Nasser Hussain’s New Collection Plays Love Games

Love Language
Nasser Hussain
Coach House
2023, 80 pp., $22.95

Nasser Hussain's second book with Coach House opens with the abecedarian procession, "Sing // alove blove clove dlove / elove... zlove." The line breaks imply this is set to "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman" (the ur-tune of the "ABC song"). There's a line with just one -love that honours the metrically necessary ampersand between Y and Z. From L to P there's an unbroken string of syllables. But "love" ruptures the tune, you can't sing it out. You can try to cleave the letters from "love" so that it goes, "Sing a love, b[e] love, c[as in see] love." But once you hit d, that process devolves. Puns are purely incidental to this kind of procedure. I don't mean to belittle "Sing" but to get at Hussain's bailiwick, the primordial dimension—protozoan?—in language (and love). Reading Love Language, one has to be open to this kind of play and participate in it. One must be in the mood to be rewarded by it.

Hussain's previous book published by Coach House, SKY WRI TEI NGS (2018), was an impressive exercise in Oulipian constraint, using three-letter airport codes exclusively (excepting one erasure) to explore the spatial and political vicissitudes of language and travel. Meaning was made by deploying fixed entities (as fixed as nations can be) in ambulant re/combinations. Moving from Oulipo to Steinian objectivism, Love Language is looser, less conceptually accomplished but lyrically richer. "If You Find The Buddha in Your" re-stages Yixuan's saying, "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" in a number of contemporary locales: consider eating him in your fridge, treasure him in your trash, and warn him in "america." The original aphorism's austerity is blown up in these hilarious, idiomatic, and topical turns. "Thinking of You" goes through a series of temporal comparisons, "think of time as [X]/ & the [Y] as [Z]." The conceit blends the cosmic, the erotic, and the cute: "pen, ink, space; lemon, pith, naps; lover, physics, kiss." Unlike SKY WRI TEI NGS, these pieces feel extemporaneous and, subsequently, generous to the reader. With nothing delimiting the poem other than the date of publication, new lines by the author or reader can (potentially) circulate in the ether. It captures standing with friends in the break of an open mic—trading puns as wretched and delicious as shared cigarettes. This is something poets have missed since pandemic and have enjoyed since some deep historic origin. Anne Carson has a good paragraph about puns in her book, Eros: the Bittersweet (1986),

Sameness is projected onto difference in a kind of stereoscopy. There is something irresistible in that. Puns appear in all literatures, are apparently as old as language and unfailingly fascinate us. Why? If we had the answer to this question, we would know more clearly what the lover is searching for as he moves and reasons through the borderlands of his desire.

The separated diptych, "Say What You Will, But" and "Do What You Want, But" trace these borderlands. The former lists a series of grinning puns that oscillate from the profound to the absurd and back, "you can't say hurt without her / you can't say yurt without yer / you can't say blurt without blur." The latter starts this way but transitions into a more explicit ontology, 


which is to say they verb their
assurances in the susurrance
below the surface of wordness.

"Blurt" and "blur," "assurance" and "sussurance" (which is a whisper) delineates the materiality of the unsaid that we can't unhear, chopping the T off blurt to pull out the lingering R and reifying the calm repeated in the sibilant "sure." Here rests the tension. The frottage between distal concepts through homonyms, rhymes, and other resemblances isn't new, but neither is love. And if you're writing a book on love and a love of language, one needs to break through their trepidation and embrace the ways in which language is erotic. Language is cute. Not like a baby duck (though it's that too as it's multitudinous). The register of Love Language suggests what Sianne Ngai describes in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012),

... cuteness involves an intimate address that often fails to establish the other as truly other, as if due to the excessive pressure of the subject's desire for intimacy or to the force of the aesthetic's mimetic compulsion.

Cuteness, perhaps due to its contiguous development with capitalism and commodity, is unlike beauty—we're too close to it. However, we covet it like it's already a part of us. We could just squish it, like a pimple. The baby duck plushy and Stein's "Roastbeef" don't describe either fowl or food but the hand that compulsively crushes it or the tongue that tenderly utters it. Hussain describes something like this in the Steinian "No Really It's Honestly Nothing." Broken into three tight little three-line stanzas, it first describes the zero—the glyph that it is ("a drawing") and not the number (which it isn't)—and then compares it to a drawing which is only itself. Hussain's last stanza finds the synthesis "a drawing is / a zero trying to look like / a something." Like the two "Say/Do What You Will/Want, But" poems, this ars poetica achieves the neither/nor-but-more of writing and mark making, imbuing neither the void nor the ink which encloses it but the "ing—" (the verb) with agency. This is familiar territory for anyone who enjoys reading writing about writing and reading, reminding me especially of Renee Gladman's essays on drawing in Calamities and bp Nichol's serial drawing, Aleph Unit, but Hussain's is a worthy contribution to the genre and, I think, serves as the kernel to Love Language's many peregrinations.

Hussain makes use of the void in several concrete pieces throughout. "Viberate" splits the titular typo with a centralized period, offset with nested parentheses that take up the entire page. Unsurprisingly, it creates a neat optical vibration. However, I'm more so taken by this effect in Hussain's list poems, particularly "English Lit.," which puts every variation from "english litany" through "english litheness" to "english litz" in a block paragraph that breaks and enjambs its many compounds. Justification also spreads these terms out so that rivers form between the lines, making the poem almost illegible. This reads as intentional, especially when considering the preceding poem, "This Is Your Language, I'm Just Speaking It" wherein "English" is deformed through a variety of typographic and sonic procedures: "eeenglish / ennnglish/ enggglish ... " Hussain explicitly uses noise and texture to detourne, playfully addressing an ambivalence in loving the language of empire and capital. Similar to "English Lit.," Hussain uses textual noise to render the quotidian experience of othering in language with "This Dis Orientation." Taking its title from 2021's Disorientation: Being Black in the World by Ian Williams, the poem follows the speaker from morning till lunch as the bracketed word, "racialized" irrupts repeatedly. Sometimes it's an adjective, sometimes a noun (or it's redaction), others it's a residue of thought itself, "begin my [racialized] pre-work rituals. look at the [racialized] clock. do a [racialized] mental calculation. [racialized]. [racialized]." The brackets rupture the linear flow of the text and recreates the totalizing effect of a word that simultaneously articulates a political reality and, through repetition and co-option, flattens it. The poem's thick, effective sarcasm palpably captures the speaker's exhaustion but leaves it ambiguous whether he considers the term adequate, or just accurate.

As well as Ian Williams, there are several poems for poets throughout Love Language. "Love Poem" is essentially the glossary of Hussain's mental anthology of friends, dead and alive. "TL;DR, Or, Molly Got an iPhone" is for "db" (Derek Beaulieu?) and takes place in a footnote to, "do you agree to these / terms and conditions." Instead of legalese, it's venerable Molly Bloom doing a rendition of her speech in Ulysses, "yes I'll hand over all my yes personal information yes I'll let you track my location yes in case of water damage I won't sue yes I'm ready to input my whole life into you ... " There are phones throughout Love Language, their presence—and their role as interface—is one of the indicators of the pandemic. COVID's never explicitly referred to but its vibe haunts many of the pages, particularly through the absence or distance of friends. In the form of a DM, "What Happened to You, Love" directly, emphatically addresses the feeling, which stands in for the collective, "yo, so: even if the lights go out even if my thumb grows numb even if my bottom falls out even if my roof leaks even if the battery dies even if the coffee cools even if the verdicts wrong ... " Current events and personal contingencies twist media and medium over a screen between the poet and beloved. It's a really affecting (technically, unsaid) speech.

It yearns, it's often bittersweet, and it's consistently very funny.

Love Language is good romantic comedy. It yearns, it's often bittersweet, and it's consistently very funny. Hussain is unapologetically cute, affectionate really, with his language. This is articulated best, ironically, by something thrown out in one of the more serious poems; "(like my friend Dominic said) // genius is all about / how much / you forgive." In "A Poem for Adam Zagajewski in Early 2021," Hussain weaves a direct address to the late Polish poet with a memory of the speaker’s father, who was the same age as Zagajewski. If you, reader, forgive a strained metaphor ending this review, I'm going to read genius like the Greeks do, as a daemon lending an assist. The same genius that connects two men who never met and leads the poet to forgiveness, exists in fricative sounds and empty glyphs that constellate these poems. When you find a good pun in your heart, you must forgive it.

About the author

Miles Forrester is a poet and artist living in Toronto, Ontario. He received his MA in creative writing at Concordia University. His thesis project, Way Out Belleville, emotionally mapped his hometown across a span of equilateral triangles. His poetry has been published in Acta Vicatoriana, CV2, FreeFall, and Commo.