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Milhous as King of the Ghosts, by Rachel Loden

By Joel Brouwer

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Now and then I think I have something of use to say about poetry as a category, but generally I’m much happier talking about poems. What attracted me to poetry in the first place, I think, was its prizing of instances, its radical recognition that the purse seine of theory inevitably lets slip millions of particular minnows. (And, to tax the metaphor, sometimes catches different fish than those wished for.)

So, without further ado, a poem! By Rachel Loden!

Well, wait, a little more ado. I choose to post a poem from Loden’s second book, Dick of the Dead (Ahsata, 2009) in celebration of a remarkable event which occurred last week: She gave a poetry reading for the first time in . . . well, let’s just say a long time. You can read about that here.

I loved Loden’s first book, Hotel Imperium, which I reviewed here back in 2000. In Dick of the Dead she’s up to some familiar and some fresh tricks. Sly puns, deft references, barbed wit, and an overall . . . I guess I want to call it mischeviousness, abound.

OK, here you go. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do. (Oh, forgive my pedantry: I just want to remind those of you who grew up with The Simpsons that “Milhous” was the M. in “Richard M. Nixon” well before Bart’s friend “Milhouse” came into our lives.)

MILHOUS AS KING OF THE GHOSTS

A cold cellar-hole at the end of the day,
When faithless pretenders cover the sun
And nothing is left but my candidacy—

There was dead Checkers with her list of slights,
Slow tongue, green bile, black list, white mind
And April, cruel as rumors of my demise.

To be, on the lawns, where no helicopter lands,
Without that preening statuette of dog,
That dog surrendered to the moon;

And to feel that the light is a Key Biscayne light
In which everything is lofted up to the elect
And no returns need be tallied;

Then there is no use in counting. It comes of itself;
All the blue votes turning a brilliant red,
Even in Chicago. The wind moves on the lawns

And moves in myself. The last Iowa sweetcorn
Is for me, the snows of New Hampshire drift up
Into an empire of self that knows no boundaries,

I become an empire that fills the oleaginous pipelines
Of the earth. The bitch is still yapping
By gravestone-light and I am whipped high, whipped

Up, sculpted higher and higher, cool as a sphinx—
I sit with my head like a Rushmore in space
And the scrofulous hound smelling blood on my wings.

Isn’t that gorgeous? Now I knew exactly what you’d want to read next, so to save you GoogleTime(tm) (call me, Google, if you want to negotiate), here it is:

A RABBIT AS KING OF THE GHOSTS

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

I’d be glad to know what you think of either of these poems, and I guess I’m particularly keen to hear what you think characterizes the relationship between them. Loden often does “covers” like this; it’s one of the things that most intrigues me about her work.

Comments (20)

  • On August 10, 2009 at 6:45 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Rachel Loden is spectacular. That she has chosen to appear in public after all these years is really quite an event. Because her work is really an event.

    Here is an interview I did with her a couple years or three back, “Poetic License and the Powers That Be: Rachel Loden.”

    http://jacketmagazine.com/21/loden-iv.html

    I had her latest book and my son stole it in June and took it to Chicago.

    Kent

  • On August 10, 2009 at 7:10 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Sorry, to clarify:

    When I said “That [Rachel Loden] has chosen to appear in public after all these years is really quite an event,” I was thinking of this:

    http://stevenfama.blogspot.com/2009/08/reading-report.html

    Kent

  • On August 12, 2009 at 10:27 am Wallace Stevens wrote:

    I’ll thank you to kindly cease and desist from re-publishing my work without permission or attribution. You are a gallery of crooks and roustabouts. I’ll have nothing to do with the lot of you.

  • On August 12, 2009 at 10:44 am Matt wrote:

    I’ve known about Nixon’s middle name for at least as long as I’ve been watching the Simpsons, which would be age 7.

    I think I even knew about the spelling difference.

  • On August 12, 2009 at 1:50 pm Steven Fama wrote:

    Among several wonderful things about “Milhous” is the way that it is NOT parody of “Rabbit,” even though Loden uses Stevens’ structure, image/theme progressions, and even some of the same phrases.

    Instead, and this is hard to word-ify — “Rabbit” as used really reinforces a key thing in “Milhous.”

    Okay, here is something sort of specifc about what I’m thinking. “Rabbit” is about the self merging, transcendent like, with the world, maybe the poetic slef entering it’s sphere as evening turns to night. It’s about the loss of self.

    “Milhous” ain’t about that at all, but about ol’ Nixon becoming totally ego-ized. “Myself” and “me” and the “head like a Rushmore in space.”

    And then there are things that are just fun, like the turn of peaceful August into cruel April, with all the latter connotates to poetry readers.

    Thanks for this post, and yes thanks too for the mention of the post about Loden’s recent reading.

    Does that make sense?

  • On August 12, 2009 at 1:58 pm Steven Fama wrote:

    I maybe should have said that “Milhous” is “not simply” a parody of “Rabbit,” or, better yet, is “not primarily” a parody. I amend what I wrote above because of course by using the structure, progression, and certain phrases from Stevens’ poem, there’s just naturally a parodic element to Loden’s work.

  • On August 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm Steven Fama wrote:

    And there’s more!

    I must further say that in addition to Loden’s poem having inherently parodic elements, it is AT THE EXACT SAME TIME,

    an homage to Stevens’ poem as well . . .

  • On August 12, 2009 at 4:57 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Matt, Does this mean you’re *not* forgiving my pedantry?

  • On August 12, 2009 at 5:15 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Great ideas, Steven, thanks. You’ve gotten me thinking about how when one musician covers another’s song, we judge the results seriously (does it honor the original yet stand alone, etc.), and ditto with filmmakers (I love both Cape Fears) and even — stretching it a bit — fiction writers (Robinson Crusoe / Tournier’s Friday, or Jane Eyre / Wide Sargasso Sea, or (a fave) Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant”), but poetry “covers,” like Kenneth Koch’s, are pretty much always seen as comic/parodic, aren’t they? Whyzat, I wonder.

  • On August 12, 2009 at 6:28 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Wallace! Please PM me. I need to send you these photos; I don’t want them in the house any more.

  • On August 12, 2009 at 7:17 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Since we’re channeling the dead, let’s at least try for Blake or Yeats. They were actually into this stuff..and much better poets!

  • On August 12, 2009 at 9:57 pm Steven Fama wrote:

    Joel, that seems like a good question about differing perceptions of covers by musicians versus those by writers. Well, let me re-phrase that: it *is* a good question, but I don’t think there situations are similar.

    The musical cover uses the essential constituent parts — the same words, the same notes — but runs those things through a different performer’s style or approach. For example, there’s Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and then there’s the Dead’s version. The latter is an interpretation. Garcia and the boys didn’t re-write the words or basic structure of the song (maybe transposed it to a friendlier key, punched up the rhythm here and there, etc.) so it’s different from what Loden did here, I think.

    The analog would be Loden reading aloud the exact same words of Wallace Steven’s poem, in the Loden reading style. That’d be a cover.

    The poetic re-use of a text, with a change of the actual constituent parts (the words), almost always is going to have or raise the question of a parodic or comic effect just because there’s a difference between the remembered original and the new, substituted words. It sort of works like a pun except without the homonym-istic (is that a word?) overtones.

    There is an analog to what Loden did here that maybe can be pointed to in music: “cover” songs that change the words. The far-end of that spectrum is somebody like Weird Al, who had a bit of fame when he took Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and made it “Eat It” or took the Knack’s “My Sharona” and if I remember right made it “My Bologna.” Those were pretty simple (but fun!) and any comparison to what Loden actually did in her poem here really is silly.

    A remarkable thing about this particular Loden poem is how convincingly it becomes something other than a parody, despite the natural tendency to see or hear that given the borrowing of another’s work and substituting in new words.

    Maybe more remarkable in that way, if only because the poem is so much better known, is her “take” on Creeley’s “I Know A Man.” This too in Dick of the Dead.

  • On August 12, 2009 at 10:02 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Oh Steven. I’m not going to be able to get this out of my head for WEEKS. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BnfhNNaFgQ

  • On August 13, 2009 at 2:57 am Rachel Loden wrote:

    Joel, interesting point about why poetry covers like Kenneth Koch’s are pretty much always seen as comic/parodic. I think it’s so they can be easily dismissed as minor. Important works, as we all know, are not funny or cheeky and prefer to parade about pretending that all of literature is not one long cover. But it is, of course — and following those traceries, the DNA signatures of those covers-made-new, is what gives close reading so much pleasure. As you’re well aware! Which is why you’re tweaking us in the first place.

    I hope “Milhous” becomes something very much other than “Rabbit,” as Steven Fama suggests. It’s meant as both homage and travesty, and fails if it doesn’t convince on each count. If it alternately amuses and annoys the hell out of the ghost of Wallace Stevens, I’ll be very happy.

  • On August 13, 2009 at 9:36 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    “Important works, as we all know, are not funny or cheeky and prefer to parade about pretending that all of literature is not one long cover.”

    Beautifully said, Rachel. I think poets are often so obsessed with the “new” of “make it new” that they forget to acknowledge the fact of the “it.”

  • On August 14, 2009 at 1:55 pm Don Share wrote:

    One of the poems in the book that caught my eye was…

    The Sylvia Plath Story

    First, are you our sort of a villain?
    Do you wear
    Jodhpurs, a codpiece or a crown,
    That Meihkampf look,
    Black boots or a riding crop,

    Stitches over your heart? No, no? Then
    How can we cast you in anything?
    Stop puling.
    Open your head.
    Empty? Ah, empty. Here is fake blood

    To ooze when her teeth snip your cheek
    And a cheque with a paltry
    Six zeros.
    Will you star in it?
    It is guaranteed

    To send rugged sweater sales soaring
    And gas bills
    Through the roof.
    You chew scenery, it’s an Oscar.
    Will you star in it, star in it, star in it?

    I came across this poem at about the same time I stumbled upon this frightening stuff:

    http://www.urbanbaby.com/talk/posts/51120606

  • On August 15, 2009 at 3:34 pm Rachel Loden wrote:

    Don, what a find! That site ought to go immediately into the annals of stupidity. I have dibs on this line, though, from some mute inglorious Milton:

    “this is not literature. this is poetry.”

    Isn’t that lovely? Perhaps flarf’s raison d’être, if it has one, is our need to come to terms with bright flashing bits of beauty like that.

  • On August 15, 2009 at 6:14 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Urbanbaby totally rocks!

    “Plath sucks and so do you”

  • On August 15, 2009 at 6:20 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Can’t take anything seriously from a woman who writes about suicide and frekin kills herself. Sorry”

    A New Critic in the making…

  • On August 16, 2009 at 7:26 am thomas brady wrote:

    In Memory of Sir Frank Crisp, (Or The Girl Cries In The Attic)

    He resigned in the uplifting summer,
    The TVs were on, the airports crowded,
    Cocaine disfigured the public figures,
    Temps were up, as they say,
    All the teleprompters agreed
    The day of his resignation was a bright clear day.

    The radios played Sonny and Cher,
    Walter Cronkite’s intonation was good,
    The Washington Post glittered in triumph.
    The nation was saved.

    The self-inflicted conspiracy
    Was kept from the real conspiracy
    Hatched in New York City in nineteen sixty five
    When George and Patti’s love was blossoming,
    (According to Patti their love was “alive”)
    Long before George fucked Ringo Starr’s wife
    In a nineteen seventy three haze of brandy and heroin.

    Pretty Patti Boyd left Harrison for Clapton
    The summer the big resignation happened,
    The betrayal by Maureen Starkey the last straw,
    Eric begging his best bloke’s wife with poetry,
    “Layla,” and three years of sorrow on hellish smack.
    Silence invaded the suburbs.
    The Beatles were not coming back.
    George hated fame, trapped at Friar Park,
    Alternating between chanting denial and partying.
    “The temptations of the flesh always intervened.”

    The loud fucking sounds of John and that woman
    In the big bedroom where the coats were
    So no one could leave Rubin’s party,
    The Upper West Side affair, election eve, 1972,
    Yoko standing among the guests all listening
    To John’s fucking, O leftwing, O rightwing dick.

    You were stoned like us, your guitar survived it all,
    The groupies, the drugs, the physical decay,
    Nixon; John and Paul bossed you with their poetry,
    But Sinatra knew “Something” as a love song would live,
    He told this to you personally,
    Your wife listening from a proper distance, nervous
    From the stares of Sinatra’s short, wide friends.

    Patti was with you and got scared
    When you visited Haight Ashbery,
    Summer of nineteen sixty seven,
    And saw the “spotty youth” and felt the menace
    Of the stoned mob crowding around you
    Yearning for a song and wisdom…
    And that was the end, Patti said,
    You and George walking faster, scared.

    Poem, receive an honored guest:
    Rachel Loden is the best
    At putting Nixon into verse,
    Singing songs within his hearse.

    In the nightmare of bad poetry,
    Quit it, Dick, you’re scaring me,
    And the living poets prate:
    My interview will have to wait.

    Intellectual disgrace
    Makes this a pretty groovy place;
    We are acting as if we know
    Where the line is going to go.

    Follow, Milhous, follow right,
    To the slim, divided night,
    Shining up your Quaker shoes,
    Let us go and watch the news.

    Patti’s hurt; her streaming tears
    Will wash away regrets and fears.
    Eric cheats as much as George.
    O flower! O strange gorge!


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, August 10th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.