The first thing that strikes one when reading Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country Is Great is the voice: it’s bizarre. That may be an odd way to begin talking about a conceptual poem – but it’s true. Given the conceit, you’d think there’d be many voices, but most of the time, it seems to read as one: one naïve, flat, repetitive, enthusiastic, spastic, depthless (sometimes poignant) voice. Sometimes, it just sounds like a super-sophisticated child-idiot: “Argentina is great because the population is 90-95% Meditteranean! / Few jews because the great Rightist pro-white military junta / got rid of 50k leftist jews / This is why I think the launching of legitimate services in Argentina / is great news.” The Internet speaks.
“Google’s rise to success was in large part due to a patented algorithm called PageRank that helps rank web pages that match a given search string. The PageRank algorithm analyses human-generated links assuming that web pages linked from many important pages are themselves likely to be important. PageRank is thought to correlate well with human concepts of importance.” (Wikipedia). In Shirinyan’s book, we’re looking at important concerns: nationalism, tourism, economics, topography, climate, development, where to get laid (“Overall, the screwing in Bahrain is great”), etc., but the poems do not develop any topic in depth. It’s not about depth; it’s about a constellation of surfaces.
No one poem will tell you much about greatness; you learn about greatness by reading across the collection. You learn that great often means a great need: “need for food in Afghanistan is great.” It means great potential: “Andorra is great for cheap electrical goods.” Great also means important: “pipleline via Afghanistan is great.” When the voice is trying to assert the greatness of a country (trying to assert the greatness of Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, etc., in a great clamor), the claim seems to assert exactly the opposite. Sometimes, this is remarked upon directly: “Australia is great, / but nothing I did when working / was valued.” I think that the book is actually most enjoyable when one focuses upon the shifting meaning of greatness within the text: you really see the concerns of an internet-bound global populace (the most idiotic and the most affecting).
Yet, generally, most of this information is presented in such a discursive, repetitive, vague and disconnected way that it actually dilutes each poem’s depth of feeling. This moment could have been heart-breaking – “the need for tough, dependable, / locally repairable wheelchairs in / Afghanistan is great” – but it wasn’t. It was sandwhiched between this blithe statement, “well-aquainted / with the unique problems / facing Afghanistan,” and this one, “A mountain. An airplane. Aviation in / Afghanistan is great fun.” Nonetheless, these qualities might paradoxically be a strength of the work. Your Country Is Great might do, in miniature, what the Internet might be doing, overall: oversaturating us and fracturing our attention.
And still, there is also an equal and opposite story: the Internet really does make more information more available than ever before. Doesn’t this give us the opportunity to attend more deeply, if that’s our desire? I imagine and equal and opposite book: one where Ara Shirinyan chooses one country, Afghanistan perhaps, and follows every link that states “Afghanistan is great,” moving past the search page and into the deep-web. I imagine him researching, and researching. Would that become too much data to manage? Would it give a more profound sense of “greatness”? Would it reveal equal and opposite epistemological seams? What might emerge if we read these two books side by side?