THE ANGER SCALE by KATIE DEGENTESHERICA KAUFMAN Reviews
The Anger Scale by Katie Degentesh
(Combo Books, 2006)
Katie Degentesh’s debut full-length collection is a remarkable union of flarf, formalism, and social commentary. The Anger Scale, a book that takes its overarching title as well as poem titles from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI),
“the most frequently used personality test in the mental health fields. This assessment, or test, was designed to help identify personal, social, and behavioral problems in psychiatric patients.” (wikipedia.org)
By framing the book in this manner, Degentesh not only calls into question definitions of sanity (how or what is deemed publicly acceptable), but, through the utilization of Google search results and the reincarnation of found language, she creates a more interesting psychological evaluative system.
The Anger Scale begins with “I Do Not Tire Quickly,” a poem whose title aptly sets the stage for the rest of the book. The overall tone of these poems is one of intense energy and zest for language, as well as one who is savvy to the commentary that can be made through the juxtaposition and collaging of words. “I Do Not Tire Quickly” begins,
“Even if your heart is messy, I will clean it up.
I have no sense of touch, I do not hear the events around me
and haven’t even had a fever for many years.” (11)
In this opening, one gets the sense that the speaker is omnipotent. Yet, a closer read reveals that the very words that indicate power are placed beside words that negate this (“your heart is messy”—we are human, aren’t our hearts supposed to be messy?). Similarly, the speaker cannot feel or hear, not quite an indicator of strength, rather a hint that he/she is practicing the art of avoidance, of tuning things out. And, sadly this pattern of repudiation is one behavior that seems to have become the norm in today’s society.
As a member of the Flarflist collection, Degentesh is able to pinpoint these sorts of problems and, consequently, negate material subject matter and written forms. And, she does this in a masterful way. To quote Rick Snyder’s essay, “The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf,” “Flarf poets can also evince an obvious concern with poetry as excess, as burlesque, as a practice that needn’t conform with the mannered conventions and niceties of both mainstream and experimental poetries” (Jacket Magazine, Issue 31). So, the “Google sculpting” of Flarf lends its hand in that it frees the writer from restraints. In the case of The Anger Scale, this linguistic pilfering is barely noticeable, what shines through is a wildly assertive, humorous, call to action—or rather, call to reaction.
Degentesh writes in “No One Cares Much What Happens To You,”
“no matter how public it all seems
there’s a forced casualness to this conversation” (13).
This is another instance where language is taken advantage of in such a way that the move between lines, between words makes for a surprising truth, applicable to most any societal circumstance. Another moment like this occurs in the poem, “I Certainly Feel Useless At Times,” where Degentesh writes,
“technology should be allowed to evolve
God will put anyone to use who has the real thing” (18).
This couplet is a great example of the turn of events that can be manufactured by a poet, such as Degentesh, who possesses “line break expertise.” Here the “technology” line echoes as politicized and familiar, while the second line is just jarring, but jarring in a way that slows the reader down, challenges the reader to unpack his/her thoughts.
In “I See Things or Animals Or People Around Me That Others Do Not See,” Degentesh writes,
“And I can’t tell what is serious and what isn’t.
Is it supposed to be funny? It is incoherent.” (28)
This excerpt is brilliant in that these lines work ironically as both a commentary on the poem’s title (question from the MMPI), as well as a commentary on Flarf or the act of writing itself. Yes, the idea of this is funny, the words are funny, but what does this accomplish? Degentesh answers this question in a subsequent poem, “I Very Much Like Hunting,”
“This is a very interesting game.
They grab what you’ve got.
Slippery smooth & fun to play.
I wish you of creative good luck.
Just make sure to bring nice shoes.” (42-43)
The Anger Scale is a book that is a “part of a counterplot through history” with “assurances of love braced through sentences.” “It is extremely difficult to achieve perfect randomness,” yet Degentesh does that and more. This book is beyond an enjoyable read, a learning experience, a political awakening, and a multi-faceted societal critique.
erica kaufman co-curates the belladonna* reading series and small press. her poems can be found in or are forthcoming in: LIT, CARVE, jubilat, Bombay Gin, the tiny, puppy flowers, and elsewhere. she lives in Brooklyn.