“The sky the color of tenure”: On Jim Behrle’s “Succubus Blues”

If all the poet-bullies on the internet were as funny, weird, and self-deprecating about it as Jim Behrle, it might actually be a bad thing that Silliman closed down his comments. Behrle’s online persona is like a broken clock that always points to “self-important douche”—except that since he’s talking about other poets, he’s right way more than twice a day. So: refreshing.

That would only make him an interesting online curiosity, though, if his poems didn’t back it up. Well, I’ve just finished reading his most recent chapbook, Succubus Blues, and I feel that I can fairly say he does alright. I’m not sure if he’s really (as he’s declared himself) funnier than most of the Flarfists, but he sure as hell holds his own, and by pairing his cut-up/standup routines with a more straightforward first-person voice, he gives himself a chance to really maximize the dynamic of comedy and pathos that Flarf usually only teases.

If that doesn’t quite happen, maybe it’s because Behrle’s sincerity remains more artificial than Flarf’s artifice. Where the best Flarf poets can—by channeling their own deepest anxieties through the chorus of Google—tap into something that feels both fundamentally human and utterly impersonal, Behrle’s shticky pseudo-confessions tend to bury him further in a kind of hard-luck, “don’t-get-no-respect” persona. There’s huge poetic potential in his strange mix of exposure and artifice, vulnerability and facetiousness; but as of yet he may be best tapping that potential through his series of endlessly churned-up, ambiguously one-sided internet feuds. He may just be the first literary artist whose true medium is the flame war.

Whatever else he is, though, he’s also kind of clever smart-ass that poetry still needs more of, full of sick satirical burns like “I adored the blurb you gave me so much / I wrote you a thank you blurb,” or “I want to shock you in a wine & cheese kind of way.” And then there is that other voice that lurks behind the wisecracks, the one that, in “I Establish Rapport,” seems to genuinely wish it could do just that—the voice that hates all the careerism and fakery not for its own sake but for the way it isolates and dehumanizes; the skillful lyric voice that can instantly pivot our viewpoint from the togetherness of the crowd to the loneliness of the performer: “We can’t help it, Jim, we touch and feel loved / Although completely alone / Behind the mic I’m burning too.”

“This is as good as I’m ever gonna be / So, you’ll have to be the one to change into a green brutal / Diamond,” Behrle writes in one self-deprecating yet ironically wonderful moment. Could be—but I wouldn’t be surprised if he still got better. Or if not, hey, there’s always the flame wars.