Safe Word by Donald Dunbar (Gramma Press, 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
I fell in love with a certain part of my forehead
and thought about it all the time;
glaciers fucking just off-screen.
I glued memories to the clouds
There come these moments of refusal and fusion in poetry. The landscape of the American grain that’s been shucked, shuffled, torn into place. Packaged and processed, left to sit, collecting digital dust, and then the greatness comes along, and we have the rot, the decay, and the bountiful blossom of the reorganization of our longing. A paradigm for the wet, new, and ferocious. When poetry becomes of two-backs, the spectral scythe of the re-engrained, the revisited, the revalued. Nostalgia quirk. Freshening.
Donald Dunbar, in his new collection and instant cyborg classic Safe Word, tills the soil of our blusteringly decrepit society well. Organs are milked, tendons are aroused, cords are uncoiled, and through the magic of a poetry of startling we see newly alit beauty in spite of as well of despite all the blanketing, muffling, strangling noise of the abscess of current cultures. This is poetry spritely and damned at the same time, a poetry of the noxious and the vomitus, the peculiarly pestilence-inducing awe of the spectacle. This poetry sleeps soundly as time, as Time, and in a spaciousness quantifiably infinite.
If you imagine a screen sob right no prayer can get through,
Or staring through the screen to the sun behind it, you can see
How seeing your lover in love with someone else too is similar
To the joy of watching her eat ginger candy, rice crackers, or roe.
From “Bronze Glitches”
I only visited Tinder and only swiped 50% of my total daily allowance once during my full-on read through of Dunbar’s Safe Word, rather transfixed on the undying references, the alluringly mellow appropriation, appreciation, and indoctrination of the contemporary image. Images abound in Dunbar's writing like cached excess: viscerally apprehended, they keep my sockless feet in tow through negligence, the wrangling of the language wrapped around my body like a whip, or a smart watch. Should poetry be so dominant? Should it steer us away from our mighty reliance upon the Media and the Comfort? Who really is the damned in poems like these? Who really is the sprite? Are we all just burdened by fixation, addiction, and relief? Aren’t we all floating down the same cables of fiber and bitrate, the same G worth of connection? And does it end, in value, or at least the proposition of value, through art like the Dunbarian appeal?
A moment of refraction: in a degree of humility, seriousness, and curiosity, I set down the book, a couple of sections of the 12 between the safety of this book’s covers, and wrote: “Donald Dunbar is one of the most inventive poets living in the United States today, and within that inventiveness is the certainty of, to use an image he uses, pixels.” Of course, I know Donald, and admit a degree of filial spirit bias, the extraordinarily uncanny bias and the resonance, more importantly, the resonance of his work operating via a cultural coordination, almost vacuous in quality, to what I’m used to on my daily, mind-buzzed existence. This is the type of synchronicity described in cyber punk novels of the early 1990s. In other words, his work despite all of the jokes and the profundity and the hushing is still demonstrative of work and embodiment of a truly multiformal, curse-bless ringing. It is a poetry that seems to ring with a truth like the best of work, labor, rings true—hammer to nail, as is so stated in poems like “Ekphrasis Potpourri” where the lines go:
It’s so precise it’s your throat getting crushed
It’s as stupid as physics, as ethical as a hammer
These poems are boundaries and they are emotional. The reminiscence of stress permeates line to line, line to line, in between the depressant references, in between the stimulant references, in between the elongating rush of a memory of blood from an acid-induced platform. They are the defrag for the most sober of readings. I am thoughtful about how my mind felt, thinking of anxiety and its burgeoning inverse. If anxiety has two faces, or is two-sided, or contains any manner of duality, it exists because we exist the same way, a loop, snake eating snake, rabbit entering rabbit (to use an image Dunbar uses). Anxiety's plurality is a sequence of complementary understanding, balance, the tool holding us into position as we push it along. It is the simile, this feeling of anguish and uncontrolled pressure, valves opening to release in sputter. What we do with it, language that sits between the poems, between the subtle flux of the line, as what we do with emotion, the response, the graceful touch, the flipping of a piece of paper in a book. There is the splash of color: rosy lit and limelight. Shell as tomb and sarcophagus, prison and confinement, adornment, astonishment. Book of poetry. The work rips open the reality of spectra, holds the reader through it. There is tenderness. There is godliness. There is dirtiness, and we all get to play.
Play is part of the world we can always live in, and it is a world, I think, that Donald promotes. It is a world of experimentation, but one of foraging, risk-taking, deeply dived. We don’t know how strongly the act of play brings us closer to reality, brings us closer to truth, to reaching the height of progress through a loss and a gain doubly. And it is through it, through process, through orientation toward the unearthing of countering the core concept of the book (boredom) that we find the ultimate answer: play, play, play. Experiment. Find light. Find the light, light, light that Donald speaks of to us. It seems so simple, but it is not.
This world, our world, the world we all live in, today, is far too intricate, too aged and evolving of itself in such rapid fluidity, to be simple, and thus poetry. And thus, pieces like “Organic Shrapnel,” the long prose output penultimate within Safe Word, serve as code, codification, and coda to a world of lavish and excessive and that which is unnecessarily necessary cum exceptionality; pieces like “Organic Shrapnel,” which lead us via fireplace phone app to justice. Justice coming in the form of connecting the dots to push the endless, barely touchable world forward, finding through experimentation the linear progression of idea to idea, image to image, us to us, the world to itself, repositioned, through an actual action of shift. It is overwhelming. It is a sigh. The poems gargle, jarbled, their own identity, and it helps, like a pill, or a click.
[. . .] All I need is large numbers,
vaccinations, and another there. There, there. A fuck-fest
in VeggieTales costumes, organic genitals. Poem plugging a
urethra. All that I need is everything from sonnets stitched into
the play’s text to play-rape overdubbed with field recordings
of insects molting, mornings in clawed bathtubs, missiles
with pouty lipstick, the missionary word for strict pleasure.
from “Cherry Coma”
I move from the effects to the world beyond the effects. I think beyond the book, think about the Poet. Think about the role. Who is it that identifies with the extensible quantity of essence and everything that Dunbar extracts and contracts through the poet’s voice-gaze? Is it the privileged? Is it everyone? Are we all more than we’re willing to admit? Horizontalism? Dare I say equity? These questions of course stand coarsely but require no immediate answer, make me challenged, unsettled, aroused to find the action and move with it, feel comfortable and allowable to see and to pursue and to find the acclimation toward the antithesis and complementary other side of anxiety, burden, the boast. I wonder if we're all so lucky. If we're all so welcome. I wonder at what point to these pages feel brittle. Who would swipe 100%? Who would need more to buffer? Counter fear or maintain uncertainty? Is there conversation in this book? What lag and what connectivity?
It becomes fractal, like everything. For some of us, this is a poetry of coping. For others, it is a poetry of orgasmic relief. And for others still, it is the bridge to the land of the core of the absurd that we sit with, bathe in, smear ourselves sub- and unconsciously on a braying, paisley-lit basis. Perhaps a combination of all, perhaps a nether-region containing none. As I sit here, ponder, stare off into the wallpaper distance through warm shades of screen filters, I think about the gentle ride to understanding of a poetry that is also an ambiguous poetry, a blurry process, of a poetry that lets us sigh with relief, laughter, sex, and mouse (book?) gestures. Perhaps there is all duality here, all similes to be uncovered and shaken, stirred, or kept pure and set aflame. And perhaps that is all there needs to be.
What makes money make money?
Like an applause sign flashing the whole show,
a single red rose, like a plastic bag, digests
itself into a fist.
With Donald’s work, we are bested by its language of openness and its degree of our anti-oppressed exposure to surges of information. We becomes the person who will find themselves reading this book, for whatever reason. I find this work, these writ, remarkable indeed through the process of making a remarking, a return to touch, a gentle mode of reassurance that we can look upon and upon again. And that must make Safe Word the coded language of nothing short of love found before those fractals become understood as fetishes strewn about the forever space of the virtual plains we slug and slog through.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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