Of heroes and their monsters: A more horrible monster requires a stronger hero. As such, their conflict provides a way of knowing. A reckoning reckoning.
I heard this in a lecture on Beowulf, but knew it from comic books. Beowulf and Grendel, like the X-Men and Magneto, provide narrative contradiction/cooperation.
They dramatize a struggle; that is, they perform the possibility of failure. Identify with the hero? The monster’s victory marks the failure.
You only have to know what bit is the monster.
Struggle is story. Even as it functions within a narrative, it is a narrative. A story with a fight in it is a story with a story in it. And though I write narrative libretti, I approach narrative in poetry with some consternation.
It’s possible I conflate narrative with set-up—the exposition I’ve written of excising. One has to know which bit is monster. Still there seems to be a distinction, even in the action/adventure genre, between a narrative that is all fight and no story versus one that actually contrasts struggle with moments where failure seems absent.
That contrast is one way to intensify a sense of loss. The story presents what’s at stake so that later struggles take on more freight than a mere fight between a hero and monster. Beowulf shows us celebration in Hrothgar’s Hall. Mead and song thicken the air at the rafters. Lethal Weapon (1987) shows us Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) family wishing him a happy birthday, barging into the bathroom with a cake, playfully interrupting his leisurely bath. They appear to be upper middle class and satisfied. In an action/adventure film, that means they’re gonna be in trouble.
Struggle presents the risk of failure. Loss can be a kind of failure. Contrast can intensify loss. If failure compels me—both in process and subject—to write a poem, establishing stakes is vital. There must be a cost. At some level, the rigor I aim for when composing a poem is a way of raising the stakes; the poem’s potential failure becomes a source of sweat I’ve sweat over. But that’s a matter of process. In subject, failure needs a thing to rupture, then deflate.
This is why public history is so important to my work. It comes with its own setup.
Initially, any external reference works synecdochally. We begin a poem with: “Once upon a time….” This alludes to fairy tales in general; we recognize the phrase as a convention within the genre even when we don’t say: “this is a fairy tale.”
If we have a poem where someone pricks a finger on a needle, we may be alluding to “Sleeping Beauty” in particular. The scene comes from popular versions of the tale; we seek to capitalize on the reader’s likely knowledge of the story to add narrative tension (the finger wound is going to trigger “sleep”); contrast (that was a Princess™ at a loom, this is a junkie in an alley); or surprise (“…she never slept but teemed/a droplet blossomed from her thumb…”).
A note—to refer and to allude are distinct. The former identifies its source, the latter does not. Thus, to be allusive is to be more elusive.
Ultimately, reference and allusion are metonymic. When we allude, we write ourselves adjacent to the source. We become associated with it. Thus, there is a display or even assertion of both knowledge and affinity. Yet, through references indirect and direct we can also dramatize a lack of knowledge and problematize affinity:
Here's what I don't know. Here are two adjacent things that shouldn't be together.
I read Carl Phillips’ poem, “Cortege,” about 10 years ago. It knocked me over. The speculative epistolary fragment. The shifts between sections. The haunting desire and loss—damn. It played the changes. I sought to learn from it, adapting the Q & A bit for parts of my long, obnoxious poem: “The Poet Writes the Poem That Will Certainly Make Him Famous”; trying unsuccessfully to shadow the way he moves around a line in the poem: “HIM.” Sinewy syntax and graven diction. It stayed with me. The title’s secondary definition— a funeral procession—stayed with me, too, bursting to the fore in 2005, when it seemed an entire region needed a cortege.
“Second line, y’all!”—Ronald Shannon Jackson*
When Katrina hit and the flooding overwhelmed the Gulf Coast, eyes focussed on New Orleans. Muddy water filled the streets, toxic funk and sick drag, Nature's ill parody of a Second Line.
I began a poem using “Cortege” as a skeleton—actually, as I re-read the poem now, it was nearly a cover of Phillips’ work. The speaker was a victim of the flooding. At first, I called it “The Drowned Cortege.” Later, this settled into “The Drowned City.” I was obsessing over city poems for a manuscript to be called Drowning | The Cities. I sent the poem out and it almost got published. The editor of one journal suggested removing two sections—this upset the parity to “Cortege” and that bugged me. Clinging to my original concept—for better or worse—I asked about the cuts. I never got a response. Or a contract.
I decided to live with the edits and published the poem in Spare Parts + Lost Cities, a pdf chapbook I offered for free on my website. SP + LC rescued some of the poems from the torpedoed manuscript I hadn’t already cannibalized for The Black Automaton.
But there was something that bothered me about “The Drowned City.”
In “The Drowned City,” water was the monster.
that was not city
was blue flesh. water rose suddenly
as though from nightmares
and then collapsed into itself,
brazen in the street.
—from “The Drowned City”
Voicing the voiceless is—as I suggested in “CAST”—potentially problematic enough. But speaking for people who can and are speaking for themselves is even more prickly.
Prickly can be good trouble. But it is trouble. Trouble has a blast radius and if you don’t want trouble to demolish your poem, you have to set the trouble in the right place.
Remember the Superdome interviews? Mayor Nagin’s frustration? The people roof-marooned and hollering over copter rotors? Remember the journalists slipping from their scripts? Faces, voices, faces, voices.
Voicing the voiced. Is that just redundant or is it replacing their words, their testimony, their struggle with a different one? Is the former voicing at all or silencing them so you can speak instead? Forgery, identity theft, persona turned impostor. What do any of these cost the writer?
I have come to tell you nothing
has drowned. I tell you
that everything is drowning.
I had questions and I ate them.
when the bread was gone
I had questions I ate slowly.
—from “The Drowned City”
“The Drowned City” was not in dialogue with the people who suffered losses. Rather, it used their tragedy as a vehicle through which to engage another superior poem. I angled myself adjacent to “Cortege” and pivoted away from the struggle I meant to attend. It was ambition in the way the boaters in William Carlos Williams’ “The Yachts” are ambitious.
The poem cost me little beyond craft. It was lovely in its way. All that water turned somehow placid but reflecting nothing.
What I came to understand when I finally acknowledged that “The Drowned City” didn’t do the work it could do, was that the people whose witness made me struggle, dry in Los Angeles, didn’t see water as their monster anymore than they saw sunshine as a hero.
History’s setup had been going on long before the clouds rolled in.
We know how strong the hero is by the horror of the monster. Why not reckon cost in the same antithetical way?
I wrote the first of the Floodsongs—“Canal rats’ chantey”—driven by a question. Who benefitted from Katrina? That is: who could seek to gain from such inhumane neglect, callous disregard for human life and loss?
Animals. Only animals.
There are eight Floodsongs and two formal strategies at work throughout. Each piece is a persona poem: the speakers are animals you can find in the Gulf Coast. And each uses a song style as a compositional device.
Of the eight personified (and personafied) animals—the canal rats, the water moccasin, alligator, mosquitoes, catfish, bullfrog, gull and dog, only bullfrog, catfish and dog seem at all sympathetic to human suffering. And ultimately, even dog turns toward self-interest.
More on craft, here. “Canal rats’ chantey” is another example of the typographic dynamics I discussed in “CAST.”
A chantey is a work song. Like many such songs, chanteys set a cadence to make coordinated labor possible. The poem’s great rats’ nest of text (quoted phrases indicate what the rats overhear, and the rollicking “blowin down/yes, all the way down”: the chantey’s refrain) makes an argument about a lack of coordination in managing the disaster. The only orderly bits of text are the rats speaking as themselves, inexorable, methodical and hungry.
“Water moccasin’s spiritual” and “Catfish’s bounce” both use found texts and hip hop beat production aesthetics in composition. The former is the more aggressive “sample-chopping” style associated with the late J-Dilla and some of Madlib’s work while the latter—which identifies Southern “bounce” as its song style—nods toward the party chants and rapid hi-hats characteristic of the genre. Water moccasin slant rhymes with the original serpent in Paradise, so its corruption of the spiritual made sense to me, as does its concluding assertion: “God’s gon.” Catfish are scavengers, thus its appropriation of another poem seemed appropriate.
The mosquitoes binge on blood from so many different people everything slurs and swirls together. The gull wheels in the sky croaking a madsong. The dog desperately wants to be a part of a duet and is forced to solo. And so, and so.
Still: what is the cost? What do I risk? I think the risk in the poems as poems is the chance that I could be grossly misunderstood. That my poems might be seen as merely making light of a tragedy. That I might have failed in my reckoning of cost and that in the end, I might have only heard what I wanted to hear.
The poems are ironic in intention, sure. But if they read/sound ironic, they fail. Which leads me back to cost as it relates to process.
The cost in the process—the aspect of poetic endeavor we can most control—was that in order to manage the voices of the animals, I had to occupy subject positions I disliked. I had to engage in a kind of cruelty that forced me to acknowledge my own capacity for it. My ability to disregard others’ suffering for my benefit.
I had to know something of myself and then ourselves. The bits that are the monster sometimes beat out the bits that are the hero. At terrible cost.
* The Ronald Shannon Jackson quote comes from his performance of Sterling Brown's poem, "Puttin' On Dog." It appears on the 2000 album, Puttin' on Dog…"
Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, California. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and is also a graduate and fellow of Cave Canem. In the Los Angeles Times, poet David St. John observed, “What...