(REVIEW) Shia LaBeouf, by AK Blakemore
Maria Sledmere muses on AK Blakemore’s new pamphlet, Shia LaBeouf (Makina Books, 2020), exploring the relationship between poetry and slogan, desire, reverb, tactile language and poetry’s sly therapeutics.
> I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that Shia LaBeouf and I share a birthday, a fact relayed to me via the poet Anjeli Caderemanpulle, who sends me a photo from the @shiasoutfits instagram, showing Shia hand-in-hand with his mother on the 11th June, wearing a navy-coloured floral shirt and shades. This look, with its quiet nod to the wandering extras that populate Grand Theft Auto, coupled with the insouciant downtown chic of white sneakers and muted chinos, captures a sense of possible imminence (gunshot, swerve of traffic, sirens, police chase, chaos) alongside the timeless ‘checking out’ of the languid anti-flâneur, whose intent is less to lose himself in the crowd than to feign somehow its non-existence. The slight frown on Shia’s face encapsulates a wary ennui appropriate to any urban venture in times of covid-19, and yet to meet the gaze of those opaque dark shades is to meet the refusal of sincerity’s confirmation. Shia, you are a stylish enigma, and it surprises me not that the great poet AK Blakemore has made of her recent pamphlet your namesake.
> Blakemore, of course, is contemporary lyric’s stylishly enigmantic enfant terrible. From her well-received debut Humbert Summer (2015) to the delectable Fondue (2018), her poetry sizzles in that hot-white moment where tender caramel feelings turn brittle and burn you at the point of touch. Picturing the candid, street fashion photo that Anjeli sent me, I can’t help but imagine Blakemore passing Shia by at that very intersection of contingent presence, a side smile lit just enough for the cigarette exhale of a knowing intimacy attained via the power of search engines. Shia LaBeouf is a matte black, 40-page (I almost said carat) A5 affair, modishly cover-slashed by a white-outline string of pearls which sprawl across the inside pages. The iconic monochrome cover also bears the lines ‘dedicate a bad poem to William Faulkner / & also your mother’, which surely deserve being splayed upon a t-shirt. Why Faulkner? Whose mother? Can a poem bear slogans and retain its ~poetic ambiguity?
> A poem, presumably, is supposed to generate complexity, nuance and proliferating meaning, whereas a slogan makes a point. Both forms, however, in a sense can hail you with material gesture as much as address. Something about Shia LaBeouf — perhaps its landscape layout, its cascading, large font table of contents, its silver spine hooks, its author photo, its celebrity address — is directing me towards thinking about the material possibilities of pamphlets: what are they for, what do they communicate, in what environment are they supposed to thrive? I want to stay with the question of what charges an occasional poem with the force of slogan.
> By sticking the imperative ‘dedicate a bad poem’ on the book cover, Blakemore and her publishers offer a provocation on the possibility of extracting from poetry the possibilities of slogan. For me, this is something about the fricative, potential space of proximity between politics and pop. How easy a line from a pop song (e.g. ‘if you tolerate this then your children will be next’ - Manic Street Preachers) is sliced from context and sewn onto a cotton backdrop, available in three sizes. To what extent is there power in that? I am thinking also about poetry’s proximity to a kind of luxurious trash: a pamphlet is something circulated, consumed and often thrown away. Its level of gloss is perhaps testament to the subjects or products on offer, whereby the cheap, photocopied political tract weighs less than the sleek brochure. You can throw a pamphlet away, but can you throw away a poem when its lines keep ringing in your blood like a cool methamphetamine that just won’t leave your system? ‘Poetry careers are a bad business’, writes Chelsey Minnis in one of her prefaces to Bad Bad (2007), ‘Poetry should be “uh huh” like…”baby has to have it…”’. A slogan is something that’s meant to make you go ‘uh huh’, feel affirmative warmth for. ‘A poem’, claims Eileen Myles, ‘says “I want”; ‘a poem really is a statement of desire’. Whether it strives to consciously or not, some poetry just slips into the accidental realm of the iconic, where language refracts and dazzles: its catchphrasal power sloughs something vital and alarming from the compost of culture. To speak desire and know there is truth in the slogan, so made from having been spoken, and thus into dust, and the vulgar flirtation of glitter and cinders: ‘I want to be with you wherever / paperbacks are partying’ (Sam Riviere, After Fame).
> We can be cynical about slogans, abandoning them to the worlds of didactic politics and consumerism. Yet Blakemore comfortably inhabits a place where irony refuses to surrender the lines to either sphere: there’s a nonchalance to her work that creates openness and distance where there might otherwise be something of a cloying drama. Her alluring titles entice you with the promise of uncertain worlds: they could easily be the titles of shoegaze songs. She has this knack for holding you upon a line that quickly folds before you too can hold it — the sloganeered t-shirt unstitches before you with darling controversy. What might be a slogan or mantra, ‘I’m bad’, is diffused by the next line, with its implication of gendered violence, ‘but better than Lars von Trier’. This kind of ambiguity is a bit like reverb. Blakemore might end a poem with ‘speculatively re-assembled yet / tragically unplayed’ (‘Aurora, Mile End’), and you can picture the pearls of meaning coiled around the speaker’s wrist, slackened or tightened at the poem’s variable, vibrational bidding. The metaphors I clutch at to describe this proliferate - that’s desire. It’s the poem, after all, not necessarily the poet, which says, I want.
> But what kind of ‘I’ are we talking here? The first poem, ‘hollywood’, opens thus:
i am: pigs walking in the shadow along the beaches where the bodies wash up clothed in iridescent paillettes. sometimes quieter - a drinking spider.
Blakemore has a knack for weaving through jewelline words like ‘paillettes’, spangling language to create a kind of coruscating surface: I think of rough, cheap sequins worrying the skin of Tonya Harding’s thigh as she skates. The ‘I’ here is, in classic Blakemore fashion, small caps, perhaps to indicate a levelling of identity into relation, difference and metamorphosis, a refusal to serve as some kind of authoritative lyric speaker. Negative capability makes of the ‘i’ a smaller, ‘quieter’ form — lapping between species, between scenes of horror or joy — which might also threaten to be ‘very big’. Whether those bodies are human or not is tricky to tell, but the title points me to something vaguely grandiose and cinematic. Is this the sight of a massacre or tragedy, an allegory or literal depiction? The pigs could be cops or farmyard animals, but what are they doing on beaches? Is this a grim image of border policing? Blakemore’s use of the repeated determiner ‘the’ only teases us further as to trying to decipher the illusory precision of images. Imagine a whole movie shot through the eight glinting eyes of a spider, carefully drinking in multiple shots, watching you creepily all the while.
> On the topic of creepiness, Blakemore draws attention to LaBeouf’s ‘“CREEPER” stomach tatt’ in the prose-poem/intro ‘Shia LaBeouf’. The word is just one more dirty string of pearls to draw through the pamphlet, sifting for meaning. LaBeouf, it turns out, actually has two Missy Elliott tattoos on his knees, and a Tupac on his thigh. Perhaps there’s something about flattery and homage to be said here. By naming a pamphlet after a celebrity, you’re performing a kind of semiotic portraiture that could be the extension of intimacy, relation but also refusal. Stomping your goth creepers all over the glossies. I think of the cool, almost affectless, google-graft collages of Sam Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (2015), which use Kim Kardashian as a kind of heuristic for traversing the virtual landscapes of a certain luxury lifestyle, emptied out on its own excess to the ‘beautiful dust’ and infinity pools of late-modern ennui. I look in your eyes and see pools after pools in which I cannot swim, for they were already beyond depth, like the internet. Is there a pleasure here (or there?). As for Blakemore, the celebrity affiliation seems more immediately amiable: she praises LaBeouf’s ‘self-parodic bonhomie’ and addresses him with the easy familiarity of first names, ‘if you’re reading this, Shia, you’ve an advocate and friend in me’. That phrase at the end like a hook, a friend in me. It’s part of the pamphlet’s sybaritic, easy melancholia of affinity maybe — its ache of conflicted jealousy and longing. The way the speaker curls and unfurls from various perspectives: ‘i look at women on public transport / and wonder if you would find them attractive / it makes the misery uncurl so sweetly’.
> Like Plath, Blakemore cultivates a sort of aura of cool mystique and lyric viscera that invite a certain closeness, even as the reader might be confused or repelled by cryptic or disturbing imagery. Dr Martens describe their iconic, unisex Creepers shoes as ‘a subcultural classic’, and you wonder what happened to subculture in a world where, as in ‘pilates’, ‘grown-ass men / gather at the iron gates to watch / with the large sleepy feet / of wilderness saints’. Is this urban rewilding manufactured by Instagram fitness trends (I’m looking at you, the pavement jump-ropers of lockdown) or a bemusing image of pathetic masculine yearning, raised to a pale sublime which is lyric poetry’s ironic shrug of submission? Why are the wilderness saints, these deep ecologists, observing the fitness rituals of their kin? Feels a bit sinister. A poem about ‘your cult heroes on video / masturbating in front of underage girls’ can move into ‘microtransactions / of morning dew’, and the probably obscenity of these droplets are absorbed into a kitsch kind of extra-fake, poetic ‘nature’, which is strangely tender and sweetly belittling: ‘portrait of a fuckboy / eating cotton candy’. Blakemore finds a kind of spidery, feminine power in staying with this trouble of the creepy. And there we go with slogans again, a silky trail her speaker makes of such glitzed lines like pearls, or the trailing ‘platinum appliqué / of artistic tragedy’ (‘tiny violetflavoured’). And btw, according to Fred Moten, ‘love is violet incompletion’ (all that beauty).
> Perhaps desire itself is, like much of LaBeouf’s career as a filmmaker and performance artist, a plagiarised, endlessly deferred tracing of images that click fleetingly like the kind of pearls a spider eats. I want to say I can say a thing like that here, in this review, because Blakemore’s work gives me confidence in the assuring precision of such abstractions. As if we should all know, immediately, what is meant by ‘sparrow’s wet dream’, like an Angela Carteresque myth already spun on our otherwise tryhard tongues. I like that her ‘light’ is ‘outraged’, that ‘desire / fallows’ the speaker in a kind of emptying or unproduction: that pause before the next stanza falls or flourishes into its gross plenitude: ‘here i dream awake of / your treasured / senior meat’. Who is the sparrow or the speaker imagining as ‘you’ here? I feel queasy by association, and yet completely seduced into joining the speaker in her suggestion, ‘wanna stamp on something expensive / for sex reasons’, which makes me think of waitresses stabbing balloons with steak knives after a particularly irksome birthday party they have just spent twelve hours serving. A sort of collective erotics, camaraderie and release in destruction, the divine comedy of hot air stabbed BANG BANG BANG in the formerly teeming room. Blakemore is a master at handling that tension between the fallowing of desire, its cooling down upon irony, sardonic play (‘like depression / all your friends have had me’) or the drama of grand assertion (‘modernity’s axiomatic selfishness’), and its extinguishing flash upon the indulgence of image: ‘the icicles / in crackling fantasia from wingmirror - / too many times left dry’. Where Minnis will often trace a more permanent or prolonged arousal in her strings of ellipses (see Zirconia especially), Blakemore might dryly crunch that glistening line to the crisp of a flyaway leaf.
> Where exclamation in a Crispin Best poem might be the self-diminutive shrug of post-internet bathos, in Blakemore its dark sarcasm often startles the reader into noticing a concealment of pain: 'and what really mattered / were the cancers we metastasised / along the way!’, which sounds like a generation looking back wryly over their beautiful, calamitous career as a smoker. Sometimes hyphens are used, Emily Dickinson style, to gesture at some kind of reaching, not quite reaching, the extension of thread. In ‘the evening sun licks a single tear’, I think of someone sending alluring messages to be read, i.e. ‘seen’, and not heard. A slippage. The speaker gently chides her own observations and the beauty of what she is observing or has observed, the gap between perception and representation as the haiku-like ‘cut’:
can we get out more? your personal beauty - though great - has become seems, now, touchingly inadequate -
And I find myself at the end of the poem, awaiting elaboration, hinging on this word ‘inadequate’. What is an adequate amount of ‘personal beauty’? In personalising the pamphlet around LaBeouf, Blakemore challenges us to think about what is held in a person, a name, what radiance of charm or damage, of fame and cancellation. ‘Touchingly’ is an appropriate adverb for a pamphlet which uses throughout such seductive, tactile language - from ‘sleep’s amniotic reach’ to ‘frangible leaf’ - to enact such moments of noticing as draw an intriguing, approving sheen around the everyday: ‘i like the girl in her leopard print coat / with the boy outside the takeaway / i sincerely hope they fuck’. O, vicarious pleasure! The wavering between a plundered, ironised line or lyric profundity is held with the high revelation that it ‘sucks / to be bodies in space’, the ‘autocomplete’ being ‘does soul last forever’ - so the italics draw us to ask, where does this line come from: an algorithm or the autocompletive response of the soul? I feel at once included and substitute to the situation. The loop of enquiry is possibly endless, like the pearl strings encasing the book itself.
> There is quiet relief in accepting a speaker’s imploring, sly therapeutics, as though we were being directed by lyric wizardry to simply ‘Feel everything’. Is Shia LaBeouf the star or co-star of this pamphlet, is it AK Blakemore, or perhaps even me, the humble reader (I think of the hospitable last lines in fred spoliar’s ‘Lobby’: ‘You. / You are the star of this poem. Welcome’, which make of the poem’s exit an entrance). What does this matter if a star is something already extinct? Are we supposed to squint real hard for its sequin promise? These are poems which reappropriate the glamour of an offcut sensation of otherwise living when the cameras were down, and only the poet would catch such details as the ‘prankish rebuke’ of ‘pink-winged’ cats on her lawn in ‘fantasy’. They dramatise survival in lyric as offering stanzas as ‘so many bouquets’ of ‘fuck’: a romantic exclamation of the being included to a vivid summons, ‘a sun poem’, a metamodernist refusal to settle between irony and sincerity. Look back at the world through darkest glasses and you will seem cool as Shia, passing through the poem-sheen to say something so easy as ‘here i am of sunday’; and you will find yourself elevated, yet pleasingly inclined to the fall. ‘Enfold yourselves in affordable luxury’, the speaker concludes in the final poem, ‘co-star’, ‘Emptiness leaves a way open for grace’.
With thanks to Dom Hale for comments on an earlier draft of this review.
Shia LaBeouf is available to preorder from Makina Books.
Text: Maria Sledmere