Dick of the Dead, Rachel Loden. Ahsahta Press. 104 pp., $17.50
Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead opens with its strongest poem, a decision that, while understandable, is always risky. “Miss October” sets the stage for the bricolage of twentieth-century detritus (its ephemerality leavened by a healthy helping of myth and fable) that follows, but it also sets a very high bar, its insistently rhythmic, short-lined quatrains managing a feat I would have thought impossible: transforming Hugh Hefner’s increasingly grotesque pretense of perpetual feckless youth into a quiet autumnal defiance, and the cartoonish figure of the Playmate into a reminder of mortality.
If I have to be a playmate,
In my time on earth
I want to be the girl
Of drifting leaves, cold cheeks
And passionate regrets.
Hefner, in Loden’s hands, becomes someone who, for all his furious pretense, knows he is near death, “Long spikes of ice / Around his sagging ears, his // Sex”, Miss October’s autumnal beauty there to remind him that
We’re at our blondest
And most perilously beautiful
Right before we check out
Of the manse.
It’s a familiar sentiment (Kurt Weill’s “September Song” sharing shades of it, for example) but in Loden’s poem it becomes remarkable, transforming two overexposed, tired concepts, Hefner and the Playmate, into markers of mortality—and resting the power in the poem explicitly with the ordinarily passive Playmate herself, whose vivacious beauty becomes as clear a memento mori for the magazine’s aging readership as any tabletop skull in a Renaissance painting.
It’s a bravura performance; to say that the rest of the book can’t quite match it is to praise “Miss October,” not to condemn a volume whose take on the mean, violent politics and culture of the late twentieth century is perceptive and memorable. Loden gives the sense that she means what she says in the fond and sarcastic opening to the slangy “Props to the Twentieth Century”:
Are you happy to be over, twentieth-century?
Yes, you had an apronful of monsters, but
I miss you anyway, I miss my broken century
Even with all its monsters, it is, after all, her century, its events and its public figures the milestones by which she has no real choice but to measure, and attempt to understand, her life and the lives of those around her. So she returns to those figures, and particularly to Richard Nixon, who gives the book its name. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that Loden is obsessed with Nixon: he appears in many of the poems in this collection, as he did in her previous book, Hotel Imperium, serving both as a ghostly presence and as one end of a line that Loden draws to the administration of George W. Bush. “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” finds Nixon after death contemplating a statue of Leonid Brezhnev and considering his own legacy:
Today not a single statue of Dick Nixon
stands astride an American city, but there are
National Guardsmen at the glittering bridges
and Citizen Corps tipsters behind each tree.
Leonid, they miss me.
Even that brief excerpt is enough to begin to convey why Nixon works as a figure in this book: his neediness, paranoia, and resentfulness are inextricably intertwined, giving him a perpetually fascinating tragic cast, closer to a mythical figure than a petty villain. In “The Nixon Tapes,” Loden works that very conjunction of power and pettiness, making Nixon cry out to Bob Ehrlichman,
damn, twelve princesses dance their shoes
to tatters all night in a castle underground
and nobody is running their income tax
This is a Nixon who would have wiretapped the Sirens; would have contemplated having someone kneecap Baba Yaga’s house; but who all the while would have pictured himself as the underappreciated Little Dutch Boy holding back the deluge. The complexity of Nixon’s character allows Loden to open up the poems in which he appears, making them far more than mere political pieces; in the brief, wonderfully consonant “The Richard Nixon Snow Globe,” she even transforms him into an odd—yet conceivable—object of acquisitive desire:
Some ambitions are blonde and impetuous
Like searching Google’s endless manse
For a Richard Nixon snow globe
Letting desire overcome good sense
A problem arises, however, when Loden shifts from Nixon to the Bush administration, none of whose figures offer nearly as much material for reflection. Though I don’t doubt that forty years from now Bush and Cheney will be, for left-leaning members of my generation, every bit the bogeyman that Nixon is for baby boomers, their characters seem so much less complicated, so much less interesting. Thus the poems in which they feature, despite some good lines (Cheney’s defiant “I am the man / inside my man-sized safe”, in “Cheney Agonistes”), too frequently seem merely political, their justifiable anger, as in the portrait of Donald Rumsfeld in “Sympathy for the Empire,” a tad too close to news to feel like lasting poetry.
Loden does channel her anger and frustration, stunningly, when she takes a long view, recasting current events in the light of antiquity. “Nineveh” is the best example, a poem whose breathtaking power comes as much from its whorled clatter of sounds as from its reminder that the sands of Iraq are the cradle of civilization; it opens—
Nineveh fallen. My
Silver-bell ankle rings
—and maintains that propulsive energe through four tightly constructed stanzas.
After all this talk of politics risks obscuring the fact that Dick of the Dead, despite its title and subject-in-chief, covers much more ground than that. In fact, some of the best poems in the book are experiments in form that have nothing to do with contemporary politics. “What the Gravedigger Needs” is a mere list that manages to be simultaneously chilling and mundane; “HM Customs amp; Excise” marries the affectless language of bureacracy to the charged language of fairy tales. “A Lending Library” is a bibliophile’s dream, or nightmare, a set of suggestively strange catalog-style descriptions of nonexistent books, while the opening lines of “Dear Possum”—
I though that death had undone about that many. A few more, a few less. It was hard to miss them at the post office
—catapult the worn awe of Eliot’s lines from “The Waste Land” into our indexed present. The best of the non-political poems is “Dust Anniversary,” a prose poem whose inventive opening lines set the tone for its memorial to a lost—presumably broken—marriage:
Write a secret on a piece of paper and burn it.
This was so long ago, today it would have been our dust anniversary, our dross anniversary. No one can convince me that your hair was ever that color. No body lies in a drift of light and smiles so languorously.
That sense of loss, of the unrecoverability of the past—and, more specifically, our past selves—brings us back around to Nixon, who is a crucial figure in part because he never changes. Those who were young when he was in power can always go back to footage, books, tapes, accounts, to see that yes, he is how they remember him, yes that all really did happen, and that therefore they, too, must really have been those people they vaguely remember. With Dick of the Dead, Loden reminds us of our past in order to show us our present—and the best of its poems will surely follow us into our always uncertain future.
Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for The Quarterly Conversation.
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