(REVIEW) Electric Sarcasm, by Dimitra Ioannou
Jeremy Allan Hawkins’s attentive reading of the poetics of debt in Greek poet Dimitra Ioannou’s pamphlet, Electric Sarcasm (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), places the work in its wider context of economic planning and crisis, disenfranchisement and oppression, revealing a writing of ‘aesthetic beauty not unlike certain works of horror’.
There was something between a rumour and a joke I heard repeated over the last few years, telling how German creditors suggested to representative negotiators that Greek sovereign debt could be waived if in exchange Greece would only allow Germany to annex one of its islands. An idea in poor taste and an absurd one, perhaps, but in that sense, it was neither very laughable or unreal. In reality, the terrible yawning gap between the negotiating table and what it actually means for a nation of 10 million people to be crushed under the oppression of austerity is the very territory of the absurd, and one that has its poetics.
Greek poet Dimitra Ioannou’s 2020 pamphlet, Electric Sarcasm, from Ugly Duckling Presse (Brooklyn, USA), is a new entry in necessary reading in the poetics of debt. By poetics, in this case, I mean specifically the textual (read ‘material’) conditions by which different elements brought together (read ‘written’) into a discrete form (read ‘a kind of flickering’) to produce an effect (read ‘a world’). This isn’t about style, no. It is historical or historicisable, yes. But mostly this is about a structure at work in the larger dynamics of the poiesis that produces our debt-ridden, fucked-up lives. In this sense, Ioannou’s pamphlet opens with something of an audit.
This is the description of critical darkness that includes
Does understanding the Greek debt crisis require recourse to fortune telling? Is the visa in this the gold of privileged spending through credit, or a golden ticket to enter an economically thriving country? Are the referenda plastic because they are so malleable when instrumentalized, or because they are brittle, disposable, and poisoning the environment? It’s not so much that Ioannou practices a certain poetic ambiguity, but that ‘Unfavourable terms are diffused across the palate’, both in the sense that our lexicons are stuffed with the bloat of predatory capitalism, and that the valence of the terms themselves is (almost) wholly relational — exactly how democracy defaults is a matter of who is speaking.
That language takes a central role through the pamphlet is, perhaps, not surprising, though how it plays that role is harder to track. As a Greek poet writing in English, Ioannou has an uncanny ability to sidestep etymological explanation in order to enact what might read, for an Anglophone reader at least, like an etymological performance.
They say that those who learn their own λanguage can only negotiate. My terms are a magic trick from the Old French taxer, from the Latin taxare “to censure, charge, compute’, perhaps from Greek tassein, to “fix” what it is and what its limits are, what it is like, the opposite of who I am.
It might be tempting to say the play of language is not ‘gratuitous’, however, and to pun on what might be ‘free’ in a poetics of debt. I did have an initial impression, in fact, that Ioannou makes use of, but does not limit herself to, the détournement of economic-financial-capitalist language, or to the reappropriation of ‘unfavourable terms’. She writes: ‘I need liquidity. I need to copy the structure of certain plant leaves. And I need to say more than I am capable’.
However, when we read, ‘I used to eat credit card food, the milk of agreements’, it appears brutally literal. I am thinking of Eunsong Kim referring to herself as a ‘petty materialist’ for refusing to allow metaphoric legerdemain make colonialist violence palatable, and so it strikes me as a blunt-force confrontation of debt-violence when Ioannou pulls up a layer of abstraction (even if she makes no attempt to efface it) to reveal the hungry real:
By dusk, listen to the supplicant. Her demand is huge: Will you buy me some time? You always did that. Offer her what she doubts the most. As you are running out of money, ask her, Don’t you need money? Even if you don’t realize your own words, you feed time with concrete λanguage.
In Ioannou’s writing, ‘concrete λanguage’ does not give up doing its semantic work, will not become inert even as she lays it bare, and that might just be the point. The ‘troika’ as ‘a traditional Russian sleigh’ might speed symbolically through to our ‘present tense’ from across a distance that stretches back to where it collected souls in the countryside of Gogol’s Russia. But it carries with it congruent forms of desire in its embodiment as the European Troika, crossing Europe to collect on Greek debt, amassing wealth other than cash, something like ‘monetised time’, or more specifically a colonized future, to be exploited later via the financial instruments deployed to ‘“make an end, settle a debt”’.
It’s difficult to admit, but much as in the remarkable trajectory of the troika, there is something aesthetically stunning in the contours of debt-oppression that Ioannou unveils. In one particular case, she reveals the form of a ‘bottomless pit’, the abyss ‘that symbolizes a country and the vagina, abandonment and hell, that unreliable negotiator’. This is the financial analysts’ metaphorical characterization of an economy in collapse. But in Ioannou’s text, it also stands as a clear formal iteration of the poetics of debt. Greece as a ‘bottomless pit’ becomes, for the Greeks, an architecture of violence — with ‘…no marked exits’ – into which individual and collective agency is tipped by the powerbrokers, tending towards an infinite plunge. At the same time, for the creditors — the Troika cronies — a ‘bottomless pit’ in the shape of Greece becomes ‘one of their best acquisitions’. Ioannou writes: ‘Sovereignty buying is the ultimate deal. The pit is the medium’. A favourite trick used by the most predatory of urban planners is to bestow ‘slum’ or ‘blighted’ status on a working-class neighbourhood, so that it becomes easier to justify the violence of expulsing residents, of demolishing their homes, of sabotaging property values, so that not only can investors buy it up, but at bargain prices! In Electric Sarcasm, Ioannou highlights the figure of the bottomless pit to show just how economic planners perform the same trick on a(n inter)national scale. In that sense, her writing has an aesthetic beauty, not unlike certain works of horror.
In poetry that has its place alongside work from writers like Anne Boyer or Sean Bonney, Ioannou breaks open the weird and pulverizing play of scales that allows power to hide its violence in the shuffling of macro and micro, massive and singular. Here, we are given a partial map to how something as gigantic as sovereign debt, with its continental and global ‘value’, can disenfranchise and impoverish (in material and agential terms) individual people. Ioannou does so, however, without some of the more typical (and properly liberal) lyric manoeuvres, where the universal (read ‘debt oppression’) is subsumed in the sublime (read ‘convenient’) consciousness (read ‘magical thinking’) of the lyric subject (read ‘collaborator’). Instead of serving as a lyrical fiction to sublimate the material conditions of suffering, the ‘I’ who ‘used to eat credit card food’ is an exemplar of strategic attempts to survive, just like the ‘I’ who needs ‘liquidity’. I could argue the work remains lyric in the logics of its poetics, in the ways it forms subject positions in the semantic field, but as lyric without transcendental or idealist tendencies, leaving the bile on our tongues.
We are allowed to see the speaker performing poetic rituals, suggested by CA Conrad in a workshop, to give form and language to her anger, in the lobby and toilets of the hotel in which the Troika stayed while in town for debt negotiations. ‘I would watch the officials, and think of a word to express my anger. I would go to the bathroom and spell it on my naked body, or the wall’. Here, again, the ‘concrete λanguage’ of anger is given material form through the ritual, on the individual scale, just as on a collective scale a vote against austerity in 2015 was ‘an attempt to give debt a λanguage’. All while the ‘breeze abyss’ of the bottomless pit waits for the individual and the collective to be thrown in, like throwing in a commemorative plate to sweeten the deal.
Meanwhile, the poetics imposed by the Troika have their powers of obliteration.
This is where the metaphor of the bottomless pit actually fits. All of our stories disappear into its depths. They are so many. They are unbearable. They lose their meaning. Is it not because the whole situation is too costly, too deadlocked, too unpaid, too unfair, too inside, and sticky, too senior, and sick, too underpaid, too financial to be confronted?
If anything, though, Electric Sarcasm starts the undoing of non-confrontation. It gives λanguage to the violence of austerity, of sovereign debt, and how its brokers ‘slowly press the debts to our wrists’. In this sense, by naming our anger, by performing its rituals, the pamphlet flies in the face of so many bad-faith complaints about the failure of language (λanguage doesn’t fail us, we fail λanguage!). To refer to another figure operative in the text, Ioannou’s writing is literally a dancing body:
…curled up, on the back, on the floor, and is trying to get up slowly, repeatedly. It loses its balance and footing, and collapses to the ground over and over again. Get up from the floor, my body, my scars, my lungs and poisoned tissues, my deterioration.
If not something I would call hope, Dimitra Iannou’s work offers a kind of antidote to ‘ellipsis’, an abundance, a material body that escapes totalizing force and does so in revealing the poetics of debt. ‘You are anathema to the planners who manage the common land’, she writes. They would clear the land, but here we have a revelatory act of persistence in the territory of the absurd.
You can order a copy of Electric Sarcasm from Ugly Duckling Presse, here.
Text: Jeremy Allan Hawkins
Image Credit: Jeremy Allan Hawkins