[Kelsey Street Press; 2019]
Andrea Abi-Karam’s debut poetry collection, EXTRATRANSMISSION, is a sharp and necessary departure from poetic traditions of lyricism and obsequious metaphor. It employs poly-vocality in an attempt to untangle a trauma narrative and moves between contexts of contested embodiment. The poetry collection confronts how military exploitation of human and animal bodies has inflicted crater-sized scars upon them, how bro culture is a scourge of inequality and power dynamics, how urban space is “totally fucked,” and how we all play into the politics of complacency. Their forceful use of all caps searches and demands for “a poetry of directness.” A poetry of directness, for Abi-Karam, means naming the violence, the rage, and the pain that is too often formally disguised in the pervasive “language of avoidance.” This avoidance is untenable for Abi-Karam, and is named as a mechanism by which the potential for radical discourse is flattened. This debut poetry collection is one of the richest, strongest, and loudest poetry collections of the year.
THE STATE GAVE U THE PDA BUT IT ALSO GAVE U THE INJURY
WHICH CAME FIRST
THE INJURY OR THE TECH?
IT’S ALWAYS THE INJURY
EXTRATRANSMISSION espouses an unapologetic revenge narrative, fulfilling fantasies of justice and retribution that are as beautiful as they are compelling. But it goes beyond catharsis to shock us out, line by line, out of complacency and perhaps into to action.
The book’s opening section, KILL BRO / KILL COP, breaks into a deluge of directives: “kill all the power dynamics in the room. kill all the power dynamics in the white room. kill all the power dynamics in all the rooms” and “kill all the hierarchies of power of who is publishing who & who is fucking who & who they fucked before they got published.” banishing any notion that coexistence with power could be sufficient. Abi-Karam ask us to “kill the sociality that makes queers feel excluded . . . & that makes you select who to make eye contact with & who to ignore on alternating nights,” bringing forth notions of exclusion and complicity. When we reach the section’s concluding call to “KILL THE BRO IN YR HEAD,” we begin to unravel the extent to which the poetics of directive hinges on a performative self-implication that has slowly ricocheted across the opening section.
Part of Abi-Karam’s approach to breaking through the massive hierarchies of power that shape the world (what bell hooks calls: the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy) is by finding specificity in the details of their microclimates — making them seem bite-sized and ready to be devoured. Abi-Karam abandon verse and lineation in favor of an ecstatic suite of vengeance fantasies against “bros” and what they stand for, against misogyny, whiteness, and power dynamics that shape the way our world functions. In contrast to lyric poems, which are limited by their commitment to traditional poetic devices, Abi-Karam’s verses are large and loud, anarchistic in their fervor. “KILL BRO / KILL COP” is a blaring broadcast of frustrations with systems of power, however subtle they may seem to be, and the “language of avoidance” that has been adopted in the literary discourse. The blunt in-your-face approach reminds us that none of us are exempt from the capacity to perpetuate violence, and of the sheer desperation to be heard after being silenced by every conceivable cultural force.
Duration, discomfort, and taking up space are all themes that encircle the reading of Abi-Karam’s poetry. Skins, surfaces, and flatness appear throughout as well, factoring in the body as the site of modern warfare’s explosions. This body suffers real, physical consequences: deconstruction, stretches, swells. EXTRATRANSMISSION presents us with a poetics that valorizes softness as much as rage, and by doing so, allows us to inhabit the detachment from the human body to make space for a “MALF(X)ING CYBORG:”
THIS IS THE END OF THE CANON & AN ATTEMPT TO ADAPT IN A WORLD THAT CONSTANTLY FAILS ME / THIS IS THE END OF A PERSON & THE BEGINNING OF A MALF(X)ING CYBORG / AN IRREVERSIBLLE DETACHMENT FROM MY BODY / A WALKING GHOST
Walking ghosts: reconditioning ourselves after a lifetime under whitecisheteropatriarchy is an ongoing project, and one that requires detachment from past ghosts. In this way, EXTRATRANSMISSION nit-picks and isolates moments that linger on the surface of the “signature injury,” and how massive systems of oppression interlock to uphold each other. Poly-vocality and repetition are used throughout the text in an attempt to untangle these connections, and to move between contexts of contested embodiment.
EXTRATRANSMISSION relays the narrative of a soldier who integrates with a digital assistant to access her memories post trauma. The analogy, or perhaps more fittingly the embodiment of a cyborg body, is an adaptation to the state of having an unresolvable injury. Her body is vulnerable and its vulnerability is used in service of violent nationalism:
every body is consumable. every american body is consumable. there’s a whole country back home to manufacture more willing bodies for the volunteer based army. a country that sometimes agrees to relax its borders in exchange for the combat ready body. for the soft skin that caves in from every bit of shrapnel. for the soft skull that splits on impact. for the soft brain that bounces back and forth inside the skull. for the soft brain that tears & swells. for the soft brain that after the tears & swells still turns the body back on. still serves. for the soft person who can’t remember.
A series of error messages obtrusively inquiring “IS THIS WHAT U SIGNED UP FOR?” adds an emphasis on bodily service, and abuse of this blind service. This construction gets at the deep problem of individual agency and complacency in global conflict through a soldier whose body and psyche have been traumatized by her decision to “sign up” for combat.
In the FUSION section, the trans cyborg enacts these exact conflicting impulses: retaining autonomy of the body, but also losing their personhood. This section is essentially a search for a language that defies avoidance, a language that will alter the way they inhabit their body: “there is no pleasure in this language. in this flatness,” says the soldier. But pleasure can perhaps be found in the rupture, in the process of losing your personhood on the way to becoming a malfunctioning cyborg:
TRYING TO THINK ABOUT BODY AUTONOMY
TRYING TO GET OFF
TRYING TO SHORT OUT
Another one of the book’s speakers is a horse assigned to the soldier with PTSD (each signature injury comes with its own particular solution). Observing its human companion, the horse notes that “we are haunted by the possibility of the future.” Around the end of the book, Abi-Karam turn to animals and the verse inhabits their existence. Displacement is the theme that prevails: one of the cyborgs unplugs and heads to a deserted building where they meet a wandering fawn. The fawn’s hooves had been split on the pavement of a city undergoing gentrification. The fawn indicates a shift from the natural to the unnatural, its mere existence evokes provocation, and then Abi-Karam asks:“You thought we could just go back to nature?” As alternatives, there’s the notion of squatting, of claiming the unclaimed, of inhabiting impermanent spaces, spaces in transit, on the way to becoming “totally fucked.”
Having launched with killing bros and ended with displacement and critique of the fate of urban landscapes, all approached from the lens of a soldier-turned-cyborg and the damage the war on terror has inflicted, the reader experiences a comedown. From the intensity of revenge fantasies to a sobering and almost depressing reality, EXTRATRANSMISSION carves out a space for simultaneous catharsis and solace. In order to get to the world that we need, we have to challenge the world that we already have.
Sahar Khraibani is a writer, editor, and designer based in New York. She is interested in the intersection between language, visual production, and geopolitics. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, TERSE Journal, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Durian Days and Bidayat Mag among others.