Two new poetry collections, one that toys with the ghosts of the 20th century and one steeped in the pleasures of the here and now.
No one can quite
get over it. It is summer and revenge
lies sweetly in the fields
with her legs open,
her Bo Peep
petticoats in ribbons.
Welcome to the 21st century, courtesy of Rachel Loden, whose first book
of poems, “Hotel Imperium,” is filled with ghostly — and ghastly –
mementos from the past century. If you think the violence is over,
however, you’re wrong. It’s goodbye Cold War, hello hideous global underbelly.
As Loden puts it,
Love, revenge, remaindering …
is this the end?
— The world pumps on,
with all its gently pitiless muzak.
Inspired by everything from Lenin’s corpse to the fate of Ronald
Reagan’s overcoat, Loden makes the fragmentation and senselessness that
are the 20th century’s legacy dance with a kind of macabre glee. Even
the King can’t dodge her bullet; it turns out there’s another man
named Elvis Presley buried somewhere in this fine land of ours, and Loden brings the two together in a prose poem. “Who was this guy? We can confabulate something of his mother’s state of mind from his date of birth, 10/24/57, after EP #1 left for Hollywood but before he went into the army.” This is, of course, mind-boggling —
anotherElvis Presley? — but to Loden it’s just one
more piece of millennial fallout, and she uses it to call into question
our illusions about clean slates. Sure, it’s a new century, but that
doesn’t mean the old one, with all its confusions, is simply going to
fade from our collective unconscious.
Instead, it’s all about making intelligent transitions from one era to the next.
Writing about a model in a 1960s lingerie ad, Loden comments: “She is ether/air. See how she struts/her stuff …” The poem next moves on to genuine celebrity:
and her honeymooning breasts
lie out with Eddie on a beach
in France, but do we care
about these fleshpots
of the idle rich? Their tongues
are dust. A cleavage opens
between what we crave
and what we (bluntly)
are. Which is, perhaps, to say
that our unsullied heroine
is just where we would
want her, out of touch,
the eighteen hour support she
promised but a ruse.
By the time another generation rolls around, the rules will have
changed for the better. False ideals with be replaced with honesty,
vulgar as it may be. Loden deftly catches the shift, pinpointing its inception in a brilliant choice of spokeswoman: “Madonna’s still/a glint of silver/in her father’s eye,” she writes, and then, looking back at that ’60s lingerie ad one more time,
“Our girl/is not material. Ours/is a wind, a slitted/sheath, a
lie.” (Of course, Madonna was more than a glint by the ’60s, having been born in ’59.)
No one, however, is a more insistent presence here than Richard Nixon,
who turns up in “Hotel Imperium” as relentlessly and with as much
audacity as he did in life. His face even appears on the cover of the
book, and Loden has written an entire poem composed of words from his
last will and testament.
What is this obsession all about? Perhaps the answer lies in
“Bride of Tricky D,” where Loden seems to be mourning the loss of the
only man dastardly enough to guide her through the next millennium.
Imagining him rising from the grave to squire her, she writes:
… it’s so deadly smug out on the new
world order battlements. “Let’s
slip the Constitution, Richard,
cut the red ribbon on the virgin
century. Teach me tonight …” I find
his fierce beard lovely and the shadows
long. Asleep with Pat and Checkers
by his side … “We could do it,”
he’ll say, “but it would be wrong.”
Indeed. But maybe all Rachel Loden wants is to make sure nothing and no
one, not even Tricky Dick or the man who built him a bowling alley in
the White House, is forgotten. After all, as she writes so eloquently
in “Carnal Acknowledgments,” “there is no suffering so great that
human minds cannot transform it into some kind of spiritual stretching
exercise or wretched experiment. And we want a Greek chorus the way we
wanted someone to watch us learn to walk, we want miles and miles of
microfiche and jars of crumbling papyrus.”
Even though he only appears once, the hermetic artist Joseph Cornell
is a kind of negative patron saint of Malena Mvrling’s “Ocean Avenue.”
Mvrling marvels at his ability to remain apart from the world around
him, his capacity
Not to arrive, not ever to know
how to arrive or how to live
even here on Utopia Parkway in Queens.
This is for the Soap Bubble Sets and the Sun Boxes
and for time that moves like a silent film
through a projector.
Mvrling’s own work has a sensibility similar to Cornell’s famous boxes;
like those unclassifiable works, her poems are also suspended in time, filled with the objects of her private vision of the world. They’re somehow
insular and universal all at once. She feels tiny at certain moments,
separate from the cosmos to the point where she’s able to write lines
In the shape of a human body
I am visiting the earth;
the trees visit
in the shapes of trees.
Standing between the onions
and the dandelions
near the ailanthus and the bus stop.
But unlike Cornell, Mvrling is acutely aware of and constantly
examining her molasses-like progress through the world. “I don’t live more thoroughly/inside the mucilage of my own
skull/than outside of it.” Her eyes are wide open, in other words,
and she wants to know what she’s doing here and just why she
experiences time and space in such a maddeningly conscious way.
The result of this psychological quest is that “Ocean Avenue” is
filled with journeys: the author on a train that
… departs at dusk from New York
the neon signs begin to bleed their letters
the light goes into buildings
that pass like so much else that I notice
and forget and don’t notice and remember.
Or the author on her way to the train station, admonishing herself
Walk slowly now.
It doesn’t matter if you miss
the train, it doesn’t matter
if you miss all the trains.
Or the author envisioning the larger journey of her life in terms that
are vast and simple all at once:
On the earth
and in the universe that does not end,
that has never had an end
and no center either,
I am here in my room breathing.
There’s a certain hazy magic in Mvrling’s work that has the power to
make obvious truths marvelously complicated. In a poem called “Like
Tile” she records one such experience:
The “29″ on the awning
has lost its meaning
and become pure
exists the way
it appears to;
of a room changes
as you enter it.
It’s like reading Kant; as we move through the world, are we seeing
things in themselves, or merely appearances of those things informed by
our own experience? And in the end, does it really matter?
After reading “Ocean Avenue,” one tends to think not. The book is so
steeped in a heady enjoyment of the here and now that it makes you want
to go sit in a field somewhere, or at least on a park bench, and ponder
your own role in the universe. On top of that, it has a wonderful
matter-of-factness that tempers its dreamy languor, so that a poem with
the almost ecclesiastical title “In This World” begins:
You may think nothing of it,
but in this world there is no
health insurance coverage
for the dead,
but there are retirement plans
for those who are not yet born –
And though we are registered
in the Offices of Vital Statistics
we still ask the questions:
“Where do we come from?
Who are we?
Where are we going?”
Whatever the answers turn out to be, Mvrling knows one thing for
certain, and she passes it on generously. “What will you bring with you
when you die?” she asks in the book’s title poem.
Not your name.
Not your body.
Not a single photo.
Not a single flower.
The list goes on,
but what’s the use?
We all know we can’t bring a single thing
and that is what in the end makes this world
what it is.
So go out and get it, while you can.
Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic. More Melanie Rehak.
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