Language after Words

Reviewed by Sunny Chan

Donato Mancini’s Same Diff welcomes you in, quite literally, with the words for “welcome” in languages that “represent populations currently at war or under siege.” Then it slams into you with a series of unexplained poems that seem to be themed lists of compiled text: go-to lines for delivering bad news, synonyms for “etc.,” neoliberal positions on civil liberties and social justice, experiences of extreme hunger, language about what language is, and more. These poems are presented with no titles, and they are differentiated from each other only through contextual clues, without the usual paratextual signs. The table of contents, a conventional signpost for readers at the beginning of a book, does not appear until near the end. I urge you to experience Same Diff at least once in the order it is given, resisting the urge to skip ahead to the back of the math textbook to see all the answers. It is an immersive experience of trying to make your own sense out of an ocean of language about centuries of pain and cruelty, just as Mancini himself must have done to make this book.

One key way to read what we might broadly call procedural poetry is to think of the procedure itself as part of the work as a whole. This reading involves considering the text as not only the words on the page but also the process of how they were chosen. It is not until almost the end of Same Diff that the reader finds out that a long poem documenting the abject torments of forced hunger is called “Bottom of the Pot,” and is constructed from sixty-nine source texts about life in prison, famines, POW camps, concentration camps, the Holocaust, and soup kitchens for the destitute. The explanations of where the found, compiled, and redirected language comes from are like poems themselves, as are the acknowledgements, from which we get this important takeaway: “Books are written by communities.” Here, Mancini means the communities of friends, colleagues, family, and scholars who helped him personally, but in the broader context, it also means the communities whose words form the book. For example, “Where do you feel?” is an assemblage of answers—collected by Mancini from social media, print, and personal conversations—to the question of “where in your body do you feel grief, anxiety, and/or depression?” The answers are arranged by increasing length, from “in my eyes” to paragraph-long descriptions of physical grief. A community of sensation.

As with Same Diff, the poems in Tara-Michelle Ziniuk’s Whatever, Iceberg could not have been written without community, without extensive interaction with the language of others, nor without the digital age that allows us instant access to expansive quantities of documented personal history. The poems in Whatever, Iceberg are mostly about romantic and sexual love in the Internet age, where time is not singular or linear but rather echoes in spirals through tagged photos, Facebook notifications, Twitter suggestions, chat logs, and, of course, good old-fashioned analogue memory. There are a lot of mentions of using things besides words for verbal expression: emojis (“I am thankful for emoji. How else could I quite communicate what I do”), hashtags (“#queerfail”), Snapchats, speech-to-text, Google Maps, and on and on. It is tempting to diagnose the anxiety in these poems as a crisis of language. However, at the heart of them all is an anxiety that actually comes from the fact that communication happens between people, and the thing about people sometimes is that “even if the only thing in the world I want is you, I am never going to get that from you.”

Whatever, Iceberg is a collection of irreverent, candid, sometimes blunt, and sometimes also surprisingly soft poems about being in love. Their tone can oscillate wildly, from playful lists to melancholic longing to the simple anger of “When I say I miss you, I could disclaim by remembering that you were an asshole.” The speaker is often frustrating, even unlikeable, as she navigates the world of queer dating and polyamorous relationships, and steers hard into icebergs of jealousy and bad timing. But the willingness to present oneself openly, not to be too precious, and to be disliked occasionally, is exactly the kind of vulnerability that these poems advocate.

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