A Review of Craig Sernotti’s Forked Tongue—If You’re Into That
Very early in the movie Meet Joe Black—far too soon for anyone to expect it—Brad Pitt gets creamed by a speeding van, and the theater, at least the one I was in, hung back in silence before nervous laughter bubbled out into the air as though the entire audience meekly claimed responsibility for some inopportune flatulence. It would be too polite and innocent to say Craig Sernotti’s Forked Tongue poetry collection evokes the same kind of guilty giddiness. No, you would have to add to that feeling a hairy, pinky-ringed uncle hand creeping up your thigh en route to untangling all unmentionables.
And that still might not be yick enough.
That’s not to say this collection lacks some essential elements of modern art. Forked Tongue is provocative, skillfully wrought, loaded with imagery, penetrating thought and some nice turns of phrase. Sernotti’s work serves a very important artistic function: holding up a mirror to beastly humanity so it may behold itself. One might think, though, this mirror shows humanity as viewed by a proctologist—a proctologist who refuses to wear gloves.
Sigmund Freud would enjoy trudging through four poems titled, with little or no variation, “Dream,” before slipping around on the entrails of one dark subconscious; this collection is the Shadow his successor Jung spoke of, that dark and disturbingly fascinating aspect of the psyche humans love to notice in others while denying in themselves. Like any good psychoanalyst, after the first read-through I went back to categorize and tally recurring imagery. The results, expressed as the number of times themes appear, are as follows:
Death and dismemberment: 26
Oral sex: 6
Excretory functions: 9
Sexual deviancy: 17
Male genitalia: 10
Generally horrifying: 20
The words “wet fart”: 2
This is in 50-odd pages, though fitting for poetry that has appeared in publications titled Breadcrumb Scabs and Instant Pussy.
For me, the most telling line in the series is in “Songs of Myself,” the first line of which reads Glenn Danzig is singing my life. Along about page 29, for some odd and judgmental reason I found myself satisfied with that as an explanation for all of it. Other musical acts came to mind as well, bands like GWAR! and Slipknot, and on one occasion, upon the lines Everything is gray/the trees/the ground, Ani DiFranco. This is a world where decapitation is “beautiful,” and everybody in the bar wants to bag the eye-patched bartender with three rows of teeth.
Other reviews have compared Sernotti to famous French absurdists, and to Jack Kerouac. High praise, and some lines are truly inspired:
…the barbarians/kicked down our gossamer wall,/pillaged our livestock,/and forced us to/buy cheap knock-off watches…they left us with/pamphlets and threats of/assimilation
He exhales mosquitoes
Steal all the porridge you can/from those goddamn bears
Clouds are on fire/but so what
Basking in the sweetness of lines like those, the reader is soon hit with announcements like I took a shit in a toilet that couldn’t flush and instructions like Use my nose hairs to/climb down from your/gray tower of dread.
Whitman or Byron he ain’t, but he doesn’t try to be, and if one imagines a plucky standup bass and some slow scratchy drumbeats, one might also hear hints of Kerouac above the soul-patches of clove-smoke-exhalations and pretentious snapping of black-clad iconoclastic social scofflaws so severely post-modernly ironic they are themselves ironically walking together down the road not taken. And that’s a dark crowd, man, a crowd that listens to Danzig and appreciates French art films and understands The Kids in the Hall‘s “Sausages” sketch.
Sernotti hits that crowd right where they like it: in the dark oozing underbelly polite society would rather not talk about or think about or admit to having. Forked Tongue has all a person can’t unsee, from incest to cannibalism to grandmas chainsawing your arms, and it’s easy to think Sernotti’s the type of guy who emails you a link to something terrible and laughs when you’re struck with permanent lockjaw.
But answering the question as to whether one should read Forked Tongue is difficult, akin to answering whether or not someone should invest in a zippered leather suit. I mean, you know, if you’re into that…
By day, Jason Lee Miller is a technical writer/editor and English composition instructor at Eastern Kentucky University. By night, early mornings, and weekends he is a blogger, fiction writer, essayist, poet, and now, book reviewer. Mr. Miller holds a Master of Fine Art degree in Writing Fiction from Spalding University, a Poets&Writers magazine top-ten MFA program school. A former journalist on an international stage, his articles have been cited or linked to by the New York Times, the Yale Journal of Law and Technology, CNet-News.com, and textbooks published in the US and Canada. His articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in Ontologica, the Bluegrass Accolade, and the Eurasia Critic.