Nathan Hoks reviews a collection of poetry that is both riotously funny and artfully devious.
Loren Goodman, Non-Existent Facts (otata’s bookshelf, 2018), 60pp.
In his thorough and thought-provoking Atlantic essay “How America Lost Its Mind,” Kurt Anderson traces the causes of our catastrophic post-truth era back to the 1960s counter-cultural challenges to mainstream values. However, he also suggests that Americans’ penchant for defining their own reality is embedded in the national character, part of the myth of the individual and cultural need to constantly reinvent the self. It’s part of the American folk character, so it makes perfect sense for Loren Goodman’s Non-Existent Facts to proclaim that “What’s fact is fiction and what’s fiction is folked up.” This fact-fiction-folk triangle might be the guiding principle of the book, which is both riotously funny and artfully devious.
In Non-Existent Facts Goodman presents 55 untitled, short prose pieces which read as a series, for their effect builds as they accumulate. Each piece raises questions about the factual accuracy of historical figures. It begins with the mammoth of all literary conspiracies, Shakespeare:
Rumors abound regarding the most famous English playwright’s existence. Was he gay? Did he steal all his work? Was he secretly a woman writing under a pseudonym? No one can care for sure.
At face value, these short prose paragraphs seem like a skeptic’s playful jab at the hazy factual ground that many legendary figures stand upon, from Moses to William Tell. And to an extent, this is true. However, there’s a telling slippage in that last sentence which we would expect to read as “No one can know for sure.” The oddly used “care” signals that something’s not right on a basic textual level. Sure, one might say that “no one cares” about such trivial details, but the context of the idiom (“for sure”) makes it sounds like a poor translation. We get carelessness in place of the unknowable. And this, to my mind, is a crucial clue into the book’s main poetic concern, which is neither truth nor factuality per se, but the way minor, careless mishearings can construct wild alternate realities.
The pleasure of this book lies in watching these textual mistakes concoct alternate realities through Goodman’s deft maneuvering of bad rhetoric. It’s a circus of punning, anachronism, cacography, and catachresis–a chaotic spectacle of malapropism. Beyond the obvious comedy in these devices, there’s a pleasure in hearing and thinking about words differently, which Goodman produces in puns like “a rose (con pollo)” and “Some speculate the ‘H-’ [in Helen] was silent; others, shouted.” But mostly we have gleefully juvenile moments, such as “the only evidence of [Socrates’] existence was in Play-Doh,” or “It would be a shame if the most beautiful woman in the world didn’t really launch a thousand shits…” The Biblical Moses gets a delicious “40 years of dessert,” King David has “a bath with Sheba,” and we are told that “The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving worst literature.” One of my favorite anachronistic malapropisms mixes ancient Chinese philosophy with medieval English legend: “After the stories of Robin Hood spread throughout Britain, outlaws began referring to themselves as Robin Hood, adding to the Confucius.”
Over the course of the book, the folksy voice becomes amusingly jubilant in its exclamations of doubt: “But was he realistic?” “No one can be sure!” “…but no one is really anyone,” “…they were probably real, but who knows?” And the zany statements get weirder, funnier, wilder, and more imaginative in their conflations. Goodman constructs a demented alternate reality in which the William Tell legend overlaps with Adam and Eve and Socrates just might be the Green Hornet. In its virtuosic zaniness, Goodman’s book reminded me of John Oliver’s conspiracy theory skit in which he admits to his own “jealousy at the sheer scale of imagination required to believe” in such hoaxes, then proceeds to construct a theory linking the Cadbury Creme Egg to the Illuminati.
By the end of Non-Existent Facts, we have tipped into total fantasy with a debate about Superman:
Still, other experts say there is evidence for his [Superman’s] historical existence. And let’s face it, lots of people (like Wonder Woman) have died in defense of Superman. But whether or not you’re a doubting Thomas, “Superman” is definitely gonna find you, is gonna get you, one way or another. And if the lights are all down, he’ll see who’s around (maybe). Still other experts–like Lex Lucifer–do all they can to slay Superman.
Goodman might be suggesting that the slaying of Superman by the misnamed villain (a malapropism which makes him doubly villainous!) amounts to an allegory of the death of truth, truth being a heroic pursuit, a little bit ridiculous in its cape and underpants but nonetheless of noble intentions. Or maybe he’s just having a good laugh. In any case, I think Goodman’s achievement is to make a poetic machine out malapropism, the word that is a close but not perfect double, an act of poor listening and carelessness. In this, the poems show us that there’s a feedback loop problem in the voices of our post-truth conspiracy world. It’s not that skepticism per se is the problem; it’s that we aren’t good at understanding and rearticulating the nuances in viable critiques of accepted versions of history or reality. “Hard to care” states one poem, in another slippage of “care” for “know,” and its ironic truth is that the care required to know is indeed difficult.
Nathan Hoks is the author of Reveilles, The Narrow Circle, and Moony Days of Being. Along with his own poems and essays, he has published translations of work by Christian Dotremont and Vicente Huidobro. He directs Convulsive Editions, a poetry micro-press, and teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.