“AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALIZE THERE WAS SOMETHING VERY VERY WRONG?”: A Review of Andrea Abi-Karam’s EXTRATRANSMISSION

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Andrea Abi-Karam’s debut poetry collection, EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press, 2019), takes on military exploitation of human and animal bodies, the scourge of bro culture, and the Uber-fication of urban space. Their forceful, often capslocked lines pursue a “poetry of directness” in opposition to the pervasive, unrippling “language of avoidance” that smooths over everyday potentials for confrontation.

Abi-Karam was selected by Bhanu Kapil as the winner of the 2017 FIRSTS! Contest, courtesy of Kelsey Street Press.

The book’s opening section, KILL BRO / KILL COP, breaks into a torrent of directives to “kill the sociality that makes queers feel excluded and that makes the orgy feel dangerous for our bodies” and “kill all the power dynamics in the white room,” dispelling any notion that coexistence with power could be sufficient. There are juicy fantasies of retaliatory violence (think eardrums and “thick wet silence”), and the imperative to “kill the bro in your head.” Even in the imaginative space of slicing off non-tipping tech bros’ fingers with their platinum credit cards, these poems recognize that reconditioning ourselves after a lifetime under whitecisheteropatriarchy is an ongoing project.

Likewise, excising abuse and trauma from the mind-body isn’t an instant fix. Abi-Karam uses repetition and polyvocality to move between contexts of contested embodiment. For one, when asking what an Oakland trans punk and a brain-damaged U.S. soldier home from deployment in an unnamed desert have in common, they answer by way of the cyborg.

For the soldier, who integrates with a personal digital assistant to access her memories, being cyborg is an adaptation to the state of unresolvable injury. Hers is a vulnerability of the body in service of violent nationalism:

                                                                           every body  is consumable. every  american  body is consumable.  there’s a whole country  back home to manufacture  more willing bodies  for the volunteer based army. a  country that  sometimes agrees  to relax its borders  in ex-change for the combat ready body. for the soft skin that caves in from every bit of shrapnel. for the soft skull that splits on impact. for the soft brain that bounces back and forth inside the skull. for the soft brain that tears & swells. for the soft brain that after the tears & swells still turns the body back on. still serves.

Later, a stream of error messages repeating “IS THIS WHAT U SIGNED UP FOR?” adds to this emphasis on bodily service. In constructions like this, Abi-Karam gets at the problem of individual agency in global conflict and imperialism through the figure of a soldier whose body and brain have been transformed and traumatized by her decision to enlist.

Agency and the primacy of the body have different troubles for the trans cyborg. The tech inside them feels invasive, but since they can’t remember its installation, it seems to have always been there.

WHICH CAME FIRST
THE INJURY OR THE TECH?
                                                                                     THE INJURY
                                                                                     IT’S ALWAYS THE INJURY

For some of us, the injury might be having a body at all.

It’s not hard to see why the figure of the cyborg should resonate for many trans people. With its potentials for biohacking, cyborg embodiment offers control and self-determination we’ve never had. The cyborg collective also holds appeal as an outlet for the drive to escape the self when our own wrongly-situated, individualized positions are too much to stand.

In the FUSION section, Abi-Karam’s trans cyborg enacts these conflicting desires: to claim bodily autonomy, unplug and deintegrate, but also to lose their personhood. In a movement describing a wire-removal body mod, words jolt apart, “hap pen”ing, as the speaker becomes “one        malf(x)ing         cyborg         among         many.” This is a search for language that will change the way they inhabit their body and relate to others. As the soldier said of being mentally enmeshed with her PDA, “there is no pleasure in this language. in this flatness.” Pleasure comes instead from rupture:

I AM
TRYING TO THINK ABOUT BODY AUTONOMY

I AM
TRYING TO GET OFF

I AM TRYING TO SHORT OUT

Of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, Jackie Orr writes,“The cyborg is an imploded object of ‘non-optional’ entanglements and architectured intimacy.” Removing the wet, glistening wires from your body doesn’t entirely disentangle you from that architecture, but it is an expression of personal purpose in structures that most often dictate how things are going to go for us and our bodies.

A cyborg, like any body, can be processed through the framework of assemblage, made up of parts that cohere variously, unfixed in their potentials and categorizations. Jasbir Puar (one of EXTRATRANSMISSION’s blurbers) explains that “societies of control apprehend and produce bodies as information,” but “assemblages do not privilege bodies as human, nor as residing within a human/animal binary.” Triangulating the body in machine, nature, and humanity, the assemblage positions us as inseparable from the technology we rely on, and just as animal as we are human.

Turning to the animal, Abi-Karam connects the soldier’s PTSD hypervigilance to horses sleeping upright, always ready to go. The non-profit therapy horse assigned to her is another of the book’s speakers. Looking at their human companion, they see that “we are haunted by the possibility of the future.” Both are stuck in a repeating but hardly remembered past, lives delineated by the expectations of others. Like the cyborgs, the horse wants to go “beyond this one type of experience / we always share together.” Here, change would mean leaving the confining world of federally-mediated recovery together.

It’s rarely simple to pick and go. After unplugging, one of the cyborgs comes to a building under construction, where they meet a wandering fawn. An inversion of the cyborg stripping their tech, the fawn marks a destabilizing shift from the natural to the unnatural, lost in a city of gentrification-in-progress. The fawn’s hooves splitting on pavement feel like a provocation—Abi-Karam asking, “You thought we could just go back to nature?”

To squat in the almost-unclaimed means inhabiting the impermanent, where “plastick” around buildings is transitional, protective but permeable. But when space becoming “something” means becoming Uber HQ, “downtown is totally fucked.” What do we do when our cities are becoming more unlivable by the minute? The unplugged cyborg is lying in the unfinished building with the worn-down fawn, imagining social, connective uses for the space. By the next day, it’s over. The fawn is gone, and “i am on the sidewalk looking up @ the whole nation looking down.” Having opened with bro-killings and ended with displacement, there’s something of a comedown, from the fervor of revenge fantasy to the sobering reality that, in making the world we need, we still have to head somewhere next. EXTRANSMISSION gives us tools, the orgy and the wirecutter, to take with us.


Andrea Abi-Karam is an arab-american genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg, writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma & delayed healing. Their chapbook,  THE AFTERMATH (Commune Editions, 2016), attempts to queer Fanon’s vision of how poetry fails to inspire revolution. Simone White selected Andrea’s second assemblage Villainy for forthcoming publication with Les Figues. They toured with Sister Spit March 2018 & are hype to live in New York. EXTRATRANSMISSION is their first book.

Charles Theonia is a poet from Brooklyn, where they are working to externalize interior femme landscapes. They are the author of art book Saw Palmettos (Container, 2018) and poetry collection Which One Is the Bridge (Topside Press, 2015). With ray ferreira and Abigail Lloyd, they coedit Femmescapes, a magazine of queer and trans affinities with femmeness.