Joe Safdie

Rachel Loden
Hotel Imperium
University of Georgia Press, 1999, 64 pages, $15.95 paper

No matter how bad it gets in this country (e.g., the current sorry spectacle of the Republican presidential debates), we're reminded, every now and then, of someone who will always be the exemplar of venality in American public life. Here he is in all his glory, from a May 13, 1971 conversation with his aides:

We're going to [put] more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls at $2,400 a family — let people like Pat Moynihan ... believe in all that crap. But I don’t believe in it. Work, work — throw 'em off the rolls. That's the key. ... I have the greatest affection for them [blacks], but I know they're not going to make it for 500 years. They aren't. You know it, too. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal, they're dishonest, but they do have some concept of family life. They don't live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like.

Now here's Rachel Loden, from one of the several poems dealing with RMN in her new book, Hotel Imperium:

This is the new socialist brain. This is the statue
of Dzerzhinsky falling over. This is my wife Pat.
This is an ode to the Bratsk Hydroelectric Project.
And I just want to say [abort, retry, fail ... ]

the kids, like all kids, love the little dog.
This/is/your/brain/speaking ... . So I want you all
to stonewall it. Because gentlemen, this is my last
dance contest, last waltz with Leonid

around the Winter Palace. This is the Kommissar
of Moonbeams, this is the Soviet of Working People's
Reveries. This is the new man born out of Adam.
These are the new world order mysteries — oh,

Republican cloth coat. Oh gallery of Trotskyist
apostasies. Tricia and Julie do not weep for me —
I live and flourish in the smooth newt's tiny eyes,
my new brain fizzing with implanted memories.

("The Death of Checkers")

Besides recalling the great unintended humor of the Checkers speech, Loden here gives us a bravura collage of some of the "greatest hits" of Nixon's public discourse with extremely plausible private obsessions about what would later be known as the "Evil Empire" (for which, in another poem, she sings the blues). The image of the last two lines is particularly chilling, suggesting another "new Nixon" rising from the swamp to bedevil us again.

So the first thing one picks up about Loden's verse is that it's "political" ... "in the best and rarest sense of the word," says Anselm Hollo in a back-cover blurb. What might that sense entail? Certainly a willingness to talk back to these public voices, to subvert them and strip them of their authority, not only American politicians but Chechen generals ("All money works // for the good of the state. How it works / is a secret, a mystery of the state." — "General Dudayev Enters the New World"), and not only politicians, but "Bernie Shaw // quavering beneath a table when the smart / bombs start coming in, and Dan Rather / looking itchy in his sweater" ("Clueless in Paradise"). Throughout these stunning and bracing poems there's an unblinking attention to the horrors of contemporary history combined with scorn at what passes for the public discourse describing it. For example, much of the media I observed, in the weeks leading up to January 1, 2000, was awash with gee-whiz enthusiasm for the forthcoming millennial celebrations. Loden, however, like the mayor of Seattle, wasn't really up for celebrating:

I don't want to see the zeroes turn

as on a clock about to wake us
from a murderous dream, confetti falling

helplessly into the fissured past.
I don't want them to unload the gurney
from the festooned ambulance:

the revelers in all their unforgiving
fury, the new patient in her bandages.

("Premillennial Tristesse")

Perhaps she was upset that Nixon had refused her jaunty invitation ("Let's / slip the Constitution, Richard, // cut red ribbon on the virgin / century. Teach me tonight... " "Bride of Tricky D"): it just wasn't going to be a party without him. More broadly, though, Loden is reminding us that, before a new age is declared, we have to wake up to the unfinished business in this one, that "a reservoir of silky human grease / is oiling those celestial machines." ("Premillennial Tristesse") Indeed, there's a strong anti-theological strain in the book, as when she tells God to "just get out of Dodge":

                               You know
you only maim
                        the ones you love. So listen
when I tell you this,
                                my burning shrub, my
little flower of the Negev. Yahweh,

Adonai, Elohim — Roger and out. Get serious.

("Roger The Scrivener")

Although she's "Against Angels," as a later, funny poem is titled, insisting that "Nothing is talking to you / in the numbers, in the leaves" ("The Little Richard Story"), she sometimes reminds me here of Walter Benjamin's "angel of history":

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. ... His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

(Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History)

Like this anti-theological angel, Loden is "On this plane / for the duration: loyal and doddering // like some old stooped family retainer" ("Revenge, Like Habanero Peppers"); even though "alternate worlds / queue up / to be auditioned, ... nobody's called back." ("The Killer Instinct") And underlying all this is an implicit ars poetica: many of these poems (although they hardly need to) defend themselves and their particular way of seeing. That "family retainer" I just mentioned is also "the rhapsodist of cunning, blithering / songbird of iniquity"; and if there's "a certain arrogance" involved in realizing that "there is no suffering so great that human minds cannot transform it into some kind of spiritual stretching exercise" ("Carnal Acknowledgements")

I don't mind:
I am contained — while not content,

if arrogance will force a flower
both ruthless and luxuriant.

("My Geomancer")

Those last two adjectives might serve as descriptive for all the poems in this clear-eyed expose, which weds the techniques of poetry with the police procedural: it's another hotel, as the song says, "you can never leave." It's also the newest contributor to the poetic "Recovery of the Public World" (the name of a recent conference in Vancouver honoring Robin Blaser) — like all great art, pitiless, but exuding its own irresistible charm.

[Back to Readme]