Peasants, by Brad Flis
For about a year, from 1995 to 1996, I worked in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto’s regime retained the small U.S. consultancy that hired me as its Sialkot field office manager. In addition to soccer balls, cricket gear, and leatherwear, Sialkot manufactured and exported all manner of disposable surgical instruments. Highly skilled Pakistani craftspeople, working by hand in factories and garage-size workshops, produced excellent copies of mainly German-designed instruments, ranging from scalpels, tweezers, scissors, and forceps all the way to more complex devices such as specula.
American doctors eager to assuage patients’ contamination fears stoked a bull market for these cheap, precisely-turned counterfeits, which could be discarded after a single use, unlike pricey European instruments made for autoclave sterilization. Trouble was, the Pakistani manufacturers, lacking effective trade organization, undercut each other savagely, sourcing cheaper and cheaper steel in an effort to shave rupees. Nurses in Cleveland and New York and Miami tore open shrink-wrapped packages to discover rusted scalpels, and Clinton’s FDA slapped an outright ban on all imports from Pakistan, effectively stalling Sialkot’s economy.
The consultancy’s brief was to inspect the Pakistani factories, offer guidance, and document the manufacturers’ renewed compliance to U.S. production codes. My job was to type up consultants’ field notes on a factory and fold them into highly formalized reports to the FDA, which in most cases responded by quickly lifting the export ban for the manufacturer in question. Sometimes I accompanied consultants to the factories, bumping along through clouds of gritty yellow dust and heat that could reach 125 degrees in Jeeps with retired J&J men or Bayer men or Bristol men (they were all men). Usually, though, I spent the day at my desk in the AC deep-freeze of our office on the second floor of a nondescript building in downtown Sialkot. All of twenty-three, I consoled myself with the precious nugget that D.H. Lawrence, a favorite poet, had been a clerk in a surgical appliances factory.
When the heat let up a little I would sometimes walk in Abdul Hakim Park, where around twilight you could get a good view of a hundred diamond kites flying tethered to concrete rooftops teeming with kids. One evening, a wizened man in a dirty salwar kameez approached me and, leaning on a cane, brought his pitted face close enough to mine that in the fading light I could see the blotches of his cataracts. After a startled moment face-to-face, I said A salaam alaikum. In response he shot a wad of sputum at my sandals and intoned the initials, “CIA.”
I’d done enough traveling to know that for many, if not most, foreigners an American is a loutish Roman centurion until proven otherwise. Still, that particular encounter unsettled me in a new way. For the first time, I entertained the idea that the accident of being born a U.S. citizen was something to feel guilty about, to apologize for. After all, hadn’t my government supported a client regime in Pakistan, using the country as a loading ramp for its proxy war in Afghanistan? Fully a third of the munitions shipped through Pakistan, it was estimated, had fallen into the hands of local warlords, fuelling internecine bloodshed in Sindh and the Frontier Regions that still raged. Pakistanis had, and continue to have, ample cause to feel disgruntled about American interference.
Traveling light with my backpack and a money-belt lined with AmEx travelers checks, earning in one day what a skilled specula craftsperson took home in a month, could I really go on considering myself some kind of cosmopolitan Henry Miller epigone? My relative ease of movement and purchasing power derived from my home country’s inequitable relationships with nations—of course. I had known that before, but in Pakistan it began to unnerve me more. Well, what is to be done?
I include the above autobiographical ramble in the interest of self-disclosure, because I believe each American poet disposes of the vexations of U.S. hegemony in a manner shaped, in ways subtle and obvious, by the facts of his or her life. Although taxonomy doesn’t interest me much, a spectrum ranging from Marxist agitprop to unselfconscious sentimentality might hastily be sketched. In my amazement on reading Brad Flis’s vivisections of American political beasts in his brilliant first collection, Peasants, I can’t help being reminded that Brad is a Canadian who has spent his recent years encountering U.S. fauna in their native habitats. Brad’s keen expatriate eye might account in part for the distinctively incisive and generous, amused, damning jazz fusion he makes from the tragedies, excesses, brute rhetoric, po-faced patriotism, isolationism, decencies and celebratory bonfires of the American scene.
Before you even open it, Brad’s book invites you to take a good look at yourself. The cover image is obscured by a large rectangle of mirror-paper, a gimmick perhaps borrowed from the graphic designers of Internationale Situationiste magazine (1958-1969), which was once or twice bound in reflective silver stock. The silver rectangle on my copy of Peasants proves too dull to resolve a clear image of my face. Which perhaps is apt enough after all. Which of us can pretend to an accurate self-image, and why would we?
More puzzling and to the point, though, is the fact that the “mirror” on Brad’s cover is framed by the outline of a neatly combed, pinkish, seemingly male, and possibly horribly wounded, head. This graphic “frame” is apparently scanned from a color newspaper photo, benday dots and all. The cover thus encourages you figuratively and also in slapstick-literal fashion to thrust your head inside this clean-cut, maybe truly cut-off noggin. In an analogous fashion, Brad’s poems will help over-educated precariat readers (especially you poets out there) awaken to discomfiting, sometimes punch-in-the-gut hilarious complicities and compromises, artistic and political. The effect is tonic, and only rarely preachy.
“Come centripetal chorus of zero fame,” Brad greets us. Or is it Brad? One of the great things about these poems is how they play with the ways reader and author can share in meaning construction. Rather than carving another gray sepulcher to the irreducible alienation of sign and signifier, Brad gets messy with the wet, oozy clay of morphing language, from which might spring, but only with your active participation, asps and other legendary creatures of the Nile. “What I’m saying to you is about-face atrium… / What I’m saying to you is invention veto… / What I’m saying to you is friend & non-friend entity…” Make no mistake, this is a generous book. We live in rhetorical atmospheres, so why not recognize them so as to breathe more freely, if possible? Call me an optimist, but can’t we discover new ways to be fraught within this world?
Here is a piece of Brad’s long poem, “Nuptials”: (my apologies that WordPress doesn’t seem to let me reproduce the poem’s character spacing scheme)
with wakeful fidelity I brutalize conscience
than laughter crating my dissolve in its series
if the servant-empty feelings
that I thug I observe
I marquis and resuscitate
reeling-in every non-gesture addressed, rerouting city transit
of monitor and touch, two robo’s in cream
so it seems
it is Saturday
as I slip into his arms
nevertheless as a worthy entreaty:
Gone With the Wind
So it follows from all coupling just barely forced to liberalize, picking through refuse not annulled in the hemisphere’s fume of soldered stud, that there is much more patent detail to succumb to, waiting in line, this very grey area, glamour of delighting in one gallant leader of tucked-in space, nested…
One hopes to forge breach in a font as familiar as the picking of an apple at dusk. At least after graduating, fully employable, we’re not a Sarin gas attack. At least we’re not a Sarin gas attack.
* * *
It matters little to me how much, if any, of this language is collaged from the internet or whatever. Given its presentation in a book of poetry, I am inclined to take it for different spins. I’m moved by the way a sound-alike word will mask an expected word, like “dissolve” for “resolve.” If poetry becomes a kind of opiate, are we “Gone With the Wind?” Well “At least we’re not a Sarin gas attack.” These are sentiments I can use.
A wise man once told me, “The world is not fair.” Trust me, it was all in the way he said it. If poets were cut out to be saints, politicians, or great humanitarians, they probably wouldn’t endlessly pontificate about books of verse. Just a guess (and I have read Mao’s poetry). This is not to say there is any reason poets should make peace with the world as they find it.
Brad’s poems at once register righteous anger and the inherent hypocrisies of feeling righteous. He goes at the American Scene with enough tragicomic gusto your eyes will water. Lee Boyd Malvo, the young serial killer who in 2002 hoped to extort millions from the U.S. government to build a “utopian compound” in Canada, orates at Ground Zero in “Ground-Zeroiade.” “Is this really about ego? About structural adjustment? About hearing yourself out? Is this all a dream, a driving-forward experience? Driving off the belt?….Is this about movements?” Malvo wonders.
In reply, the ghastly spirit of Ground Zero chides him:
I hate them because they exist and I hate them
for their victimism, an Internet-based computer game that puts
players in the army boots and black trench coats of Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold as they kill Columbine High School
classmates is souless and sick
to look at. It is impossible for any of us to be prepared…
I respond to so much pitch-black comedy by pulling out my pocket linings, opening my palms outwards, and smiling sadly. At times Brad (or one of his alter egos) confesses dark doubts about the future of English: “By punch-out, it is no longer Lear. / Soon it will never have occurred to us.” But even in their most anguished moments, Brad’s verses are, one might say, neo-constructivist. Brad births a mutation of the sonnet with Olde English and random letters. He perceptively diagnoses the ‘crisis’ of contemporary poetry as inhering in a standardization of free-verse practices that inhibits truly distinctive “pretentiousness” (“American Idol”).
This is not a book that counsels despair, but rather realization, an awareness of things as they are, material and non-material—an awareness of your place in the grand scheme of things. And the grand scheme is not in the end a scheme, given that there is no autonomous standpoint from which to critique or map totality. Peasants makes me want to share thoughts, laughs, and food with other peasants, my friends.