Terminal Humming by K. Lorraine Graham
(Edge Books, New York, 2009)
Page 62 of Terminal Humming simply reads “There is this humming in the air now like an open test to evaluate everything welling up in everybody.” To me, this calls to mind the image of a tuning-fork: a humming that evaluates the other humming, test to see what’s “in” the plucked or beaten string. The title posits the book itself as a humming, one that, if we follow this logic, intends to evaluates what wells up in those subjected to the humming: readers and sources, of which this book has many. I do not know how much of the text of this book is the result of collage, but if not it does rely on pastiche, pastiche that has been treated as material to cut and paste. The strategy in much of the book appears to be one in which diverse “sorts” of voices provide the words that she transforms into material and shifts about, creating groupings that expose the strains of contradictory violence (including, as Stan Apps notes in a blurb, covert “condescension or malice”) that underpin so many forms of daily speech and public discourse.
The poems are arranged into three sequences in which, for the most part, the page seems to be the basic unit, with shorter sections (some prose, some verse) broken off on a given page and sometimes subtitled. The sequences are entitled “If This Isn’t an Interview I Don’t Know What to Say,” “An Attempt to Unleash Inner Badness Begins Thus,” and “Terminal Humming.” To get a sense of Graham’s strategy, I think it will be helpful to look at the first page in full.
Most people are smart enough on the podium. Pick three and seduce—scan the hypercritical few. You think but I don’t care. Turn it off you’re trapped. I’d like to begin with an update on numerous events. Simple thesis/theme: Is she a mime? Little cracked sensations. Begin drawing them in. Save the thanks, conclude with a promise. By the time we leave here today trying to prove it a paradox. After dinner drinks, we left confused, entertained, wondering what he said. I’ll lecture you but trust you?
underway. The development
of institutional game-talk
Design recap. Change the finish.
Map and start.
3000 people played this sequence and blew up the world every time.
In this first paragraph, language gestures at communication (most specifically in its manifestation as “public speaking,” a tool for persuading and manipulating large groups), but it continuously undercuts the efficacy or even possibility of that communication: “You think but I don’t care”—can’t get what’s in the addressed person’s mind outside and into the speakers if there’s no empathetic common ground. The public speaking advice comes off as cynical in this context—do not inform, seduce. The people of the second section play “catalytic roles” designed for them by others and speak an “institutional game-talk” that Graham surveys in order to map out ways that words (in)form our thought and help to goad us into blowing up the world.
The poems in “If This Isn’t an Interview I Don’t Know What to Say” deal mostly with these kinds of broad anxieties. The poems inform us that while “[t]he growth of marginal identities [is] on track to critical mass” there are still those looking for “[w]hat it takes to clean up / kill or sanction Raj in the stars and / stripes omnimedia.” Modes of discourse are always at the center of the problem, as on this page:
Double sharp staff
seat expanding overtime
measured the relationship
between violence and inflation.
Character development, I
like it fine—believe in
foreign painted signify.
Renamed a new geography,
created a housing community.
six dollars and hour
to lift in the sun.
Church falls split behind
rocks molted for geological
experiments. Crusted sulfur, burning
ooze around steam wells
tourists never fall in.
It’s late for the sand for
the dry light peachpit
turtle eggs, goodnight.
Through an act of “renaming” you can create a “community”—but only if you have cheap labor. Tourists never fall into the burning ooze because they paid to be there. In the verbal environment of this sequence, we are told that “you are citizen, / listening to the radio broadcast, / waiting for embassy news, looking up words”—reduced to absolute passivity, looking up words but unsure how to put them together without upholding the violence of the broadcasters.
The title sequence and the short “Attempt to Unleash Inner Badness” focus primarily on language that is either openly, covertly, or unintentionally misogynist—especially language that conceives of women as available for exchange. Often these words appear in the “mouths” of explicitly female speakers. Sometimes the language is clearly parodic, as when Graham writes, “I’d like to be a soft pretzel and be loved by all, all soft and twisted and inexpensive and consumable” or the first page of “Terminal Humming”:
And I want
And I want
And I want baaaaah
The love poem’s sheepbleat baaaaah is, perhaps, a little over-the-top, but the argument is consistent with that argued more subtly throughout the latter half of the book: that romantic love (and the women who are asked to be the “passive member” in its contract) is continuously equated with the aimless wanting of consumer capitalism. And, when that wanting isn’t satisfied, a well of violent sexual aggression makes its way onto the page alongside the kind of cynical detachment or put-on skepticism of the book’s first page.
Graham is also interested in ways that women internalize the values of an anti-feminine culture and the language it uses. For example:
As a thing:
In the supergirl outfit, I went to buy fruit to make a salad as a healthy desert alternative to ice cream. In several fan fiction accounts supergirl and batwoman hook up. The supergirl cape is short and does not snag. What thing do we mean doing?
Using this language, the thinker is tricked into inhabiting the “thing” quality of supergirl: a male-designed, nonexistent object of affection, rendered all the more desirable by the pliability of her nonexistence (she can’t complain about being made to hook up with batwoman). To be supergirl is, in one sense, not to exist, to be less woman than image. Elsewhere, Graham writes,
Now mother is placing
classified ads. For me.
Of course, we can read “for me” as “on my behalf” but it’s hard not to see the speaker as the product that the mother advertises.
Femininity and commerce are similarly inseparable throughout: the speaker on page 51 repeatedly asks, “Do I clash?” Not my clothes but I, because there’s no difference, or else the clothing constitutes the I, which can become unbalanced, clashing with itself if it consumes commodities incorrectly. That page ends “I clash I clash”—the more violent uses of the word pushing into the fore. The classifieds come back on page 55, a lengthy prose paragraph modeled after personal ads:
I've never been fond of parties but I go anyway. I look for all the regular things. I'm blonde I love dance and cheer I like a young woman who knows how to take care of herself. I love techno. I don't have expectations. I'm an alien from Jupiter. No. Not really. I do alot of things I guess. I like hangin' w/ my bestest friends & cruzin' w/ my other friends and flirtin' w/ the fellas I don't have much to say here. I like funny guys; I'm just lying—I like pretty boys. I just thought this would be fun. I like laughing, movies and having fun. Do you like having fun? Do you love Christ? Never happy. Currently in a weight training class. I'm just an average schmoe. Well, sort of. I'm blue-eyed and ditzy @ times. I've been here nine months and have no friends. I am just me! Also, I love glittery things, snowmen, and the color purple, autocrossing, fish keeping—salt and fresh. I currently live at home with my mother and have no license. To a great extent I am an understanding person. I like horror movies. Thank you.
The woman sells herself by highlighting either her passivity or her unthreateningly banal simplicity—and she thanks the recipient for the opportunity to do so!
The resulting book is often nightmarish in its vision of contemporary life and the language that life employs. That vision is a useful one, I think—if you play a note then other strings of the same note will resonate—this book hums for me—it seems to tap into a resonant strain of our speech. It’s a very smart book, and I like it a lot. My only caveat in praising it is this: how long do we reproduce the discourse of hatred before we’re just speaking hatefully? Is it possible that by occupying the role of a “citizen, / listening to the radio broadcast, / waiting for embassy news, looking up words” we fool ourselves into adopting “their” discourse as inevitable—what I mean is, how long can we depict ourselves as passive before we accept our passivity as inevitable? These seem like important questions for me—Terminal Humming strikes me as a very valuable part of a hypothetical poetic project in which hateful rhetoric could be clearly delineated as such (something Terminal Humming does brilliantly) and then vigorously attacked, marginalized in the way it attempts to marginalize dissent, hollowed out, and cast aside. In that sense, Terminal Humming isn’t what I hope American poetry looks like in twenty years (and I won’t even begin to try to predict the direction of “American poetry” or K. Lorraine Graham’s career), but it may be exactly what we need right now: an aggressive wake-up call to listen when we talk and ask ourselves if the language we use really describes a world we want to live in.
Allen Edwin Butt is a poet from South Carolina. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and web publications, including Peaches & Bats, Otoliths, ditch, 2River View, Faultline (forthcoming), Venereal Kittens, and Poetry.