Dick of the Dead
Dick of the Dead is an investigation into American sexual, political, and poetic consciousness, and at its eccentric heart lies the undead and uneasy 37th president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. Also sifting the evidence (or implicated in its findings) are J. Edgar Hoover, Sylvia Plath, Hugh Hefner, Wyatt Earp, Valerie Solanas, and Vladimir Putin, as well as an experimental subject in a pink tutu, a Finnish gravedigger, an exiled Anglo-Saxon poet, and an industrious gang of fairies.
Loden’s Nixon is never merely the consummate villain deplored by his critics nor the tragic visionary statesman acclaimed by his apologists. He is nearly a force of nature: throwing off his gravestone in the garden at Yorba Linda, calling up his troops, his family, and even his black and white cocker spaniel, he is ready to smash death by any means necessary, to beat back a sea of pretenders and retake Washington by storm.
Dick of the Dead is a whimsical and beguiling trip through the underworld of the American psyche, much funnier and ultimately much more serious than any one book of poems has a right to be.
“Few books of poetry have so perfectly rendered the suffering and emotional impoverishment this nation has endured since the presidency of Richard Nixon. Like no other poet now living, Rachel Loden articulates the twisted cultural imaginary and horror that arises from decades of sustained mass cultural delusion. She is Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History falling backward through televisions, across press room podiums, and into, one hopes, the canon—where she belongs. She is without doubt one of the greatest poets writing today.”—Gabriel Gudding
“Richard Nixon is much more than a political symbol for the mendacity of the GOP. With all of his contradictions, this war-mongering Quaker & intensely shy public figure, a man who always worked with the presumption that nobody ever liked him, is in many respects our most American of presidents. Rachel Loden works with Nixon the way Shakespeare worked with Lear, mining him for all of his many inner conflicts, using him to show us ourselves. Protest as we might—‘We are not a crook!’—Loden knows (and shows us) better.”—Ron Silliman
“Rachel Loden’s intelligently obsessive, darkly witty poems are a ‘serious pleasure.’ Politics and popular culture have no defense against her penetrating gaze, and yield their sad truths, their falseness, as if she possesses X-ray vision. I trust Loden’s take on our convoluted world, the glut of it: worthy of keen attention, however corrupt. Potent solace, poetry of her caliber.” —David Trinidad
“Rachel Loden’s vision of American life is operatic—its singing is a kind of screaming. And its color, red, is simultaneously the red of ‘Red Scare’ and the phantasmagorical blood red of a Dario Argento movie in which there is no outside to the nightmare: the nightmare of the Spectacular State.” —Ange Mlinko
My heart tick-tocking like Captain Hook’s clock.
Does Tricky wait for any godforsaken crocodile,
idling and glimmering in the nearby calms?
Bah. But now if I'd been Blackbeard’s boatswain
(as I should have been) Pan and the lost boys
would have long since walked the plank.
So no going gentle, I think, into that gute Nacht
as birdshot Harry knows in his pocked hide.
Let the press laugh. I dressed my mutt
Jackson in Lord Vader’s duds
just to show I get the joke. Bad luck like a fever
that will not break in Mesopotamia and here
my offices on fire, flames out the windows
like red tongues that scream and then fall silent.
Copyright © 2009 by Rachel Loden
“Nixon’s emptiness [in ‘Milhous as King of the Ghosts’]—the wind is literally moving through him—is reminiscent of the Romantic/Modern idea that the summit of lyric poetry is a sublime destruction of the self. Stevens’s description of the sublime (which is rather funny in the original) has been humorously transformed into an image of empire and oil. One might see Loden’s rewriting as a send-up of the lyric tradition. By creating a sublime image that's morally repugnant, Loden calls into question the validity of the lyric moment. Still, to me, the poem is more interesting than mere parody. The poem’s content, commentary and humor never diminish its aesthetic beauty. It may very well be a parody of the sublime, but it is also oddly sublime in itself. This tension is typical of the collection and what makes it so intoxicating.
“Despite the title and the truncated picture on the cover, there is much in the collection that has little or nothing to do with Nixon. As in her first collection, Hotel Imperium (another book with Nixon on the cover), Loden’s poems wittily explore constructions of femininity, the absurdity of runaway capitalism and the role of art in commodity culture. She does all this with restraint, trenchant wit and rich sonic play. If Nixon were still alive, he might not understand the subtlety of Loden’s humor, but I am sure Checkers would love it.” —from the review by Joanna Fuhrman in The Poetry Project Newsletter
“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. . . .
“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.” —from the review by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright in Brooklyn Rail
“In Loden, I’ve found a kindred spirit. Her Nixon is a fallen monument, an apparition who stalks the grounds of the Whitehouse; who sits with his head ‘like a Rushmore in space’ awaiting his ultimate pardon. Later, he is a bauble, a plastic man inside a snowglobe ‘while hoodoo snow is falling.’ Loden’s Nixon is the crooked leader for whom I grew nostalgic, as the eight torturous years of the Bush regime raged on like an unchecked virus. Deeply human, deeply flawed, he is the most tragic figure ever to appear on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
“Nixon is but one in a long line of arrogant, if flaccid, politicos who have mongered the wars of our empire. Rachel Loden is not afraid to follow the money; to show us where the bodies are buried: ‘And if a hospital ship sails out of Baltimore/it must be filled, it cannot come home empty.’ If this be a tragedy we live in, it is practically Wagnerian, and Loden’s Dick is the Loki at its darkest heart. Cue the Ride of the Valkyrie. With all of the mordant wit she can muster, Loden celebrates the smell of napalm in the morning, the war on terror and its most ironic emblem, a ship called the USNS Comfort.
“We live, Loden reminds us, in the midst of an ‘epic struggle against stupidity.’ Leonid Brezhnev, Martha Mitchell, Deep Throat—like ourselves, they are but the bit players in the story of reckless ambition and our foolish, foolish ways.” —from the review by D.A. Powell in The Rumpus
“More than politics, more than death, although there’s plenty of both to go around, Dick of the Dead is about sexuality. They’re bound up together—politics and sex and death—but they’re not bound inextricably; it only seems that way. Nixon and his dick cheat death; Rachel separates herself from it―Miss October leaves empty rooms behind her, but she goes on forever, naked with staples in her navel, like Keats’s bold lover, but unlike Keats’s lover she can kiss, she can fuck, she can explore or imagine a panoply of sexual personae, with Nixon as her spirit guide, ‘As diaphanous as Bush’s / brain, as feverishly sensitive as Cheney’s heart // I lived in those times, yet I was free.’” —from the review by Tad Richards in Jacket
“In wrestling with the cycle of history, Loden summons not only Dick Nixon, but the full complement of myth: fairy tales, Bible stories, cowboys, movie stars, and ancient empires (not Rome but rather the empire of Sargon, whose Khorsabad, located a few miles from what is now Mosul, Iraq, was capital of ancient Assyria). As Dick himself says, in Loden’s poem ‘The Nixon Tapes,’ ‘God/damn, twelve princesses dance their shoes/to tatters all night in a castle underground/and nobody is running their income tax/returns?’ Dick Nixon has one foot in myth and one foot in reality, and we’re the ones stuck in the middle, who must beware of thinking a myth is always past and never prologue:
Blessed is he
who leaketh the depositions
of the wicked; he hath convened
a new grand jury for Thy name’s
sake. Plus the goat must die. Selah.
The dead witness eats dust
for your sins. And the Capitol is wet
with such a sweet and steady rain.
“The fascination with repetition occurs not only in the substance of the poems themselves, but also in their form. Many of Loden’s lines are cribbed from well-known twentieth-century poems, and she often rewrites those poems completely, providing twenty-first century updates. She channels not just Dick Nixon, but Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Ted Berrigan, and Robert Creeley. In the shortest, and certainly one of the most thoroughly creepy, of all the poems in Dick of the Dead, Loden transforms Pound’s famous couplet, the summation of imagism:
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of the faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
THE USNS COMFORT SAILS TO THE GULF
Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:
“In Loden’s world, not only is the spirit of Tricky Dick capable of rising again, possessing the occupants of the White House, and driving the world awry, but poetry has the capacity to renew itself and respond to these events. Her updates transform poems that had become museum pieces—beloved objects shut up behind the glass case of poetic memory and reverence—into living, vital work again, ready to kick up a fuss.” —from the review by Maureen Thorson in Open Letters Monthly
I was born at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., where (in recent years, after a shock to his heart) Dick Cheney was often said to be “resting comfortably.” Whether this inauspicious birthplace somehow reset my own tiny, beating heart, and sent me trundling down the road to poetic catastrophe is unknown. But certainly I come from a family that had little reason to be affectionately attached to Richard Nixon.
The summer I was born, Nixon made his name at HUAC (the House Committee on Un- American Activities) and my father lost his job as a deejay at WQQW when the station came under political pressure from HUAC, the FBI, and the FCC.
My family imploded in the crucible of the McCarthy era and my mother, brother and I set off on a nationwide odyssey, moving from D.C. to Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Los Angeles before I was ten, all under the beneficent eye of friendly local G-men.
My mother (a Vassar girl turned machinist and labor organizer) succumbed to schizophrenia within a few years and was repeatedly hospitalized, receiving shock treatments that wiped out huge swaths of her memory and did nothing to calm whatever might have been left of her mind. She was never well again.
So Nixon had always been with us, but he didn’t start turning up in my poems until April 23, 1994, when I wrote that he was “slipping / in and out of consciousness. . . .” In fact, that night, he was dying—but he was also slipping in and out of my consciousness. He began making appearances, insistent appearances, as a muse or dancing-master, refusing to go quietly, continuing to campaign from beyond the grave.
But now, with Dick of the Dead, the campaign is against death itself and Dick is actually rather sunny about the prospect. He missed the game, missed the enemies. He’s tanned, he’s rested, he’s ready to resist and he storms the yawning underworld that fell open for him, so conveniently, after (what George W. Bush often calls) “the events of September the 11th.”
Dick is joined by a cast of conspicuously obsessed characters including Hugh Hefner, Sylvia Plath, Wyatt Earp, Federico Fellini, Valerie Solanas, George Costanza, Captain Hook, and J. Edgar Hoover, as well as an outraged experimental subject in a pink tutu, an Egyptian god of scribes, a raft of venture capitalists and code-spinners, and (in various appearances) his own seduced-and-abandoned dog, Checkers.
I first wrote about Nixon and his checkered cohort in Hotel Imperium, which won the Contemporary Poetry Series Competition of the University of Georgia Press (and in the prizewinning chapbook that preceded it, The Last Campaign). It was named one of the ten best poetry books of the year by The San Francisco Chronicle, which called it “quirky and beguiling,” and was shortlisted for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. More recently I published The Richard Nixon Snow Globe, a chapbook, with Wild Honey Press in Ireland, and my work has appeared in two volumes of the Best American Poetry series, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and numerous magazines, including New American Writing, The Paris Review, and Jacket. In 2001 I received a fellowship from the California Arts Council and in 2006, a grant from the Fund for Poetry.
I live with my husband Jussi Ketonen, a logician, with whom I raised a daughter, Skye.
Until this year, almost my entire poetry “career” had been conducted through the mailbox (and the email outbox), due to a decades-long bout with agoraphobia and panic disorder. Now I’m beginning to give my first readings of the new millennium, a small victory that, so far, gives me considerable joy.
My family is full of writers and would-be writers like my father, a stage actor before the blacklist who worked with Fay Wray and Sinclair Lewis (whom he called “the worst actor ever born”) and thought he had a great play in him. He never birthed it. My great grandmother’s sister, Rebecca Harding Davis, published (the now often-studied) Life in the Iron Mills in the Atlantic Monthly and supported her family with her pen. In a spring 1861 letter to her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson, Emily Dickinson asks to borrow it:
Will Susan — please lend
Emily — “Life in the Iron Mills” —
and accept Blossom
from Emily —
Stumbling on that blossom, as I did today, it seems that my life has come full circle.
Eleven Questions in Search of an Author
What do you do when you ought to be doing other things?
When I was supposed to be writing this the other night, I was instead going through the OED and obsessively reading the lists of compound words that begin with “wind” or “moon” (and the quotations in which they’re used). It was absolutely narcotic—hard to stop.
What’s something we might not guess as we read your book?
That I’m the prisoner in the paddy wagon on page 32. Destination: the Tombs, a.k.a. the Manhattan House of Detention. I was seventeen.
Who influences your writing in an unexpected way?
My husband, whose first language isn’t English. His teachers in Helsinki were a bunch of nuns from St. Louis and he came to this country to study mathematics at the age of sixteen. Now you can tell only very rarely—when he pronounces a word or structures a sentence a little differently. I find it defamiliarizes the language for me in a useful and pleasurable way. Plus he’s kept me intellectually nimble, just trying to keep up.
What’s one of the oddest things that ever happened to you?
It had to do with a package in the mailbox. My mother, brother and I were living in a rented apartment in Berkeley and FBI agents (like mailmen) were known to come to the door, inquiring after my mother’s questionable activities in the labor movement and elsewhere.
So it seemed quite peculiar to come home from grade school and open up a package containing The Social Blue Book of Seattle. Even more peculiar, we were listed in it at our actual, semiridiculous address of “2919 -1/2 Deakin Street.” I knew it was my Seattle grandmother’s doing, but what I didn’t learn till much later was that that formidable lady herself had, in early days, reported her daughter to Hoover’s minions.
But I remember thinking how funny and poignant that “1/2” was in the address, given the Blue Book’s pretensions.
Why didn’t you go to school to learn to write?
One explanation is that I didn’t get the chance—at first because my family fell apart and later because I was busy with other things, like childrearing.
But actually teachers were sending me to the library for independent study as early as sixth grade. That was supposed to be an honor and I guess it was, but it was also a trifle lonely.
In the end I came to relish solitude and chose to make the best of it. That was a piece of luck because it opened the door to my vocation. And without any student loans.
Would you recommend that route to others?
Not if you want the more practical sorts of doors held wide for you, which is a natural human longing. Your teachers, your mentors, perhaps even your friends, will be not so much laid away in books (in Dickinson’s phrase) as contained in them. You have to open them yourself. But when you do, of course, what friends—their generosity is astonishing.
So you just go on your nerve, as O’Hara said, even when it seems impossible that nerve alone will cut it.
But my story ought to be reassuring to spinners of poetry conspiracies because, as it turns out, to the people who really count—your peers—all that matters is whether you can write.
How did you learn to write, then?
That’s an ongoing project. But back then (as now) it was only by reading and falling seriously in love with my reading.
Beyond that I invented some fairly loopy training regimens. For example, I bought a stack of black and white composition books and drew a line down the middle of each page. Then I recorded snippets of language—things I heard or odd juxtapositions that popped into my head. Like a magpie, perhaps, stealing shiny bits from which to make my nest.
What do you find amusing?
There was a man on the BBC just now, discussing the economy, and (unless I’m hearing things) his name was Roger Boodle.
If you could change places with someone for a day, whom would you choose?
Chrissie Hynde (of the Pretenders), possibly circa 1980.
What else would you like to do other than write poetry?
Make collages, illuminated books, and interactive hypermedia poems. But Tricky D. would probably try to sneak into them. (Shall I resist that? I don’t know.)
What’s eerie for you about the main drag in the town where you live?
That my young, startlingly handsome uncle, Russell Ulrich, crashed and died there years before I was born. He arrived from Seattle to join the freshman class at Stanford and, in that first year, loaned money to a classmate for an illegal abortion; in return he was given a car. Unfortunately the brakes failed and that was the end of Russell on the royal road, El Camino Real. I don’t know exactly where it happened, which may (or may not) be all to the good.
What I do know is that I likely wouldn’t exist without this set of facts. Another story!