Dork Swagger by Steven Karl
Coconut Books, 2013; 97 pp
Reviewed by Daniel Heffne
Once, two friends and I rode bikes back from a concert at two in the morning, cracking up the whole way. We were young and inexhaustible and exhausted, and that’s Dork Swagger to me. Steven Karl’s language in this book is taut and energetic with raw edges, like a good electric guitar solo:
My guitar just shredded
Your faker face.
Welcome to the BIG NASTY.
The way Karl works colloquialisms into his poems doesn’t feel forced or flat. Common phrases and text-speak (“So much for the pork roast LOL”) could deflate the poems; instead, Karl’s poems electrify these phrases as part of a living, evolving lexicon.
But Dork Swagger isn’t just text lingo and exuberant momentum. One of my favorite poems, the one that begins “In the geographic margins / Begins the Dialectical Imagination,” shows the speaker wrestling with the complex contradictions and causalities of the world:
Attempt to work within the system.
Fickle brain & failure to fully understand.
Oh hegemony & a coke.
Aesthetic questions permanently rooted in ruthless politics.
Borders are constructs but borders hurt like real.
As Karl says in another poem, “we all want to care about something,” but how can we when there’s so much that’s so big to care about and we are so insignificant? When there are “more wars than I care to keep track of”? Karl doesn’t shy away from complexity and never simplifies because Dork Swagger is not about the problems he references. Instead, it’s about how to be human in the face of them.
In the poem I mentioned before, the speaker confesses, “I aspire to the art of vertigo.” To think with your senses, seek the view from orbit at the same time, and never give up either. Dork Swagger’s language makes it shine, but what held my attention was the mind behind the swaggering lines. It’s worth engaging: these poems are heavy and light-footed, elusive and in-your-face, and raucously intimate.