“POE TRY ISS NUS THA TST AYS NEW,” declared Ezra Pound as rewritten by Nasser Hussain. The Modernist declaration looks odd to the eye because Hussain rewrote it using three-letter airport codes. If poetry is news that stays new, then what does poetry do? Alternately, how do you do poetry? Is newness ascribed to originality and the poet’s heroic struggle to craft an individualized vision? That notion seems rather retrograde. Nasser Hussain’s collection puts him closer to Mix Master Mike than Ezra Pound, although this assertion will require some unpacking.
But first, an autobiographical aside: I have always lived close to airports. Except for a brief exile in southeastern Minnesota, airports have been a constant factor in my life. Growing up in a northwest Milwaukee suburb, I lived a short drive from Timmerman Airport. Childhood and adolescence meant afternoons filled with the noise from single-prop planes flying overhead. Today I live in a southeast Milwaukee neighborhood close to Mitchell International Airport. As I write this review, I will hear the thunderous roar of jumbo jets taking off. Airports are just another facet on modern living.
SKY WRI TEI NGS by Nasser Hussain creates poetry from three-letter airport codes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the bureaucratic body tasked with the creation of these codes. The bureaucratic restriction functions in a way similar to a sonnet’s rigorous rhyme structure. Hussain was limited to only these codes. As he states in the notes, “‘DEP END – BCW’ stands for Bill Carlos Williams. (WCW, sadly, is not an airport.)” Using airport codes is how Hussain will “do poetry.” Meaning isn’t necessarily the end goal of these poetic operations as much as the process itself.
Hussain’s poems range far and wide across subject matter and source material. He uses airport codes to write poems “ripped from the headlines” (Gamergate, Islamophobia) and to re-appropriate literature (Ezra Pound, Dr. Seuss, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Christian Bök). Like Mix Master Mike, Hussain will take a previously created work and scramble it into three-letter chunks.
Yet SKY WRI TEI NGS has more than just a textual component. Many poems have a visual component. These maps, created by Matthew Stephenson, accompany the texts, have lines of travel crisscrossing over world projections. Do these have meaning generated from the poems? It’s hard to tell and I didn’t bother to find out, although it is tempting to overlay a kind of international gematria over the project. But the reference to gematria isn’t idle speculation. In the Zohar – the medieval kabbalistic text – the commentary on Exodus 14: 19-21 says this: “According to this pattern, the holy supernal Name – engraved with its letters, inscribed on the supernal Chariot, consummating the crown of the patriarchs.” Above this passage are 216 letters divided into 72 triads, each being a secret name of God. The commentary states, “Together they constitute the complex divine name through whose power the sea was split.” (Daniel C. Matt’s commentary on The Zohar, Volume 4. – Ed.) The point being that these names were comprised of three-letter “triads.”
Coincidence or am I overthinking the matter?
Hussain creates friction from the poem’s visual appearance and its orality, its “spokenness.”
AGH AHH ACH
AIE OHH HOO
AYE ERM YAH
And other poems rewrite Biblical stories, giving them a “Dick and Jane” feel:
ABE MAY AXE
ISA ACS ARM
BUT JAH LET ABE OFF (from “STO RIS”).*
*The letter spacing is an approximation. For the purposes of this review, the excerpts are a textual copy, but not visually exact.
For poets like Hussain, it is equally important how the poem looks as how the poem sounds. Despite his personal restriction to only use the three-letter airport codes, the white space of the page opens a vast field of play. Tight restrictions give it an air of an Oulipo project, yet his use of the page’s white space make the text verge towards concrete poetry.
CHI KEN ORP AST AHH?
SOR REE FOR ANY
INK UNN VIN YEN SUH
Drawing from a variety of sources and putting it through an airport code meat-grinder, Hussain’s SKY WRI TEI NGS reveals another way to “do poetry.” The end-product is in the doing. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Hussain certainly did.