Essay

True West

Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger reimagines America’s frontier myths.
Illustration of a cowboy over a rainbow, tie dye background.

In the years before his suicide in 2007, artist Jeremy Blake made a trilogy of films about the West. In Winchester (2002), 1906 (2003), and Century 21 (2004), images of the Wild West—revolvers, silhouettes of gunslingers, stills from Spaghetti Westerns—struggle to retain their shape as they deform into blurs of wild color. It’s as though behind every image of the West lay an inchoate, formless abyss, a miasma of fractalled chaos that resists explication.

Blake’s trilogy is the proper visual analogue for Gunslinger (1968), Edward Dorn’s epic poem that likewise plays with the genre’s tropes. There’s a gunslinger, a horse, and a roster of desperados and saloon girls, all of whom move through what appears to be the landscape of the American Southwest. But at every stage, Dorn’s poem, like Blake’s trilogy, deforms and melts away: The horse deals cards and quotes philosophy, corpses are preserved in LSD, a barrel becomes sentient, and gunfights are decided by intention rather than speed. The clichéd figures of the West pass through what the poem calls “the inside real and the outsidereal,” calling into question the very reality on which the West depends.

Written between 1968 and 1975, the poem’s five parts (four books and a middle interlude titled “The Cycle”) were published in a single edition by Wingbow Press in 1975, and rereleased in a new edition in 1989. In September, Gunslinger was reissued once again, in a 50th anniversary edition. Dorn was a student of Charles Olson at Black Mountain College, and Gunslinger is often compared to Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Both are epics of America that attempt to embody the country’s shifting, mercurial spirit through a poetry of place. But Gunslinger doesn’t fit neatly into the same epic category as Olson’s Maximus. Professor and editor Eirik Steinhoff, who edited an issue of the Chicago Review devoted to Dorn in 2004, calls Gunslinger “an emblem, not a symptom,” standing “in excess of its moment, eccentric to any effort (and there have been several) to canonize it.”

Rather than being a canonical masterpiece, Dorn’s book may fade in and out of relevance as the need arises. In 1990, Dorn himself reflected that there didn’t seem to be “any quarrels with that book because that’s so remote now. It doesn’t threaten anything.” But in 2004, Steinhoff suggested there might be a newfound resonance for Gunslinger in the early 21st century due to the fact that, “once again we’ve acquired a paranoid and kleptocratic administration keen on imperialist adventures.”

Another decade, another paranoid and kleptocratic administration, and yet again Gunslinger appears on the horizon.

***

The poem follows its eponymous protagonist, often rendered simply as “Slinger,” on a quest through the Southwest, from Mesilla, New Mexico, toward Las Vegas, in search of the enigmatic tycoon Howard Hughes. (It’s not clear why, and the quest is soon abandoned anyway.) On his journey, Slinger attracts a cadre of acolytes: Cocaine Lil, a dancehall madame who offers a gloss of Slinger’s more cryptic pronouncements; Kool Everything, a hitchhiking acid freak whose “head has been misplaced”; Dr. Flamboyant, a researcher into the “post-ephemeral”; and a perpetually stoned horse alternately named Lévi-Strauss and Heidegger. Their presence gives Gunslinger an episodic, Canterbury Tales quality—and like Canterbury, Vegas will elude these pilgrims. Slinger, however, is the raconteur supreme. (Dorn told interviewer Roy Okada that the characters “are really a constellation of one body.”)

In addition to Chaucer, Gunslinger belongs in the tradition of American road epics such as Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as epic poetry like The Odyssey (here Homer’s “rosy fingers of dawn” are reconfigured as “the Yellow Rose of Dawn”). Dorn’s language, though, is distinctly anti-epic. Lowbrow puns—a quatrain on cocaine is described as “those lines … on the mirror”—mingle with absurdist gestures, as when Dorn describes Hughes, traveling in disguise from Boston to Vegas, as “decoyed as the cheeze in a burger.” Dorn’s rhythm and pacing reflect an acid western’s manic-ness, a bit of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain merged with Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, all knitted together by Slinger’s peculiar eloquence: “O Fucking Infinity! O sharp organic thrust! … My Sun tells me we have approached / the 24th hour / Oh wake the horse!”

After opening with an echo of “Streets of Laredo,” the classic ballad of a dying cowboy, Gunslinger poses a fundamental question that seems to define the body of the epic:

I met in Mesilla
The Cautious Gunslinger
of impeccable personal smoothness
and slender leather encased hands
folded casually
to make his knock.
He would show you his map.

There is your domain.
Is it the domicile it looks to be
or simply a retinal block
of seats in,
he will flip the phrase,
the theater of impatience.

A question that recurs throughout the poem is whether the West is a real place or a projection. Gunslinger involves a series of interrogations, some more successful than others, in which characters repeatedly inquire about the relationship between appearance and reality in a desert where be refuses to be the finale of seem, to quote Wallace Stevens. As a quintessential postmodern work, Gunslinger delights in a constant slippage of language and signification, but there are darker forces at work, too. Written during the Nixon administration, Dorn’s poem is a reaction to the ever-widening gap between language, overstuffed with political deception and dissemblance, and the world it supposedly names.

Gunslinger never directly references Vietnam, but it’s shot through with the war’s influence, particularly the shifting ground between what was happening on the ground and how images from the war came back home in carefully managed, prepackaged narratives. In Universe City, Slinger and his retinue encounter the Literate Projector, “which, when a 35 mm strip is put thru it / turns it into a Script / Instantaneously! / and projects that—the finished script / onto the white virgin screen.”

The poem’s ostensible narrator, known only as “I,” is soon revealed to be a character unto himself. “Constructed of questions,” I is a foil to Slinger, always in search of some bedrock understanding to which he can anchor the world, an understanding that Slinger refuses. “Nevertheless,” Slinger tells I,

it is dangerous to be named
and makes you mortal.
If you have a name
you can be sold
you can be told
by that name leave, or come
you become, in short
a reference […]

In Slinger’s West, identity is always on the verge of collapse, and only in such ambiguity and chaos is liberation found. And soon enough, the I of the poem, perhaps not cut out for such a world, is found dead. A gunslinger with a dead I, Slinger informs his companions that they’ll continue on carrying I’s corpse, “his cheeks the map of days outworn.” As I lays dead, Slinger reminds his companions that “If I stinks, it is only thus we shall not so easily forget his hour of darkness.” In the West, where reality is constantly in flux, to insist on a stable and immutable identity is to sign your own death warrant. Only by remaining fluid through the landscape can Slinger and his companions continue to make their way. As Dorn told Okada, “‘I’ is dead, actually. I think now the ego is obviously dead. … All our stories are so interchangeable. If they’re significant they seem to be more interchangeable.”

But while Gunslinger repeatedly invokes the relationship between reality and signification, at other times the poem and its protagonist seem to lose interest in such distinctions. Before his untimely death, I attempts to corral the language of Slinger and his horse, perpetually stoned on “Tampico bombers,” into philosophical principles, but comes to naught. While describing the mathematics behind the gunfight, Slinger refers to that “area between here and formerly” that men have “mistakenly” called phenomenology, and I breaks in to clarify:

You mean, I encouraged
there is no difference
between appearance and—
Reality?” he broke in
I never “mean,” remember,
that’s a mortal sin
and Difference I have no sense of.

The poem, like its protagonist, slings back and forth between a postmodernist project of interrogating the relationship between seem and be, and a bored apathy toward that same project. Even the work of dissolving the bond of appearance and reality is a form of meaning that Slinger rejects.

Slinger, meanwhile, continues in pursuit of Hughes, who is glimpsed throughout the poem but never fully seen, an apparition and an idea more than a character. When I asks Slinger what he will do when he finds Hughes, Slinger replies cryptically:

the souls of old Texans
are in jeopardy in a way not common
to other men, my singular friend.

In 1990, Dorn told Chicago Review editor and poet John Wright, “I’m interested in this relationship between the lone explorer—which could be, if you want to use those categories again, a Romantic trope, the Romantic questing spirit—and the weaseling capitalist. And the weaseling capitalist is what this questing leads to historically; he’s the younger degenerated brother, or whatever, of the lone explorer.” The souls of old Texans, gunslingers of yore, are capitalists in the making, and one quests through the land only to stake a claim for oil derricks.

***

Writing for the World Socialist Web Site in 2013, critic Andras Gyorgy acknowledges Gunslinger as a “hippie masterpiece” but nonetheless finds it “as dated as the era,” the “kind of book for people who like this kind of book.” To hear Gyorgy tell it, Dorn eventually woke from his “hippie-era stupor” and began writing serious, overtly political poetry in the last two decades of his life. Gunslinger, meanwhile, is mired in a fog of hipsters and hippies, its once-fashionable questions no longer relevant or interesting, devoid of politics. In his review, Gyorgy accuses Dorn, “apparently tired of the poem” by the final two sections, of forgetting “all about its original conceits to retreat into a very self-centered solipsistic lyricism about failed love and the groundlessness of existence.” (Having never reached his destination or even accomplished much, Slinger bids his companions adieu at the end in florid Spanish, like a sitcom’s sentimental series finale.)

That’s one way of reading Gunslinger, but mixed among those supposedly solipsistic final lines are insistent references to the ground beneath. Under the thin veneer of philosophy, more bedrock principles of the West adhere. It’s significant that the mythic figure presiding over Dorn’s western is not Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp, but Howard Hughes, the billionaire capitalist who mythologized the West before being swallowed by it. Hughes had only recently moved into the ninth-floor penthouse of Vegas’s Desert Inn in late 1966 when Dorn started writing Gunslinger. Barricaded inside of a figurative desert that rose out of an even vaster literal one, Hughes became, as Dorn later described him, “a rather pure metaphor of a kind of primitive, entrepreneurial capitalist take of what America is, which is still embedded in the political and social instincts of a lot of American activity.”

Hughes’s unseen but pervasive presence in the poem is a reminder of the real forces at work in the West. When I returns resurrected in Book IIII (as Dorn stylizes IV), he carries with him a bag “of fine Iranian tooling,” containing “all the known species of Cant.” When he throws it toward the top of Slinger’s coach, the bag sails over it and lands in the far dirt, whereupon a geyser of oil gushes forth. And Lil’s final words in the poem are a lilting, cowboy elegy that ends abruptly with a reference to the Teapot Dome Scandal:

I have this incomparable feeling
and it keeps calling me home
a feeling of Wyoming
I’d like to get back,
before they tear off the dome

All the discourses of individuality and dissolution eventually give way to the crude reality of crude, of a West that will be endlessly mined for its mineral rights and riches. The stakes of Gunslinger, then, are not between appearance and reality, but between philosophy and capitalism. (In a 1981 essay about the poem reprinted in the new edition, poet Michael Davidson notes that the Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines “gunslinger” as a “manager of a high-risk, high-performance mutual fund”; the poem sometimes substitutes the term “stockholder” for “gunslinger.”)

Debates about phenomenology and postmodernism offer, at best, distraction from the capitalist appropriation of the western United States. The myth of the West that’s been carefully constructed and deconstructed through the decades has long been a cover for the expropriation of public land, the genocide of the West’s native populations, and the forced resettlement of those who, while not native to the West, were pushed farther and farther into the desert. Dorn gets out of this dodge by turning his focus continually back to the oil under Slinger’s feet. The physical effects of this mythical wealth production are real and long-lasting, and the reality of the mining, drilling, and pillaging of the land always threaten to break through, a return of the repressed.

***

One of Gunslinger’s more enduring legacies has come via its most famous fan: Stephen King, who used a line from the poem as the opening epigraph to his 1978 postapocalyptic novel The Stand (“We need help, the Poet reckoned”). The Gunslinger, the first volume of King’s epic The Dark Tower series, is also named in homage to Dorn’s poem. The Dark Tower is itself a sort of pastiche of epic poetry. Inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and with a third volume titled The Waste Lands, King’s series reforges these vastly different epic poems (one lyric, one a modernist ruin, one a postmodern pastiche), into its own collage about a Clint Eastwood-esque figure moving through a world “that’s moved on.” While King’s epic offers a more linear quest narrative, it borrows from Dorn that same level of hyperactive collage. As The Dark Tower proceeds, it becomes less and less its own defined world and more a pell-mell mélange of pop culture and other ephemera: Arthurian legends, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, and Kurosawa all find their way in.

But in King’s work, particularly in The Dark Tower and The Stand, all this questing and gunslinging ultimately builds toward a battle between Good and Evil, which, no matter how wild and fantastical King’s worlds become, anchor their moral compasses. No such certainty is found in Dorn’s gunslinger epic. Perhaps a more thematically aligned inheritor of Dorn’s West is Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (2017), which also focuses on the emptiness of legal language and its stubborn physical effects on the land. The poem’s title and much of its language come from various treaties and public documents, including congressional resolutions, that record a hollow conversation between the US government and Native American nations. It’s a conversation that purports to name and organize the West into a stable geography, a map of the terrain, but that was undermined by capitalist forces intent on exploiting the land.

Long Soldier’s work makes clear that refusing to be named is not enough, nor is the hope that by refusing such totalizing language, one can exist free of reference and be immortal. Others will still name you in bogus contracts that justify the taking of the land. Like Long Soldier, Dorn understood that no amount of postmodern dissolution of self or linguistic play can halt the plunder of the land.

As for the West itself, it is again under siege by a new kleptocratic administration. Its last vestiges of wilderness are being severed from national protection and opened again to drilling and mining concerns. Like the West in Blake’s films, it is undergoing transformation and deformation as we edge ever closer to that formless abyss. But Dorn’s poem also reminds us that, even as a mythic place of slipping signifiers, the West is still seen as a place of capitalism, and its bedrock is composed not of dreams but of natural gas and rare earth metals. Remaining behind all the stories of the West and its old Texans are men like Howard Hughes, their identities as fluid as cheeze on a burger.

Originally Published: September 24th, 2018

Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016), Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith (2012), and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius (2009).