Friday, January 28, 2005

NEW! Review of Patrick Herron

American Godwar Complex by Patrick Herron. BlazeVOX, $10.

Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples

And the just man rages in the wilds / Where lions roam. --William Blake

Some readers simply won't be satisfied with the particular execution of the political agenda in American Godwar Complex. Patrick Herron, surely, is aware of this, and his “Fuck You O Elvis” might be read, in part, as a response to anticipated critiques that demand a front-man of more lyricism and less didacticism:
... Fuck you O Elvis your cloudy pool is airless; the fish float on the surface with marble grin rotated sideways.

Fuck you O Elvis your rotted Picasso-sloughed corpse you had no taste for voluminous fervor you absented toiling clam and skinny tie flim-flam spam man.

Fuck you O Elvis you are the icon of my gilded excoriation.

Fuck you O Elvis fuck you I'll take John Lennon any day.

The epigraphs by Bertolt Brecht and Allen Ginsberg, two writers who worked from a belief in the poem as relevant site for public discourse, suggest we read the book not as the overheard musing of a solitary speaker but as the openly proclaimed indignation of an angry citizen. American Godwar Complex commences with a bit of revolutionary disturbance: “The Star Spangled Banner” becomes the collection's first poem, “The Blood-Spatter'd Banner”:
Oh, say can't you see, by the bare dangled light,
What so loudly we nailed with our nighttime's armed reaming?

Whose blood stripes and barbed stars, through the one-sided fight,
O'er the ghettoes we watched, were so violently screaming?

Does the vanquished's dead stare, uranium bursting in air,
Give proof to our night that our flag is still there?

O say, can that blood-spattered banner yet wave
O'er the land ruled by blind decree, in a world we enslave?

This presents more than bare pastiche; across the collection, Herron employs (not always with sufficient force) the Situationist strategy of d'etournement--the subversion, devaluation and re-use of present and past cultural production to demolish its message while pirating its impact. What Adbusters does to the corporate, Herron sets out to do to the government: “The Star Spangled Banner” becomes “The Blood-Spattered Banner”; “My Country Tis of Thee” becomes “My Country Steals from Me”;“Hail to the Chief” becomes “Hail to the Thief”; “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” becomes “Take Me Out In the Maul Game.”

Herron's saucy speaker mouths off in poems of a wide assortment, including skeletals, epistles, definitions, transcripts, and this one-liner:

I used to love a parade.

By evoking a fallen enthusiasm for processions--those actions in which things (words, cognitive patterns, policies, people) move forward in regular formation--Herron expresses disenchantment with, among other phenomena, high-stepping lyricism. Instead of a well-wrought yearn, the reader will find, for example, acerbic political haikus:
Politiku 1

Word from our sponsors:
please place your television
on the ocean floor.

Politiku 2

american re
olution: pollution, de
plete uranium.

solution: dig a
hold to permanently keep
armed forces covert.

Sustained anger, a distinct feature of the collection, alienates the reader--perhaps purposefully. As anyone who has been in a good row knows, anger creates distance. Most obviously, anger introduces questions of judgment into the reading experience: What's he so angry about? Should he be this angry? What does he want me to do about it? Such questions interrupt the reader from her dreamy identification with the poem's speaker and ask her to wake up, participate in the making of meaning, and decide the issues for herself, goddammit; however, the best culture jamming--using an enemy's resources against it--is shocking and unexpected. The book's accomplishment in these terms can be unclear, particularly when words rhyme predictably, the syntax goes unsubverted, and the subject and sentiment can be anticipated, as in “Amurika Eins:”
Follow the bouncing ball
to wherever Osama will fall.

Our might will take it all.

To fill the lives of young soldiers with thrills,
to inspire our leaders to gobble their pills!

There's oil in them thar Caspian hills.

Very likely these lines play better as spoken word, an indication of the collection's inherent theatricality.

To everything there is a season. A time to laugh. A time to cry. And a time to tell off the motherfuckers. American Godwar Complex identifies our current epoch as this latter sort.


David Koehn said...

A reasonably well articulated review that makes it clear I would not want to read this book. Everything that makes politic in poetry interesting sounds as if it is missing in Herron's book. When it comes to aesthetics of anger I think of Sherman Alexie's work which is not only artful and a true pleasure to read for its dexterity but its anger and arguments are so well articulated I never feel raged at.

Chris Vitiello said...

I understand that angry writing can be off-putting, but I found this book of Herron's to articulate anger and frustration in an active and productive way. It's more than poetic vandalism -- I think that the mention of the Situationists in the review is right on line.

Lester said...

In the Internet era broken syntax is not only no longer radical but in fact mainstream to the point of being programmatic (re: programmable). When radical is commodified--when someone can buy an education in "radical" poetics--then what is truly radical is pathetically & painfully conventional. The broken lyric--something I am quite guilty of writing ad nauseum--haseems to have become wholly affective. Radicality I hope should be found in radical *content*; doggerel attached to a radical politics is in my mind as radical as you can get.

Sherman Alexie's work is in my mind somewhat soporific--the sort of poetry that makes readers sigh with sweet contentment. It doesn't fill you with rage or discontent or self-awareness.

I'm more for Ginsburg's "Capitol Air" as a model of radical political poetry than, well, just about anything else in the last twenty years. "Serious" poets don't get that at all.

Note that political doggerel is out of vogue and no longer practiced by serious poets. (With some recent exceptions, notably some poems form Charles Bernstein and Kent Johnson.) What is considered avant-garde today is in fact for the most part a set of aesthetics that were practiced for over 90 years and are thereby hardly radical.

The act of creating distance from the audience is deliberate, sabotaging one of the fundamental tenets of the poetry workshop dogma: making friends with your reader & the primacy of the poet's voice in the poem. It's a big mistake to say that it's "anger" somehow propelling the writing; the content itself is an act of public outrage. A capital-S Situation indeed. The relationship of a poet to a reader is nothing more (and nothing less) than Spectacle. Inverting tacit assumptions by which this Spectacle operates should drive at least a few people to ask important questions of their own practices and understandings. The attribution of anger to a poet when reading their political poetry derives from the intentional fallacy while, on the other hand, public outrage is a matter of social responsibility and--yes--theatricality. Public outrage implicates everyone, and to no small degree everyone is implicated. That message can not always be delivered in a friendly or passive-aggressive manner. More importantly, and more germane to the point of bringing into doubt the myth of poetic voice, the collection is written in a collection of "voices."

Heidi Lynn Staples (formerly Heidi Peppermint) said...

I would like to clarify that the anger/outrage and effects feel purposeful and public in AMERICAN GODWAR COMPLEX. Wordsworth, for one, recognized the power of outrage in poetry to incite revolution, and, because he feared revolution, Wordsworth argued for more polite internal verse. This ain't yer goddamn polite internal verse ya'll. It is, as Lester points out, doggerel. For that reason, some folks'll sneer and some'll cheer.

Lester said...

"Parade" is misquoted.

"I once loved a parade."

not "I used to love a parade."