Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ben Doller, _FAQ:_

As an admirer of Radio, Radio, Ben Doller's first book (he was then Ben Doyle), I've been looking forward to reading FAQ:.

Each poem is an answer to an unstated but presumably frequently asked question; almost all begin with "Thank you for your question." Occasionally one can deduce from the answer what the question was, but not always, so I found helpful the index at book's end listing all the questions.

The format has a lot of interesting angles. For one thing, "FAQ" sections, often encountered in websites and brochures, have a reader-writer transaction all their own.

As a reader, one turns to the "FAQ" section when one has a question, but the questions it contains may or may not include yours; they address questions that are statistically probable, as determined by the tabulation of inquiries preceding yours, but is your question among the statistically probable ones? Do you fit in the schema created by those who have already asked questions? Or does the "FAQ" section ask you as a reader to inhabit a kind of fictional subject position, asking questions that in fact are not the questions you would have asked?

As a writer of an "FAQ" section, you are under a variety of awkward obligations. You do not get to choose the questions you will answer; the history of questions has done that. You are nonetheless obliged to be helpful, to know what the asker seeks and be able to provide it. But you do not get to assume that the reader has the basic background he or she needs; if the reader had such background, why would he or she be checking the "FAQ" section? The audience for an "FAQ" section is a writer's nightmare: numerous, anonymous, needy, ignorant.

Both writers and readers of "FAQ" sections are at a disadvantage going in. Neither is in control of the transaction (statistical probability is in control), both have a lot to live up to (the reader has to have "normal" questions, the writer has to know things "normal"people don't know). It's a format designed to be maximally helpful that has enormous room for frustration, misunderstanding, and self-doubt. Using it as the format for a book of poems is a stroke of weird genius.

Doller ups the ante by having his frequently-asked questions include not only classics of the FAQ form like "What is a widget?" but also questions that are genuinely frequently asked: How's the weather? What is your name and what do you do? What do you say? Why didn't you just pick up the phone? There is even the unanswerable question of Eliot's woman whose nerves are bad tonight, "What thinking, what?"

Doller's answerer tries hard, answering the weather question almost intelligibly, giving us dozens of names and occupations, going nuts with with "what do you say?" --

Shirt, I say.

Shirt shirt.

I said shirt.

-- and so on for several pages, like a soul singer exhorting the crowd to let it all go (in homage to the Bonzo Dog Band? I can only hope).

At times the answerer begins to sound beleaguered, ready to give up. In response to the question "And just what song would that be?", we get an unintelligible word-blizzard that may, sung to the right melody, turn out to be an anamorphized version of familiar pop song lyrics, on the order "'scuse me while I kiss this guy."

But our answerer, having tested us to our limits and tested himself to his, seems at peace by volume's end. In the penultimate poem, he looks back in weary and wary amazement at what he has done:

I simply imagined a shape & I stepped into it. Like a trans-fat, straight up, spackled into a capillary. There was the moment before, then this other moment. A very long moment. A shot of air.

And then, answering the final question, "How do you feel?", he can give James Brown's answer. And he deserves to feel good, as he knew that he would.

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