SEPTEMBER 21, 2021
THE COVER OF Andrea Abi-Karam’s sophomore poetry collection, Villainy, features the Arabic word “جرائم / jara’im” beneath the English title. It loosely means “crimes,” but there isn’t an exact translation. The author could have chosen “شر / sharr,” but that translates more to “evil,” which brings a connotation this book isn’t quite interested in. When I think of “evil,” I think of Mordor and the colorful but disposable antagonists of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When I think of “villainy,” I think of the Bush dynasty and the current stranglehold on international vaccine distribution. For a book about the villainy of the state and its accessories, “crimes” is undoubtedly the better translation.
As with their first book, EXTRATRANSMISSION, Abi-Karam’s Villainy is a dizzyingly captivating work of anarchist poetics, seamlessly weaving the blunt language of the Anarchist Manifesto with a deeply vulnerable and inviting syntax. While this book places American imperial violence in its crosshairs, it is first and foremost a document of grief, both personal and collective. In terms of the latter, the poet fixates particularly on the pain of the devastating Ghost Ship warehouse fire, which claimed 36 lives in Oakland in late 2016. Early in the book, the speaker plainly remarks: “You fuck me so we can feel for one second that our friends are not dead.” This uncomfortably intimate relationship between sex, grief, and death haunts the rest of the project. Later, the speaker confesses: “what I want is to be fucked out of reality. we are in the park where I went to a friend’s memorial a couple months ago & I just want to be fucked out of tragedy.”
Pleasure isn’t so much a form of escapism as it is inextricably tied to the burden of the present.
The pleasure of partying is also made political and often existential. The very first page reads:
THE END OF FASCISM LOOKS LIKE CENTURIES OF QUEERS DANCING ON THE GRAVE OF
2. THE STATE
The end of fascism is not the mere end of violence, but the ecstatic movement of the queer body in celebration of that end. This is a book that thoroughly understands the role of pleasure in revolutionary politics, for the end of fascism also looks like “NO REASON TO SLEEP B/C THERE WILL BE NO NEED TO WORK,” what the speaker calls “A TRANSFUSION OF GLAM.” The present experience of partying is not so much glamorous for the speaker as it is viscerally dense and overwhelming, an almost painful experience of pleasure. “I have a panic attack because I’m afraid of the party” is an immeasurably relatable line.
This candid plainness of language is present in how the speaker works through their observations and critiques of how contemporary protest is covered, discussed, and disseminated. In “THE AFTERMATH,” they mock the experience of watching, and attempting to write “about,” a riot from the safety of a 25th floor apartment. This critique is not restricted to the individual. “[T]here’s a way in which american literature / pretends to do certain things / & pretends not to do certain things,” Abi-Karam writes. The muffling of popular action certainly falls under the latter. The poet embodies this opposition and distrust of the hegemonic practices of American literature in the very flow of the book. Villainy’s language often takes on a tone that is as conversational as it is confessional, feeling more like a candid dialogue with a friend or comrade than an attempt at an authoritative text that is relayed to the reader. Just like them, we are also trying to figure out the role of the artist in the abject travesty that is our modern political landscape. The poet says, “i’m trying more to complain about how the riot gets more imaginative / attention than physical attention & how those people doing the / imagining but not the attending / get the most IRL attention,” we, too, feel that frustration, intimately.
Much of the book is a process of questioning. The speaker thinks out loud, often almost erratically, and it is precisely this quality that makes their interrogations feel productive — perhaps not on the verge of answers, but of more questions that will get us closer. Sometimes, the speaker attempts to answer their own questions. They ponder, “what would the fanonian poem even be—,” only to quickly conclude, “it wouldn’t even be a poem or a phrase or a piece of art / in the middle of the street / it would just be fire itself.”
There’s humor, as well, to this Q-and-A process. The speaker seems almost haunted by a pestilent voice that insists on turning their thoughts and reflections into “good album names.” The speaker considers the possibility of a Fanonian form of poetry only for this voice to ask, almost aggressively, “WOULDN’T FANONIAN FORM BE SUCH A GOOD ALBUM NAME.” The speaker confesses to having had many a “fake crush,” and the voice booms, “WOULND’T FAKE CRUSH BE SUCH A GOOD ALBUM NAME.” They bemoan the awful dogma of a feminism that has failed them and, on cue, the voice muses, “WOULDN’T AWFUL DOGMA BE SUCH A GOOD ALBUM NAME.” These comedic moments don’t so much add levity to Villainy as they flesh out the thought process behind Abi-Karam’s poetic critique, making the process feel alive and organic, happening on the page before us.
This generosity of insight into the speaker’s consciousness is key to the vulnerability that is the engine of the book. Abi-Karam’s remarks on the state, police, and institutions of capital are thoroughly sharp but never removed from a distinctly subjective and deeply personal perspective. In “THE AFTERMATH,” the speaker laments, “it’s so hard to feel attached to the idea of a body that may never exist,” immediately adding, “it’s so hard to feel attached to the idea of a world that may never exist.” Here, the experience of dysphoria is intimately tied to a potent sense of political alienation from our current world order. In that same sense, the speaker’s longing for gender euphoria is intimately tied to their longing for a better, more just world.
Difficult as these moments are, the speaker never surrenders to hopelessness, but rather recognizes it as an illusion that only serves the interests of state and capital. In “AN UNBECOMING,” the speaker reflects on their personal and bodily limits, how far they are able to fight back against the current state of things. It is a moment of vital transparency; they admit that none of us on our own are capable of radical change. But before we can linger on this feeling of weakness, the speaker pivots: “I don’t want to think about the limits because all of us together are expansive.” I found this simple remark to be one of the most heartbreaking throughout the entire book. We are also hopelessly limited in our capacities as individuals. Few of us are adequately taught what to do with that, let alone how to channel it into collective power. To come to terms with one’s own mortality like this is mortifying. In “I GOT LOST / I GOT DELETED,” the speaker confesses: “I RUB MESSAGES INTO THE WALL B/C I KNOW / SOMEDAY I WILL BE DELETED.” The digital implications of “DELETED” extend beyond the flesh, beyond memory, even. The verb signals a complete annihilation of the speaker, a definitive end. The power of community is the only way through that fear.
As engagingly dense as Villainy can be, the book’s gesture toward liberation is a painfully straightforward one. In “SF PRIDE #2: AFTER ORLANDO,” the speaker recounts a terrifying experience at the titular Pride in which a cop pushes one of their friends. The speaker then plainly remarks: “i wanna be drunk & not worry & just / cmon let us have this one afternoon where we feel / massive & that the city is ours & no longer tech hell.” On the one hand, the random violence of the cop demonstrates how the state is not the protector of public order, but the very reason people may face violence in public, especially if they are queer. On the other hand, this plea metabolizes the ethos of queer liberation in a simple notion: the ability of queer people to exist visibly in public without fear of violence from the state and the villainy of its accessories. It is a reality within our grasp, if only we would learn to stop thinking of the limits.