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Mark Lamoureux on Andrew Levy

“Constant Sorrow”: Andrew Levy’s Don’t Forget to Breathe

 

 

The yoga teacher is imploring us to allow our mundane, chattering thoughts to leave our minds and enter a state of peace and relaxation. “Don’t forget to breathe,” she says, reminding me that the deadline is approaching for the review I intend to write of my friend Andrew Levy’s book bearing that very phrase as its name. Later, during Shavasana, a gravely-voiced singer-songwriter intones the same phrase from the studio’s boom-box. I really need to get to work on that review. The ambient recurrence of the book’s title is appropriate given that the book itself has much to do with the dopey persistence of language.

 

Released in 2012, although containing work going back much further than that, Andrew Levy’s Don’t Forget To Breathe employs some of the same techniques as Flarf and many of these poems would have been written when that group was coming to the fore.  However, Don’t Forget To Breathe has an altogether different agenda, which it achieves both satisfyingly and sinisterly. Whereas Flarf seemed largely dedicated to mining the insipidity of the unbridled language of the internet, Don’t Forget To Breathe mines similar materials in order to highlight the toxicity of our daily exposure, as readers, to the narcotic ambient din of both overheard and “overread” language and to “un[do] the ‘constant sorrow’ of rhetoric,” as Eleni Stecopoulos, one of the book’s blurbers, puts it.

 

The very first piece of content in the book is a highly-pixilated picture of a tree-trunk followed by a dedication to “Heretical citizens / Who possess the mental / Capacity to channel the absurdities / Spewing forth / From capital” and an epigram from Voltaire, “Language is a very difficult thing to put into words.”  The tone of the book is set by the long opening poem “Billy Dale Shoots to Kill,” named after the former White House Travel Office director involved with the Travelgate scandal of the early Clinton Administration, which occupies more than half of its 112 pages. The poem is a pastiche of language presumably acquired from exterior sources, inviting comparisons to Flarf, but “Billy Dale Shoots to Kill’s” parataxis seems more focused on presenting a dissolute cross-section of the lexical zeitgeist rather than exploiting the demotic to comic effect.  This is not to say that “Billy Dale” isn’t funny—it is extremely funny in parts—but that humor is subtle and blacker. “Keep your mouth shut, and blow / Does retirement have to wait / until 90?” 

 

The isolated phrases employed by the poem begin to acquire the veneer of copy disjointed from advertising campaigns or ironic T-shirt slogans that have lost their meaning amidst an overall cultural decay. I pictured a throng of zombies shambling en masse with said slogans emblazoned on their chests: “The situation turns both nasty and grimly hilarious,” “Delicious, organic, not merely food,” and “Even I’m sick of the color purple / And I’m purple.” 

 

Scattered amidst “Billy Dale” and other poems is language presumably pulled from online adult-dating spam, “Will you be my f#ckfriend?”  “Would you be available for a lot of sex? / I could really use a fuckfriend,” interlocuting with relentless and desperate regularity and speaking to a kind of cut-off loneliness, which, in the midst of the morass of language, becomes distinctly un-ironic. The reason why internet-dating phishing scams exist is because people are lonely—we have all been there: “We know so much / It takes great discipline and effort / To hear each other.” Whereas Flarf seems to set up an ironic distance between the presumed author/assembler and the texts themselves, these poems appear to throw their lot into the fray—the author admits that he, too, is any everyman/everywoman, just like the texts he borrows for these poems.

 

The authorial presence in the book seems to wax and wane, with later poems in the book appearing to be at least partially “written” in the conventional sense, although the very idea of the author is troubled throughout the texts, with various lines appearing as the inaccurate results of Google ego-surfing: “A former page himself, Levy offers to mentor pages and / Keep in touch with some of them after they have been / Published, according to interviews.”   The book itself seems to wryly sneer back at its author in one particular moment, mis-identifying, “I think you’re a real natural in the / Poetry department, Bob.” Additionally, a poem comprised largely of two-word stanza/couplets, “Identity / Consensus” seems to address issues of identity and authorship “Global / Individualism,” “Village / Mass” and echoes another work of Levy’s, The Big Melt, published pseudonymously as The President of the United Hearts in which individual agency seems to disappear into a sea of futile verbiage and quotidian suffering.  The voice of the book’s narrator even seems to be relentlessly searching for an identity amidst a morass of voices that render such concerns irrelevant “It’s a feeling of suspense / I’m a super hero.”

 

There is a convention in every zombie film in which the camera pans to a vast swarm of undead stretching to the skyline and beyond—the heroes finally realize what they’re up against—and Don’t Forget to Breathe is itself similarly vast and terrifying—with the title itself seeming to offer a kind of medicine-bottle warning concerning the contents of the text.  It is not a book meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, but what it does, in its stultifying onslaught of white-text noise is to highlight the preciousness of clear language and of the human/author presence in the midst of a storm of sterile data.  The best thing about a f#ckfriend?  They are an organic entity.  There are only two similes in the entire book: “Slavery is dark / blue like the sea” and “It glowed like / milky mother-of-pearl,” and when they occur they offer a profound sense of both the fragility and the insufficiency of such a language-device, but they are, at least, a kind of respite in the midst of the cycling late-capital madness-echoes of the rest of the language: “That I do not let people die on me, / I mean it. I mean it./ People die on me. / Do not let that die on me / I mean it I / Do not mean it when I old / You told people die / On me, meant people do not let / You die I meant.”

 

Later poems in the book become more overtly political, offering up a kind of smorgasbord of human crises of the early 21st Century, reaching a kind of fever pitch with no sign of relenting, much as the century itself seems to march on relentlessly, and that is what this book is—a kind of assessment of the human condition and the possibilities of language in the world that is becoming.  The prognosis isn’t good, but the book is, offering us a kind of tough love for fellow travellers, closing, appropriately, with the following poem titled “The Sky Falling Down:”

 

Come over here

 

Oh honey, daddy will take care of you

 

Stay there, hide

Would you like some more candy?

 

He’s sleeping

No, he’s dead

 

I’m going to push you off the bed

 

Don’t worry

 

 

 

He’ll acknowledge you

By and by.”

 

Likewise, Don’t Forget to Breathe pushes us off the bed when we least expect it, but it weeps for us there, on the floor, offers a shaking, sweaty hand though it can do little us for us, doomed as we are.  

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