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Dick of the Dead
Rachel Loden
Ahsahta Press, 2009

Pink angel wings buzz in Rachel Loden’s formidable verses. Real villains like Tricky Dick and Dick Cheney are re-cast as Shakespearian spooks in technically innovative send-ups. Politics and star culture merge as the poet purges our collective soul while never losing her own.

With an especially nimble foot, Loden conflates Alexander Pope with Kenneth Koch. Her subjects are teased out with glittering vocabulary, offering numerous access points. Catchy rhythms, embedded rhymes, and alliteration pair up with spatial strategies like using couplets, quatrains, and open verse.

Almost always the tautness is so well wrung that the poet’s “Subject” could inhabit a “tightrope across the labyrinth.” The very amusing “Lapland Not The Country of Lesbians” is loaded with delectable double entendres.

Loden sometimes layers a current scenario over an old text. Poems by Li Po, Blake, Rilke and others become armatures, as do the Nixon tapes and an “Affidavit”. Thus, the narration retains a core authenticity while the updating is expansive and whimsical.

With a nod to Ted Berrigan’s Sonnet XXXVII, Loden’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” becomes a moving eulogy to both aspiration and disappointment. The poet speaks to us as a lover and as a nation with a wise and witty voice.

When Loden turns to the personal in the wisp of a poem, “My Cupboards,” she lets us peer into her sources of sorcery. “No tincture of seahorse. / No cloudberry poultice.” “Pixels” in the next line add a jolt of technology, plus a good dose of pixie dust. It’s magic.


The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded
Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press, 2009

Transgression and transformation…glamour and authority…both barrels blaze from spitfire art critic and theoretician Dave Hickey. Several searing, essential essays (with a generous foreword) deliberate upon the relationships between the beholder and the beheld.

Beauty is a seditious virtue, difficult and dangerous. Faced with this “threat,” civilization imposes a custodian. But this buffer poses problems and Hickey storms the gate.

The ménage à trois between artist, object, and audience creates a sacred trust. Who can present the art without diminishing the primacy of that very personal relationship? Hickey penetratingly separates the sheep from the goats, the market from “the temple of art” (that, he says, doesn’t exist). “Do we trade the control of the aristocrat’s taste for the neutralizing bureaucrat,” making museums mausoleums and “cultural junkyards”?

Stylistically, Hickey deftly mixes his diction, stirring up a fine-tuned rumble—an orchestra of outlaw biker philosophers where Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida bump into Jagger, Mapplethorpe, and Warhol. Historical anecdotes, specifically about Caravaggio, provide deep insights into the locus of art, commerce, and theory.

In the wars of rhetoric, the Jesse Helms’ of the world recognize images that challenge the status quo. Hickey bathes the subject in acid to slough off the dross. He convincingly argues for beauty that validates the marginal and results in “multi-valent moments of self recognition.” He champions art that “derives its authority from a consortium of beholders” and not from a panel of curators. His “rock n’ roll heart” is an invaluable crie de couer in a de-fanged landscape of cultural hegemony.


Love Lessons: Selected Poems
Alda Merini
translated by Susan Stewart
Princeton University Press, 2009

A true poet, Alda Merini addresses the timeless ear of humanity as she questions her station: “Will I be alone?” Her plaints and confidences call across the ages, fusing myth and Christianity to forge a bold body of poems.

The translator, Susan Stewart, has stayed mostly out of the way, faithfully echoing the tinkling timbre of Merini’s elucidations. Stewart’s intimate foreword prepares us both biographically and stylistically for an encounter with an ingénue gone mad and then come back again.

Merini has been unlucky in love and life, but not poetry. Seduced and abandoned by other poets, she spent two decades in mental institutions. The dramatic persona that spills these solid poems creates both admirers and detractors. But her gift for the metaphysical metaphor is unquestionable: “My eyes are lanterns and you / the breath that clouds them.” Body parts become iconic synecdoches. “The immensity troubles my eyelashes.” “Ardent lips…taste of so much irony.” “A hand” reaches “in the nude pocket.”

Buoying Merini through treacherous currents is an animated reservoir of classic and religious knowledge. Orpheus is present (in abstentia), a reminder of her wounds and shame. Othello is a jailer. Peter confronts his denial. The Pieta lives in a “fully atoned present…of inhuman delight.” Word pairs work together to re-enforce connections (italics mine): “babbling language brimming with silence”; “I wove spiderwebs and fell prey to my own creation.”

Merini shuffles time with bewitching sleight. Her lyric, lovelorn loneliness is unsurpassed. “I know that you will be lifted away by my suffering.” Pretty much.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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