The Poetry Project

On Villainy by Andrea Abi-Karam

Review by Vani Natarajan

Where does the idea of the villain begin? I am suspicious of origin stories, but etymologies leave traces and threads that compel me. In dictionaries, I find references to medieval Europe, to the “villain” as an epithet feudal lords used to suppress agricultural workers. Silvia Federici links the figure of the villain with witches actively resisting enclosure1. Sylvia Wynter writes on the 16th century European emergence of the racialized figure of the villain, signifying “the very Lack of the human,” defined against whiteness, defined as under2. I think about the “villain” as a container for all of an oppressor’s anxieties, a trope repeated and with dire material consequences for people whose existence threatens a fascist social order. To be a villain is to live an endangered existence, but to be imagined as the source of danger. To be villainized carries the pressure to somehow establish you are not, to invoke the heroic instead. And then, there is a way to refuse these terms. What might be found in villainy, on and under its surfaces?

Andrea Abi-Karam’s Villainy opens with a vision of what “THE END OF FASCISM LOOKS LIKE,” and my heart races in anticipation at “CENTURIES OF QUEERS” rejoicing at the true demise of the violent structures and forces that have been killing us, have been trying to destroy us or co-opt us (both/and, really), and have taken from us those we love and those we’ve never had the chance to share space with face to face (but will one day, dancing on fascism’s graves). I will quote here as the book lists these forces, finally interred, in no uncertain terms:



The pages that follow guide the reader into an effervescent dream party, a “REVELRY OF QUEERNESS AND DESIRE THAT WE HAVE ONLY NOW / JUST BARELY BEGUN TO IMAGINE,” haptically and visually alive with collective pleasure. And soon after, a scene of fisting inside a cold room that may suggest a gallery or an archive. Here, sex summons the dead, and the speaker welcomes looming insomnia as a portal into a warm and protected space for those they have lost. Bodies hold both grief and desire. I am moved by the poet’s attention to this, remembering how intensely restricted and policed expressions of both can be, for people of color, for trans and queer people, for all those whose lives the state tries to disappear.

As Abi-Karam writes in their dedication, “for those who were taken too soon,” I think of those I know and grieve and those I never had the chance to meet, whose passing haunts me. Grief in this book operates intimately and structurally all at once. The dream party rendered above brings me to a future tense that is not so much held out at an indefinite utopian horizon line as urgently near-now, rubbing up against the present, and older than now, inheriting imaginaries and survival strategies of those who came before.

The poet arranges Villainy into multiple parts, eight larger section titles listed in a table of contents in bold, all-caps type that makes me imagine a set list for a punk show for which I desire a perpetual return. This list appears after a first, unnamed section. Architecturally, the book refuses a totalizing scheme; many poem and section titles do not appear listed on this page. This choice is thrilling and could perhaps formally echo lines from the poem “Hold My Hand” that resound for me long after I read: “refuse the archive / demand the / immediacy.” What could it mean to write a book that defies the logic of containment? Or, as the poet writes in “What Is Closed / What Is Contained”, “What does it mean to contain something like a piece of land / a country / a nation / a body like a pair of bodies / a pile of bodies / a set of words between two covers”?

I can’t write about my encounter with Villainy simply in terms of reading it. I feel that this book is reading me, reading us, in the most urgent and necessary ways. Villainy unceasingly invites us to confront where we place our bodies, voices, capacities to feel and act—how and where we will move, with whom—in struggles against fascism, in the risks and pleasures of queer life we are fashioning. Villainy insists on the space made by and for those who came before, and also by implication, those who have yet to come. And Villainy also contends with archival power: the documented, the deleted, the disavowed.

In their afterword, Abi-Karam situates their writing through grief around these named horrors: The 2016 Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, and the 2017 Muslim Ban. These moments and their legacies, traumas that extend beyond any limited date range, reverberate through the book, through a motif of disappearance, of deletion. I consider the lines: “B/C THE PHOTOS FROM ABU GHRAIB GOT DELETED / B/C OUR RELATIONSHIPS TO EACH OTHER ARE DOCUMENTED” and I’m struck by how quickly carceral and military violence encrypts and erases its own traces. There is also the active disavowal that archival power sustains, as with art institutions that “continue to support murderers like Carl Andre & forget people who were actually important like Ana Mendieta.” And still, I read in these intense confrontations with archival violence, a space for counter-memory to sear through lies and omissions, even as Villainy contends with the thorniness of being an archivist of one’s own digital presence, of wanting to both document and delete.

“I GOT LOST / I GOT DELETED,” an ekphrastic piece after Ana Mendieta’s films, guides us through a visceral confrontation with these questions, moving through the ache of wondering how one’s life will be remembered and taken up, and to what end. What parts will be erased or bleached or held under a microscope, what traces could be left that extend beyond the outline of a life? I read an aesthetic resistance in the lines “I RUB MESSAGES INTO THE WALL / IN HOPES I CAN BE FOUND AGAIN.” I feel a longing for connection across the lines of life and death, a twining of grief with desire.

Villainy calls upon many voices as it confronts what poetry can’t, on its own, bring into being in revolutionary struggle. The last section “POETRY AS FORCES” closes with an opening, drawing on Cecilia Vicuña’s concept of poetry as “made of forces.” The speaker poses questions, “how to weaponize the poem words as weapons,” echoing Vicuña’s Palabrarmas, and introduces an enticing charge, to “give the poem teeth.”3 To weaponize this toothy poetry, then, requires contact. Teeth can be sharp, can pierce and break, and also, vitally, might act as sensory receptors. The poem gives teeth in a way that no single mouth can contain, and it’s through collective action (the riot, the blockade, the street dance party) that this language enacts. The collective capacity for action brings on a collective proprioception.

This is a book that insists on feeling, emotionally and sensorily, on what both surfaces and interiors teach. Many parts that stay with me immerse in the haptic: wetness and viscosity (cum, mouths, makeup mingled in sweat and smudged between dancing bodies, “uhaul dyke grime”), sharpnesses (teeth, as in the mouth or also in zippers, broken glass, spiky heels, rocks), brushes of the ethereal and atmospheric (heat, coolness, smoke), and the earth itself, the softness/hardness of leather, of skin. Too, the violent edges and interiors of the fortress, the prison, the border, the ways these could cut even/especially as one tries to break through and past.

The ekphrastic address that pulses through this book finds clear naming in the invocation of artists and writers, from Frantz Fanon to David Wojnarowicz, to Ana Mendieta and Cecilia Vicuña. I also read an ekphrasis between the book’s stunning cover art, a photograph by artist Lix Z., and the book’s words. Without knowing anything about the media or process behind the image, I want to try and write about what I notice: a play between opacity and translucency, and a strong sense of textures, perhaps raindrops, metal chains, sharp protrusions, and a glitchy technique of portrait cut, a visual unbecoming. The imagery of the cover art repeats and transforms in the inlays between the book’s sections. The play between opacity and translucency suggests radiography or other imaging techniques normally employed to surveil and control, but reworked and reimagined to resist those logics. I think of how queer and trans artists of color are often fashioning resistance in optical interstices, with bodies in streets or other spaces remade and unmade. I return to the book’s title and think of history’s villainized, communities that the state and other orders try to contain within the damning figure of the villain. Villainy loosens away from villain-as-identity and moves towards forces, energy transfers, and what collectivity engages and reworks in struggle. Refusing optic reduction, staying tactically capacious, in pursuit of another world.


1 Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.

2 Wynter, Sylvia. “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism.” Boundary 2 (1984) 19-70.

3 For more on Vicuña’s Palabrarmas, Fabiola Talavera’s interview with the artist

Villainy by Andrea Abi-Karam, (Nightboat, 2021)

#269 – Summer 2022