Review by Melissa Lozada-Oliva
Kelsey Street Press / April, 2019 / 112 pp
At a poetry reading once, a poet I deeply admire said “We forget that we are just animals.” Writing, she said, helped her remember that. Some humans have deep-seated AI anxiety and cyborg anxiety, but we are also addicted to our independent technologies. In EXTRATRANSMISSION, Andrea Abi-Karam’s debut collection of poems, a speaker faces and transmits this anxiety, a cyborg learning to live in a world as a reaction against the world.
Animals appear throughout the collection. There are lab rats, therapy horses, therapy dogs, and dying fawns. For all intents and purposes, not machines or cyborgs. Each animal lives in relation to humans and is never far away from being a tool and subsequently, a weapon. The speaker says, “DID YOU KNOW THAT IF YR A COMBAT VETERAN WITH PTSD U CAN GET A NONPROFIT THAT IS FUNDED BY THE CIA TO GIVE U A DOG? I WANT A DOG.” We learn later that combat veterans also get to ride therapy horses for free and that lab rats are used by the Department of Defense. The sympathy animals bring to mind Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where real animals don’t exist anymore but everyone gets robotic animals anyway (sheep, cows, chickens, cats) to prove that they are empathetic, that they can take care of things. Abi-Karam asks us to be empathetic with animals by showing us the ways in which the animals are used by violent institutions. So yes, we are animals, but we are used in the same way animals are used: to distract us from the pain of being a human, to make profit, and to find new ways to kill.
We do see human body parts in EXTRATRANSMISSION when the speaker flays the bodies of bros. Tech Bros, Sports Bros, Bro Poets, Cops — men who take up space and uphold systems of power. In this series of poems, Abi-Karam exhibits a hyperbolic, world-building anger, describing driving a screwdriver through a Cop’s skull while his “LEFT EYE WATCHES FROM THE SIDEWALK.” The Bro is human because he has spent his whole life never doubting that. The Bro causes injury. The Bro makes you sick. The Bro doesn’t want you to remember. By pulling a Bro’s body apart, severing his hands and cracking his ribs, Abi-Karam demonstrates the necessity of violence for survival, especially as a trans Arab person in the United States.
Abi-Karam shows us that intimacy is an antidote to violence. In a series of later poems told from the perspective of a lonely therapy horse, the horse “longs for (touch),” waiting all day to be petted by their traumatized companion, a combat veteran. The horse says “how you need someone to take care of you instead of you/trying to take care of the whole country.” The horse remembers seeing the combat for the first time, saying, “you pet me like you had never/needed your palms to be against/something more than my body.” While Abi-Karam continues to show us the ways in which animals are used, they also reveal the necessity of intimacy and the healing that comes from it.
Abi-Karam’s unabashed use of language also shines through in their sense of humor. As a poet, I’ve struggled with being funny without deflecting something more serious. Abi-Karam isn’t hiding behind anything in their debut collection. Their sense of humor rings loudly and gorgeously, and each one-liner comes with a deeply seasoned self-awareness: “THIS IS NOT O I FORGOT U 2 EVEN DATED SRY IF ITS AWK WE’RE FUCKING NOW.”
The resonance of the situation speaks to what Abi-Karam calls the “poetry of directness.” Initially, we see this directness in a one-sided call and response between a singer and a quiet audience. The speaker/singer gives the audience instructions to kill, among which are: “kill the hierarchies of power of who is publishing who & who is fucking who,” and “kill the bro poets” and “kill the language of avoidance that made it so hard for me to write this.” Abi-Karam kills the language of avoidance and social structures built by people who don’t care about their bodies by being as direct as possible. Using humor, Abi-Karam is also able to call the reader out. This bluntness and vulgarity is as powerful as it is necessary.
The poems in this collection present complexities of war, trauma, and gender intelligently and articulately, but in such a way that there is no skirting what they are saying. Again, directness makes these poems effective, and it’s an element often missing from literary conversations. Writers often use language for the sake of prestige, safety, keeping power where it is. Sometimes it feels like the best literary criticism happens within subtweets. Perhaps writers are afraid of speaking directly due to potential consequences from the powerful institutions that support us. Will they stop publishing us? Will we be booted from the algorithm? Our prize money might not be taken away, but we fear that future opportunities will. Abi-Karam acknowledges struggling within the literary marketplace by saying “I WANT TO STOP CARING ABOUT THE AUDIENCE BUT I STILL WANT U 2 CARE ABOUT ME.” They then say “FAKE IT TIL YOU MAKE IT. FAKE IT TIL YOU MARKET. FAKE IT TIL YOU MARK. IT.” Self-awareness like this shows Abi-Karam’s belief in the poetry of directness. The possibility of finding beauty without being obtuse. The necessity of using language to show the nastiness it can mask.
Abi-Karam continues to confront this off-page and through performances. In one sequence of poems, the speaker pulls wires in and out of their body, becoming a “communication exoskeleton,” a “new glitch, a new disruption.” At some readings, the audience hears Abi-Karam’s disembodied voice recite lines from a series of poems about pulling wires from their body while Lix Z staples their body. Abi-Karam then pulls the staples out of their body and reads from a sequence of poems describing the decreation of a human body into a cyborg body while lying down and being stapled. We, the audience, are afraid of what our bodies are capable of getting used to. We are afraid of those who fearlessly plug wires in and out of their skin, who force us to look at the stagey quality of the made-up gender binary. There’s a reason this collection doesn’t end with “creation” and instead ends with “EXTRATRANSMISSION.” The goal here is communication. The goal is telling a story loudly to a crowd who may or may not be listening to you.
What is a poet’s purpose in making change? Maybe it is merely one step toward a better world, but an important one. Collections like Abi-Karam’s yell at us until we make decisions and movements, until we decide to find a way to destroy the war machine.
EXTRATRANSMISSION did not leave me breathless. It violently pumped me full of air and brought oxygen back to my brain — almost too much. It let enough air in to finally call back to the speaker, to let them know that we’re ready to be here and remember. To show us that we are cyborgs in mourning, but that this mourning can be fruitful and can lead us towards a better future.
Melissa Lozada-Oliva is the author of peluda (Button Poetry 2017). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Redivider, Muzzle, Teen Vogue, Adroit, Pigeon Pages, Homology Lit, & BBC Mundo. She lives in Brooklyn.