It’s hard to write about Elisabeth Workman’s Ultramegaprarieland without adopting its own wry, dystopic, and psychedelic vocabulary. On first read, the book feels a bit like a game of Mad Libs played alternately by postmodern philosophy professors, randomly selected snatches of Us Weekly, and drunken Pokémon. If it wouldn’t increase the costs of the print runs exorbitantly, it would feel totally appropriate for, say, page 50—”Ptolemic Poodles”—to have a pop-up of harajuku-appropriating-era Gwen Stefani belting: “This shit is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” Except that the overall conclusion of the book seems to be altogether the opposite. Workman so thoroughly encloses us in a technology-soaked culture that is yet somehow threaded through amber waves of Americana that you start to feel like it’s not really bananas at all. This shit is just the state of affairs; women are used as props, there were “a lot of emails” about Cyclops (“The Weary Guest Ledger”), and everything is made of plastic. Her whimsical and even elegant work is to tell the reader-fish about this water we’re living in; our own cultural glitter-plasma is what Workman labors to make visible.
Gwen Stefani doesn’t actually make an appearance in Ultramegaprarieland, but Steven Hawking has a TV show, Hello Kitty is a facist puppet of the State, Vin Diesel has beef with Chuck Norris, and Bea Arthur is hanging out with a unicorn in a pink tutu. Hang on to your fedoras, kids. Unsurprisingly, Workman is an admirer and sometime member of the Flarf poetry movement, wherein bizarre Google searches and snatches of Twitter feeds can become fodder for poetic works that buck convention in both diction and structure. Indeed, regarding her involvement in the Flarf collective, Workman said in a PRX interview: “I think the line kind of blurs for me, because before I was part of the Flarf collective, the way I worked in poetry, I was interested in the inappropriate, the quote-unquote ugly, the irreverent, the awkward.”Ultramegaprarieland makes thorough and plentiful work of this aesthetic, feeling like a double shot of surrealist Flarf with a twist of “found” poetry thrown in for good measure. No pop cultural icon is safe in this book, and no bizarre juxtaposition is left unexplored.
From this reviewer’s perspective, Workman’s poems seem right at home in 2014 (probably because they feel so intensely contemporaneous in their source material), part of a kind of para-academic poetic creation and celebration of the absurd that is (again, always again) having a moment. I read Workman and Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals within weeks of one another, and so it was hard not to draw lines between the way they shared irreverent styling and an unending appetite for pop culture and Americana alike. Maybe I’m just stuck on thinking that Workman and Lockwood should totally be friends, and joke about their love of uncomfortably erotic dolphin references and long, evocative book titles that seem to say, “Hey, this is America. On Drugs. You’re welcome.” Or maybe that’s weird.
But the poems themselves! Whatever the excitement the diction of the book ignites in the reader, these poems are so much more than just a neon mishmash of cultural milieu stranded in distressingly bleak deserts, or even merely texturally pleasurable. Workman’s tongue-in-cheek replication of American cultural fixtures is always at hand, forcing the reader to examine concepts critically via her unusual juxtapositions and bizarre images, and these have definite thematic arcs (if not always explicitly narrative ones). There’s also not a whole lot of distinct humanity apparent in Ultramegaprarieland, but that feels intentional. Everything is distilled, objectified, everything is a plastic cup about to be thrown out in the eerie but comical landscapes of Workman’s imaginative poetics:
“O wherever. We are lengthy and wolflike lounging amongst mangroves.
The city rises against our longing or simply by chance, subzero and we
are the cells that make up the body of the item girl.” (“Bollywood Drift”)
The contradictions of modern life are made plain and set in relief against our shared memory. These are cyborgs, but funny ones. Ultimately everything has the marks of consumerism:
“This is nothing more than a Revlon commercial with people
illuminated by headlights, halfway over the bridge.” (“Little Western”)
“That was a springtime poem
about rebirth new car sales
Persephone’s commute from Hell….
A nearly mystical invocation
of local sense; a magic,
timeless, musical sphincter
for a white, “nonemotional”
wormhole in which Kafka
meets Garrison Keillor
and eats him.
It was going to get ugly
It was already ugly
It was never ugly and we
have no recollection of anything
ever being ugly.” (“Commuter Song”)
Revlon commercials and self-styled manic pixie dream girls have met their final destination and their highest representation outside of a limp Zach Braff film in Workman’s sublimely cascading verse. In Ultramegaprarieland, their primal fears are rendered eerily, with panache and humor:
“…magical laser beam cannon stiff blasting mode with
a shadowy intro by an experienced Magical Girl whose monsters of the
week are anything not diaphanous.
Holy anything. Literal boom….
…. red awnings totally read
wrong, the ghosts inside living like light in love with absolutely anything.” (“Holy Anything”)
Workman’s surrealism and her prowling ghosts remain humorous and playful even as the excess and plastic surfaces of her poetic landscapes are consistent and totalizing:
“Marie Antoinette sits on a metaphor for the sun
and surrounds herself with models of profit,
dying cultures, pirates uploading video footage.
Yesterday the house was illegible, a vanquished
pink and obsequious at the behest of storyline.
Only squirrels could request admission. Today
Joan of Arc wanders the perimeter, portraying
suffering as the necessity of our own departure.” (“Woo Faxes from the House of Wax”)
One of my favorite pieces from the collection, “We Are Surrounded by Parking Lots And,” contemplates these themes of gendered isolation, political unrest, and inherent disposability with what feels, to this reader, like a bit more teeth, asking what it might mean to be surrounded by parking lots, to be “fissures in an unfinished monument” or figures “rutting as though they’d lost / all human nature.” Sex and death mingle in a cosmic soup that ends with pharaohs moaning. You can lose yourself in these weird landscapes, trying to peer through the poem with a cereal box decoder ring. You’ll fail, ultimately, because the work is mostly inscrutable, though certain emotions ripple outward again and again.
If I wanted make a theoretical assertion about how this work is making meaning, I’d coax it from the way its diction becomes normalized (after 14-15 poems, you are lulled into a unique rhythm, no doubt) and thus reveals unexpected philosophical and theoretical interconnections between seemingly disparate sources. The divine historic and the pop cultural and the simply absurd meld together to form the cacophony of Internet culture, of America as it is now, not as it might be imagined in its publics or in the ways it is often mediated or constructed in mythmaking. This is a surrealist landscape where the world is awash with petty concerns, gripped with unbelievably vapid yet somehow urgent desires. But I’ll let Workman’s speaker explain this herself:
“It’s better at this point
if we all lie
in a giant circle
with our heads pointing
to the center and remember
the history of history,
not name any names, just mimic
the normative movement of
bodies through geography &
time. From all directions
our ridiculous hemispheres
fondled, enfolded, collapsing
in a conversation about
free college essays on “being”
on the sacrificial pontoon
reuniting love with easy alternative to extinction.
Don’t worry, we’re not alone.
In fact the river courses
through ten countries
before it dumps
into pure consciousness.” (“Vespers for a Staged Reunion”)
Ultimately, these are poems for anarchist Kansas hayfield queens and cynics with a sense of humor, poems for playful romps through the ever-uncertain touch-screen future, and ultimately poems for us all. I’ll leave you, in the spirit of Workman, with an unintended juxtaposition of this own publication’s energetic name with her playful style:
“…How now, muff-fed rumpus? You
and your leopard & falcon huntress, Stalin
is on a chicken diet. TTFN! Execute a new
mafia scene in a spa experience then pass
out. Pass pastures, imply bloodletting, flop
impishly among tulips. How minions made out
belied any difference between empires. What news abroad? Here, provinces, drink and fear not what we say, they said, eat laser beams and
shoot them from your eyeballs, stay hungry, live forever…” (“How Now, Muff-Fed Rumpus?”)