Poetry, at its core, is a mystical endeavor: an encounter with the web of language that holds our consciousness. This is true even if the poem, on the surface, seems like a series of puns about Facebook, the least poetical of all possible media. That, anyway, is the premise of Checking In, a new collection by Canadian-born New York poet, media artist, performer, and cultural theorist Adeena Karasick.
The book’s central long poem, 36 pages in length, consists of faux Facebook statuses that weave together pop culture, literary references, philosophy, mysticism, and more—all in a mix of outrageous puns: “Ulysses is listening to Siren Song on Spotify” goes one line; “William Wordsworth is wandering lonely on iCloud” is another. Riffing on Homer’s Odyssey and William Wordworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, the lines open up into something far great than witticisms. This is clear to anyone who spent days under the spell of limitless free music on Spotify, while imbibing deathly doses of interstitial advertising. While Wordsworth’s original poem creates a Romantic metaphor, using the natural world to describe the inner state of the poet, Karasick’s line links existential loneliness with the tangle of invisible technologies offered by a major corporation. The pun doesn’t seem all that funny, when you consider that the natural world is no longer a point of reference for us, as we use Apple-invented lingo to describe our most vulnerable emotions.
What makes these literary puns poetry? In Kabbalistic thought, which Karasick, 53, cites in her epigraph, the world was formed through language, and so Hebrew letters are the primal energies of creation. In combining these energies into words, and in studying their patterns, one walks the line between linguistics and mysticism in an attempt to discern access points to the divine: the “state of ecstasy” referred to by medieval Spanish Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Abulafia, one of Karasick’s inspirations.
This is certainly the case when it comes to gematria—a premise that each Hebrew letter corresponds to a numeric value, and that words which share the same sum are intrinsically related—in a way that has nothing to do with etymology or semantics. Puns, oddly, work in a similar manner: We bring together unrelated ideas, with a loose verbal link—and somehow, they make us laugh (or at least grunt). Poetry, too, is, at its root, musical rather than purely semantic: The beauty of the word-music, rather than logic, allows for fresh, free-associative images.
In an essay from the anthology Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture titled “Hijacking Language,” Karasick reflects on her ongoing engagement with Kabbalah: “Throughout all my work this psycho-obsessive focus of the meticulous and detailed inner workings of language is always at play.”
In regular speech, we use language to describe experience. It seems that when Rabbi Abulafia embarked on his “combination of letters” meditations, he wasn’t trying to come up with a specific idea, and then find words for it—but to free-associate around words that he generated in his experiments. Rather than using language to describe an outside event, here the language itself becomes the starting point. This is certainly the case in Karasick’s work as well, where puns, and wordplay are themselves the point, and locus of cultural critique.
There are quite a few biblical references in Checking In. These include “Jacob is Wrestling on Wittgenstein’s Ladder,” which name-checks the philosopher who once posited that his own propositions be used as a ladder, which could be done away with once climbed. In Karasick’s riff, the two famous stories of Jacob wrestling and climbing are enmeshed and framed as a philosophical endeavor. Another example, “Moses is Smashing his Tablet” seems simpler and more straightforward. Yet, it does point to the weight of the word “tablet,” and its gradual sinking into casual usage. Moreover, it points to the deliberate word choice, made by Apple, Google, and other manufacturers, to use the word “tablet” to denote authority and reverence as the subliminal message wrapped up in product advertising.
Through her faux statuses, Karasick manages to draw our attention to the very fiber of language, as well as the linguistic constructs introduced into our lives by Facebook. Can Facebook’s lingo hold up the weight of our culture—our mythic and traditional heritage, literary and philosophical references, and emotional states? Today, Facebook-talk permeates our discourse, and we describe ourselves through statuses, and know others through them, as well. Given the terseness, the focus on keywords, marketability and FOMO (fear of missing out), the data-harvesting intentions lurking underneath—what is it all doing to our self-knowledge, and to the world we’re creating in our image?
Checking In contains a number of other memorable poetic experiments, including “Here Today Gone Gemara,” a poem with a distinctly Yiddish flavor, and various invented and inverted Yiddish proverbs. “May your thinking be as twisted as a challah,” quips the poet, and then shows us how to achieve such a twisting:
May you be blessed with poor assimilation
and suffer from enigma
Yiddish is notorious for its backhanded compliments, and for blessings that attempt to ward off the evil eye by posing as curses. Indeed, the first line here may sound like a curse—but if assimilation means abandoning the richness, humor, and subtlety of Yiddish culture, then “poor assimilation” may just be one of those blessings in disguise. Similarly, “suffer from enigma” does bring “suffer from eczema” to mind. Then again, it is a blessing one poet would give another—for to suffer from enigma is to itch the desire to understand the human condition.
As Karasick continues:
For truth lives like a beggar
surfacing like a pop-up on a homepage
The first line might remind us of the Talmudic story that the Messiah is lurking among the beggars at the gates of Rome, while the second one takes that same sentiment straight into the 21st century. We may no longer know what the Messiah is, or what the Talmudic rabbis knew about the gates of Rome, but we understand all too well the paucity of life’s meaning, and the inconvenience of truth, as it lurks, in the mental or digital spaces we inhabit.
“Here Today Gone Gemara,” as it unfolds, becomes reminiscent of vaudeville, and gets rambunctious and raunchy, too:
Go on, just hit me with the short end of the shtick.
What, you’re gonna shmear me with a poor man’s
jam? Pee on my back and tell me it’s raining?
Look at the ceiling through my hair?
Just wash your myth out with some kosher soap
and give it to me baby as hot and slow as cholent.
Karasick’s bathos creates a great counterpoint to the academic, theoretical vocabulary, and the complex philosophical matters she tackles.
If you thought William Burroughs’ famous line “cut up the present and the future leaks out” is eerie, you are in for a ride with Karasick’s “Your Leaky Day,” a poem in which Karasick’s takes on the current government’s obsession with information leaks:
There is a leaking at the Sheremetyevo airport,
a leaking in the Sinai, Saudi, Syria, the Senate,
striking leaks of tapes, taps testimonies, memory
and meaning are leaking live—
and in the Towers on 5th Ave there is a leaking
among the letters
But you cannot take a leak.
And as Gertrude Stein might say, a liking is a
leaking and as leak likes like in like eyes
in a creed of tweeted leaks,
we’re up all nite to get leaky
Like a freaky leak, at a late-nite leak easy
peeky leaks, trick-or-treaty leaks
In a striking riff on Gertrude Stein’s wordplay, Karasick points out what the illicit dissemination of information, especially via tweet, really resembles. The bathroom humor makes the cultural critique outrageous, but at the same time, the observation that the world is turning into a gigantic leak has a dark, serious connotation to it. Even the neologism, “trick-or-treaty,” however silly it sounds, is a dreadfully astute comment on the nature of political treaties and the Halloween-esque freak show that surrounds international politics.
If poetry is to be functional, relevant, irreverent, and alive, it has to do everything that we do. It must meditate on the sacredness of language or revel in puns, linguistic invention. It might have to detour to the bathroom, Facebook statuses, or on to existential loneliness. Karasick writes poetry to jolt us from zoning out in our comfort zones, and to challenge our notion of what poetry is, or could be. To that, thumbs up.
Read more of Jake Marmer’s Tablet magazine essays on poetry here.