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'Poetry Is Useless' and Other Merciless Engagements With Meaninglessness

Anders Nilsen’s absorbing and provocative art satisfies with existential angst.

Poetry Is Useless

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Length: 224 pages
Author: Anders Nilsen
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-07

Poetry is useless, writes Anders Nilsen at the outset of his new sketchbook compilation of the same name.

So too, it appears, is narrative structure. Nilsen eschews both in a remarkable collection of sketches and short comics that combine to produce a profoundly existential statement.

“I call my work quote/unquote experimental not because I form some hypothesis based on clearly delineated assumptions, develop a systematic procedure to test them and develop a more valid effective way of working, a more sound method… I call it experimental because I don’t have the faintest fucking idea what the fuck I’m doing,” he declares at the outset, inserting himself onto his own page. The reader finds it hard to take this claim seriously -- the quality of Nilsen’s stylized sketch-art and consistency of its thematic tone suggest otherwise -- but the attitude of irreverent self-inquiry it conveys is an important dimension of the work.

There’s a fine balance to this collection, which frequently floats into the surreal and bizarre, yet always falls back to earth with Nilsen’s merciless engagement with the meaning (and meaninglessness) of existence. He wields his theme with virtuosity: deflating destiny, bursting bubbles, dissecting hope and meaning with the harsh scalpel of his pointillist pen. If it appears at times to slide into cynicism, it’s not, really:

One day in the middle of your life you will be sitting on the train on your way to a boring job that you hate / You’ll be reading some bad book you picked out just because you couldn’t think of anything better to do with your time / And you’ll think: Is this all there is? / And your gaze will drift out the window of the train car / And the answer will be yes. / And it will fill you with joy / Even this is a gift / A bit of light in the darkness / Something / Instead of nothing.

If poetry is useless, Nilsen puts it to exceptional use.

Fairly clear statements such as this are few and far between, though; Nilsen’s work provokes through its oblique surrealism. Peppered with serious comments like the above, the reader is driven to perceive meaning even in the bizarre and ostensibly meaningless.

The sketchbook backdrop – which is what many reviewers have focused on – certainly makes for a novel format, but its value lies not in its novelty but in what it imparts to the bare existentialism of the text. Sketches of random bystanders, old women staring wistfully on park benches, fellow passengers on airplanes, friends and movie stars and scenes of everyday life offer the perfect complement to a statement on the randomness of existence and the lack of grand schemes driving human destiny.

Whether or not one chooses to share Nilsen’s perspective, he conveys his theme through art just as powerfully as Camus does with prose. The fact that everyday sketches morph unpredictably into bizarre and surreal scenes without beginning or end likewise conveys the unfathomable potential of being, and leaves the reader searching for meaning in the ostensible pointlessness of art.

Nilsen has fun with his work, too: wordplay, mixing metaphors, political jabs at Republicans and Democrats alike -- it’s a compelling collection across many levels. He includes several short travelogues -- Colombia, San Francisco, scenes from Europe -- which are pleasant and provocative as well. The impression one forms of Nilsen is of a mind constantly abuzz, observing and interpreting the world, sketching its random similarities and differences with bemused ambivalence. A short sequence of full-colour postcard style photo collages add a stunning contrast to the otherwise Manichean tones of his pencil sketches.

Poetry is useless, but beautiful, says the book; an ironic paradox of the sort one might expect from Nilsen. Poetry is Useless draws from sketches produced by the award-winning comics artist between 2007 and the present, many of them previously featured online or in various print forms. This exquisitely curated collection offers an enjoyable, provocative and visually absorbing read; one worth taking in large doses to fully appreciate the evocative power of Nilsen’s treatment of his theme. Poetry may be useless -- ephemeral, fragile, beautiful -- but its point here is well taken.

Whatever you have: talent, a nice car, your eyesight, a refrigerator full of food, good friends / It is something the universe has seen fit to lend you, but only for a little while / It doesn’t belong to you now any more than it did a thousand years before you were born / And it will be taken away from you again / Tomorrow, next week, or in forty-five years in an operating room when the surgeon can’t stop the bleeding / Or perhaps, more properly speaking / You will be taken away from it / It will be passed along to someone new / Again and again forever / So / As everyone knows, the proper thing to do when you receive a gift is be thankful / If you have a talent, share it. If you have a nice car, give someone a ride. If you have a refrigerator full of food / For God’s sake, make yourself something delicious for breakfast / And if you have eyesight / Use it to see.

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