A Review of “Feet First” by Dion N. Farquhar

Spencer Dew

An elaborate engagement with nostalgia, Farquhar’s book is structured via her relation to times lost and times recollected. “Inheritance,” “Counter Culture,” and “Legacy” she calls the three sections of this book, and in poems that spill across pages we see memories, in fragments, and encounter the imperative to carry on such memories. “Remember,” she writes, “Free Abortion on Demand Socialist Feminism.” Elsewhere, in the poem “Meta-Local I: 1964,” we’re given a montage of sorts: “college students back from Mississippi / registering voters / Freedom Democratic Party / priests thrown out of Latin America / for teaching peasants / how to count” is offered as so much back-beat, background noise to the memory of “while my parents / read Ellery Queen / Readers Digest / in their twin beds.”

One problem with such a style is that the reader is given only flashes, verbal fragments; there are moments of clear and urgent intimacy in this book, but, more often, there is just the implication of such intimacy. Worse, Farquhar has the tendency to fall back on the recitation of names of celebrities and products, substituting a sense of corporate, cultural memory for that of the individual. There is perhaps a social critique here, and subjectivity exerts itself in the arrangement of such floating signifiers, but as a tactic it contradicts the desire, expressed elsewhere throughout this book, for a consciousness opposed to the commercialized speed of our contemporary, capitalist, media-laced world. That so-called smart phones modify our behavior is lamented, yet here is Farquhar, writing poetry following precisely such a swift and abbreviated rhythm: “Now Apollo’s a spaceship, Argo / a strarch. Nike is plural / as running shoes … Emily Post our Proust.” Not only are proper names here standing alone or, in a weak move, linked with limp irony to some more distant, imagined past (Marilyn Monroe is the “American Helen” who “gave us back our lips”), there is also the matter of what a sloppy mess this string of words is, conceptually. Is Post really “our Proust” or is the poet, tempted by the surface of things, indulging in a cheap pun? Likewise, how does space travel equate with commercial laundry products, and why are decades compressed via unexplained comparisons? “We read Baldwin Ginsberg Malcolm Che / Millett Leary Laing and Plath,” Farquhar assures us, but from the poem one must infer that such “reading” was likewise only on a surface level, a scanning or scrolling through, consuming in the sense of being a consumer, not in the sense of digesting, understanding, or using. This is Billy Joel’s approach to history, not Howard Zinn’s.

Yet perhaps it is the fads of certain past moments for which Farquhar is most nostalgic. Her argument against handheld devices, which “chirp of the Hot Synch—data”  and leech “bad faith” into the body is, ultimately, a begrudging acceptance of a lifestyle that the poet would rather not have. Yet this lifestyle is adopted, giving us poems composed along the premise of “If I had a blog” or leading to the rattling out of fractures entries of verse, the poetic persona presented as “a Wiki witch / laptop open on my lap.” Needless to say, other poets have identified and successfully resisted such contamination of consciousness, but the narrative voice of Feet First seems to have always moved at this speed, just at different times and with different company, off-line, in “loft parties on 14th Street, / the first mescaline trip,” etc. The nostalgia here is for a time when everyone was carrying on about “Malcolm Che / Millett Leary” et al., but the sense from Feet First is that the carrying on which is most missed was as empty as current discussions of celebrity fashion or engagement in video games. Indeed, one poem here addresses a “twelve-year old / technie” who doesn’t understand that the “enchanted kingdom” of the Disney corporation is, in fact, “hydraulics, gears / the teeth of a machine.” “How I wish,” the poem says, this child’s Xbox were named for “Malcolm / though that association’s / almost impossible / for a relatively privileged / pre-teen white boy.” That association, importantly, is just another pun, a stitching of surfaces. There is no coherent political ideology in lines like “the body politic fucked by capital: Tampax / no pins, no belts, no pads launched salad bars / Lean Cuisine, Japanese CDs on Bang & Olufsen,” just a barrage of unconsidered names and notions, a few recycled images or cheap—and, indeed, politically dangerous—comparisons. “The same people / are on the board at Philip Morris… / and Sloan-Kettering / boggles the market / like Bach at Buchenwald.” We have a political claim here, via association, that Philip Morris is somehow like the Nazi death camps, but like everything else in this slight and ultimately depressing book, it is just a gesture.  That this gesture is startlingly irresponsible, an act of disrespect to the weight of history and the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, is mere collateral damage; the analogy likewise lets Philip Morris off the hook for very real deceptions and manipulations—deceptions and manipulations which are very real and problematic but which are in certain essential ways unlike “Bach at Buchenwald.”

Rather than a “radical pursuit,” this book exemplifies the worst sort of reactionary cooptation, the seizure of the revolutionary, the turning of radical resistance into just another fashion, just another fad, another product to be name-dropped or collected, bought. While she may lift words from Obama or Palin, reference Wall Street and jihad, these gimmicks, rather than making the work here coherent, thoughtful, or efficacious, reduce the political, dehumanizing and thus defusing ideas by decontextualizing them. In a perhaps unintentionally revealing passage Farquhar, glancing back at a previous decade and the community in which she was then involved, writes:

Our Achilles’ heel was Art
and politics
we used everything we could: the streets, the courts
to oppose our arrogant Superpower nation

How is this image of the Achilles’ heel to be read? Art is not here the sword that can strike at the weak point of an oppressive culture; rather, the presumptions about art read here as the weakness that brought down whatever movement or momentum the collective “our” of the first line might have had. If that failed, then why not, now, string together poems from the trademarked property of multinational corporations? Feet First is thus a doubly depressing collection: crushing as an example of counter-revolutionary literature and further saddening as a reminiscence of failure. And the loss is ours, as readers as well as citizens; if only this were a book from that half-recollected then, a book of authentic poetry, scrambling up from the streets, striving to change the world.

Official Evening Street Press Web Site

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