Ahsahta Press, 2009
Four Way Books, 2008
|It’s September 2009 and here we are, eight years in to the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. It is an unlovely acronym for an unlovely and ever-lengthening engagement. In a combined eight years, the United States managed to fight both World Wars and the Korean War. Only the Vietnam War, at eight years, five months, outlasted the GWOT.
But as we’ve often been told, this is a different kind of war. Though it has two well-defined fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is pervasive, low-key, ever-shifting. Its casualties (for us, at least) tend to come in high-profile attacks, coupled with the slow attrition of soldiers who die terribly, but far less often, than the soldiers that America has sent into any prior major action. This is as close to war being “normal” as America has ever come. The economy surges, recedes. We take vacations; we shop. We do not go without nylons so that parachutes might be made; our neighbors don’t receive draft notices at their high school graduation parties. Everything is fine.
Faced with this surreal SNAFU, how have American poets reacted? It is not possible to separate art from the world in which it is created but poetry is perhaps the most insular of arts, and the most neglected, although not by its practitioners. Spurred by the professionalizing ethos of MFA programs and the democratizing influences of the Internet, poetry – good, bad, and indifferent – is poised to become one of the most widely practiced art forms in the country. Be that as it may, verse is well suited to the cri de coeur, but not, perhaps, to civic rage, to mass education, to the “shock and awe” that seems to suit the age. So, how does it presume? And how does it begin?
Rachel Loden’s new collection Dick of the Dead does so by picking up from where she left off in 1999. In that year, well before the GWOT, she published her first book, Hotel Imperium, which was noted for its author’s habit of writing poems in the voice of Richard Nixon. In those heady days, her Dick was a creature of elegiac tendendies: a bogeyman who had been gently pushed back into the closet. Now, he’s returned with a vengeance.
And that is the guiding theme of Dick of the Dead – the return of the things that won’t stay dead. History’s zombies – the fact that we are doomed to repeat what we dare forget. Tricky Dick himself appears explicitly in only a small number of the collection’s poems, but he is repeatedly linked to the resurgent executive power of the George W. Bush presidency and its resident Haldemans and Kissingers – its Rummys, Roves, and Rices. Indeed, many of them started their careers under Nixon’s watchful eye; among them, the White House’s other Dick – you know, Cheney, whose heart, in Loden’s words, “is flying towards” its muse and maker – the Hamlet’s Father of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In wrestling with the cycle of history, Loden summons not only Dick Nixon, but the full complement of myth: fairy tales, Bible stories, cowboys, movie stars, and ancient empires (not Rome but rather the empire of Sargon, whose Khorsabad, located a few miles from what is now Mosul, Iraq, was capital of ancient Assyria). As Dick himself says, in Loden’s poem The Nixon Tapes, “God/damn, twelve princesses dance their shoes/to tatters all night in a castle underground/and nobody is running their income tax/returns?” Dick Nixon has one foot in myth and one foot in reality, and we’re the ones stuck in the middle, who must beware of thinking a myth is always past and never prologue:
Blessed is he
who leaketh the depositions
of the wicked; he hath convened
a new grand jury for Thy name’s
sake. Plus the goat must die. Selah.
The dead witness eats dust
for your sins. And the Capitol is wet
with such a sweet and steady rain.
The fascination with repetition occurs not only in the substance of the poems themselves, but also in their form. Many of Loden’s lines are cribbed from well-known twentieth-century poems, and she often rewrites those poems completely, providing twenty-first century updates. She channels not just Dick Nixon, but Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Ted Berrigan, and Robert Creeley. In the shortest, and certainly one of the most thoroughly creepy, of all the poems in Dick of the Dead, Loden transforms Pound’s famous couplet, the summation of imagism:
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of the faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
THE USNS COMFORT SAILS TO THE GULF
Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:
In Loden’s world, not only is the spirit of Tricky Dick capable of rising again, possessing the occupants of the White House, and driving the world awry, but poetry has the capacity to renew itself and respond to these events. Her updates transform poems that had become museum pieces – beloved objects shut up behind the glass case of poetic memory and reverence – into living, vital work again, ready to kick up a fuss.
|They do this in part, crucially, by hearkening to their roots, to a shared culture that can be preserved and defended against the destructive efforts of warmongers, late-stage capitalists, and all their monstrous regiment. And here I should mention one of the unique pleasures of Loden’s work: the references. I had to look many things up. In order to catch her drift, I revisited the King James Bible, the films of Jean Harlow, Dryden’s translations of Ovid, many twentieth-century poems, and I learned things I never knew about diplomats associated with the Vatican. The results enriched the poems, made each line reverberate with intense layers of context. In a world wherein poems are expected either to be entirely transparent or entirely opaque, Loden’s tight encapsulations are welcome indeed. They underscore that:|
As Rummy wields his Dictaphone, white memos
drifting through the Pentagon like snow
we have not only ourselves to save, but a shared world constructed painstakingly on the back of the past, a world that deserves a better future..
And so, though they traffic in death and its dealers, these are not poems of defeat. Their ferocity in diction, theme, and meter, betrays what Robert Lowell phrases as a “angry wrenlike vigilance,” a prophet’s call to arms. Bodies (politic) and stories may be buried alike. History itself can be suppressed at times, and yet, like Tricky Dick and his ilk, it has the same powers of resurrection, and what’s more, the power to warn the American Esau away from trading
for a mess
and a barrelful
Where Dick of the Dead may spur readers to organize a protest, Kevin Prufer’s National Anthem may put them in mind to mix a gin & tonic, and go sit alone for an hour or so in a darkened room. The book is a lugubrious elegy for the things that shouldn’t have died, a waiting-out of the last days of a crumbling empire. It is a book uniquely concerned with violence and with masculinity. People, cities, and even heavenly bodies die on nearly every one of its pages, lengthily, often grotesquely; young boys and men have the worst of it:
The boy who drowned in the bog, the boy caught in the rotors, the boy
who laughed too loud—
The boy who swallowed the bee that stung the throat—
The ripcord worked, but the parachute fluttered weakly above and would
He put his foot down in the foreign grass and heard a click, as of metal on
metal. When he lifted that foot—
|Many of the poems are written in the voices of the dead themselves, showing the afterlife to be a grey, listless waystation not unlike the Classical Greek conception of Hades: full of dim shades incapable of speech. Through it all, Prufer maintains a tone of numbed detachment, like a man who knows he ought to be outraged, but is too beaten down to resist. Like Loden, Prufer is sensitive to the powers of history to reveal and to discover past wrongs, but he seems far less sanguine about our ability to evade their repetition. His poems betray a bleak fatalism, wherein the sins of fathers are visited upon sons, and any witnessing that we do can bring nothing to justice, stop no crime. As Prufer writes in History, here reproduced in its entirety:|
They put a bottle in my neck
and threw me from the bridge into the river
where I floated on my back then sank.
I slept for weeks beneath a log, then
woke to the light flittering through cold water.
Chilled over, thick in the tongue and sweet—
I could not speak, so watched instead
the bits of silt that fell like dead embers
over my eyes.
Prufer’s crumbling empire is a world curiously absent of women, who have not, historically, been left out of history’s violence. Where they appear, they act as foils, unwittingly perpetuating the misery of the military-industrial complex, as the unnamed addressee of the poem that lends the collection its title,
You had been inside for longer than you said, and when you reemerged
I went to help you with the bags. I’m sorry, sorry—into the cold air—I
What was the body but a vessel, and what was the store but another,
larger vessel? The keys sang in my numb fingers. The flag applauded in
And then I saw that you were smiling up at it.
or else as mere totemic conceits: lustful schoolgirls, southern gothic hags. In the collection’s single poem with a female speaker, Girls In Heaven, the narrator is not merely dead, but long dead: she appears to have drowned in a late-Victorian boating accident (brought on, the poem hints, by dawning erotic self-awareness), and now inhabits a kind of eternal summer camp, dogged by rain and a distant, mechanical god, but not by any particular worries or hurts:
Sometimes, it rains for days
So we crawl into our cabin beds.
My eyes snap shut
Like a doll’s. The pink spot on the cheek, a plastic flush
That stains the neck, queer thrill of lace
where the throat begins—
I am always dreaming.
And oh, that rain. If it rains or – god forbid – snows on you in a Kevin Prufer poem, then I can only hope you’ve made out a valid will. If anything is alive and well at all in National Anthem, it is the pathetic fallacy. Snow appears constantly: it sprinkles from the mouths of dead boys; it forms the backdrop for two poems about torture and lobotomy, falls numbly over “the corpses of planes,” and on the heads of mourners attempting to drink themselves painless; it stuffs up the skulls of the Caesars, and tumbles like “last century’s angels” over an America sinisterly cluttered with brand name shopping opportunities. It is often described in terms of outright violence: as plummeting needles or syringes, or piles of pulled teeth. Watch out for falling leaves and wilting flowers, too: the natural world, as it goes about its business, is nothing but synonymous with death:
The child beneath the swing set, crying for his mother,
Face like a petal—
and the clouds spill water over them so they’ll grow,
and the mothers on the long park benches talk among themselves,
heads swaying on stems—
they are only memories now,
they are dying weeds. Autumn, and the leaves coughed and died in the trees.
For most of us, summer’s roses will come again, but death and violence are these poems’ only repeat visitors. As one empire (Rome, Soviet Russia) crumbles, Prufer describes another (America) rising from its ashes, just as warlike and unjust, but with deaths more slickly mechanized, the better to line another’s pockets. It may fall in turn, but it will take too much with it, and then arise again, in some other form. For Loden, an awareness of history permits us the possibility of taking charge of it; in Prufer’s vision, all we can do is live through the end days, if we can.
Maureen Thorson is the author of three chapbooks: “Twenty Questions for the Drunken Sailor,” (flynpyntar/dusie press 2009), “Mayport” (Poetry Society of America 2006) and “Novelty Act” (Ugly Duckling Presse 2004). She lives in Washington, D.C., where she co-curates the In Your Ear reading series at the DC Arts Center and runs Big Game Books, the tiniest press in the world.