The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

Joe Pan’s Operating Systems

Joe Pan
Operating Systems
Spork Press 2019

It’s quite rare, these days, for a poem to become front page news in the New York Times. On March 8, 2013, Joe Pan’s “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper,” a twenty-page beast first printed in the literary quarterly Epiphany, was quoted and praised in an article that ran in the Times on page one—below the fold, but still. Now, “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” is reprinted in a volume that is philosophically vast and linguistically beguiling, a genre-bender of a book that may only nominally be a collection of poems.

Really, it’s two books in one.

The first is a remarkable array of material unto itself. There are poems, such as the lead offering, “Odysseus Teaches One of His New Dogs to Say ‘I Love You,’” that feature the tongue-twisting rhyme-sans-metre syncopations of rap, and whose only real sense is a kind of raw aural joy.

Others, such as “Bedford Ave L,” which reflects on having witnessed a subway death (and which Pan chronicled in another form, also for the Times, incidentally), are only a solid copyedit away from memoir.

Poems like “The Performance” hit more like stories. A professor writes spontaneously on an overhead projector, as a piece of performance art, and her text is then set beside—facing page translation–style—the Tweets of her audience. Despite the disjointed delivery, “The Performance” left me feeling as though I’d just read a particularly good offering from George Saunders or Sam Lipsyte.

Finally, there is poetry that tiptoes into the Uncanny Valley. Anticipating some future era when lines and meter and enjambment have been consigned to the same junkyard where quatrains and couplets rust their way to dust, “The Film” feels like a poem composed by machine intelligence, in anticipation of an ideal readership of machine intelligentsia.

What Pan understands best is that every instant is an infinity. Each of the poems in the first part of Operating Systems—the poet’s fifth book—is like a fungal blossom of an entity that lurks unseen beneath the rich earth of the page. Or better, the book is like a worm—you go in one end as dirt, and come out the other end as cleaner dirt—and you sense that each portion of it could be cross-sectioned out and grown into a new worm. With a little critical tinkering, the following could be made to stand for the whole:

Contrapuntal as celluloid & score

are core & stomach muscles gone wrong

but O so right, like the impetus to extinguish empire,

or another bee slathered in its own sweet scent.

Such scholarly finagling might not be necessary, however, as there are moments when the poet poetizes about poetry, as in “The Poem”:

Dear John. Dearest, I don’t know who I am anymore. Every room of text a honeymoon suite. The civil war. The rebellion against a repeat. The warnings of attrition. I as the infinite bass line. The lyrical id. The calculating enjambment. The operatic pornographer. The agitator. The playful emancipator of spatial echelons. Those distrustful of voice. The overlord. The ever-present. Dearest, my love for you exists in lists but listless wanders off to weird peripheries; will you learn to forgive my wandering ear?

Pan is the editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Arts Press, an audacious little outfit that has put out dozens of books over the last decade. Many of these—like Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, which won the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry—take political stock of the modern world. Pan’s work is eclipsed by none of the writers he has published and championed—and often the opposite is the case. The first part of Operating Systems is a book of poetry about the role literature plays in dark ages, a chronicle of what’s like to be in America in 2019, the worst of times, the stupidest of times.

If the poems that precede it are the tips of icebergs, then “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” is an iceberg itself, one drifting toward the Titanic of your doomed hubris. At almost 9,000 words, it chuckles at chapbooks and trebles the length of most full books of poetry. Woefully, the Times quoted just a sliver of the poem’s first fat log of a sentence (if it’s a sentence):

Ultra-cool & promo slick, a predatory dart

zip-lining threads of nimbi, unmanned, over darkling continents, your bot-brain

a paragon of focus & yet mechanizedly desireless, as self-aware as silverware,

& thus incapable of cruelty when delivering laser-guided missiles calibrated

to fountain a small bus full of explosives into a contained puff above a crowded marketplace, or slip eel-like through a cave’s oculate within the Hindu Kush.

It goes on like this for twenty pages more, and I’m comfortable calling “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” a poem only if we allow, as William Gass once argued, that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is also a poem. Just as Wittgenstein fused the rhetorical and the mathematical, so does Pan give us ghosted text that might be reconstructed classified documents, technical spec diagrams of the eponymous military asset, and the kind of capital letter-play that one sees from monkeys on typewriters and millennials on Twitter.

“I just discovered this form yesterday,” Pan writes, earlier in the book, but it applies best to the sprawling formless form of this hulking, brilliant anthem, this “Bohemian Rhapsody” of a poem. It goes on to become a way of addressing Pan’s own younger self, a personified lost innocence, and the Reaper becomes a figure of national tragedy, a character really not so different from the tall hooded farmer for which it was named. While praising it as poetry, and Pan as a poet, I want to scream that “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” is not just a poem—it’s a memoir and an essay and a white paper about black hearts and black death. It’s a sermon, and a polemic, and a treatise, and an ars poetica, and if you think I’m overselling it, then just go and read it, and see for yourself. I dare you.

What’s a genre, anyway—and why do you really need to know whether you’ve just read a story, or an essay, or a poem? Joe Pan might inflict a hemorrhage or two on librarians and bookstore owners unsure of where to shelve him, but Operating Systems is that rarest or rare books—excellent precisely to the extent that it is impossible to classify.


J.C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman’s most recent book is B & ME: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a work of “creative criticism.” He sort of lives in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues