Dick of the Dead by Rachel Loden
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2009)
Seriously Laughing, Laughing Seriously
There’s been perpetual debate about the affiliation of poetry and politics. Some commentators argue that poetry must be apolitical or compromise its universality, others that poetry is innately political, a language act in defiance of speech and other quotidian acts of language. There’s also much debate about the role of humor in poetry, many contending that there is only room in poetry for irony. To laugh at or with a poem drops the literary value of that poem. In the face of these debates a poetry emerges every now and then that is uncompromisingly political and unabashedly funny, often at the same time. Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead is just such a poetry, a collection that massages the brain and tickles the funny bone. This book is immensely pleasurable yet it is also seriously serious. Dick of the Dead, as the last line puts it, “makes me furiously glad and fills me up with serious pleasure” (83).
Stylistically varied, Dick of the Dead through verse and prose pokes us with the inexplicable exploits of Richard Nixon and his cronies, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other annoying political and historical figures. This is an acutely social poetry, Loden prodding the many light beams and dark shadows of our history–politics, major and minor events apocryphal and documented, film, other poems, folktales—into gray shapes we must confront before we can move beyond them.
These are abundantly constructed poems and seamlessly so. They are not organic, self-exploratory lyrics, but vehicles built of multiple, often unexpected, components. For example, the poem which features Cheney as the speaker, “Cheney Agonistes” is assembled out of nine different sources from Peter Pan ((“But now if I’d been Blackbeard’s boatswain//(as I should have been) Pan and the lost boys/would have long since walked the plank.”)) to a report in the Independent, a UK newspaper, that Cheney has a man-sized safe to keep his papers out of public scrutiny (“…I do my work. I am the man/inside my man-sized safe…”) to Senator Lindsey Graham predicting victory in Iraq at the 2008 Republican Convention. One source, Bush’s near-strangulation encounter with a pretzel, is the springboard from which Cheney spews his disgust for the president (“I have to work for everything I get—not like/that Kennebunkport parrot, whose tray of pretzels//sates his meager appetite…”).
Decidedly unself-referential, many of the poems are rewritings of other poems or carry strong allusions to others. Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro” is recast into “The USNS Comfort Sails to the Gulf”:
Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:
Many of the poems are created out of quite unlikely materials. For example, “Affidavit” is a poem based on a macabre crime in which the husband beheaded his wife as reported by one of the investigating officers, Palo Alto police detective Mike Denson. For Loden, then, a poem can start anywhere, with any thing.
Serious poetry is often derided by its detractors as being humorless. This indeed is a book of serious poetry—some of our history is a rank albatross hung about our necks, but it has many, many instances of comic relief, of irrepressible humor, to clear the air with laughter. The first poem, “Miss October,” in the guise of a would-be Playboy model, includes these lines about Hugh Hefner inevitable demise, his
Last vial of Viagra
Safely under glass
At the Smithsonian.
Or maybe that is too close to the possible truth to be funny.
You have to wonder also about the playfulness of the title—Dick of the Dead—and its humorous connotations. Is it a play on the fact that when males die, they have erections, i.e. Dick Nixon engorged past, present, future (will he ever go away?)? That perverse thought is perhaps echoed in the poem “A Quaker Meeting in Yorba Linda” when Mrs. Nixon is quoted as saying to Tricia and Julie: “Girls your father is sprouting from the grave.”
The humor comes through in many of the poem’s titles: “My Angels, Their Pink Wings,” “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” “Fury’s Ukulele,” and perhaps the most preposterous and pompous (a title that might even make Billy Collins blush),“A Redressed Poet That Seems Living, How to Make Him Sing.”
The book has even got me to laugh at one of the lingering embarrassments of my young adulthood, an event that permanently soured me on the integrity of our country’s leaders: Watergate. I’ve laughed, too, at Richard Nixon, but this laughter has been more complex, not simply in derision, now streaked with pity, finally recognizing and accepting his utter humanity, gloriously flawed. Or I’m just tired of laughing at him
These aren’t punchline poems, however; many have a humor with a bite, a wryness with a sharp edge. In the first poem Nixon appears in, “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” he is a ghost with a simmering grudge. Envious that Leonid Breshnev has a statue, even if it is legless in a graveyard of statues, he rues the fact that there is no statue of him “astride an American city,” though they both held the “world on a razor/of our mutually assured destruction, and yet--//comrade! you remember—we felt strangely free.” The last line of the poem perhaps suggests a legacy the Nixon ghost is not quite conscious of as he observes Elks conventioneers visiting his library in Yorba Linda: “a queer uneasiness they cannot place,” a gut-sense that even three decades after his fall, even for his supporters all is not as it seems.
“Sympathy for the Empire” conflates Teddy Roosevelt, John Wayne, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a poem that rouses a cold snigger, dripping with bitterness. In the end, one has to ask who is this man (Rumsfeld) who thinks he knows what is right for all of us, his desk adorned with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords”?
Loaded with political references from the last century, with a perhaps more than we would ever want from the ignominious Nixon and Bush administrations, sprinkled with pop culture allusions, reanimating other poems, this is a collection that by engaging us with the social world around us, funny, sad, irritating, painful, we cannot help but look at the world in the same way again. Along with Kevin Davies' book The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, Dick of the Dead has to be one of the best books published in the last couple years.
Crg Hill until recently edited SCORE, one of only two journals dedicated exclusively to concrete/visual poetry. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including several available on-line. His creative and critical works in progress can be found at http://scorecard.typepad.com. // During the anemic Carter administration, Crag Hill kicked the "i" out of his first name. Continuing to be underwhelmed by his elected leaders, he threatens to kick out the last vowel, too soft, too soft, he says. Something in the Scotch-Irish in him thinks he'll be well-represented by the guttural "Crg."