Self-Mechanized Survival: A Review of Andrea Abi-Karam’s ‘EXTRATRANSMISSION’

From the hot pink cover art to the all caps font, EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press, 2019) isn’t aiming at subtlety. In their bold debut collection, Andrea Abi-Karam wields a question and command poetics that dissects the body and examines what it means to bolster one’s identity living as a porous, malleable machine. Where are our wounds and what are their sources? The inevitability of a “signature injury” permeates these poems, revealing landscapes riddled with toxic masculinity, gender constructs, PTSD, and violence. Spaces in which the individual will always suffer a combat wound, and like a skilled M.E., Abi-Karam dissects each layer of viscera to isolate the points of entry—whether searching human or animal, machine or cyborg, or even the body of language itself.

Abi-Karam’s diction punches out a high-resolution poetics, shaping a direct and necessary language in spaces of devastating violence. Places where an extreme transformation is required to salvage what is left and worth saving. But instead of offering some reductive, positivist view of humanity where goodness lives at the core and will always triumph, EXTRATRANSMISSION declares: “THIS IS THE END OF A PERSON & THE BEGINNING OF A / MALF(X)ING CYBORG.” In this stunning subversion of language, Abi-Karam obliterates in one word the restrictive and imagined duality of gender. Survival in this space necessitates a total transformation and evolution of being—it’s too late to become “better people”; we must become something altogether different. This transformative shift from person to cyborg hybrid offers an option: survival through self-mechanization. We are told: “now it’s time to turn it off and get cut / off from the WORLD WIDE VIEW yr connected to.” We are told “you’ll know you’ve done the job / right when you suddenly feel the crushing alienation of being cut off.” We are told “it will be un- / comfortable.” Abi-Karam’s call to alertness feels necessary and relevant in an age where being awake often means living in a haze of social-media induced non-reality.

Observing a world where complacency turns humans into “little clicks along the conveyor belt,” this poet wonders, “how to become a new glitch, a new disruption?” We are chained to a rhetoric of fear and xenophobia, and offering a way to salvage this humanity doesn’t seem to be Abi-Karam’s objective—a perspective that makes the book not only refreshing but exciting to read. Perhaps we are too entrenched into the matrices of misogyny and terror to pull our bodies out of the system. Perhaps the systems we’ve created have de-familiarized our bodies too much with our memories, with our minds. So—what then?

Revolution—and Abi-Karam calls for complete disconnection and reconfiguration of the self within a matrix of systems built to work against it. Lines like, “every body is consumable. / every american body is consumable” highlight the dehumanized mechanization our economic-military machine. The speakers in these poems probe with precision and subversion, offering voices that command us to disrupt and restructure, calling us to “kill all the power dynamics in all the / rooms. pull them down by their greasy cables. get yr hands dirty.” By turning intangible constructs into physical structures, Abi-Karam underscores the need for physical action, the need to rise out of the fog of our consumerist, heteronormative complacency if we are to survive.

As a body, EXTRATRANSMISSION contains its own wiring, and the mono-line acquires special agency and prowess, creating a “communication exoskeleton” for the book’s ontological investigations. Abi-Karam isn’t afraid to offer up an entire page to one line, allowing statements like “ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN” space to penetrate the reader. The white space allows these lines to haunt, begging the reader to ask which side they find themselves on, echoing this poet’s call for holiatry in a system meant to reduce and demean. Unafraid to be polemical, these poems snap the reader into acute focus by posing loaded statements like, “on the assembly line to american nationalism,” and then following up 30 pages later with, “AT WHAT POINT DID U REALIZE THERE WAS / SOMETHING VERY VERY WRONG?” As Abi-Karam carves their polyvocal disaster-scape—addressing all from tech bros to PTSD survivors to horses to cyborgs, the poet’s wide net of inclusion manages to highlight both the ubiquity and singularity of trauma.

EXTRATRANSMISSION is a collection built to funnel its reader through intense lines of investigation, violence, destruction, and reassembly. Intermittent lines of questioning linger, allowing moments like “—is anybody out there?” the space to reverberate and stalk all four movements of this dystopic debut. By undercutting direct, militaristic commands with questions that feel pleading and open, the poet seems intent for us to know the answer is neither yes or no. One should be advised to keep a foot on the ground while reading as this may offer a faux yet needed sense of stability during sections like “KILL BRO/ KILL COP” and “DECREATION.” In a political climate drenched in the rhetoric of avoidance, EXTRATRANSMISSION reads like an exegesis—of what, we don’t exactly know, but with directives like “turn me up NOW” and “I COULD / BE ANY OF U SITTING THERE / READING. REMEMBER THAT” we understand that everything is at stake.


Julie Mackay

Julie Mackay is a Bay Area poet and critic with an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. She spent the past two years working as Assistant Poetry Editor for MARY: A Journal of New Writing, and recently co-founded My Shadow Said, a once a month literary salon in San Francisco featuring visual and performative work from local writers and artists. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry, and The Adroit Journal is the most recent literary publication to feature her critical work.

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