(Unlikely Books, 2014)
Larissa Shmailo’s #specialcharacters is both product and response to the Millenial generation, the effects of capitalism on the artist and individual, and our post-Internet culture. But Shmailo’s use of language—the way each line of each poem and each word of each line and each syllable of each word opens doors to her collection’s other poems, and other lines, and other words with, yes, other syllables—has its roots in a movement much closer to the Cold War Kids, poets like Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, who edited the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E publication from 1978 to 1981, and Steve McCaffery, whose “The Politics of the Referent,” published in Open Letter in 1977 became the major foundation for a movement which declared language as a “tension and relationship of letters and lettristic clusters … struggling towards, yet refusing to become, significations.”
Lines are crossed out to be read as its own revision in the aptly named “Fixing,” while in “Bhakti 2,” bolded sentences are to be read a second time, before or after, or (mostly) in between the full-length prose poem. “t(his), (he)re” uses parentheses to encase stories in other stories, a matryoshka doll approach Shmailo employs throughout, a manifesto which is embodied in the last line of the aforementioned “Bhakti 2”: “ever returning, again and again and again.”
These formal experiments recall the Language poets, a contingent that began in San Francisco and New York City in the 1970s as a reaction against capitalism and its commodified, corrupted use of language. The solution was disruption; sentence, narrative, syntax. Other characteristics of the Language movement include an emphasis on the de-centered “I,” advancing the lyric through its disjunction; the poem’s lack of a representative voice in favor of fluidity. These versions—versions and perversions—that Shmailo eschews is what best characterizes her latest collection, a small, dense book that develops and increases each time you unpack it.
Shmailo begins by “Aging (Fibonacci Sequence: 01123581321345589),” which might be a hint to readers about where they will be going, and the tools they’ll need to get there, one of which is the ability—and affinity—to question each other, and more importantly, ourselves. Shmailo’s poetry is able to achieve an intimacy because of this vulnerability; the fact of our unknowability and yet our striving to still pose the question.
89 am I 8 or 9? The young ones are 34, my children 55. There are 13 pills in the morning, 13 pills at night. But what, exactly what might happen next? A working soul and another season’s turn, what else did I ever have? This world is greater than my numbers, the poesie of my self. I take the garbage out and set it on the street with joy. Tell me your secrets: I am the one who truly wants to know.
Repetition and recursion are used interchangeably throughout “Aging” and #specialcharacters’s concern with identity and identity formation. In order to unpack Shmailo’s enigmas, there’s a basic rule: self-reference. By invoking the root of self, which for Shmailo, exists in the body, she is able to generate a whole set of other selves. Shmailo’s primary concern with the body, once again, is not coincidental. #specialcharacters, as previously mentioned, is a response to a particular culture and its cultural norms, and the poetry of politics, as Stu Watson suggests in his essay, “Political Poetry” (Prelude, Number 1), must have at its central locus the actual human body in the physical world. “The body,” he writes, “as repository of unexchangeable feeling is our only hedge against the workings of so much insidious linguistic machinery.”
It makes sense that this political focus of the Language movement, baby boomers like Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman, and Lyn Hejinian reacting against consumerism, would be recalled forty years later, with the post-Internet millennial generation. If ever there was a time for “insidious linguistic machinery”—surveillance, classification, curation, re-presentation, and constant proliferation—it’s today. Capitalism, like narcissism, takes an individualist perspective. Shmailo’s fragmentation endeavors to force a rupture in the one-way communication that typifies how we interact to create a vent, from which will spring other vents, not only to engender dialogue, but primarily, to breathe. What more important function of the body is there?
To speak of function in Shmailo’s poetry is to think, again, about fluidity, what might be best understood as the one cultural norm for Millenials. In her “Lager NYC,” the line: “You, volunteer” is used repeatedly, until it becomes both an address and a directive, an order. You as volunteer, but first you must volunteer. Noun becomes verb and role becomes function, and vice versa, the same way that in our current climate of re-invention, our own roles are prone to conflation, reduction, and ultimately, fragmentation.
You choose to be here
You know the difference
Between cause and effect: …
We see you
On the job where you whisper
Half of what you think
And none of what you feel …
Hey, you, volunteer
The strongest section of #specialcharacters is its finale: Shmailo’s twenty-page prose piece “MIRROR, or a Flash in the Pan.” This is, not surprisingly, a story within a story: the story of Ritar, the writer, encapsulates Hetera, the call-girl turned poet (or poet-turned-call-girl) too. The point, once again, is fluidity, utter and absolute. In between Ritar and Hetera’s narratives, we read query letters for novels ranging from genre sci-fi to high-brow film treatments. This lengthy prose piece resonates best because Shmailo focuses on the “special characters” of her title; the emphasis here is on the dehumanizing effects of a hashtag; technology and consumerism; what our cult of celebrity and currency—in all its forms—have done to us as humans. Stripped of her more formal experiments, and with less attention to biblical and ancient Greek and Egyptian references, Shmailo captures the plight of our current cultural condition with rawness and beauty—beautiful because of its simple honesty.
The reality shows train people in servitude as the 21st century wants it. Despite humiliating, impossible challenges, despite verbal and physical abuse, no one wants to go home. Perhaps there is no home to go to.
This prose sequence ends with an act of apparent finality, but before we reach that point, Shmailo once again questions our norms—which by extension, are Ritar’s too—the degree to which we reinvent, perform, and perhaps, even, pretend. When we’ve lost ourselves, and when we’ve lost our way home, what measures might we take?
Her lack of adaptation to her environment, Darwinically damning. But what kind of people adapt, after all? Ritar used to believe anyone who adapted had sold their soul to do so. But now that the environment had rejected her, Ritar would be happy to adapt, given the alternatives.
If Shmailo’s book is also about currency, our lack of it, our power against it, the ways in which it shapes us in the economy of Likes for Likes and FaceTime, what price do we pay as human beings, to adapt and adopt ourselves, for a religion that is devoid of a human face?
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is the author of seven books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James's The American and Gertrude Stein's “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work appears in American Poetry Review, Ambit, Nat. Brut, Poetry International, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and Life Writing, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and edits PANK and PANK Books. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece, “This body's long (& I'm still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. In 2019, he was awarded a CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institute fellowship to join the Consortium for the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.