Does He? Jon Paul Fiorentino Needs Improvement

9781552452806_Fiorentino_NeedsWebJon Paul Fiorentino. Needs Improvement (Coach House Books 2013).

As anyone who’s seen his theoretical version of Archie comics will know, Jon Paul Fiorentino likes to play games, not least with theory & theoreticians, and to do so ‘with the most love.’ I think we can trust him on that. With its sly & deliberately ugly/banal cover imagery of a report card, Needs Improvement lets a reader know from the get go that nothing inscribed herein is to be trusted. There’s a sense that all forms of official discourse is out to get ‘you’; not ‘I’ for here Fiorentino, with his ‘alyrics’ takes a firm step away from the them that is traditional lyric speech. One could say he steps away from speech itself: Needs Improvement is all about writing, is writing as it is. Even when it pretends to speak:

When I said we made a minimal pair
I was deep in linguistic conceit

It had nothing to do with your character
It was strictly labio-dental

That’s one of the ‘alyrics’ in the first section, ‘Things-As-Facts,’ the title of which reminds us that we perhaps trust the nouns of the world too easily. Most of the pieces here are artfully rearranged lines of uncommitted free verse, but there are a couple of prose poems that deny most of Baudelaire’s concept, except perhaps its commitment to the modern city. This is especially true of the long ‘Winnipeg Cold Storage Company,’ which is ‘appropriated and manipulated (with the most love) from Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative by Judith Butler.’ Oddly enough, the piece also performs a strange but real love for Winnipeg. Each section torques Butler’s theorizing through both this particular city & its ‘cold storage’ (of people, ideas, recognitions, senses of place, etc). The reader is tempted to laugh at the playful undermining of both the theoretical writing & what happens to it when cold storage substitutes for larger ideas, but then such larger ideas loom out of the fog of rhetoric & make their sneaky points: ‘The spectre of regionalism has become a privileged haunting in which to re-evaluate the cause and effects of civic shame.’

In the middle section,‘Needs Improvement: Pedagogical Interventions,’ Fiorentino plays hard with ‘Instructions for Invigilation,’ guides, Report Cards, Rubrics for Evaluation, & blurbs. Some of these are laugh-out-loud-funny, but only for a moment, then the things sting. Especially ‘The Report Cards of Leslie Mackie,’ in which, as adults, we might at first sympathize with the teachers but that only leads us into complicity with a culture of bullying that we soon learn to fear. As satire, this is subtly brilliant. There are a number of other manipulations of received texts & a series of ‘summaries,’ visual works that test theory (or theories) hard.

‘Moda; Alyric Villanelles,’ the final section, plays off the traditional villanelle form, in a number of cases by choosing various civic mottos & slogans for the repeated lines of each verse, as in ‘Concordia’:

Salvation through harmony
is a fallacy: skewed, satiric saltire, a
royal gift

of cigarettes and deep wine
and the knowledge that any kind of
salvation through harmony

would not require you to learn
notation but your tone deaf
royal gift

grub, cross-clutch self
would no longer stand.
Salvation through harmony

can only be a sick twinning –
an abstraction, a don’t, a receipt for a
royal gift

unopened. What more do you need in this
anachronic city of tracts proclaiming
salvation through harmonious and
royal gifting

Oh this Fiorentino is sly, all right, & so most of the pieces in Needs Improvement sneak critique through the twisted phrasing & manipulated texts appropriated for this task. ‘Salter Street Strike,’ the final poem, pays homage to bpnichol as it wears its heart on its sleeve:

                  — Nichol’s heart
can be ours. H is a door to many
people before profit.

Listen, it’s a healthy nostalgia if it owns you
or at least not the worst thing ever if you are
one with the strength of many
people before profit.

Needs Improvement plays so many games, it’s impossible to note all of them in a review, but beneath all the play something serious happens. These poems & proses ask us to open our own doors of perception, especially about the various political systems under which we live, be they in writing, publishing, or the larger world in which we all have a part. What Needs Improvement is everything & one, & this little book points some of the ways.

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One Response to Does He? Jon Paul Fiorentino Needs Improvement

  1. Pingback: New & Latest Arrivals – (20/11/2013) | Argo Bookshop

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