On Affect and Appropriation/Nada Gordon’s “Scented Rushes”

Nada Gordon’s new book, Scented Rushes, takes a big step away from the Google-sculpted Flarf poetry of her previous one, Folly. The internet does remain an influence, whether through the occasional direct sampling of text (as in “Apex of the O”), or through the seemingly lolcat-inspired distortions that occasionally inflect her grammar (“Have you ever fall into loops with me?”; “I wish I can answer that”). But for the most part, language culled from the internet is replaced with Gordon’s own woozy, swooning way with words—for good and for ill.

For good insofar as that pell-mell, polymorphously perverse diction is undeniably one of Gordon’s great poetic gifts. Her vocabulary is a unique instrument, large and eclectic and luxuriantly weird, and she uses it to smoosh together conflicting registers in ways that suggest a kind of sensualist Charles Bernstein. It’s hard to fully articulate what makes phrases like “the phooey condescension of wryness” or “decorative blame arcade” so physically satisfying, but the sensation of reading—or, maybe better, saying them—unmistakably evokes a mouthful of gooey, sticky caramel.

But also for ill, in that the move away from appropriative poetry leaves Gordon available for a flirtation with more traditional lyric, one that, for me, remains as unconsummated as the romantic infatuation the book ostensibly recounts. The kind of direct lyric that Gordon approaches in “Form Dissolve,” and many of the other poems towards the end of the book, demands as much skill in the economical suggestion of narrative as it does in the poetic use of language. But the most realized scenes in Scented Rushes are of the poet riding the subway and thinking about her emotions, without enough structured detail to get the reader invested in those emotions with her. By the penultimate poem, she winds up citing and decoding lines from earlier in the book, as if trying to explain a joke she knows hasn’t quite gone over.

That we all get tangled in these kinds of hopeless attachments is potentially profound; that any one of us does is generally banal. That’s why Gordon is usually at her best when she finds a kind of collective voice, one that can tell an existential story rather than a personal one. It’s why one of the most affecting poems in this book, “Is Nourish a Noisy Quarrel?,” is also one of the most mediated, like a sampling of Yahoo! Answers posts fed through Google Translate a few times and then stuffed in a blender (if you imagine Gordon’s poetic sensibility as the blender, the rest of that description might well be literally true):

     Is nourish a noisy quarrel?
     Mature size of foxes?
     What are some dialogues that show irony?
     Why grooming is important in aviation?
     What is the voice of the girl the lovely?
     What did Mary Wollstoncraft argue for?
     How do you use being?
     What is the definition of a boyfriend?

As in so many of the best poems from Folly, the alienation that this language imposes between poet, poem, and reader only adds to its keening loneliness—like that tragically inarticulate, sobbing undercurrent that starts to emerge a certain distance down in any online comment stream. From inside the echo chamber of Google, Gordon hits that cold yet reverberant tone better than anybody—and it takes all this book’s linguistic verve to compensate for the lack of that emotional prosthesis, not quite successfully.