Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ventriloquists from Laenani to Palo Alto

Having typed my grades into the UH system yesterday, I drove off this morning to Laenani Beach Park at Matson Point, and camped myself at a picnic bench (covered once by green paint, now scratched with inadvertent maps) to write in a notebook. The view is peaceful--to the right looking to sea is the Mokapu peninsula, where the USMC's base is located (but cannot be seen from such a distance); to the left the island of Mokoli`i, also known as Chinaman's Hat. There is a line of palm trees next to a sea wall, just past which some skiffs and a wooden pier bob back and forth; the sun is so bright on the water that a distant fisherman standing at the prow of his boat with a pole appeared as silhouette. There were a couple of workmen in the park, the occasional sound of a motorcycle from Kam Highway. And then, "nice place to meditate and read, isn't it?!" a man hailed me, striding toward my bench. "Are you writing a report?" he asked. Dressed in shorts, a Hawai`i themed teeshirt and a Hawai`i cap, he announced that he came from Ohio, had several months ago attended a ministers' conference in Honolulu and had--on his way to the airport to fly home--turned around to stay. He'd prayed to the Lord to tell him if he should remain in Hawai`i or not, but the Lord had told him to choose and, well you know, a guy from Ohio wants to be in Hawai`i.

The man in shorts and teeshirt and cap is an evangelist and a real estate agent (writes mortgages in Waikiki). He held in his hand a brightly colored book about evangelism by a man who draws millions to his revivals in Africa. He has another friend who preaches to hundreds of thousands in Pakistan, although it's forbidden by law. The man in shorts wants to bring such revivals to Hawai`i, so he is reading Land and Power in Hawai`i to learn about this place he so wants to help. Gavan Daws, I averred; now there's a difficult story. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I said Buddhist. He had brought Buddhists to Jesus, he said, and I should have known then to say I had errands to run.

I looked out at the distant fisherman on his boat and on the waves and the distant peninsula as the man's voice fell around me: God gave his only son ("it was a gift, you couldn't do anything for it"); God said a house divided against itself could not stand (I somehow thought Lincoln had said that, but realized he had merely echoed it). The sayings from scripture swirled about my head as his voice arrived at its favored cadence, soft-spoken yet insistent. He said he did not have a denomination, thought all of god's children. . . He had spent all day at St. John's by the sea over the weekend, helping with a church event. Here in Hawai`i a Buckeye boy might think he'd died and gone to heaven. Here everyone greeted and hugged you, and it was truly paradise. How had it taken so long for him to get to Hawai`i? When he asked if my husband was in the military, I said I had to go. As I drove away, he occupied the last picnic bench, took off his shirt, and prepared to swim.

When I arrived home, a book was waiting in the mailbox: Rachel Loden's Dick of the Dead from Ahsahta Press. Rachel Loden has long spoken for her anti-hero (and mine) Richard Nixon. She is not a helpless but a willing puppet for his voice and--as it turns out--for that of the "son" he so gave to the world, George W. Bush. Their genealogy comes clear in "The Richard Nixon Snow Globe," where the poet imagines someone making such a globe:

So he could see Dick's head inside a dome
While hoodoo snow is falling
On the baby bush tricked out with lights
In his rancho home sweet ovum

Dick (and how I love the Facebook "Send a Dick in the Box" gimmick) haunts the White House yet, as Dr. Rice kneels for him, Libby's lawyers recognize him, "Cheney's heart is flying toward" him, and Martha Mitchell wants a kiss.

I have read many of the Nixon poems before. But what is most scary is that because not all the poems are in Nixon's voice, that voice seems (if not sounds) even more pervasive. The book becomes a paranoid fantasy that befits its prime mover. Is he speaking here? I kept wondering, or is it perhaps the poet, Bush, someone? There are as many Dick's as there are Waldo's, and Milhous is surely the Emersonian oversoul of the text.

The book contains, but is not contained by, its parodies. I was reminded of Gizelle Gajelonia's thesis (see below) when I heard echoes of Pound and Creeley, Stevens and Seinfeld emerging through the Nixonian harmonies. In her notes, Loden informs us that this poem:

The USNS Comfort Sails to the Gulf

Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:

ought to remind us of "In the Station of the Metro." But who needs notes to recognize the Creeley who is here:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always shopping,--John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the market sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a Jaguar XKR,

floor it, he sd, for
christ's sake, 4.9
seconds to 60 mph.

("I Know a Brand," 59).

Here the ghost of Robert Creeley comes to change brands from "man" to "car." Or it could be John Berryman trailing his Henry (qua John) behind him. There are too many more echoes to count, each a pincer in the heart of the last century, which gets its own poem, "Props to the Twentieth Century."

So, two scenes of ventriloquism: an evangelical real estate agent from Ohio utters a cascade of scripture at an Oahu beach, while Rachel Loden permits the worst of the 20th (and 21st) centuries to speak through her. One offers revival, redemption; the other promises an "end of miracles" (to quote Albert Wendt). One speaks his lines in absolute earnest, is a willing puppet for the Lord. The other is equally earnest, but her lines are wicked things, willing to be found beautiful once they meet the page, but composed of our historical wreckage (war, capital, deceit, greed). If I had met the evangelist later in the day, post-Rachel Loden/Richard Nixon, would I have left the park with more hope? I doubt it, but the day has seemed full of voices falling as if in some tropical snow globe (snow cone?), twin markers of an American culture that is nothing if not screwy.


Rachel Loden said...

Susan thanks so much for the post, and for engaging with the book at such a deep level -- first thought off the top of my head was that there's fierce commitment (as well as resistance) in a poem like "My Secret Flag," for example, but it's hard-earned and even more passionate for being so.

You point out something that surprised me, too, as I proofed the ms. -- W. is everywhere in it, but in a Zelig sort of way, like the subtle but fatal ingredient in a recipe.

Love the notion of Milhous as the book's Emersonian oversoul. Like Emerson and Nixon, I believe in miracles -- that's nothing short of a necessity for any patriot in these kleptocratic days. Linh Dinh will be blogging at the New York Times this week on "contentment during hard times," or so I'm advised. That should be miracle enough for anybody.

Being wicked can be a lot of fun, as far as it goes, and I enjoy it as much as anybody, but my Tricky D. isn't so much the embodiment of evil, of what's worst in us, but rather a strangely resilient and even ebullient force as he seeks to smash death and triumph over a sea of pretenders.

Which is to say that I'm not (on one level) actually writing about Nixon at all! But we shouldn't tell him because we don't want to make him mad.

susan said...

Linh Dinh on "contentment" is a very scary thought, Rachel! I'll keep my eyes open for that. And I knew I'd misspelled Milhous!
And I take your point about miracles and resilience, yes. It was the Man of God (O'Connor-like) who made me think less of miracles than of Henry the K's realpoetik in my blog.

Rachel Loden said...

/Linh Dinh on "contentment" is a very scary thought, Rachel!/

Isn't it? I can't wait!

susan said...

I was also thinking on the way home from my daughter's baseball practice that there is more to do with the notion of ventriloquism. Surely the eight years from 2000-2008 were (at the least) an era when we were all spoken through in horrible ways. Cheney spoke through Bush (and is now reduced to speaking through his daughter an himself), but he managed to speak through many of the rest of us, as well. The shock now is in our recognition of that fact. So that your book, Rachel, _uses_ ventriloquism in a liberating fashion (though fashion is surely the wrong word), precisely because the poems are so self-aware, even when their speakers are not. As for my friend the evangelist, enough said on that score, I suppose.

Rachel Loden said...

Yes -- and I wondered how long it would take for the new regime to become cringe-worthy, a la section four of "The Toy Box of My Intentions," in which "a wedding party // is in sudden need of slaughtering," but (with civilian deaths in Afghanistan &c.) it all ticks away like a Swiss watch or a 2,000-pound bomb.

susan said...

The Albert Wendt quote about miracles referred (in his context) to Obama's inauguration (surely, to people of our generation, an absolute miracle) and the way in which such a miracle cannot last. Let's hope Afghanistan is not his Vietnam. He's damn good otherwise.

Richard Ostrander said...

Pakistan will become his Vietnam

Curtis Faville said...

I don't want to get too political here, but Obama never impressed me. He looked like a very smarmy alter-boy from the South Side, anxious to please, quick to identify potential influential friends, even quicker to bow obsequiously at their feet.

I regard the deficit debacle as nothing more than buying time. Instead of the good, hard bounce we all know should be happening, we're skidding along on our butts for 3-5 years; but after that, when the shit hits the fan, we'll get a real nasty Depression (maybe in 2012 or 2015. The difference, then, there won't be any more "deficit" to spend, because there won't be anyone left to hold our debt.

If this is Obama's "solution" I'm afraid I can't be a part of it.

Rachel Loden said...

As you know -- I like him, I worked for him, and as a mutt, I identify with him. I just think that when the 2,000-pound bombs land we're as complicit as we were in the Shrub years. You agree, I'm sure -- plus of course he's struck some kind of Faustian bargain with the financial industries that gave him so much money.

But if he can get us national health care with a public option, that'll be transformative. I hear the public part may be dead, though, and without that it's hard to see how anything really changes.

Rachel Loden said...

P.S. Linh's column in NYTimes has been delayed till June, in case anybody's looking.


Back, Susan, for a moment at least, to your 'review' -- three strangely wonderful opening paragraphs, what a way to get to Dick of the Dead (!)