Andrea Abi-Karam’s VILLAINY, out from Nightboat Books, is an energizing second collection. Building off of the signature style and questions raised by their debut EXTRATANSMISSION, this book weaves a whole new grain of vulnerability and introspection through its call. Their debut was invested in the critique of US military violence, of surveillance, via the performative look of all-caps poems and txtspeak to build up the prose; while successful in some ways, what makes VILLAINY shine even more so is the emhpasized thread of the function of poetry. Many of the poems in VILLAINY are set in the radical queer spaces that Abi-Karam inhabits; they lean into the eroticism and overwhelm, producing a viscerality that only poems can. Simultaneously, the book asks, but what else can the poem do? Allowing an honest questioning of the role of the poet alongside movement spaces while negating the easy conventions of a poetry collection, Abi-Karam’s work feels right at home alongside other titan works of anti-imperial poetics.
VILLAINY begins with a preface poem that reads:
“THE END OF FASCISM LOOKS LIKE CENTURIES OF QUEERS
DANCING ON THE GRAVE OF
- THE STATE
Abi-Karam gives us a table of contents before the table of contents. I always enamored with preface poems, seeing them as a sort of thematic foreshadowing. Here, the list-aspect of it pleases that instinct even more. In this text, Abi-Karam is talking about the end of the following—know this clearly, from the beginning. I love the formation of “the end of fascism looks like centuries of,” allowing a simultaneity to open this book; there is a sort of honor in this, an acknowledgement that the poet does not write of revolution alone nor in a novel way. This visualization is a beautiful thing to imagine and this imagination is vital to anti-capitalist movements, to anti-colonialism, to building worlds without all that the poet lists. The poem continues into a flurry of incredible prose sections, some in all caps and some in standard case, all formally united in their ability to overwhelm. Abi-Karam writes, “IT WILL BE A GRAND PARTY EVEN GRANDER THAN MARDI GRAS & THERE WILL BE NO REASON TO SLEEP B/C THERE WILL BE NO NEED TO WORK & THERE WILL BE SUCH A REVELATORY PALLOR TO THE WHOLE THING PHOTOS WILL BE EXQUISITE…”; the sentence continues with more and more incredible visions, onto the next page. The spell breaks with, “THAT WE HAVE ONLY NOW JUST BARELY BEGUN TO IMAGINE / JUST BARELY BEGUN TO IMAGINE / JUST BARELY BEGUN TO IMAGINE.” This repetition is a beautiful conjuring. Abi-Karam contends with the fact that the end of what harms us cannot be captured in a simple poem, even a poem that is doing so much to break off the page.
Section One, AFTERMATH, is about trying; the poet continually repeats they are “TRYING TO INHABIT FANON” or they are “TRYING TO FIGURE SOMETHING OUT”—what it is they are trying to figure out, it seems, is the function of poetry in decolonization, in abolition, in movement. As I grow into my own poetic practice and continue to build my understanding of how truly ingrained colonialism is into basically every facet of institutionalized art, I wonder about the efficacy of anti-imperial poetics that still exist within that institution or sphere. I think work that aims to question institutions and speak of its desire to end these violences is useful, regardless, but a big portion of that utility lies in the presentation of self-awareness that poems carry no morality in themselves. Writing is a tool but not inherently a radical one, nor is it inherently radical because the person wielding it hopes it to be so. AFTERMATH is aware of this and carefully presents its thinking, its grace:
“it’s easy to think the poet is the problem / but the poet is really just sad or maybe / even just nothing & the poet can’t / burn down J’s cell or the entire prison / or all the prisons & the poet can’t even write / a fanonian poem because what would that actually look like?” I say the poem gives grace not because it doesn’t press “the poet,” rather because of how this line of inquiry is interrupted; Abi-Karam’s stream-of-consciousness is bracketed by capslocked phrases, a repetition of a very fun convention—”WOULDN’T FANONIAN FORM BE SUCH A GOOD ALBUM NAME” is the first to occur. This repetition functions as a sort of reset, a shake of the seriousness and pause of the thread being unraveled; each time the poem reaches a point at which it can no longer consider what it is doing, the sort-of-joke occurs and we move towards a different consideration of poetry. The section is simultaneously serious and unserious; it allows itself that paradox of using poetry to question poetry, and that paradox is successful within that shake of humor or levity.
VILLAINY carries an incredible viscerality of touch. The last lower-case section of AFTERMATH reads, “it’s so hard to feel attached to your body, these days / it’s so hard to feel attached to the idea of a body that may never exist / it’s so hard to feel attached to the idea of a world that may never exist.” This progression builds the association between self and world so simply, an idea that continues in later sections. By nature of her endorsement on the back cover, I am inclined to put this book in conversation with Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK, which is so invested in the way that our every-day is transformed into violence. Sharif explores how our average speech lives alongside the language for activated military violence, and how that fact is apostrophe for the omnipresence of imperialism in our everyday life. Abi-Karam’s work takes on the inverse, looking at how that same violence reconstructs our relationship to our bodies. As a trans, racialized person, this formation makes sense—it is these societal, structural violences that warp how queer and trans people of color are perceived, and surveillance that has the potential to alter how one performs. In that alteration or transformation, Abi-Karam posits back: “i ask questions like / how to weaponize my own body / or what’s left of it / how do we weaponize our selves / how to weaponize the poem words as weapons / give the poem teeth”; this progression, once again, marries the realms at play: self, world, poetry. Each sphere must be considered in relation to one another.
VILLAINY is a performance piece; Abi-Karam writes in a way that invites the reader to speak their words out loud. With a well-defined rhythm and guiding tone, this book speaks so plainly but still contains an incredible care and rigor. In its rigor lies an invitation for the reader to self-inspect, as well. I do not think it is possible to sit with VILLAINY and not think about the way you, yourself, move through the world; what words and actions do you value? What are you stopping yourself from imagining?
(NIGHTBOAT BOOKS, SEPTEMBER 2021)
You can keep up with Andrea Abi-Karam’s work here.
Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She is the outreach coordinator for the Radius of Arab American writers and co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Mizna, LitHub, The Rumpus, and other places.