One of the most engaging poems in Mark Bibbins’s smart and enjoyable third book of poetry, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, is “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine No.1,” the first of a series of six such poems, and which opens with these lines: “First I was fellating an African despot / for his diamonds, next I was paying / a hooker to give me back / my teeth.” When first encountering lines like these, you can’t necessarily be blamed for wondering who still cares about irony and “soft surrealism” (a phenomenon in which strange events occur that seem to invoke surrealism or the absurd, but with little to no substantive socio-political or ontological substance), particularly given the overabundance and the poor handling of those characteristics in much contemporary poetry.
But They Don’t Kill You plays with and acknowledges the inability of narrative to explain: the effect is to make the self iterative, and such complexities and playfulness of narrative may point to the impossibility, in general, of forging a direct or rhetorical relationship with the other. Meaningfully, Bibbins seems to use poetry to argue for textual breaches that provide a kind of enticing resistance to reading while simultaneously inviting reader participation, creating art in the context of gaps, in the context of fractured lives, such as those in “Thunderbride”:
In wilder colors I can love the copy of you
which is great when we have breasts
He will breathe through contractions
and she will heal the faceless
and use her eyes to steel his legs
You must see that I’m eating for two sexes
They will say how do you do Mister Ms. Thunderbride
and I will say I do it distorted
and you will marry a million of you
in your twisted gown of flames
As seen here, They Don’t Kill You liberates ironic and surrealist poetic gestures, allowing a critical loss of self in which the “I” is no longer associated with the privileging of the artist’s individual experience. Instead, the poems and the “I” resist solipsism in preference for creating an interiority and commentary largely derived from the world at large, and from confronting the administered world, as represented by the market, the church, ideology, civil/municipal bodies, &c. Which is another way of saying that these poems possess a real sense of urgency, of something at stake.
Indeed, a major theme of They Don’t Kill You is the difficulty of coming to knowledge about what is not the self through acts of searching. The writing enacts this by repeatedly bringing one thing within the field of another as the book moves forward, each time reframing how the one thing fits into context with the other. Thus, this collection depends upon implied rather than explicit links between ideas and poems, precipitating a confrontation with the constructedness of both the self and language. So, the speaker wrestles with two kinds of borders, the one between self and other, and the one between self and language, opening up the architecture of the collection, creating a kind of lateral linking of theme and thought, as demonstrated in “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine No.1,” first introduced above, and which continues:
You think I’m kidding
about the diamonds; I was looking
also for some gold. I almost
right, like a steamed wiener
shoved in a top-slit Wonder bun.
For the poem’s every absurd, irrational, and neurotic idea, for every singular obsession, and for every psychic peculiarity and vagary of conscious or unconscious thought, Bibbins suggests, there is latent irrationality beneath the manifest order of the everyday; and paradoxically, but appropriately, the poems also suggest that the irrational flux of human experience is perfectly rational. Bibbins’s poems often foreground the watertight logic of the system—here represented by Robertson fundamentalist Christianity and radical conservatism—as potentially capable of neutralizing whatever threatens to stymie their teleological pursuits. This suggestion is not exactly nightmarishly bizarre—no individual human subject is crushed by the inexorable force of the labyrinthine environment—but it’s not far off in its envisaging of illogical scenes from everyday life through a kind of objective automatism.
I unload a mouthful
of warm root beer
down the back of your neck
and tell you it’s Jesus weeping
sweet brown tears of shame. Aim
this way and give some back to me.
Ironically, it is Bibbins’s irreverence that humanizes and grounds the absurd, resisting the legislation of sexuality, for instance, and revelatory experience. Indeed: when Siegfried Kracauer claimed that film’s office is “to reveal things normally unseen; phenomena overwhelming consciousness,” he could have just as easily been speaking of poetry in the ilk of They Don’t Kill You. This task extends beyond the intricacies of “physical reality” to include the non-physical yet materially present, administrative totality, where the administrative totality emerges as a kind of autopoeitic agent with a will and desire all its own.
The powerful absurdity of They Don’t Kill You (as representative via “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine No.1”) derives not from the simple joke on Robertson or the gag of crudity, but from the administrative system’s remarkable inability to manage the speaker’s unequivocal commitment to a “ridiculous” act, which is not to say a ridiculous goal. Thus, the degree to which They Don’t Kill You is ambivalent about human intention and meaning is matched by its drive to resist nonhuman agency, intimating that there exists an administrative principle that is nearly ever-present—often just beyond our reach but finally not impervious to our attempts to meaningfully disrupt it. And Bibbins’s collection itself enacts that pointed and important unsettling.
Adam Day is the author of Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books) and is the recipient of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for Badger, Apocrypha, a PEN Emerging Writers Award, and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, Lana Turner, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He coordinates The Baltic Writing Residency in Latvia, Scotland, and the Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest.
They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full
by Mark Bibbins
Copper Canyon Press
$16.00 paperback; ISBN: 978-1-5565-458-8