DOWNVERSE (Talonbooks, 2014) by Nikki Reimer

(a review)

The epigraph of Nikki Reimer’s sophomore collection reads as follows:

I hated your poem.

Your poem was so boring.

— inebriated audience member at a poetry reading

It’s easy to dismiss this quote as an ironic joke, in place of the usual weighty epigraph borrowing wisdom and glory from some other poet, in part because it is funny and it does function as a joke. However, since this is the epigraph for Downverse, it remains important to treat it as an epigraph, and take the sentiment seriously, in the way that the inebriated audience member seems to intend.

This is the brilliance of Downverse. Reimer’s poems, on one hand, seem to dismiss the criticism by presenting, variously, the unpoetic lexicon of insurance policies and monthly budgets, or uneducated Internet commentators, rather than conventional lyrical wordplay. In this way, Reimer’s Downverse responds to the inebriated audience’s desire for un-boring poetry by presenting, in a challenge to the challenge, the most boring language imaginable rather than felicitous, properly “poetic” turns of phrase.

On the other hand, Reimer’s Downverse responds to the challenge as if this expected lyricism is not what the audience wants, but what it has rejected as boring. Imagine, for a moment, that Reimer might, in this epigraph, be quoting herself. Imagine that she, or someone she identifies with, is the inebriated audience member ready to die from poetry boredom. Downverse then reads like a continuation of the epigraph, the audience’s ongoing response. The complaint of the epigraph then functions like the slogan of an Occupy Wall Street protestor: an aggressive, inarticulate articulation of frustration at how late-capitalist neo-liberalism has cornered even the bear market of poetry, emptying it of any Romantic, revolutionary potential.

In this way, Downverse reads as if Reimer has lost her faith in the power of poetry to express any emotion without commodifying it. (Isn’t poetry, after all, how we carve up and sell off our unique, snowflake selves? For the little they are worth.) Such anxiety haunts a poem like “materiality,” suggesting a strange affect in its affectlessness:

my monthly rent is 27%

of my monthly household income

my monthly phone bill is 5%

of my monthly household income

my monthly life insurance is 0.3%

of my monthly household income

The poem continues to list out expenditures (medical bills: 12%; books: 4% on average; debt repayment: 10%; etc.), and the first stanza ends with the grim news that “my total monthly household expenditures are 100.3% / of my monthly household income.” Later stanzas inform us of Vancouver’s rental affordability indicator (circa 2011) and other statistical, demographic, and economic information necessary to understanding just how “average” Reimer’s budgeting might be.

However cold such “expressions” feel, they are in fact as raw (in their way) as any properly “poetic” emotion, more indicative of the poet’s real concerns than any sentiment. A poem like this functions as counterpoint to a more “emotional” outpouring of what supposedly “matters” to the speaker, providing instead the bare economic reality of what the speaker actually does. The poem also expresses a frustration of sorts at both the raw data (however slightly, the poem’s speaker is losing ground) and the felt inability to meaningfully return to the kind of emotional lyricism that some readers might expect, now that every discourse, conscious or unconscious, has been overwritten by capitalist concerns.

Reimer’s basic technique in Downverse is to crash differing registers of discourse against one another to explore how they function as, on some level, the same register, a short-circuiting that often has comedic effects. A highlight of the book, “the big other,” reacts to the oft-rehearsed but banal complaint that so-called “experimental” writing flaunts its theoretical basis, by boldly titling itself after a concept from Lacanian theory, then humorously displaying how the related processes of self-construction and self-alienation play out in the social world.

Everyone you knew had houses and jobs

but it was okay, you still had your looks

you still got harassed

(“you’re shoo beeautiful”) at the bus stop.

That is the environment

that 95% of the OWS people live in.

Easy there, don’t force it.

You don’t want to overthink everything like last time.

That’s where the occupy wherever hippies will be

as soon as it gets cold.

Someone was supposed to talk to us about editing

and line breaks, but we missed the phone meeting —

Reimer crashes, here and throughout Downverse, the complaints of the Occupy Wall Street protesters against complaints about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, and the language of art, commerce, and frustration, to explore their interconnections and the way that they support one another even as they try to refuse, refute, or retreat from one another.

Reimer captures, collages, and excavates language with an ear for its sometimes hidden, sometimes painfully obvious, political dimensions. Downverse elegantly and often comically questions what poetry might have to do with the language that makes up our world — or might have to do now, since this language has sped past our poetry.

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