Reviewed by Mark Mendoza
With a new book (What Does It Matter) appearing on Barque Press and a job at the joystick of UbuWeb, “The Kim Stefans sneak attack is [indeed] now in progress”. The Window Ordered To Be Made marks his most consistent and 'accessible' book to date. Though visually less varied than previous outings, there is a remarkable range of poetic modes covered in its beautiful binding, from the surprising masculine personism corrupted in 'Oliphant And Castle' to the communistic sentence-strokes of 'Attitudes And Non-Attitudes In May' à la Jeff Derksen. With hardworking titles such as 'Prelude To The End Of This Book', a well-tuned use of slashes and parentheses, and a wry lisp of lingo vispo invention and ambient ante-vellum throughout, the reader is made to feel the arbitrary restraints and loopy dupes surrounding a bit-stream that eschews the self-help service industry of main street poetics. For those who like their poetry on the wrong side of the fast conceptual art track, Stefans scores the poetic for its potential (anti)literariness, achieving a startling unidirectional détournment to added features in the absence of a known target. The result is refreshingly rhetorical at times (e.g., not afraid to superimpose hypotactic prolixity over an otherwise paratactic pick-n-mix), especially as arguments made in his other publications come to fresh forms and intractably matter.
While poets like Michael Palmer and J.H. Prynne might move us with calculated deferrals of semantic trade routes, Stefans--in this aspect rather like Tom Raworth--impresses us with the wisdom of a potluck presentation and the witty speeds he can wield when responding to an overcoded senseless sensory world. To mix metaphors, reading The Window becomes an act of making fun of hypercognitive pretensions. A veritable connect-for wizard, Stefans' poems shove their way past the plague of 'quiet, understated' high street poems, “where lightness is fitness”, by asserting their status as undecodable inscription, the surprise “surprise” wrenched from a clockwork deconstruction. In a comparable manner to Charles Bernstein, his greatest momentum follows the wandering of a well-aimed pun, where the time of laughter and carnival permits neither slipstick nor peel-back to reveal fancy. With a style that is both ironic and funny ha-ha, the madcap types, gifting us with a wealth of superb one-liners and thorny phrases: “We make high ceilings in central post offices in an effort to supplant old religions”, “Here is the colon: / and here, it's Happy Meal”, “the Gabriela Sabatini Intelligence Project. . .”, and “The Amish getting squeamish”.
Using the pharmaka-dart of satire to undermine the Hypocritical Oath, the poet revels in revealing the assonance of the grotesque. When this strategy trips up on its own premises, the result is little more than an anticipation of 'nothing happening' or observational comedy that curbs the reader's enthusiasm. For example, “Everyone thought you were beautiful / Now, to deliver the urban landscapes / Seems only normal: upsets, lapses, hosannas, bananas. . .” seems less inventive than other instances where the stakes seem greater. Similarly, “To be free / and ice skating!” might be more effective the closer you live to Central Park but otherwise risks sounding a cheap shot. And yet, in contrast to many other younger U.S. poets, at least the labour of the line-break here is recognised (though better so in “You consider Nicaragua / the imagination”), so as to liberate disaffection with the end of the poem. Given the risks each poem takes, the tender steaks they refuse, it is no wonder there is further to fall. Stefans 'goes there' equipped with the reconstituted grit and “twin flagpoles” ('I Had that Idea') that every good PomoRomo deserves.
In order to confine the 'impure' element or glitch and neutralise it after the event by non-dialectic com-position, lines separate into discrete events promising further trouble in the production of tickler pro-files. Sparing us the production of “remarks of unintended kindness out of undernourished witticism” permits the poems to sublate the uncounted “cavities of the Future” with decisive autopoesis (the window ordered to be made rather than the “Stained- / glass windows” or Microsoft icons that “keep the descendents / unhappy, but productive in masses”).
The word's out: cut your mouth. Bargain in the park.
I should just rip up those poems and create prose narratives
out of them, like I'm doing
now. It's now coming back,
with conversation about social leperdom
in 1952. Lucked / Bird / Perspective.
The cut of such lines produce randomised stop-gaps and strategic delays in conventional discourse, coaxing the striking from the open universe between full-stop and capital. Much of the poetry here relies on an interplay of the breakdown and recovery of the forms of direct statement or a presentation of the rhetorical blank at the heart of said discourse (e.g., “Putting a square patch on your shoulder to kill an instinct”). The beginning of 'General Statements Concerning The Rubberyard' is a good indication of verse that is less reliant on collage than accidental or nude mechanical arrangements of personal and public file contents:
General blankets descend on the rubberyard.
This pistol holistic
piles in the whinny
of the rubberyard. The dorsal trope
adjusts the rubberyard, until
Germinal sweetness in the rubberyard.
Such repetitions seem to mimic the circuitous route of the academic approach to concept-forming and the spidery anaphora the poet favours in his works so far--represented here by the prose-block and paean to soft labour 'We Make'--likewise pleases by deprivation (like the instructive uselessness of Kevin Davies' memorable 'Anselm's fisting Cheetos' in Comp). There is a tactics of Duchampian counters and faked resets in The Windows, where “Of an 'ooh' and an 'ohh' we know nothing / but numbers.” Another look through these zeroes and one can see a serious criticism being made of logicians like Rudolf Carnap who have presumed that thought can be reduced to language, leaving feelings to lag behind as blind discharges of self-expressive demonstrations. This may also explain why Stefans enjoys using contrariness as a basis for reflections that do not regress into reflex navel-hazing:
These are like
Dropping off the guys off somewhere
(Bakunin's temp hair is limp)
The anonymity of the “I” on the web page
A careful economy is at work here, with the end-position of “like” and the suggestion of failed revolt (Bakunin's strategy of “the free association of all productive associations”) leading logically to a condensed statement regarding the current maturation of the ego in the electronic job market. The plural tone creates a congruence as opposed to coherence, sampling the loony tunes of everyday defeats, “with this kind of information / available to panic”: “the Chinese years symbolized by animals/ Worthy of reading / If only for the erotica category” (a sly nod to Said Orientalism and the new meanings my generation attaches to Asian-fetish). Appropriately, in the facing poem entitled 'Midas Ears' we have a snotty “punk” utterance, “divided between the rout of Pollocks / and What's Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers.” Rather than accept the blumen-speech of abstract modernism, Stefans uses his Smart Word Paint to spray these flowers through a variety of tools until they resemble Saying, e.g., the “spilled cosmos made patterns / of roses in the pool.” ('Howlings in Favor of Tulsa') “[S]hut off all / auto-correct features” ('I Had That Idea'); in a poetics that allows the 'programme' to demonstrate its monstrosities, don't expect these indeterminable acts to come up rosy: the capitalism of the history-machine is not the history of the capitalist machine. . . “Given any time, and the web of incestuous comeuppance / generates its angular rose. / Vocal / Caverns.” Sources emerge as pointers and flash-backs of alienable experience that dislike their coding in snap images or the lyrical tag hung around the emotional tie-rack. The dialectic of singular negative production and the labouring of burrowing meet in a cautious reframing of expression allowing cross-pollination from urgent masks.
The Windows proffers the shock of reprogramming when two provisionally isolated and hollow grams are juxtaposed and misled to an embrace worth its weight in icing sugar. For instance, many of the finest passages rupture the involving orders of ordinary syntax with deictic prescience (“No symbols are involved. . .”), performing the arbitrary or pro-grammatic organization of alphabetic lists ('Gatt's Freedom') and regimental linguistic fatigues:
Move to Brazil. Something like Pink Floyd
atmospherics; something decades-past
achieves new relevance. Peek-a-boo eyes
like steady-cams in the toilet swilling darkness: lost.
At the end of the game they alphabetize the names.
Count yours in it.
Too / Tall / Harry.
One / With / Sun / Stick.
Instrumental break will not convert them;
she races through the galleries, gender-crippled.
it's called editing.
Read slowly, these lines show something of the alienating aspects of the culture-jamming and “editing” the poet must undergo in order to achieve a form sufficiently open for incisive political put-downs and a decentred wellness. Another fine example, “Self-hatred: keeping your arms spread out”, appears in a short poem entitled 'Corso', after the 'Beat poet' who famously predicted the sad course of a socialist writer's 'post-spectacle' stance when he wrote “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is power.” There are no more books of pleasure; even “Raoul Vaneigem // ended up on one of those Iraqi playing cards.”
The model of the contemporary poet downloaded by Stefans antagonises the distinction of s(t)imulation, using his relibidinized mouse and customised Explorer to delineate the deprivations of the reality principle in poetic pleasures. However, the principle behind such pleasures is free to speculate on further speech-acts in order to maximize satisfaction, sparing the reader the trauma of actually living out the content of their drives and offering instead an embedded interface, in-yer-face. Even the ungoogleable cannot keep their heads above the deluge of junk information, rehashable trivia, and the snooze that stays news. “Another conveyed his position on recent developments / in Van Halen: he was an 'anti-Samite.' / I want to be immune again” ('The Journalist'--the last line of the stanza quoted here rhyming crudely to my ears with the hero's lament at the end of Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries). That is, we are all users, “tiny zeroes in the astro-turf. . .” ('Provincial Hack'), “we make codas out of what we were once highly anticipated, fresh beginnings.”
From the misgivings the poet has found expressed in the “politics out of unsorted data” comes a persuasive disarticulation of reconfiguration before it can become orthodox reconnaissance. The complex lets its context slip, exposing the shadowlife of line feeds; where forced digits are as unreal as Pop's satellite dishes. Thank the Stefans module, for a book that is--in the (r)ear of advertising idioms--critical of its own 'flashy' uses and avoids baiting readers into passionless beholding. Rather, readers are asked to consider themselves as subject-positions that do not belong to the web, but are a limit of the web, entangled in a composite of hyperlinks.