder value, maximum

returns, and when he comes back

 

I’ll chain him to a machine that turns 

water into oil.

 

Like the obese of our time, who, despite their loads of calories, are clinically malnourished, the speakers in Bibbins’ poems are both stuffed and also starving. The language and diction of the mediated public world is literally shoved down the speakers’ throats and therefore bound to come back up again—producing what one might term a bulimic aesthetic. We see this same reflex in the sometimes seething pastiche poems of Bibbins’ contemporaries—Anselm Berrigan, Cathy Park Hong, Judith Goldman, to name just a few. What sets Bibbins apart from these others is a native formalism that expresses itself in measured, contrastively meditative lines. Despite the frenzy of the world that he observes, Bibbins remains calm (and carries on). Though the cynicism and bite of these poems can wear a reader down, Bibbins eschews drama and avoids the performance of an overwrought despair. “—the night my friend stopped cracking/ jokes/ we understood he would die—,” he writes in the poem “Terminal.” What is most impressive about this work, finally, is its ability to digest intellectually (and literally with humor) the junky, processed language of our time and keep coming back for more.

 

—Katy Lederer

 
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