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YANAGUANA LITERARY REVIEW

Loden, Rachel. Dick of the Dead. Ahsahta Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1-934103-07-4, 102pp. $17.50 [To order, please order directly via PayPal from the press's Rachel Loden page at http://ahsahtapress.boisestate.edu/books/loden/loden.htm

 

 

The cover photo shows a close-up of the famous face, just Richard Nixon’s nose and right eye. You can tell from the line arcing below his nose that he is smiling, but place your hand over the bottom cover and see how that eye glares at you. I was too young to have an FBI file during the Nixon era, but that eye gives me the chills, nonetheless.

The grin-and-glare of Nixon’s personality permeates the text of Rachel Loden’s newest book. Like her previous books about one of the most troubling presidents in recent history, Dick of the Dead seamlessly brings Nixon’s voice into dialogue with the worst excesses of late 20th century pop culture in poems that are so well crafted I read each one over and over. Here, in “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” Loden imagines Nixon speaking to a statue of Leonid Brezhnev:

Those were good times. The world on a razor
Of our mutually assured destruction, and yet—

Comrade! You remember—we felt strangely free.

Other poems use Nixon’s own words, as in “The Nixon Tapes”: That sonofabitch at State, what are / his plans?

Loden also takes language from legal affidavits, Boolean searches, even a URL, and transforms them into poems about postmodern life that are wickedly satirical and often laugh-out-loud funny, as in “My Night with George Costanza,” which begins with the speaker counting sheep. Only a poet as talented as Loden could juxtapose a triumphant assertion of cosmic unity with a character from the television show "Seinfeld":

into a universe so daft

that you and I and all
the syncopating lambs

are one, are one at last!
With George Costanza.

Of course, what makes this poem work on many levels is not just the allusions to Blake, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and a sitcom character, but the underlying truth that we are indeed all one, that the many divisions we perceive to fracture our world are the illusion: truth, as always, being stranger than fiction.

Whether she writes about Nixon, Federico Fellini, The Bride of Frankenstein, or even a one-hit wonder rock group (Question Mark and the Mysterians), Loden crafts her poems meticulously. She is keenly aware of both the sound of a poem read aloud and its appearance on the page. Here is one poem in its entirety:

The USNS Comfort Sails to the Gulf

Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:
http://www.comfort.navy.mil/welcome.html

Can a poem be more compact, yet contain so much: an allusion to Ezra Pound, a clever eye rhyme, an antiwar statement—even a URL? [The Comfort’s web site has been changed to the less poetic http://www.med.navy.mil/SITES/USNSCOMFORT/Pages/default.aspx.] Other poems include slant rhymes like hall/e-mail/megamall, and dome/ovum, while others pay careful attention to vowel and consonant sounds throughout the stanza, as in this delicious excerpt from “Milhous as King of the Ghosts”:

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.

Loden’s poetry embraces a variety of forms, from prose poems to received forms like the sonnet and pantoum. The extensive notes in the back of this volume acknowledge Loden’s debt to folk tales, magazine ads, films, and a long list of poets: not just Pound, but also Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Robert Desnos and an Old English scop named Deor. I also saw in “I was a Communist for the FBI” a rhythmic and visual homage to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

Loden’s poetry spans a wider time frame than just the Nixon years, tracing our shabby political and pop culture history from that era through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, with Dick Cheney in a recurring role. Hugh Hefner, Little Richard, Princess Diana and a variety of actors make cameo appearances.

It takes an exceptionally skilled poet to make literature out of the culture that spawned commercial juggernauts like People magazine and "American Idol." Loden does so with a wry wit and melt-in-your-mouth lines. Happily, Ahsahta Press does her work justice with a gorgeous book design that accommodates long lines on smooth, creamy stock, with translucent end papers that wrap Loden’s sharp text like silk.

[Review of Dick of the Dead by Pat Valdata, author of The Other Sister, Looking for Bivalve, and Crosswind]