Poems I Wrote While Watching TV by Travis Jeppesen
Poems I Wrote While Watching TV offers almost exactly the reading experience implied by the title: synesthetic, kinetic poems hypersaturated with mass culture images, delivered in a tone that manages to sound simultaneously surreal and conversational -- a tension that, over the course of the book, deteriorates in coherence much as you might at the end of a Two and a Half Men marathon. Three years ago in Bookslut, Michael Schaub compared Travis Jeppesen to Kathy Acker, a judgment confirmed by this collection's humor, anger, and eagerness to "fuck things up with the / wind in order to give voice to / all the appliances we keep around us."
Most of Jeppesen's poems involve some sort of aural mistake, as if you were half-watching a show and thought, "wait a minute, what did she just say?" The effects of this range wildly in ambition and effect. If "The Turd of June" is pretty obvious, the idea of a "Midnite fellathon for mystic fibrosis" is a little funnier. Frequently, though, Jeppesen condenses several different kinds of material into one phrase: It's easy to hear "mirrored agenda aphasia" lurking behind ""Mirrored agenda a faze I knew," which is a remarkably useful way to think about the disjointed collusion between mass culture and its consumers. Near the end of the book, Jeppesen complains that "language is a whore. / Socius = chain of manipulation. / The error will always be more interesting," which more or less amounts to the book's chief claim. Jeppesen and Palacek describe their book as a "ruthlessly implosive meditation on the death of language in a media-saturated world," by which they seem to mean the relentless flatness of mediated language. Words on television, because they pass by so quickly, tend to eschew the figurative for the literal. Jeppesen's interest in error tries to revivify all the dimensions of language that exceed information or "truthiness."
It is perhaps easier to make mistakes when you live abroad, and Jeppesen's poems were written while immersed in Czech, rather than American, television. Cross-linguistic puns, as well as urban legends about other languages, are fair game: "fuck off i love you it sounds the / same in that other language, you know." One poem seems to view an entire weekend's television through the lens of a Czech cooking program, and Jeppesen reaches across at least three languages to achieve his various erroneous effects.
Jeppesen's poems take a variety of forms. A highlight of the book is the section called "TV Haiku," which wittily captures moments from television shows, or the experience of watching television, and carves them into mini-poems: "This is not a part / of our scheduled program. Call / it interference." (This poem is accompanied by Palecek's painting of a toilet, in an unusually direct commentary on the text.) Other times he breaks entirely with lines or even typographical coherence, and many of the book's most incisive moments are prose poems. Much like a network, Jeppesen's poems contain teasers for others: One poem ends, "We watch Spanish Kung Fu instead," and the next begins as "Señor Suzuki gets mad at the madam machine, / so Bruce Lee kicks the white man in the head." Another poem ends, "At last we've found / something worth watching," which turns out to be a prose poem that observes "Suffix kindly enervate the verb's relapse into monkey shadow snortquakes," and asks, perhaps plaintively, "Who wants to fuck the bondage earthworm?" Even at moments like these, when the sentences start to fray, Jeppesen shows how that fraying can be productive: Though it's not grammatical, the observation about enervation jibes nicely with the overall argument of a language collapsing into "a postarticulate age."
On the one hand, Poems I Wrote While Watching TV aims at some laughably low-hanging fruit. Even a defender (sort of) of television like Steven Johnson concedes in Everything Bad Is Good for You that the medium tends deplorably to flatten our sensitivity to language. As a result, the book reads as oddly ahistorical or untimely: It could well have been written at any point in the past thirty years. (I get that this is part of the critique, since the mass media tends to make everything "present." But inasmuch as mediated culture has changed pretty dramatically in that time, it is still unsatisfying.) On the other hand, the book's interest in the way television's "flat and staticky" screen distances us from the people and events it shows is fascinating. The word distance in fact recurs quite frequently in this volume, and, as we've already seen in "TV Haiku," Jeppesen is not above using the medium's effect against it. If you're wondering whether this is poetry, Jeppesen might actually agree:
interpret the breaks
each stanza. "That's
not poetry," he says.
It's more a con-
place on a park
bench, the interruption
of someone else's
The entire approach of Poems is captured in that broken "con- / versation." All available meanings of these phonemes come into play: Judged by either poetry-hostile readers or by the standards of conventional lyric, the poems are a con, a put-on. And "versation" makes explicit the etymological tie between verse and tropes, both of which involve a turning away from the flatness of everyday speech. The distance of television and of Jeppesen's poems is registered typographically by the hyphen and the enjambment, in a nice flourish. It is this systematic attention to linguistic effects that redeems Poems I Wrote While Watching TV from merely being a trite poetic diatribe against television.
I've not yet mentioned a key part of the collection, the images of Jeremiah Palacek. The book reproduces paintings, which are themselves re-processed items from popular culture, usually television and videogames. (Palacek frequently draws from television images.) The ekphrasis is usually suggestive rather than direct. Palacek's paintings deliberately emphasize the flatness we see in the poems (and on TV), with the effect that the pictures are disorientingly familiar. (For example, the first time I saw my kid in his Halloween costume this year, I thought he looked familiar. And, sure enough, there it is, on page 14.) Jeppesen and Palecek's book is all about "the remembrance of / things not said not bother writing them down;" in bothering to do so, they offer up a defense of poetry for the DirecTV age.
Poems I Wrote While Watching TV by Travis Jeppesen, with images by Jeremiah Palecek