Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review: Rachel Loden's "Dick of the Dead"

By Elaine Terranova

"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Isn't that what he said as he left office? But after the recycling of the Frost-Nixon tapes and the continuing invention of all those other gates, it looks like we'll always have Nixon to kick around.

Rachel Loden's Dick of the Dead is a resurrection in poetry. I weigh a new book in my hand and flip through back to front like reading Hebrew. I open to "My Angels, Their Pink Wings," that paraphrases the Duino Elegies, "Who, if I pitched a hissy fit, would even/ blink a powdered eyelid// among the angelic orders?" Loden mixes elegy and irony, as you could say Rilke does too. The 20th century is just crammed with ironies, funereal and political, for Loden's delectation, wars cold and hot, and the earth's interference with the moon.

And that's Richard Nixon, our guide to the underworld and the past, recognizable from the quarter of his face on the cover. We're in a time warp here, turned around and coming forward to Bush/Cheney. The title poem is a dialog that ends with Nixon's invocation, "Cheney's heart is flying toward me." Later, the statue of Leonid Brezhnev appears, Nixon's Russian counterpart, rising like the Commendatore of Don Giovanni. His "white torso stands here dreaming/ in the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments." But as the poem points out, "Today not a single statue of Dick Nixon// stands astride an American City." We have to remember him from the monument of news footage.

Loden is in some ways a formal poet, she hits every form, and she does dazzle, though there's a sense she's just getting her exercise with these. There are other, strong and mysterious poems that she seems really to mean, one, "Often, I am Permitted to Return to a Station," consolidates hospital, terminus, Holocaust. "Epitaph" too is poignant, an homage to the Desnos poem of the same name.

Loden can also be thought of as a surrealist. What is more surreal than the hereafter? So you will find list poems such as, "What the Gravedigger Needs," where the one indispensible is "board to prevent mourners from falling in." You will find a recipe, an index, a library search, and a cento of movie titles called "I was a Communist for the FBI." And a whole catalog of poets in disguise: T. S., Sylvia, Allen, Ezra, Creeley, Frost, Ashbery. Popular culture in the form of Seinfeld and George Costanza show up too. But the tour de force and the comedy mask the real intent, a fresh, harsh, personal look at a history she more or less lived through.

She knows where the devils lie. From the opening poem, "Miss October--Playboy," we are assured that death is coming even to Hugh Hefner, playmate month by playmate month.

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