Blake Wallin

Trey Pharis’ Emoji Death Mask

The cover art for Trey Pharis’ Emoji Death Mask, out since May at Maudlin House, shows a vertical rainbow wheel of colors dripping down behind the title which is white and scribbled thickly onto the foreground. The letters look as if they were smudged into the color scheme like cave paintings, like what cave paintings are now, like the technological version of trying to get your point across. It is this image that I found following me throughout my reading of the book, reminding me of the desperate, primeval search for connection we are all involved with and which we continue to do despite setbacks. 

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One of the themes of the book is humor as a genuine way of coping with sadness, disappointment, loss, and depression. You wonder where this speaker would be without his humor, and it is a terrifying prospect. But then you look at yourself and wonder the same thing, and that’s part of what’s great about this book. After all the emojis and haikus and jokes, it gets you to look at yourself more and what you’re laughing about in the poems. There’s a double-edged sword with his humor, and it gets the reader to reflect on what they’re laughing about blithely and creates this powerful emotional + intellectual force that almost predates speech and thought. 

One of my favorite things about this book is that if you took the context out of most of these statements, they would sound inane, conspiratorial, or borderline sociopathic. Examples: “computers will ingest the future” (43), “You were born on a different planet” (40), “I do not remember dreams” (33), “I am an idiot who likes/ to stare at a screen for 14 hours” (38), “nothing is responsible for anything” (46), “i will disappear/ into the blue screen of death” (52). In this book, things conspire against the speaker in hilarious ways, things including tax forms (“insane russian and american scientists are secretly creating a massive existential crisis”), the internet (“c y b e r p o e m”), computers (“the future is inside some top secret quantum computer”), time itself (“the next century”), science (“emotional research grants”), and even desert plants and animals (“various places”). 

I don’t know if it’s because it’s surrounded by emojispeak and meditations on loneliness, but “Romantic emoticon” is one of the sweetest damn poems I have read in the longest time. To interrupt the staggered long lines with a shorter-lined, one-stanza reflection on a recent love is a stroke of genius and it pays tremendous dividends throughout the rest of the book.

The poem begins with a birthday party in which the kind host distributes ecstasy to all his guests. A girl wants to fuck the poet/speaker, and the poet/speaker is not into it because another girl at the party has won his heart instead. Although the first, hornier girl ends up in a ditch, the poet/speaker feels bad. Then, the cool veneer of the poet breaks enough to admit that “now we [him and the second girl] have been/ together for three years” (42). To have this switcheroo tale alight on an affirmation of monogamous love is sheer genius, and it bodes well for the rest of the book. There are hints at depth as well as genuine moments of depth throughout the first half of the book, but this is the first moment in it that the best affirmation of life shines through, giving necessary context and making it clear that, yeah, you’d wanna be friends with the poet/speaker. 

To say the book is well constructed despite being lithe/coy is an understatement. This book gets under your skin (after you laugh about it of course), and the most deeply felt moments come when you suspect the speaker is wearing some sort of protective mask or covering. But to whom do you reveal yourself online? Who gets the benefit of knowing you in this post-industrial, post-internet age we live in? Is true connection possible anymore, or have we boxed it ad infinitum? These aren’t the last resources of a desperate speaker; these are the very vestiges of connection seeping through the cracks of our technological society.

For the naysayers: to assert that the poet gives himself up to a brand of nihilistic sputterings that merely sound cool when put together like so undercuts and misses what Trey Pharis does throughout the book. This is the humanistic revolution, where Internet lingo meets true feelings and vice versa. Where the guarding of feelings through that same lingo is respected. And where both are allowed to coexist in a harmony that the speaker deeply feels for and engages in despite mental health concerns and setbacks. 

This book will help you laugh in the face of danger more through its deeply entrenched hermeneutical suspicion of technology, communication, relationships, and therapy. Humor remains the only tangible element in the universe. But don’t worry, just laugh. And then think. But don’t believe you’re changing your thinking much. Until you laugh again and the circle continues and goes on infinitely like the universe you are a part of beautifully and ineluctably. 

Emoji Death Mask is available now from Maudlin House.

Blake Wallin is the author of the chapbooks Otherwise Jesus (Ghost City Press, 2015) and No Sign on the Island (Bottlecap Press, 2016) as well as the microchap The Lucidity of Giving Up (Ghost City Press, 2016). He is the Reviews/Interviews Editor for Ghost City Review.