Nada Gordon’s Folly may be the most essential theoretical statement of what the flarf aesthetic might be said to be about and include. Given the flarf groups’ resistance to the creation of conventional manifestos to explain their intentions, this point may seem paradoxical, but paradoxes present no problems for the author of Folly. With all its whimsy, winking, flirtatiousness, porousness and irreverence, there’s finally a very steely center to this book, even while that center is in many ways the opposite of what we usually mean when we say a book has a center.
The concept of folly, and the way that concept plays out through the poems and dialogues and poetic plays collected in the book, reveal that Gordon has a convincing theory of folly that links the often disparate strands of the marvelously energetic writing she has gathered here. If her book is not a comprehensive elucidation of all the possible elements of that theory, that’s mainly because folly laughs at the idea of comprehensiveness (or maybe just giggles) while at the same time implying how much strength there is in its own breadth. Gordon’s earlier books of poetry had an often scattershot yet compelling structure and energy, as if always threatening to fly apart. While Folly has a similar feel, everything here seems more thoroughly grounded in a sense of why it all belongs together.
As a word, folly was originally named folly by reason, of course. Everything that reason considers not to be itself it considers folly, whether it considers the folly in question disastrous or merely silly. The idea of folly contains not just playfulness, artifice, the slothful, the ornamental, the excessive and the wasteful; that is, not just the daily behavior that always sober seriousness rejects as extreme. It also includes marginalized cultures, histories, and genders, as well as everything that reason, and the various types of reason that pass as reason, tell us can’t or shouldn’t be said. When no longer seen from behind the veil of reason, folly turns out to be no fool, to know that in the moral realm reason is not often reasonable, that much of the time what gets called wisdom is not. Folly wants payback for the fact that reason named it. A payback party perhaps, but payback nonetheless.
In another essay I once called the concept of the avant garde, at its most progressive and least static, “the rejection of Western cultural rejection,” not an affirmation, although sometimes it contained an affirmation, but a double negative. A refusal of the historically acceptable standards for Western Art in a way that also refuses to accept the desire of Western Culture to determine who can be part of it and in what way, who is outside of it and not able to reap its benefits, who must work in poverty so that others can prosper, who must die so that others are allowed to live the way they want. But also a refusal to create even a new, rewritten centrality, a new canon, that would return us once more to the old game of folly and reason. It’s remarkable that Gordon’s Folly manages to refuse to rewrite centrality while at the same time highlighting a concept of what that centrality might be.
The poems in Folly often depend on incongruity, placing together things that, according to reason, ought not to be placed together. The book is full of unexpected juxtapositions, whether between vulgarity, satire, and lyric gracefulness, or between images of older and more contemporary outcasts, shapeshifters, jokesters and freaks. Vocabularies, histories, mythologies and much else are shaken loose from their expected contexts and interact with each other. Charles Bernstein’s back cover comment is exactly right, I think, when he says that Gordon is “on her way to inventing a new type of poetry in which Pre-Raphaelitism meets Zeppo Marx while doing the hokey pokey in a fox trot beat.” Right also in saying “on her way,” since the goal is not to determine who can or can’t belong but to fight back against, and laugh at, all those moments that readers might want to say “you can’t get away with that.” The result is not a coalition but a carnival.
Essential to Gordon is playing around with, and unraveling, the often assumed dichotomy of feminine and feminist.
Lovetta: You look real cute in that ninja getup.
Brianna: And may I say you look delicious in that sari, you wicked thing. The original exposed midriff, how very charming indeed.
Sheptanya: This makes me look like Queen Victoria on a bad day.
Lovetta: Are you kidding? You look totally shaggable in that. I mean, you look cute in that “OMG, that girl has got some BALLS to wear that in public” way. At least you didn’t have to wear elf ears.
Brianna: Does this make me look fickle? Or versatile?
Lovetta. Versatile. Does this make me look two-dimensional? Or careerist?
Sheptanya: Careerist. Does this make me look gelatinous? Or like slightly less of an awesomely intimidating authority figure?
Brianna: I think it makes you look “published.” (38)
There’s play here with the implications of clothing, obviously, and the social roles regarding sex, gender and power always implied by it. Certainly Gordon takes the supposed feminine/feminist dichotomy far beyond early evocations of the feminine as a set of traits revealing powerlessness and the idea of feminism as an assertion of group or individual action (whether separatist or assimilationist) designed to take power back. She goes past the step beyond as well, the idea that the feminine is or can be powerful, a discourse that can not only change in and of itself but in relation to others, spinning magic circles around conventional masculinist notions of power. Instead there’s a flamboyant game playing in Folly that suggests identity and relation and power and sexuality are found in how all of us play together, play even with the idea of playing. The characters note how quickly their relation to the game can change and how easily such changes can be signaled. In Folly the feminine and the feminist turn out to be interconnected roles that players might take up, both for the revel and the sheer pleasure of play as well as for the power at stake. Not so much play as a way to obtain change, but change as a means to more enjoyable playing.
That said, Gordon consistently signals her awareness of the sociopolitical conditions that not only limit choices for behavior but make play seem at times an impossibility, as in “Viagric Importunings:
God: For fuck’s sake, I despair at some humans, I really do. Gods, I am so angry. I wish there was something to be done, I feel so impotent.
A star-shaped pillowcase: I am able to convey so many things through nonverbal communication, why is it that I feel so impotent using tools that others use with ease?
Fat Thing: And the worse part is that I cannot do anything about it—except go on being a part of it. My god, why do I feel so impotent? When will we ever learn?
Rusty helmet: I’m scared. Everything has changed. I feel so impotent. There’s nothing that can be done but to sit here and watch.
Earthquake: I feel so impotent when I can’t think of the right words to describe the sound of an individual band or maintain an erection. (59)
It’s not surprising that feelings of helplessness are common in the face of the foibles of human behavior, the power of contemporary social institutions and the conditions of complicity that come with being inevitably part of them or at least subject to them, as well as the frantic pace of change that often overwhelms individual and even group response. Still, what this particular short sketch also shows is that the feeling of impotence has itself become a ritual, a social game people play in relation to each other. It’s a ritual that’s both ludicrous and paradoxically energizing. In “Viagric Importunings,” while reflections on impotence might in private doom us, the ritual of displaying it to each other comes with a sexual energy that must certainly be the ground of getting beyond it. Not that we will necessarily get beyond it in this or any other given instance, just that if we could, that would be where the impetus would have to come from. No resistance without sexuality.
In fact, Gordon also wants to make clear that the ultimate human folly is human belief in our own centrality in the universe, as in the opening to the poem “Nothing Is Untitled”:
Dear universal hominid ancestor:
Do you think you’re special because you have
A DIRECT LINE
TO THE SONG OF THE UNIVERSE? (91)
It’s not easy to mix an often harsh critique of contemporary social conditions and human limitations with a good time party, yet Gordon manages to do just that, as in the two poems entitled “Why America Sucks” and elsewhere as well. Much of the book’s satire comes with a lush, sensual prose that certainly recalls 19th century verboseness without ever seeming actually retro. The book is a carnival of real and imaginary animals, human beings in strange, voluptuous costumes, sadness and cheerfulness and a thrilling celebration of the perverse in character, sexuality, and language.
The dialogues and poetic plays present characters expressing a wide range of emotions: depression, ecstasy, embarrassment, loathing, longing, horniness and many others. But Gordon doesn’t use the poems in Folly for direct confession or blatant exploration of her own subjective state, at least beyond the fact that the totality of the statements in the book might be said to map a whole arrangement of thought and feeling that’s uniquely her own. These are impersonal poems full of personal revelations, and also the opposite: personal poems displayed through the impersonal methods of characters and role players who serve as objective correlatives of emotions and social conditions. The poems refuse conventional notions both of subjectivity and objectivity, revealing both to be a play of physical surfaces while never turning the point into a purely theoretical suggestion. In fact another remarkable thing about Folly is that the poems never seem controlled by the idea of folly or written with the advance intention of proving a point. Instead they seem to revolve around and return to key ideas without seeming pre-mapped and while still coming together in a way that feels convincing as theory.
Saying that Folly is a central theoretical statement of the flarf aesthetic isn’t to suggest that the book can account for all the different types of writing that the flarf group has produced. The flarf group has usually resisted defining themselves through manifestos or other statements of its own importance, replacing such statements with ironic, self-undermining commentaries meant to make fun of the manifesto-issuing tendency while simultaneously turning the manifesto into another flarf game. Gordon herself somewhat notoriously refuses to define the flarf aesthetic, sometimes claiming that flarf is nothing more than a particular set of writers working in all their various ways in attempts to instruct and delight—the kind of claim that can make stance takers white-knuckled with annoyance. All that said though, the concept of folly that plays out in Folly seems to me a crucial ground for understanding the flarf group’s essential obsession with impropriety, with doing in poems all sorts of things that others say they cannot and should not do. One of the things that makes flarf so controversial is that it doesn’t just explore the improper as it’s defined in mainstream capitalist culture. It also takes on the improper as it appears in the tightly-interlocking social mores of the world of poets themselves who, in an age when society-at-large doesn’t pay attention (although if it did, it would inevitably disapprove), seem to make a tremendous effort to tell other poets what they shouldn’t do. If the world will not police our work, we will do it ourselves.
Frankly, I doubt that Folly is going to convince people who dislike flarf that they should change their minds. Though the book seems to me a statement of purpose, it hardly proselytizes for its cause or attempts to win converts across any of the well-worn aisles of contemporary poetry debates that one can read about every day on the Harriet or Ron Silliman blogs. It has more of a chance perhaps to reach some readers of mainstream verse who are trying to look beyond the most commonly asserted divisions in contemporary poetry. Gordon picks and chooses from various literary and cultural traditions, avant garde and otherwise, and restlessly unsettles many commonly accepted critical distinctions about literary language. In fact the book seems very connected to Arielle Greenberg’s ideas about the gurlesque. Still, Folly isn’t any kind of middle ground poetry. The poems never reach to define a middle but celebrate and juxtapose extremes. There are no linear narratives, no concluding lines of heightened emotion for lovers of traditional lyric, no descriptions of current events for those who like relevant of-the-moment protest poems. Folly is an important book not because it doesn’t offer such moves but because it shows us that all sorts of things which people think should not be part of poetry are actually crucial to it: all the impurities we’re always trying to cast out in order to remake the universe in our own image.