[New Star Books; 2011]

First, a word of caution: Buffet World, the latest from Vancouver-based visual and conceptual poet Donato Mancini, may ruin your appetite. Buffet World is Mancini’s third book, coming on the heels of Ligatures (2005; here’s the titular piece) and Æthel (2007; here’s some of the work in it), and it gives us a body of work that looks and feels a bit more like the poems we’re used to reading, but by no means abandons Mancini’s established commitments to conceptualism and experimentation as established in those earlier collections. Buffet World also appears to be Mancini’s turn to politics, or something resembling it. The book is experimental poetry’s answer to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, interspersing verse renderings of “fun facts” about the food industry (at times troubling, at times whimsical, at times both) with found images of artery-clogging comestibles. It should be already clear just from this description that Buffet World is treading on aesthetically delicate terrain, equally exposed to the dangers of empty moralization and cutesy accessibility, or even plain old quirk-for-quirk’s-sake. But Mancini’s poems, as I read them, weave through these obstacles to become something genuinely interesting: not so much a set of statements on our contemporary gastronomical culture as a set of process-oriented attempts to work through the economic, emotional and ethical intricacies of our relationship with food.

Many of the most successful poems in the collection—including “Fun Facts,” “Remote Shack,” “Tang Dynasty,” and “TDCJ Reel” (about the last meals of death row inmates in Texas) — weave accumulations of “fun facts” (some of them lifted from the web, some of them based on Mancini’s own calculations) into jangling, digressively propulsive compositions. Betcha didn’t know, for example, that

we would need
45 gram packets
to transform
Lake Vostok
into Tang
the vitamin-c rich
powdered energy drink

or that

1 large
soft pretzel weighs about the same
as 40 ruby-throated hummingbirds

current annual US salt-snack consumption
measured in hummingbirds
is 922,373,548,885.5

These poems are interspersed with cut-and-paste images of fattening foodstuff on a background of cheerful marker strokes.  The food appears to either have been smeared across the page or to be careening through space; hot dogs, TV dinners, meatloaf (with bacon, of course), and JELLO molds look simultaneously light as air and dense with gristle, fat, and fleshly matter. There’s something about the grotesque whimsy of these images that reminds us (or at least, reminds me) that eating is a visceral, voluptuous, even violent experience. Even the nutritiously innocuous pineapple rings on the cover glisten enticingly yet with a trace of slick menace.

Mancini has never been afraid to tackle long, ambitious pieces, of which Buffet World includes a handful.  “If Violence (Hey You)” — twelve pages of fragmentary, allusive tidbits — is a bit diffuse, but “Air Raids Over Fields of Bacon,” a dense, difficult, New-Sentence-style prose poem, is worth the effort. “On Behalf of the Potato Chips Industry I Would Like to Wish You a Very Happy Birthday,” a “Biographia Alimentaria” that relates Mancini’s life through (largely junk) food, is a standout, with moments of intense, if eccentric, beauty:

Coleridge preferred
opium-cinnamon cookies, Morton Feldman
virtuoso catsup technique, Baudelaire

viscid bubble hash to harsh
cigarette-tokes (bots) sucked from empty
glass Snapple bottles.

Mancini also throws in a few conceptual and visual poems (his first two books, Ligatures and Æthel, are dominated respectively by the former and the latter), notably a set of poems composed by group consensus and a silent version of Othello to be performed for a security camera. Most ambitious among these is “105 posbL reznz 4 d ;; of thot,” which proposes a visual arithmetic that operates on both the meanings and the appearance of written signs, combining arithmetical symbols (+, —, X, ÷) according to their own rules. The inclusion of this work, it must be said, feels somewhat disruptive to the thematic rhythm of an otherwise very coherent collection. One small gem, however, merits mention: a page full of short rows of red stars (numbering from 1 ½ to 5), that looks like it might be someone’s ratings on Netflix or Yelp. According to the table of contents, however, the subject of the poem is “Democratic Revolutionary People’s Republics.” Mancini doesn’t give us any clues as to which socialist country is represented by which row, or for that matter how the ratings are derived (GDP?  Population?  Personal preference?), but the piece is nevertheless a startling reminder that one of the most banal elements of our visual culture has an explosive history.

What is probably most exciting about Buffet World is its exploration of the “fun fact” as a genre of poetical utterance.  Facts, of course, are supposed to be pre-political and pre-aesthetic, the raw empirical data that back up our understanding of the world. But you don’t need to be a messenger-bag-wearing, Foucault-reading liberal arts graduate to know that facts are never not political, and that manipulations of fact can be awfully hard to distinguish from the genuine article. The “fun fact,” furthermore, presents an exceptional case: both raw knowledge and counter-knowledge, it conforms to the generic characteristics of the fact but dissipates its prosaic utility. What does it mean, Mancini’s work asks us, to be fascinated by facts that don’t matter? What does it mean to aestheticize the fact, to view it as mysterious, poetic, and suggestive? Suggestive is precisely what facts are not supposed to be, but when Mancini ends “Fun Facts” with

In 1999

the caramel used
to fill all the Caramilk bars in
Canada weighed as much as
9 full-grown blue whales.

what we’re left with is not exactly a dour sense that the sublimity of nature is being outpaced by mountains of homogeneous, mass-produced sucrose. Rather, the unexpected equivalence between the deep ocean and the Caramilk factory reorients our sense of the connected-ness of the world. Free-market capital, Mancini’s poem tells us, has rendered both caramel and the blue whale as pure exchange value, and thus interchangeable by the pound—but the wonderful absurdness of equating the two reminds us they are also singularities: fascinating, mysterious objects that the logic of modernity has brought into fascinating, mysterious proximity. The “fun fact” not only refuses to be a mere fact but also suggests a recuperation of our relationship with the empirical at large. Mancini’s work does a great deal more than just provoke liberal guilt or a few chuckles: it reopens the fact, the one form of knowledge that is supposed to remain closed.