In Jen Besemer’s slight online book, 10 word problems, published by the wildly inventive Knuckle Press, word problems are given new life, allowed space to roam. The result is an oddly tranquil feeling produced by Besemer’s acerbic wit. Although short lasting, for the book contains, you guessed it, only ten vignettes, the effect is grand. The satirical word problems here are stand ins, mark ups for ones that all of us have been taught to answer, to take seriously, to prepare our entire adolescent academic career striving towards. Each problem gives the reader the feeling that all language, no matter how trivial in use (I’m looking at you standardized tests) is, in fact, a distraction, forcing one to somehow distinguish and prioritize.
Besemer’s mission statement reads like a manifesto; a cautious warning of sorts.
“These prose poems masquerade as word problems of the sort often found on standardized tests and classroom exams. The questions they ask are unanswerable, at least through the type of quantification encouraged by the genuine exam questions they satirize. I chose to mimic and exaggerate the absurdity of the word problem in this collection because I wanted to offer a critique of contemporary educational and learning-assessment practices. I also wanted to make a comment about the drifts and flurries of useless information with which we are bombarded, and how easily we are distracted, buried and suffocated by such information. What is really important to us? Are we living it?”
The beauty of this collection is in the details. The understated quality of being able to be taken back to a time in your life when your very being depended on which letter you circled for an answer. The absurdity isn’t in Besemer’s renderings of these word problems but in the fact that it takes such an audacious collection like this to point out the irrationality modern educational applications.
The language Besemer uses throughout is gorgeous. Academically rigid at times while also showing flares of linguistic beauty, the overall result is hypnotic.
So go ahead and try them out. Let the problems absorb you. Reread them, dissect them, scratch your head. And thank God you didn’t have to take this test in high school!—Patrick Trotti