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’.
In the post-Cold War world, the expansion of global media has brought the global village nearer to reality. In this village, the landscape is no longer mountains and rivers and trees but pop stars and scandals and politicians’ grins. Where the villagers’ shared experience is the media image, history becomes myth at the speed of light, a politician’s shrug becomes the stuff of legend, and Ronald Reagan’s old cloth coat is displayed in a museum. The book's Americanness doesn’t exclude, or excuse the rest of us, though. At the turn of the millennium, anyone who can get to the Hotel Imperium is considered an honorary American. 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 Mansfield’s ditsy head.
I dreamt I brought it to him
in my Maidenform bra
“Lingerie Ads in the Sixties” might have been published in Ms in the late seventies.
A cleavage open are.
between what we crave
and what we (bluntly)
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 San Clemente” comes from Senator Bob Dole: “I believe that the second half of the twentieth century will be known as the ‘Age of Nixon’.”
America in Nixon’s shadow is Rachel Loden’s America. The America of Elvis sightings and UFO abductions, where the epitome of rhetoric is the Checkers speech.
This is the new socialist brain. This is the statue
of Dzerzhinsky falling over. This is my wife Pat.
This is the new man born out of Adam.
These are the new world order mysteries — oh,
Republican cloth coat. Oh gallery of Trotskyist
apostasies. Tricia and Julie do not weep for me —
I live and flourish in the smooth newt’s tiny eyes,
my new brain fizzing with implanted memories.
(“The Death of Checkers”)
In communist Russia
, at least, the false gods have been exposed. In America
their larger-than-life dramas unfold in front of a mass audience. Other cultures have united behind religious rituals or the images of ideology. For millennial America
, images broadcast by the global media are the closest thing to communal experience available. History’s defining moments are broadcast live, engraved simultaneously into the personal memories of millions. One example from Hotel Imperium
: with Baghdad
under bombardment, a CNN reporter hides under a table and hangs a microphone out the window. This media event becomes part of the evolving myth, a (self-reflexive) point of reference.
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 America
is cut down to size in “Clueless in Paradise
Sometimes, when you shake your head,
it is like snow settling
on the little village in the paperweight.
Other times, it’s not — and that’s why
God made the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
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
a great victory against Iraq (applause).
Tie a yellow ribbon ’round my eyes
whirl me in circles, send me careering
toward the map. I love humanity. I’ll stick
a pushpin into any random dot, and smile
endearingly. I’m a consultant.
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
loose among the choirboys. Sing
heigh, what sucking whorl blows by?
Only the huge sough of the body
politic, turning over
in its drooling, disappointed
sleep. 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.
All of which is what Yeats would call argument with the other, or rhetoric. The other kind, the argument with the self, Yeats called poetry.
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,
electrical stutter at synapse,
through the moiré of light crossing light,
through the cracks in the world that signs make,
their arrows, their undoings —
slash through the sky for not sky,
through the heart for not life —
or it comes from a world undamaged, seamless motion:
the rain a broad lake stretched thin through time,
I am too slow to see it.
Alpha calm, beta, dreamy delta, theta:
the mind wanders from window to window, peering out.
That was a Monarch or Viceroy, not a ragged leaf.
The gust lofted its deep V straight,
as if up a shaft; how does its startled insect brain
spark, filter, make geometry,
when the world moves it?
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 Eden
”) in the context of evolution, and in “At the Synchroton Lab,” creates new ones through high-speed collisions of the old:
Downstairs they’re arguing voltage and money,
and the quarks in their colors and flavors: up, down,
charm, strange, truth, and beauty, real
as love or numbers, true
as a fable. Like this one: a woman walks over the earth
with a lamp, looking for One. She looks in the sky
as it blues and darkens. She looks in the whorl of a geode,
she looks in the satin ear of a shell,
in a mole’s stunned eye, in the alleys of the capital,
and she is unafraid. If she finds it she can seek Two.
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
in the dials, in the needles swinging. The digits roll up
in their windows. This lab
is full of the paraphernalia of light — the spectroscope,
oscilloscope, the meters and glassy lucite cable
coiled on the workbench like a failed basket —
to hold the flash that comes
when the matter breaks open, and whatever the numbers
say about the world. Is it only that the world
is in the numbers, in the tracks through a cloud chamber?
And in this probing: what I close
my hand on, name, forget. Then want again.
After September 11, 2001
, Battin volunteered as a counselor at a Connecticut
commuter stop where many WTC workers did not come home. Her short, sombre poem “Liberty
”, online at Salt River
Review is one of the most poignant expressions of the day’s impact I have yet read.
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