from Poetics.ca #1...
Two Sides of American Poetry at the Millennium
From its cartoon cover picture of Richard Nixon’s triumphal grin to its peppering of pop culture references, Hotel Imperium (U. of Georgia Press, 1999) is a thoroughly American book. Thoroughly American, too, is Rachel Loden’s edgy, uncompromising voice, her ironic wit, her post-Watergate suspicion of ‘the official version’.
Some of the poems, while serving a manic, Firesign Theater brand of social comment, remain predictable. In “The Gospel According to Clairol” for instance, it could be McLuhan’s mechanical bride who speaks:
when God demanded
A cleavage open
But when Loden takes on that “Republican cloth coat,” the blaze of her satire, irony and farce singes the page. A glance at the guest list at the Hotel Imperium gives you an idea: Liz Taylor, Bebe Rebozo, Dan Rather, Ronald Reagan (a little deaf), both Kennedys, Alan Greenspan, Svetlana Stalin. Glamour and power are so inextricably woven here that they might as well be the same. The presiding spirit — his picture on the wall, cropped just below the eyes — is Richard Nixon. Loden blazes hottest when she’s kicking Dick Nixon around, but it’s no longer a mortal Dick Nixon she’s kicking. He’s taken on mythic proportions. The epigram to “Memories of
This is the new socialist brain. This is the statue
This is the new man born out of Adam.
Republican cloth coat. Oh gallery of Trotskyist
(“The Death of Checkers”)
Loden depicts millennial consciousness lurching between discourses like a log-driver leaping from log to log over a cold current of dread. Media-rich, value-free
Sometimes, when you shake your head,
Other times, it’s not — and that’s why
From sentimental image to ad copy for Soldier of Fortune magazine; no transition. Another shake of the head and the stream of consciousness becomes a torrent. The great military adventure of the day arrives already diminished, equated to a midway prize.
Flopsy the Bunny isn’t what you want,
and yet you won her at the fair. Like we won
whirl me in circles, send me careering
A CNN broadcast, an insurance company’s "Schedule of Sorrows", Richard Nixon’s last will and testament: these are the unlikely sources for Rachel Loden’s quirky information age landscapes. Like the toppled figureheads of the evil empire, the idols elevated by the media prove to be interchangeable, cut-out figures onto which the mass audience projects meaning. The poetry bristles with manic wit and daring ironies. Yet note how much of that "infinite capacity for taking care" the poet has lavished on the placement of the caesura, the balance of vowels and consonants, the rhythms that run beneath and carry along the impassioned words.
Not long ago, George W. Bush succeeded in his struggle against Washington’s powerful freedom-of-information lobby to have a mountain of documents concerning the Iran-Contra conspiracy (during his father’s term as vice-president) permanently closed to public scrutiny. In other words, Nixonian Republicanism still thrives. The cover-up continues, and the world hasn’t changed as much as some would have us believe. Bush has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, so irony is not dead. If poetry were ever again to be considered dangerous in the heart of USA-style democracy, it would be at such a time. And it would be poetry like Loden’s “Terror is my Business” or like the poem below, title poem of her chapbook My Domain (
May and tornados, the usual cholera
heigh, what sucking whorl blows by?
politic, turning over
sleep. Blessed is he
of the wicked; he hath convened
sake. Plus the goat must die. Selah.
for your sins. And the Capitol is wet
I’m of the opinion that poetry is open to all forms of discourse (or vice versa), that the immediacy and urgency of Loden’s rhythm alone has a power to lift her brief outbursts to a level beyond the disposable editorial pages of everyday. All the same, Yeats’s distinction is a real one and as easy to notice as the difference between a triple Axel and a quad.
Contrast, for example, this voice, from Mystic, Connecticut, the opposite coast from Loden’s Palo Alto, the voice overheard in Wendy Battin’s second book, Little Apocalypse (Ashland Poetry Press, 1997), in the opening poem, “Anamnesis”:
It comes through the brain’s static,
Here in the flesh, in the instruments too, is the other side of Yeats’s polarity, the dialogue with the self. The poet’s role here is twofold: to let the world move her; then to “spark, filter, make geometry.” The poem may spark a trillion synapses in the reader, it may filter the Monarchs from the ragged leaves. Always, in a Wendy Battin poem, it makes a splendid geometry of ideas that leads home to some elemental emotional, some existential fulcrum. As in Rachel Loden (with crucial differences), a Wendy Battin poem is continually transforming itself, permitting the reader to surf along on a wave of reference. This requires a trust that there’s a steadying, centrifugal force to all this whirl of thoughts. In large part, this trust is won through the rhythm, the sureness of craft, the poet’s good ear.
The word anamnesis, by the way, means to recall from memory, “when forgetfulness is lost,” as when Socrates gets the child to ‘remember’ the principles of geometry from a prior life. Many of Battin’s poems have this quality of being memories from another life, of a life constantly on the verge of breaking into myth. “There is nothing to Ariadne but her thread,” says Battin, in “Sense, Sensed” a collection of mostly Buddhist-inspired epigrams about poetry. Is this a sort of Zen proverb, like the one about the Tao being not the moon but the finger that points? Or is it a thread that will lead to speculations about cosmology and string theory? In Wendy Battin’s poetic universe, each is equally likely. Trained in physics, Battin retells myths (as in “Eve, Before” and “Frog. Little
Downstairs they’re arguing voltage and money,
The book opens with a quotation from Philip K. Dick: “They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him.” That isn’t the deal in the world of Little Apocalypse. Holiness, divinity, illumination are ever-present, just beneath the surface tension of the phenomenal world, but as in Blake, you can’t hold onto the wingèd joy any more than you can hold onto the positron produced for a fraction of a second in the particle accelerator:
The little apocalypse repeats and repeats. I can see it
Review is one of the most poignant expressions of the day’s impact I have yet read.
Colin Morton is an Ottawa poet and the author of The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems, now available online at the Contemporary American Poetry Archive, and, more recently, Coastlines of the Archipelago. Colin is also a novelist and a warm host for informal poetry gatherings in Ottawa. Visit Colin Morton's website.
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