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A Conceptual Lift-off:
Nasser Hussain's SKY WRI TEI NGS

Nasser Hussain's SKY WRI TWI NGS
Nasser Hussain, SKY WRI TEI NGS
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2018.

I love this conceptually and formally playful book by Nasser Hussain, a catalogue of poems composed (we discover) exclusively of international airport location codes. His constraint-based collection glints with wit, humour and daring, uninterested in being compared with less formally audacious poetry carriers.

Hussain’s work invites us into a refreshing conceptual lift-off—that textual communication envelops all of our relations, inciting our co-incidental awareness of how language moves us to read, translate, and traverse meanings. We perceive data as semantic communication and non-words as words, toggling the multiple entendre of linguistic figure and ground.

The front cover of Hussain’s book shows us how to decode simultaneous platforms of language. Presented in upper case, four three-letter language bits honk like flashcard acronyms. The first bit, “SKY,” is a recognizable English word, but the next three units baffle immediate reading: “WRI/ TEI / NGS.” The unit “TEI” suggests that a non-English word hovers, but soon all three units cohere into the word “writeings.” In that reading moment, we remember how bits of text can be whole words or like words, parts of words, words dissembled, passwords conjoined, erased, scrubbed from the sky like contrails—“sky writings,” indeed.

Hussain’s language bits become useful in a wide variety of ways: as existing word units, as constituent bits of new amalgams, as acronyms, as homonyms. Sometimes the poems economically redress a silence, for example, naming “MIG RAT ION” (in the single-lined poem “AIR TRA VEL”). Sometimes the poems remind us of linguistic speech matter present in every culture: “HEE HEE / HAH HAH / HEE HAW / GUF HAW” (“LAU GHT ERR”). Histories and narratives are telegraphed: “THE ASP BIT // CLE OPA TRA” (“STO RIS”) and “THE LAD LAY LOW// BUT HIS MRS // MRS HIM” (“EVA AND BOB”). The poetic connections are redoubled and actionable in the best way: whatever rules are in place, the game is to maximize translations and enable expression and relation. Throughout the book-length series of poems, we sense our reading flutter over both semantic and abstract language matter and notice, still, the elastic play of emotional context and situational narrative.

There’s also a huge berth involving the reader in accepting approximate substitutions for what’s meant, for example

OHH CAN ADA

EAT TIM BIT

KIT KAT

POO TEN

TIC TAC (“EAT [FOR MIC LEE]”)

We figure out how to read “poutine” to fulfill the humorous bargain we are being invited into. We let the author careen and veer through the carnival ride, not judging the exactitude with which he pilots his constraint but instead egging on an inclusive poetic playfulness to maximize language’s stretch.

Some of the poems restore direct political phrasing to compounds of apolitical fragmentary code, titling “ISL AMO PHO BIA” as the fuel and effect of “USA TOO WIT TER HAT ERS USA / MAK EAM ERI CAG REA TAG AIN.” Hussain creates a procession of manners across linguistic efficiency and allows us to use our own complex intimacy with language’s intricate agencies to bend official authoritative language to our subversive minority use. Hussain counteracts toxic alt-right barrages on the Internet issued as “THE BRO ODE,” but in the same time zone it must be admitted that there are widespread feminist uprisings—“SHE BAD ASS” (“GAM ERG ATE”). Although “THE COP AND THE CON // AND THE CIA KNO ALL” (“TMI”), a juicy commitment to “OUR SLY SEX,// OUR NAU GHT INE SSS” instructs the “PAN HOP TIC ONS” to “GET OUT!”

The early mentorship to poetry I received in my undergraduate years, through the diverse works of bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard and Lillian Allen, among many others, ungated the multimodality of language as a vastly material and performative medium. Hussain’s SKY WRI TEI NGS propel us across literary categories, with turbo-wit, into CON CCP TUA LLY daring altitudes.

 

Margaret Christakos hasn’t been on an airplane since 2016, but SHE CAN DRM. She lives in Toronto. Find her at margaretchristakos.com.

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