The Poetry Project

On Zeroes Were Hollow by David Larsen

Gabriel Kruis

“His Shaykh is Satan.”

This is a line from the poem ‘FAIR PLAY FOR YEMEN’ in Larsen’s collection, which deals in part with the destruction of the Uways al-Qarani mosque in Raqqa. “You know Uwaysi? It is the most beautiful thing,” David Larsen writes, “the tales of abject holiness / the tutelary figure for the teacherless.” Uwaysis are sufi mystics who believe in the transmission of spiritual knowledge independent of physical interaction. Though he was alive during Muhammad’s lifetime, their namesake Uways never met The Prophet, opting to care for his ailing mother instead; despite this, he was granted the honorific Khayr at-Tābiʿīn (“The Best of the Followers of the Companions of the Prophet”). Before they destroyed it, Larsen tells us, ISIS spray painted this inscription upon Uways Mosque: “Who has no shaykh, his shaykh is Satan.”

In a world which has relied almost unfailingly on the frangible poetics of the binary, it might be enough to simply see who Larsen contrasts the Uwaysis to, to understand their value to him—not to mention how he fell in with the Devil. Whether it’s Raytheon (who built the bombs) or the US (who sanctions and profits off their sales in the Middle East), Larsen puts the question plainly, “Oh tell me please, without United States / what ISIS would there be? / Oh yeah, and what Israel?” The sense is: if the Uwaysis are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

It’s only a few pages later, in “HOOFPRINTS IN THE SNOW,” that Lucifer returns to clarify, or further muddy, the picture. One line reads: “Satan is the devil who makes error beautiful.” Another: “Jesus is the devil that loved the world / a lot.” This love of error and good trouble, of troubling received logic, of indulgence in “imperfection,” marks every inch of Zeroes Were Hollow.

Take, for instance, the handwritten poem in various colored inks on the back cover: its penultimate line is X’d-out and there’s an inscrutable scribble tying it off (I think it spells NAVE?). The acknowledgements and the TOC, too, are scrawled in the author’s hand, as are several poems throughout. You don’t have to have read Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero to appreciate the immediacy and corporeality of the handwriting, especially when it renders the formerly “neutral,” totally serviceable typeface, null; the poet’s anarchic wit is as evident in every looping O and squiggled N as it is in every poem in the book.

The associations between Larsen’s block lettering and comix are certainly there, but the Brooklyn Museum’s show on Basquiat’s notebooks a few years back also comes to mind. Through quotes from the artist and the curator’s wall text, it was made clear that the nixed or misspelled words, the repeatedly blurred or obliterated objects, were intended to make viewers look closer and decipher: to be made to remember what they witnessed “beneath the noise.” Not that that’s all that’s going on here. That’s too reductive and self-serious for a book so hedonistic and, honestly, wonderfully slovenly. Still, the Kenning Editions re-release of Syrup Hits—Larsen’s collaged remix of his first book, The Thorn—as well as the inclusion of two linoleum block print collabs with 80s punk auteur Raymond Pettibon, places Zeroes Were Hollow even more firmly in the graffiti’d / pop-art domain of Basquiat’s downtown aesthetic.

The formal idiosyncrasies in the book will be familiar to readers of Larsen’s 2005 The Thorn: the bathroom stall handwriting; the poem in lieu of a blurb (“…THIS TEXT ANTICIPATES YOUR RESISTANCE AND OFFERS IT A MEAT EATING FLOWER”). But Zeroes Were Hollow is marked by an additional anarchic caprice: where there are titles, they often arise in ALL CAPS in the midst or at the end of a piece. This is the case in the book’s second poem, “REQUIRED READING FOR THE GENIUSES OF THE WORLD,” and the effect is discombobulation: do these poems run backward; are they inverted; or do they unfold from the center outward? Reading that particular poem in reverse does make a certain sense; and a line like “It was written with a pen held backward” lends credence. It’s also true the poem on the back cover reads “more cohesively” if you take the inks color by color (but its title, “FOR MISUSE,” makes me wonder if this is a faulty Rosetta Stone). While references to fables and riddles and sphinxes abound, while zero and cipher all share a root in Arabic, there’s always that diabolical countercurrent in the book which takes us far from any punctilious games of codebreaking—or moralizing, for that matter. When, for instance, in a handwritten poem, the title arises in medias res, it is at the same time effaced or subsumed in Larsen’s majuscule scrawl. If you want to know what the poem is called, you have to return to the TOC. It’s rare for that page to be more than a paratextual artifact, let alone an informative and mordantly wry companion. Take the brief (seemingly titleless) handwritten lines on page 16 (“WHAT’S THAT / A SHOT / TWO SHOTS! / NOT JUST / A SUICIDE / THEN”); which, flipping back, we see is called “THEATER OF THE NIGHT.”

This abrupt poem and its dichotomies—bleak hilarity; the shoot-out versus the suicide; the witness and the victim—are emblematic of the book’s concerns. They represent an insoluble algebra. There are unspoken players in this cruel drama, an X factor Larsen is sure to point to elsewhere: the gun seller, Raytheon, and “the arms dealing, good life stealing / United States of Malignant Bullshit.” Zeroes Were Hollow seems to recognize the implicit tension in taking this mess seriously enough to say something serious about it. Opting for anarchy and rage, Larsen invites the reader to participate in manifold perversions and involutions of dominant logics and paradigms.

In “I WRITE IN THE MIRROR” (whose title also appears as a non-sequitur 7 lines in), the sensation of inversion mimics the splitting/doubling effect of a mirror. I at first wondered if the title meant the speaker wrote backward (as in, REDRUM); or, was this suggestive of an artist creating a self portrait? When the speaker clarifies, simply, “I write looking in the mirror,” these first two senses (both valid) are obscured by the comedic plainness of the image. Yet the stance is both physical and metaphorical; here we have a poet who writes with a kind of blithe, seemingly witless honesty, as the lines that follow attest: “The day has every hour in it / and uh clouds everywhere.” The poem ends by turning the mirror back on the reader:

I write in the mirror

How about you

In this reversal, a coterie is implied. The reader is identified for what they probably are: a poet.

When, in Writing Degree Zero, Barthes writes, “The absence of any explicit signifier functions by itself as a signifier,” he performs the same maneuver in semiotics that the Arabic mathematician al-Khowarizmi (whose name gives us the word algorithm) performed 1,300 years earlier when he expounded upon the ways that zero functions not as a lack or absence, but a number in and of itself: “the absence of all quantity considered as quantity.” In Zeroes Were Hollow, there’s an adage which concludes “A TALE OF FARID AL-DIN CATTAR”: “man is the enemy of what he does not know.” It could be said that ignorance (deliberate or endemic) is an absence of “knowledge” best considered as quantity: a dark energy or negative algorithm which animates the flow of capital between organizations like Raytheon and Empire.

Even where Larsen deploys a seemingly neutral “I like this/I like that” notational tone, it’s in a poem titled “FUCK EVERYTHING”: “I like non-existence, not existing / stuff like that. I find it soothing… I like solitude and mono-amory / and heavy metal that is slow and content-free / Fuck everything else / I swear to God, get it out of my face now.” Following the destruction and defacement of the Uwaysi Mosque in “FAIR PLAY FOR YEMEN,” the poet writes of ISIS fundamentalists: “I hate those people / and the mullahs and the stupid kingdom…” While rage and even hatred are palpable, it seems right to consider the nugatory/nullifying mode in Zeroes Were Hollow to be a quantity, as well. It’s a rage that should also be read as a profound and abiding love for difference, for that which has been destroyed, obliterated, trampled on or kept from existing, for the outsider artist, the unacknowledged, unschooled, forgotten, ignored, the hidden. In Larsen’s own words from “THE FLEA’S PILGRIMAGE”:

The different is not the Other

The different could be your twin

Some men are so beautiful

it presents a problem

and they mask their faces

That’s how beautiful the Other is

#273 – Summer 2023