Book Review: Douglas Luman on "emoji death mask" by Trey Pharis
For a long time, I was not an avid fan of the “emoji” and its condensed market-made clip-art presentation of our emotional moments. I’m not sure I still am though; much like anyone in contemporary digital culture, I certainly use them in online conversation. Initially, the emotional vocabulary of the emoji was limited; one could smile, laugh, cry, or represent any emotion which could be formed from various punctuation marks, and not much more. Now, it seems that the range of expressions has morphed into any state or noun that one can think of. In fact, there seem to be emotions which haven’t existed before the advent of the modern emoji. I’m unsure as to what the rapidly-expanding lexicon of this visual language means. But, I hesitate to say that our emotional lives are becoming less complex because of them; if anything, the pathos intrinsic to being a human in the present moment is just as nuanced, strange, and contradictory as ever. This contrast is the backdrop of Trey Pharis’ collection emoji death mask, (Maudlin House, 2016) one which proffers complexity simply from the title—a tension between the ever-evolving, over-burdening, hyper-sentimental expressions of the emoji and the static, circumspect tradition of the death mask, a solemn, borderline unexpressive rendering of an actual human face. It is a tension between the inaccurate and accurate, the fantastic and the real, as well as myriad “push-pull” forces which Pharis’ poems enact. In emoji death mask, there is no simplicity or one-size-fits-all badge behind which to hide. Often, contradictory, expansive, hyperbolic, and manic, the speakers of these poems are irreducible and unavailable to paraphrase. But, most of all, they are fascinating in their vulnerability and contingency.
In poems such as “insane russian and american scientists are secretly creating a massive existential crisis,” the speaker simultaneously occupies the spaces of being important and insignificant; both believes in their own efficacy, yet maintains an intense nihilistic streak. Closing the poem, the speaker comments that:
i get another letter in the mail
it is a formal letter letting me know my reading
habits are wiretapped
the president wants to know what book i am
currently reading and if my reading habits pose
an existential threat to humanity or taxpayers
i want to eat eight bananas
my life is pointless
i read that in a book once
Suffice to say that, for the paranoid, life is always interesting. But, even though there is a heightened sense of the fantastical here, it is not all too far from the emotional states which, on any given day, anyone might inhabit. There exists power in the notion that the speaker’s reading habits are under surveillance, but that the very medium retains a sense of conspiracy in that their reading material highlights the pointlessness and powerlessness which we are all prone to feel. While the situation seems to be somewhat factually wild, the emotional core of the poem feels essentially true. Given our own availability to the world through social media, metadata sharing/buying/selling, and the recognition that, at any moment, we are truly being watched, managed, and guided, I no longer see a speaker engaging in hyperbole. Substitute new facts, and this could be every one of us.
Other poems such as “How to dephase oneself via downcycling quantum emotional and molecular states” engage with the theme of the mass-market “self”—a consequence of the same mass-market availability of the emotional language with which the collection contends as Pharis writes:
Next you realize you have no opinions, just
references to other people’s opinions and blogs.
After that you realize you can no longer go for
Even if you do go for a walk you won’t enjoy it.
In contrast to the philosophical notion that every thought has already been thought, for Pharis’ speakers, every emotion has already been experienced. Not only has any emotion been felt before, but the self-referenced “quantum” states of feelings and opinions exist only in reference to other iterations of such states. In emoji death mask, there is no uniqueness, even though the speakers of these poems continuously seek to carve out a space which is essentially theirs, to “become an eternal emoji /you continue on for 20,000 light years,” a willingness to become the standard-bearer for human emotions in such a way as to become like the Voyager project, a kind of extra-human representation of what it means to be quintessentially human, even if they also express the wish to be nothing more than “a cartoon ghost / that can be hit by doors / when people without incorporeality swing them open / to leave & go places.”
The project of emoji death mask is one of such contradiction, of the complexity of the simple, and, at times, merely the arresting nature of simplicity. But, I can’t help but find myself in the language, even if it appeals to a certain awareness of my own commodification or insignificance. It’s this type of honesty which makes a poetry collection inhabitable and grounded in experience, and what makes emoji death mask such a deep network of meaning which, even if it is all countermanded or annihilated in the end, appeals to those contradictions and contingencies which make us human in a Whitmanian way, to contain universes, multitudes, and none of these things all at once.
Douglas Luman is the Book Reviews Editor for the Found Poetry Review, Head Researcher at appliedpoetics.org, Art Director of Stillhouse Press, Poetry Editor of Phoebe, a book designer, poet, and digital human.