[Nightboat Books, 2021]
To this gay, it comes as no surprise that a book called Villainy is about friendship.
Queerness isn’t individual — it’s not something we can do on our own. We need each other just as much in the street as we do in the hot tub orgy, the pair of which are a representative sample of the sites for social encounter in Villainy, Andrea Abi-Karam’s 2021 collection of poems.
In the contexts of San Francisco Pride and its attendant policing and gentrification, the devastation of the 2016 Ghost Ship fire, and the wake of Trump’s Muslim Ban, Abi-Karam figures queer Arab life in public space as both oppositional to the U.S. and a primary concern in the national project of self-invention:
A nation built up like powerwashers that clean cum off the sidewalk
A nation built up against a simple villain
I am the villain.
But how dare u think me to be simple
Though Abi-Karam is writing in the singular, I hear the shifting boundaries of a plural noun (as in: a group of queers is called a villainy). These poems pulse with the energetic potential they identify in the dissolution of the singular and individual into the porous, open forms of the riot and the party, where it is possible to “melt in2 / the mass.” This energy, released from its individual, molecular bounds, can power us as we set about figuring out how to relate to each other and live in a world that isn’t yet livable.
Villainy expands from Abi-Karam’s chapbook “Aftermath” (2016, Commune Editions) and continues that project’s exploration of the pre-revolution stage Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth names “just-before-the-battle.” Within the uncertainty of this state, Abi-Karam’s poems are a process of reaching out in thought to probe the limits of the self. I mean probe here in the sense of relearning smell, like a snake, with our tongues, or of running fingers along in the dark, feeling for a weak point in our rigid life structures. If we apply enough imaginative pressure, if we disbelieve the limits of our bodily form, we could push through to some still-unknowable other side:
I NOW WAIT FOR MY RIBS TO STRETCH & WIDEN OUT SO I
CAN LAY DOWN FLAT
SO I CAN SLIP THROUGH THE BORDERS & BARRICADES &
WALLS & SCREENS
SO I CAN SLIP THROUGH THE TIGHTENING ENTANGLEMENTS
Abi-Karam asks us to acknowledge the emotional expanse of this state of pre-transformation: We are waiting, and on low days it can feel like we’ll never find out what for. If we are poets, what do we write in the meantime? Just as their formulation of the queer as an anti-nationalist villain invites us to consider that identity alone will not a revolutionary make — that is, they invite us consider how we could go about earning the title of villain — Abi-Karam turns a critical eye onto the limitations and possibilities of what we can ask a poem to do and how we might do it.
In the introduction to the “bright pink brick” of their co-edited volume We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2020) Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel delineate that, “Poetry isn’t revolutionary practice; poetry provides a way to inhabit revolutionary practice.” At the risk of being optimistic about poetry, I find this distinction to be entirely hopeful. Approached as a process that ends beyond itself, a poem can build us an open structure, a decentralized HQ, within which we can imagine and begin enacting the world we want to see.
If we can agree that poetry is not, itself, revolution, we can turn next to the question of what poets can do instead of using mass resistance to violence as means of spotlighting and institutionalizing ourselves — as Wendy Trevino has tweeted, ”Poets need social movements way more than social movements need poets.” Early in Villainy, Abi-Karam identifies the problem of “how the riot gets more imaginative attention than physical attention & how those people doing the imagining but not the attending / get the most IRL attention.” They then begin a search for an alternative to self-promotion at the expense of movements themselves:
because what would the fanonian poem even be—
it wouldn’t even be a poem or a phrase or a piece of art
in the middle of the street
it would just be fire itself
Fire is an action, like friendship is an action, especially if you’re setting fires with your friends.
We can lose friends to fires too. Abi-Karam pays close attention to the risks involved in seeking each other out and the ways we share grief, not just with others who loved the ones we loved, but with our own bodies:
I pull you up from the floor by the lapels of your leather jacket. Face covered in cum. I exhale & absorb our dead friends into my body like you opened up a gateway for their arrival. I absorb them into my body & hope they will stay. & that they are happy & dry & warm. I give up the possibility of sleep for myself in an effort to make an environment for my dead friends. A social space. A closed world.
If this interior space is sealed in a protective covering, it’s a breathable layer: Grief is a process of recommitting to an outer world, knowing that the friends we hold inside us will be there, filtering our air.
The logic of friendship as a shared space reaching out into the world extends into the strains of Villainy that explicitly respond to other artists. In these sections, Abi-Karam is working towards a poetry “that holds something in the action of language” and where ”material consequences can occur” if we allow the poem to “overflow its vacancies.”
In “Hold My Hand,” a nine-part poem responding to the Whitney’s 2018 David Wojnarowicz retrospective, Abi-Karam asks, What happens when we enter the museum with a friend, and perhaps especially a friend we may or may not already know we want to fuck? As they wrote in an essay on the practice of “radical ekphrasis” — their approach to poetry as a medium for speaking with the dead — they walked into the Whitney and “experienced the work on the premise of desire.” Together with their companion in art and sexual tension, they saw everything through the aura of co-presence:
i want to grab yr hand
close the blanks between bodies
in present mourning of the decades
of queer bodies propelled toward death
by state sanctioned abandonment
air bears heavy
electric net of implication
in the next phase of queer hxtory
refuse the archive / demand the
Declining to leave the art on the walls or in the archive, they go on to incorporate its elements — a leather jacket, red sutures — into their co-constructed desire.
In Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Wojnarowicz characterized the realm of the institution as “The bought-up world; the owned world.” Museum holdings/hoardings make it unlikely that most of us will get to meet with a Wojnarowicz piece on our own terms, and Villainy enacts the trouble with encountering art in an institutional context: No matter how resistant an artwork may be, Abi-Karam makes clear that the experience of viewing it in a museum is necessarily shaped by the figure of the security guard and the invisibilized presence of investment in war and prisons. They also identify the Whitney’s curatorial framing of Wojnarowicz as an extraction of individual genius from a community: When we accept the museum’s formulation of the artist as an icon apart, we allow them to displace the mutual influence and discord that comprise a queer experience of making art around and with others.
Absent of this queer togetherness, we are each constrained to the singular self and its imaginative limits. In his essay “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” John Berger offers an alternative of “revolutionary awareness,” or the recalibration of the senses through participation in public action. By coming together to step out of (and then back in the way of) the daily machinations of the places where we live and work, we begin to see those places through collaborative eyes. As Abi-Karam writes, “visual disruption really feels like it does something / or opens a possibility to inhabit public space / beyond the body.” The crowd is a moving site of potential, reconfiguring our relations to each other, our own bodies, and the spaces we move through.
For an example of this kind of sensory shift, we can look to CRYING; A PROTEST, an action organized by poet and performer Jennifer Tamayo in response to Carle Andre’s 2015 retrospective at Dia: Beacon. This exhibition, like others of his work, ommitted any information about Ana Mendieta (another artist in Villainy’s ekphrastic constellation), whom Andre married and, many continue to insist, murdered.
In her essay for Hyperallergic, Marisa Crawford described Tamayo and the other cryers dispersing through Andre’s field of minimalism-on-the floor. They held the space of the museum in a state of open weeping that culminated in a wail. Their banner read, “We wish Ana Mendieta was still alive.” After security removed them from the museum, they invoked Mendieta’s visual vocabulary of present absence, casting silhuetas of red pigment in the shape of a body both staining and fading into the snow outside the exhibition. For me, their crying was an even more potent engagement with Mendieta’s work, which used her body as surface, material, and occasion. Like a wail, a collective disruption can puncture the order of things and communicate through the hole it leaves. I wasn’t there; I was just a Hyperallergic reader, but I feel the reverberations of their cry-in each time I enter Dia.
If we want to locate a moment of rupture, it’s possible to map out a retrospective plotline and stick a pin in discernable events that made transformation possible. Interventions like CRYING demonstrate that the action of transformation goes beyond any event. It takes place between us, lasting for much longer than a gathering itself. We enact it in the minute and ongoing ways we relate to each other. A poem that operates on these terms could be one way to postulate, ask for, and practice the ways we could be together, taking back public space for as long as we can hold it, as Abi-Karam writes, “our heads thrown back in pleasure—temporarily—.” Their dashes are both marks of puncture and arms reaching through to the other side.
In part through its process of engagement with Mendieta’s work, and the blurry lines of body shapes eroding into the world around them, Villainy ends in such a state of open potential: “literal action is necessary but the line between language & action no longer feels quite as precise.” Language is a way of forming the world we want to see in anticipation of its arrival. So too, Villainy shows us, are grief and friendship.
Charles Theonia is a poet, enthusiast, and transsexual without direction. They are the author of artist book Saw Palmettos (Container, 2018) and chapbook Which One Is the Bridge (Topside Press, 2015).
1. Thanks to “Institutionalization Keeps Me Awake at Night” by Emily Colucci for connecting Wojnarowicz’s writing on “the bought world” to the Whitney retrospective on his work. As Colucci notes, ACT UP protested the Wojnarowicz retrospective’s framing of AIDS as a thing of the past, rather than an ongoing force.
2. And while I have you here, I’d like to recommend Lou Cornum’s essay on gay adoptions (including Wojnarwicz’s) of the indigenous formation of the tribe, which asks “What kind of gay acts are outside capitalist accumulation? If the answer today is none, let us devise some by tomorrow.”