Saturday, August 22, 2009


Amuse Bouche
Adeena Karasick

(Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2009)

Amuse Bouche is a new book of poems by Adeena Karasick. It’s also a term that’ll be familiar to those who dine at fancier restaurants. There, Amuse-bouche is “a single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre” served for free as the meal begins to excite the taste buds and “offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” Given this meaning, Karsick’s book can be read as a collection of poem-treats in which she, the poet-chef, shows her way with words.

Amuse Bouche came to me via the kindness of Robert Kasher. I don’t know Kasher. A few weeks ago, in response to my post on comma crazy poems (click here to read, if you please), he left a comment suggesting I check out an illustrative comma poem in Amuse Bouche. He also wrote that if I wanted a copy, he’d send me one.

Well I did, and he did. On Amuse Bouche’s acknowledgments page, Karasick thanks Kasher for his “tireless dedication.” I like dedication to poets. There should be more of that in this world. So thanks Robert Kasher, thank you very much, for the book, and for helping a poet.

As Karcher wrote, there is indeed a comma poem in Amuse Bouche. There’s also, as it turns out, a few dardanic prose poems – poems that use a well-established, typically non-poetic, form or style. As you may remember, I like those kind of poems too (click here to read). I write below about the comma poem, a few of the dardanics, and one or two other poems in the book as well.


“Commatery” is the final poem in Amuse Bouche. The poem has ten un-numbered parts, each of which takes up a single page and has near its center an oversized image of a comma or commas. These images are generally positioned such that the comma’s head and curved tail are not aligned as it would be when traditionally used in a line (see the second and third examples below).

Each page also has a line of text across the page bottom. These texts mostly pun on the word comma, and relate to the image(s) of the comma(s) on the page. For example, the first of the poem’s ten pages/parts features an image of a cracked, disintegrating comma that’s also shedding tiny dollar signs. The text at the bottom of the page: “crumbling eccommanomy.”

Most of the poem’s ten sections – and again, each section is a single page with an over-sized image of a comma or commas – are clever. They do amuse. The pun-ology is fun, and fun too is the way Karasick’s imagination wields the comma, or maybe it’s the way the comma yields to her imagination.

I’ll share just three of the poem’s sections, starting with the plainest comma of the bunch, which sets a sort of baseline for the others (I use commas in parentheses to separate each page here):

(, , ,)

This next section/page is a full-on flirt. The commas, turned on their sides, become a pair of art-deco eyebrows, perhaps, with one raised, but also maybe two stylized birds. Two birds winging towards that part of your mind that falls, and falls hard, for poems, poems that suggest and imply. But to return to where I began, this section is about the flirt, the seduction, the allure:

(, , ,)

The final example needs little from me. To paraphrase the ditty from the Beatles’ White Album, “Why don’t we do it on the page?” Why not indeed? Here you go, have at it:

Now, that’s one hot comma poem!

(, , ,)

The ten parts of “Commatery” are preceded by a four and one-half page lineated poem – “And Without (for all the commas)” – which the book’s back cover describes as a “exploring commas as the mistresses as language . . . .” The poem has a repeated refrain, “she will meet you,” and the pronoun therein refers to the comma. Karasick thus personifies (womanifies) a punctuation mark not often (ever?) invested with such qualities. That’s wacky, but it’s fresh and invigorating to see the comma that way.

Karasick’s poem suggests the comma will turn up in all sorts of circumstances, which of course, across the broad expanse of writing, it in fact does. Here are two excerpts from “And Without” (the poem includes about a dozen similarly developed sets of lines):
she will meet you,
through the accumulation of sweeping intervals,
saddled all sly and sumptuous seeping through
the sprawling hysteria of
mystery, misery, mastery

[ . . . ]

And with unmitigated anguish
she will meet you
on the edge of aching torment,
wisped rasps, gasps
groping orders,
borders, pleasure
ports, portents, pitted against
screaming silences
Nice, yes? I really respond to the allusiveness of these imagined encounters, and love as well their looseness. Karasick luxuriates in the play of words, in their rhymes and alliterative similarities. Because each “she will meet you” set of lines is relatively short, but also seems to flower fully, the poem both moves quickly and holds attention deeply.


Let’s turn to the dardanic prose poems in Amuse Bouche. The first text or work in the book is such a work. It’s titled “Reader Safety Information / Care and Use Guide : Criteria For Readers.”

The poem takes it’s form and style from the aircraft guide / passenger safety information card or brochure found, as the flight attendant says, “in the seat pocket in front of you.” These cards/brochures typically describe the plane’s features using ultra-slick, full-on hype mode prose combined with demonstrative visuals, and of course set out the safety information in a comprehensive but ultra-clear manner.

For the airplane in the source or model text, Karasick substitutes her book. The passenger, of course, becomes you, the reader of the book. The poem thus concerns the book and what the reader may encounter or experience while reading it. The text of “Reader Safety Information” is printed in an over-sized font, which I think mimics the look of the card or brochure found in each airplane seat-pocket. Karasick also intersperses graphics in the text, similar to what you’d find on a plane.

Here’s the first of the poem’s eighteen pages (please click to enlarge):

That’s pretty marvelous. The poem continues in this style, and lexically rich tone, for its entire length. Probably if it were trimmed it would be better; the poem does get repetitive. Other dardanic prose poems might serve as object lessons here. Scientific research reports, for example, drone on and on, but J.G. Ballard’s classic Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, which uses such reports as its model, only consists of seven very short sections. Similarly, when Harry Crosby used a telephone directory as a model for a poem, he presented only about twenty entries, not an entire page of them.

That said, most of Karasick’s “Reader Safety Information / Care and Use Guide” kicks serious ass. Particularly fun are the sections modeled after the super-confident prose that hypes a particular airplane’s features, with zippy verbs to persuade you that both the plane is something special and that so too are you, just for being a passenger. Here are a few sentences from about the middle of Karasick’s poem (italics in original, but illustrations and fully justified spacing omitted):
But, there’s much more to today’s Amuse Bouche. Aporitic & interstitial
transports wing their way through otherness & verfremedungseffekt. Through paratacticism, patagramaticism, juxtaposition and slippage, with AB you are able to fly away and into destinations of confusion and desire – where dreams come and go; where imagination of prospects, possibilities, displacement, investment, excess and liaison all remain a vital praxis.
Karasick’s “Reader Safety Information / Care and Use Guide” is available on-line in its full, and fully illustrated, glory (click here). I recommend you go read it. But first, please return your tray table and seat back to a fully upright and locked position.


Another dardanic prose poem in Amuse Bouche is titled “Rules to Text By or Rules of Textual Engagement.” The model here is the prose-mode from the best-selling 1995 book, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. In Karasick’s poem, the advice is pitched not to women looking for men, but readers engaging creative texts. In the book, the poem is printed in a curlicued italicized font, and the text is presented atop an image of an old-time scroll (as used in religious traditions), all of which I assume comes from the original best-seller.

At points, “Rules of Textual Engagement” works fairly well, as at the very end, when Karasick advises:
For goodness sake, the text is not just after

A One Night Scan

The text wants something real. Lasting.
That only YOU can offer.
It wants
a fully metonymous relationship.

For life.
The substitutions here are just about perfect. “Scan” for “Stand” is so neat the change is almost hidden, a trick that makes me giggle. More obvious, yet subtle still, is “metonymous” for “monogamous.” Of course, the sounds of those two words are very close, and in terms of the message being conveyed, I like that “metonymous” connotes “associational,” which in fact is a good way to relate, long term, to a text.

Even better, “metonymous” can be read (how meta is this?!) as being used metonymically. See what I mean? The word “metonymous” here stands in for, say, “poetic,” in the same way that the term “the White House” can be used to denote “the President.” For me, a great text deserves precisely what Karasick’s “Rules” say it wants: a fully poetic (“metonymous”) relationship, “For life.”

However, Karasick’s “Rules” are sometimes less convincing. Specifically, I don’t like lines like the following, in which the “play hard to get” advice from the original The Rules is transformed into what seems to me very odd advice to readers:
So, to keep a text from getting too much too soon,
don’t read it more than once or twice a week
for the first month or two.
These lines, true enough, skewer the cookie-cutter directives of the original (in which of course “man” took the place of “text” and “see him” for “read it”). But still, Karasick here seems to suggest the we limit our reading of poems. To me, the fiery all-consuming initial reading of a poem is one of the great privileges of being alive.


The title poem of Karasick’s book is sort of but not quite a dardanic. “Amuse Bouche” (the poem) is organized under headings of the kind found on a fancy restaurant menu, and is printed on pages with borders that mimic the florid look of the worst of those things. The poem mixes menu and food terms with words and phrases from current (or not-so-long ago) events, mostly of the militaristic-terror-world politics kind. There are a dozen pages of text, plus a title and and end page, both of which also are done up to look like a menu. Here’s one of the early pages of the poem’s text (click to enlarge in a new window, if you please):

This poem isn’t dardanic because it proceeds in free verse; the text, in other words, is not arranged in the manner of menu listings. That’s okay, although given the set-up (with a menu cover and the illustrated border) it surely would have been a great way to write the poem. In any event, there are moments of inspired word-play in “Amuse Bouche,” daggerish mash-ups of food, culture, war, and current events, as when the poem declares,
Oh just suck the savory juice of this unilateral lexicon and
the lingering zing of your saucy

imperialism laced with a tapenade of
terror . . .
But there are also points in this poem where it seems that Karasick flogs the conceit, trope, or form too hard, where the concept (a mash-up of food and events) seems the only thing that matters and the whole thing becomes (sorry, a bad pun myself here) overdone. In particular in this regard, Karasick’s puns on food names – and there are many, seemingly one every other line and sometimes more than that – often seem a bit too much.

I’m a poem pun-lover of the highest order (click here for proof). I can be, in other words, a willing glutton for word-play. But in “Amuse Bouche” the portion of puns is super-sized. It sometimes feels as if the entire jumbo load is getting force-fed through the eyes and brain, sort of similar to a poor goose getting fattened for fois gras. After a few dozen similar puns or allusions in the first several pages of “Amuse Bouche,” I’d had more than enough by the time I came upon, near the poem’s end, puns such as “Islami sandwich,” “Iraqi road,” “frozen madhi pie,” “don’t pull the rugallah / out from under my feat” and “Just tagliatelle it like it is.” Some of those are really good, don’t get me wrong. But after having already consumed so many others, I just had to say, É troppo molto!

The other odd thing is that the puns I quote just above all appear in the final menu section, which is titled in big bold letters, “Fromages and BonBons” (roughly, “Cheeses and Sweets”). What the heck are puns that refer to lunch-meat, a leafy green used in salads, and a pasta doing in the menu section for desserts? There are similar mis-matches between the puns in the poem’s other menu sections and those section’s titles. Again, it just seems as if the concept was over-exalted, maybe at the cost of the poem itself.

Well, and anyway, I’ll give Karasick the poet-chef credit here for trying to (er, um) cook up something new, even if it isn’t totally delicious.


There are about a dozen other poems in Amuse Bouche, in addition to the poems mentioned above. Some work better than others. Two poems – “I Got A Crush On Osama” and “Hotel Kaballahla,” – are take-offs on well-known song lyrics (the viral video-tune “I Got A Crush On Obama” and the Eagle’s “Hotel California,” respectively). If these are clever – and that’s arguable since re-doing song lyrics just ain’t that hard to do – they are clever only the first time they’re seen or read.

Karasick’s “I Got A Crush On Osama” is particularly goofy, in that she went and made (more accurately, made with others) a music video of her poem. And when I say music video, I really mean it. The thing looks as if it cost lots of money, or lots of people lots of time (or both) to make. The video has the general look of the original “I Got A Crush On Obama,” with Karasick singing her substituted words to the original tune.

Here’s the video, have a look, although be warned: if you, like me, have specific memories of the World Trade Center such that the 9/11 murders act as a rusted ripsaw that jaggedly shreds emotions, you may be more puzzled or troubled than giddy that images of that destruction are used to, among other things (and in Karasick’s words) “pok[e] some gentle fun at Osama . . . .”:

“I Got A Crush On Osama”


What’s also a bit goofy is that Karasick posted her video just this past April. That’s almost two years after the original “I Got A Crush On Obama” swept through YouTubia. That Obama video, in the words of a website that tracks and comments on these things, “is pretty old news by now.” Generally, the half-life of a viral video is shorter than a New York minute is quick. A satire or parody of one of these things needs to happen fast, real fast. Maybe it’ll all seem simultaneous when the waves of Time slosh everything together, but Karasick’s take on this one seems more than a little late.


One of my favorite poems in Amuse Bouche is “Sure Plays A Mean Pin Ball : A Syllabration.” It’s a 25-liner (a bit more than a page) that directly descends from, or copies, Christian Bok’s marvelous “Ubu Hubbub.” Bok’s poem voices the bombastic bluster-blather of a full-of-it imperial authority. Here are its first few lines, as transcribed and lineated from a sound file (keep in mind, Bok when he reads the poem aloud screams it, insanely, as if he were a methed-up King Ubu crossed with a snarling-Dick Cheney):
Ubu hubbub
blubbering rubber gut a rutabaga
tuba blurb gluttonous kettle drum
cumbersome gummi bears of bourbon.
Karasick’s poem similarly rattles and hums wildly through assonance and dissonance. Here are the first several lines of her poem, plus a set of three (with spacing preserved) from near its end (notice, if you please, how Karasick acknowledges Bok, both in the first line, which adapts the title of his poem that she uses as inspiration here, but also in the last line quoted below, the first word of which refers to the most well-known of Bok’s poems):
Pingpong singalong
Bhranga singsong trickster tagalong
Tictac flogalong suck my dickalong
Headstrong dipthong
Succulent truculent opulent
Bingbang googlegänger bling slinger gangbang

[ . . . ]

Nascent plascent
puissaint raison maison liaison fraison firsson ease on

eunoia blockade memory marmalade.
In contrast to Bok’s poem, which must be seen and (especially) heard as a critique of the authoritarian bombast it voices, Karasick’s poem has no agenda other than its own big fun. The the poem’s title, taken from the great Who song, suggests amusement and games, and the poem’s subtitle – “A Syllabration”– underscores the point. “Sylla” as in syllable, yes, but also “Silly,” and also, of course (looking on the entire word) “celebration.”

I’m not bothered, at all, by the absence in Karasick’s poem of a purpose other than big fun. Quite the contrary. The ludic in poetry is essential, and this poem brings it. Brings it big time. When I read Karasick’s poem, particularly when I read it out loud, I see and hear the silver ball b-b-b-b-boun-bouncing between the bumpers. Ditto ringing bells, blinking lights, flippers flapping, the coil of the spring wrapped tight on the plunger. Let’s play!

I even salute that the poem is totally derivative. In this regard, I actually, really hope that Karasick’s a trend setter. Every poet should write something a la Bok’s “Ubu Hubbub.” What a mad anthology that would be!

The big fun that is “Sure Plays A Mean Pin Ball” also serves to remind me that big fun might be the over-riding characteristic of Karasick’s poetry, at least as I read it in Amuse Bouche. And that’s a quality I celebrate.

For all my kvetching in the paragraphs above, I’m pretty certain of one thing, and happy about it too: if today or in the future I were to knock on Karasick’s poem-door, and ask (assuming appropriate familiarity),
“Can Adeena come out and play?”
I have little doubt that the answer would be,
and that right quick she’d be out on the porch and just like that she’d lexically skip and cartwheel down the street and around the corner, heading right to wherever it was that the words promised the most fun that day.

I’d happily try to keep up with Karasick, just to see where she went and what kind of fun she got into. Even if she stumbled a bit, or took a wrong turn or two along the way, I’m sure it’d be, for my mind, a real good, a most interesting, time.


Curtis Faville said...

The two sideways interlocked commas (or are they flagrant quotation marks on holiday?--or two commas in a sort of sea-horse mating dance?) immediately reminded me of the Monopoly man's huge Capitalist mustache (you know, the little guy on the Community Chest cards?).

I'm not sure Karasick's things don't carry certain conceits a little beyond the interesting point, into dogged dullness. It's important to see how a single idea (or trick) can be exploited, but to build a whole book or career out of a single idea can be absolutely boring.

For instance, Schuyler's The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court could have been extended into a sequence of perhaps 50 pages, with countless examples, but the point was made and further elaboration would have been repetitive.

Your appreciations are exuberant and positive.

I tend to winnow and exclude, in order to keep things simpler. That's a reductive tendency, and I fully acknowledge it. Often, I feel scattered and atomized, and need something straightforward and narrow to maintain focus.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Curtis,

First, thanks for the kind words about the post.

With regard to your comments about Karasick carrying the conceit too far, my paragraph in the post which mentions J.G. Ballard and Harry Crosby discusses the same thing, I think. And I get into it a little bit too in the section on the "menu" poem.

There is an opposing thought, though, in my mind. Maybe best encapsulated by William Blake's line,

"You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough"

as well as his line,

"Exuberance is beauty"

and more enigmatic perhaps,

"Enough! or Too much."

and most directly,

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."

These Blakean suggestions often seem as cardinal principles for me. I give a wide berth to too much, excess, more than enough, especially when couple with exuberance.

But then again, I did write in the main post about the examples of Ballard and Harry Crosby, etc., who greatly limited their use of a model.

P.S. I have read about, but not actually read, Schuyler's The Fireproof Floors . . . . That book, it appears, is truly rare.

Curtis Faville said...

Schuyler's Witley Court poems were published in one of those trade books--Hymn to Life or The Morning of the Poem (or was it The Home Book)? Anyway, you don't need the limited edition to read it.

It was also published first in The Paris Review.

mairead said...

I agree that Adeena would come out to play. I don't know, if I were Steve and Curtis's mom, that I would let my boys play with her! Adeena plays with dangerous materials. She wears such pretty dresses you'd never guess it though! Until you think.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Mairéad,

Thanks for the comment, and your mom-instincts I think are pretty good here (even though I "know" Adeena K. only through the poetry, and a few e-mails since this post went up)!

I also take your comment as a kind of constructive criticism, suggesting that I could have done more to show that Karasick's play ain't just simple fun. Re-reading my post, I'd agree with that. Particularly for example the Osama poem / video. There's a wicked poke to the eye in that one, I do believe, a caustic splash to cultural norms and the like. It's not just (to quote what I wrote in the post) "goofy."