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Desire Lines

By Eileen Ying

Andrea Abi-Karam rises up against 'big daddy mainframe'.


Andrea Abi-Karam, Nightboat Books, 2021

It was Amiri Baraka who first made a weapon of poetry. ‘Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step,’ read the famous opening lines of his 1965 poem ‘Black Art’. Malcolm X had just been shot dead in the Audubon Ballroom; the 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed by white supremacists two years earlier; the US Armed Forces were freshly over the decade mark in Vietnam — and all this frothing in the putrid backwash of centuries worth of conquest and enslavement. To call Baraka angry would be an understatement. He was rigged up and ready to go, set on taking his freedom by any means necessary.

‘Fuck poems / and they are useful’, spits Baraka, sharp and rhythmic, to the wail of Albert Ayler’s tenor saxophone. ‘Wd they shoot / come at you, love what you are / breathe like wrestlers’. This was no game. Baraka wanted verse that could pierce through life as it was and leave a new world in its wake. His work, though not without its own troubling contradictions, is often credited with inaugurating the Black Arts Movement, an outpouring of literature, music, visual art, and dance that ran parallel to the Black Power Movement and, like its more widely known accomplice, demanded total and unconditional liberation. Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Sun Ra — its envoys have stuck with us, even as the movement itself has waned. And with them comes the old question: What exactly is poetry’s place in the revolution? What to do with this lyric transport, this stubborn, singing thing that cannot help but be at least a little beautiful?

Andrea Abi-Karam doesn’t wait for an answer. Instead, they wade straight into the aftermath. ‘THE END OF FASCISM LOOKS LIKE CENTURIES OF QUEERS DANCING ON THE GRAVE OF 1. CAPITALISM 2. THE STATE 3. COLONALISM 4. NAZIS 5. RACISM 6. OPPRESSION’, begins Villainy, the Arab American poet’s second full-length collection. We find ourselves, implausibly, spectacularly, at a rave: streaked with sweat and cum and the liquified remains of a stranger’s mascara, swallowed whole by the mass of swaying bodies. The celebration doesn’t last long — just a few pages before we’re returned to the quieter work of reflection — but it’s intoxicating in its surety. How wonderful, to be dancing over the deathbed of injustice instead of mourning the death of another Black sister, Brown brother, Asian mother. How sweet, to taste something like deliverance on a lover’s tongue. In an era plagued by a nagging sense of doom, Abi-Karam’s caps-locked exuberance offers a kind of momentary relief.

Villainy proceeds in eight parts, each held together by a loose string of longings and anxieties. How to ‘give the poem teeth’, for one; how to figure queerness beyond and against the nation; how to inhabit a body deemed guilty before judgement; what to make of desire. The sections are styled almost like mixtapes. ‘What is Closed’ / ‘What is Contained’, ‘I Got Lost / I Got Deleted’, side A / side B, at turns poetic and polemic. You get the feeling that they could pass hands behind the bleachers or in front of the convenience store. That you could stick them in your cassette player after school, maybe call up your friend with the spiky hair and listen in rapture as each track slips fuzzily into the next.But if Abi-Karam’s lyrical assaults carry something of the bright irreverence of ‘90s punk acts like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, they also bear the murkier weight of contemporary internet culture. In ‘The Aftermath’, the poet complains about writers preening on livestream during riots, but never participating, then quips, ‘i should be careful bc this is starting to sound like some macho / manarchist / riot or die manifesto’. It’s hardly a joke, of course. These days, as Abi-Karam writes, ‘the riot gets more imaginative attention than physical attention’. For every hundred people who read an exegesis on criminal sentencing, maybe ten will show up to the trial.

But I want to turn, first, to the question of form. For all of its conviction, Abi-Karam’s delivery is frequently errant and equivocal, oddly scattered in its attentions. There’s a tidy meditation on Fanon and poetry, then, all of a sudden, ‘WOULDN’T FANONIAN FORM BE SUCH A GOOD ALBUM NAME’. There are entire passages that hinge on the slightest modulations, trapped, it seems, in some private neurosis:

I think about the limits of what I will & will not do in order to stop this

I think about the limits of what I will & will not do in order to stop this

I have limits / what my body is capable of / what my body can withstand / how much trauma I can absorb

I think about the limits of what I will & will not do in order to stop this

I have the limits of my resources / my networks / my friends

I think about the limits of what I will & will not do in order to stop this

I don’t want to think about the limits anymore but I feel as though they are not thought of enough

Yet I found myself weirdly compelled by their obsessiveness, entranced by their sheer rigour. Reading these passages felt like stealing a glance into the reptilian depths of Abi-Karam’s psyche — a place wholly intuitive, without filter or repair. And I say this in sincere endorsement. Abi-Karam speaks plainly. Their writing may be messy, but it’s pleasantly void of pretension. The collection, composed amidst the double-catastrophe of the 2016 Oakland Ghost Ship fire and the 2017 Muslim ban, contains the fallout of all that they have witnessed. It’s testament, as Abi-Karam notes, to how ‘accumulation becomes / a book’.

Villainy’s narrative unrest also registers a broader ambivalence around queer and trans identity. Its poems sit uncomfortably with the notion of representation, by now thoroughly — and oftentimes quite bizarrely — assimilated into neoliberal discourse. (Think corporate Pride and that horrible Manhattan Mini Storage billboard.) You’ll encounter no harrowing coming-out tales here, no syrupy odes to sameness, none of the melodrama favoured by the literary market. Villainy could not be further in tone from Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. But still, this is a collection of and for the queers. For Abi-Karam, that’s queer as in smash the state, queer as in a quick fuck, queer as in joyous communion. What’s hazy is not the doing but the being.

It’s only fitting, then, that the book’s most striking scenes are those that depict what Abi-Karam calls ‘unbecoming’. From the second section onwards, we’re beset by fantasies of total dissolution. It’s never clear whether these are meant to be utopic or apocalyptic; they’re at once violent and euphoric, salubrious and sacrificial. ‘I WAIT FOR MY RIBS TO STRETCH & WIDEN OUT SO I CAN LAY DOWN FLAT SO I CAN SLIP THROUGH THE BORDERS’, Abi-Karam explains. But before the borders lie endless sheets of glass, the idiomatic ‘ceiling’ made mutant and delusive. ‘I AM TRYING TO TRANSITION INTO A WORLD W/O SO MANY SHEETS OF GLASS TO RUN THROUGH’, they add, desperate. There’s a sly lesson about identity politics here, which is that the corporate world’s favourite metaphor for inequality may itself become a trap — that, in breaking through all this glass, we might lose sight of where we were heading in the first place.

Transness and its transits remain open estimates in Abi-Karam’s poetry, defined not by an endpoint but by faithful motion. This other, terminal world has not yet arrived. The chase continues, though. In one poem, Abi-Karam asks what it means to ‘contain an identity’, which swiftly devolves into an image of their ‘multiple selves / fixed against the wall / hooks around their necks holding them in place’. In another, they attempt to dig a hole for the parts of themselves dribbling onto the sidewalk, a nod to Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series and ‘Moffitt Building Piece’. (Mendieta’s pieces, the former a succession of feminine forms carved into the earth, and the latter an eerie chronicle of a bloodstain deposited at the door of her Midwestern apartment, are well worth a look.) Elsewhere, they scramble to recover a mouthful of fallen teeth from the ground, but it’s too much and much too late. Coherence generally eludes them. When it does come, it’s ruthless: a slaughterhouse, a grave, a pile of tiny bones.

To understand Abi-Karam’s thinking, we need to know something of queer theorist Jasbir Puar’s concept of ‘homonationalism’. In 2007, Puar published Terrorist Assemblages, a groundbreaking study of the US’ fixation with terrorism (cinched by 9/11); its recent fortification of the security state (the Patriot Act, for instance); and its selective acceptance of homosexuality (that is, same-sex marriage for white yuppies). In her view, these phenomena are linked. Gay rights, Puar argues, have been enlisted in service of the Euro-American war machine. It should thus come as no surprise that a recent CIA recruitment video stars a gay agency librarian, or that Israel touts its queer-friendliness as proof of its civility while massacring Palestinians by the thousands. Peek at the underbelly of liberal tolerance and you’ll find the deviant Brown subject, marked a harbinger of ‘terror’. You’ll see that Western modernity is propped up everywhere by its spectral Other.

In practical terms, this has resulted in a state of hyper-surveillance against queer and trans people of colour — especially those coded, by language or appearance or garb, as Muslim. If it weren’t so entrenched in everyday life, we might call it a state of siege. It’s at this juncture that queer identity’s prevailing narrative arc — focalised around the act of coming-out and enshrined by the proud gay-in-public — starts to feel unstable. What does it mean to celebrate an annual day of visibility when, for many, visibility is just a half-step away from interrogation, harassment, deportation, or death? When to be visible is also to be culpable?

These questions are etched plainly onto Abi-Karam’s collection. They find their first and clearest response within the title Abi-Karam has inherited by consequence of their very existence — Villainy. ‘A nation built up against a simple villain’, they write, just ahead of the book’s halfway point. ‘I am the villain’. On the following page, stark and unforgiving against an otherwise vacant surface:






But Abi-Karam is shrewd. They do not disavow this notion of evil, taxing as it is. They refuse to capitulate to the state’s idea of a good queer. Surrounded on all sides, they dissipate into something else altogether: red, winged, ‘DARK & DISFIGURED’ — America’s worst trans nightmare. Here again are echoes of Mendieta, who, in a 1974 short film, dips both hands in blood and drags them along a white wall to spell, ‘There is a devil inside me’.

In the wake of this layered image, I’m reminded of a conversation with a classmate early last fall, exchanged under the eaves of a university afflicted with the worst excesses of Western erudition. Stop thinking of yourself as an imposter, he said to me, dead serious. You’re an insurgent. What he meant by this was that the figure of the imposter enfolds a certain complicity, that it’s premised upon an ideal deeply vexed at its core. The logical antidote to being an ‘imposter’ is becoming ‘real’. But if that ‘real’ thing you’re measuring yourself against is fraught, then the label of the imposter becomes problematic too. My classmate had no interest in belonging to a crowd of entitled Oxford students — in becoming a coloniser, for real. It was ‘simple’, as Abi-Karam says. The insurgent rejects the terms of their would-be acceptance. If American heroism bespeaks a certain set of white, upper-class, heteropatriarchal norms, then why go anywhere near it? Better to be the villain.

Now this, we should note, is not exactly a new identity. It’s closer to what Gilles Deleuze, a figure referenced obliquely throughout the collection, calls ‘intensity’. Movement, force, flight and pure difference. Deleuzian thought — centred around the concept of assemblage, or agencement — is fundamentally incompatible with our traditional, slot-like categories of queerness. Rather, it draws our attention towards the channels through which we become intelligible and obscured, towards the thousands of minute transformations that produce every seeming whole. As Puar writes, riffing on Deleuze, ‘identification is a process; identity is an encounter, an event, an accident’. Any subjectivity we might hope to inhabit is by nature circumstantial, and therefore provisional. The villain is thus nothing more or less than what it seeks to dismantle. But lest we get too deep in the theoretical weeds, Abi-Karam takes care to pull us back ashore. ‘I try to read theory but just think of you fucking me with your / entire hand’, they declare. We don’t need to read Deleuze to understand how their work is Deleuzian.

Over time, desire itself becomes the modus operandi of Abi-Karam’s reformulated queerness. The book’s final sections turn outwards to the world. Introspection gives way to flashes of togetherness, and the first-person pronoun explodes into a profusion of we’s and you’s. We’re back where we started, at the club. And Abi-Karam’s gallantry returns with a glorious vengeance: ‘when the cops kicked us out / we used their headlights / as a stage’. In a sequence of poems set at San Francisco Pride, political aspiration and erotic appetite fuse into a single dazzling alloy, so that our poet, standing at the foot of the boarded-up Lex — the last remaining lesbian bar in the city — can only admire ‘how we all are in this moment / under daylight / the expansiveness / sad & temporary’. It feels good to believe in something together, even when that thing is being eviscerated before our eyes. It feels good, if only temporarily — and it’s this good feeling, Abi-Karam attests, that will teach us to dream of something better.

If this sounds idealistic, it’s because it is. Abi-Karam knows this. The trick of their collection is that it never lingers anywhere for too long. Hence the deflating tonal shift at the end of the fragment above — ‘sad & temporary’ — or the way in which a moment of intimacy in ‘Hold My Hand’ is cut through by ‘that fine, brutal line / b/w visibility & surveillance’ (but then immediately restored by the sight of the lover’s spiked leather heels). Villainy, taken as queer ethic, flits across the public so as to mark its inconsistencies. A subversion, if you will, of the parameters of the ‘out’ gay.

The poem that best displays Abi-Karam’s spry footwork is perhaps ‘Daddy Sandman’, the book’s penultimate effort and its most lucid standalone piece. A play on the folkloric Sandman, who sprinkles magical dust over the eyes of children to summon good dreams, it traces the massive systems that structure our most cherished desires. The result is a sort of high-contrast fantasyscape: a cascade of bodies marching down the street, a city made vast with longing, the single maraschino cherry ‘trans*ported through the veins of global capitalism / to bob in each of our glasses’. Abi-Karam rubs the sand out of their own eyes while in the same breath luxuriating in its residual pleasures. This isn’t excision so much as it is superposition — the idea that many things can be true at once; that, if nothing else, we might be the ‘noise’ that periodically overrides ‘big daddy mainframe’. That poetry, though immaterial, drums out the opening beat of this necessary excess.

In Villainy, it’s Abi-Karam’s resolve that we hear, full and flagrant above all.

‘I WANT A BETTER APOCALYPSE THIS ONE SUCKS’, they shout, daring us to join in, to plunge chest-first into the pit.

In this dream, all of us do, and somehow — swept up in the motion, teeth bared in joy or in rage — we find a way through.

EILEEN YING is reading for an MSc in Medical Anthropology at Wadham College. They like to build fires.

Art by Kathleen Quaintance


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