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Survey Says!

By (October 1, 2009) No Comment

Survey Says!
Nathan Austin
Black Maze Books, 2009

Survey Says is a short book of white margins and large type, considering solely of answers provided on The Family Feud (in 2005 and 2008):

I soak my dishes. Bambi. Hamburger. Hamburgers. Camel. Camera. James Bond.

The answers are complete — the author says he didn’t skip any, and we’ll just have to trust him — arranged in alphabetical order by the second letter of each phrase: Sing, Singer, Lingerie, Fingernails. What emerges is something like rhyme, and it carries the sound of the long poem well. Sometimes Austin lucks into the first letter, too “A bra. Abraham Lincoln.” I didn’t notice the pattern being disrupted, though I might have missed it. I didn’t even notice the pattern itself at first because the phrase combinations can be a lot of fun. Hillary and Bill Clinton still manage to wind up next to one another (can nothing sunder their love?), pigs is preceded by nightsticks.

They brush their teeth. They buy groceries. They cash their check. They change their jobs. They change their underwear. They cheat on their spouse. They chew gum. They comb it over. They develop more hair. They don’t like to look pretty. They don’t put on their seatbelt. They don’t take care of their bedroom. They dry flowers — like dried flowers. They dye it. They eat. They fall out of love. They gargle. They go out to dinner. They go to see a Woody Allen Movie. They have kids.

Reading this, I occasionally worry about taking part in a cruel mocking of Middle-America, and middle-of-the-afternoon America. And then, I think, well why shouldn’t I have a laugh at boobs on game shows? They’re not an endangered species or anything. “I’m going to have to go with Ashley Simpson.” Yeah.

And if you’re a word artist looking for non-academic and non-specialized language to manipulate, look no further than game show answers. Quite quickly, I quit reading the poem as a social critique and settled in for the flipping-channels. A nice-like rhythm develops. The voices almost never come off as individual; a single soul is trying to communicate. Stories emerge:

A nice, comfortable mattress. Knives. In line. Only tell one person your secret. Enquirer. Insomnia. Insult them. Insurance.

O mercy! America’s dark heart. A mirage?

John Cotter
‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.