How To Kill Poetry
109 pages • Sibling Rivalry Press • March 12, 2013 [PB]
Raymond Luczak’s How to Kill Poetry is his first solo poetry jaunt since 2011’s Road Work Ahead. It follows a year in which he edited the anthology Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and became the head editor of Sibling Rivalry Press’s new fiction journal Jonathan. His previous poetry books have been pretty straight forward narrative works about self-discovery, love and love lost, or the beauty of growing up in the upper Midwest. But How to Kill Poetry is a totally different animal, a three-headed gonzo beast that’s part history, part character and part futuristic.
The first part of the book, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra: 30,000 BCE to 2013 CE’, covers the history of poetry from the first expressions of our primitive ancestors through the digital age. But rather than reading like a conventional history, Luczak gets into the head of the poets and allows them to speak in their own voices, often showing a self-deprecating sense of humor, bringing the poets alive today.
In his first piece of the section ‘The First Poems’, he begins by writing “In the beginning no one spoke” before translating and explaining the various grunts and groans that showed the birth of human language. “Then came the first Poet,/ full of I ,/much like the Ancient of Days/full of thunderclaps splitting/the walnut shells of their brains/into quaking jelly halves:/BA BA BA BA BA BA !/ I am here–listen to me”. And thus, according to Mr. Luczak, poetry was born.
The first bit of humor shows through when he gets to the Classical Epics with ‘Helen of Troy’, a first person narrative where Helen laments the misuse of her beauty to justify ten years of war. She is all these men fight and die for, and frankly she doesn’t seem impressed by it, ending her rant with “I was happier when my body started/to sag from age. Men scattered/when they saw my double chins./Damn you, Homer, and your lies.”
As time progresses, poets are presented as rock stars of their day: egotistical, feeling underappreciated and even money-driven to a certain extent, such as in “The Richness of Spit”, Luczak’s tribute to William Shakespeare: “Writing the history plays were the hardest, trying to kiss the royal ass. The only way he could endure those mind-numbing stories was to play with the language, make it sing a bit more than before.” Speaking further about how Shakespeare is viewed today, he closes with, “Romance, an artificial device reconstructed to fill more theater seats, is now a middle-fingered sonnet.”
One of the best pieces in this gonzo history of poetry comes with ‘Silences’, a tribute to contemporary poet Clayton Valli. The poem is split in two, one containing the piece written in Standard English and the other directly translated from American Sign Language. The direct ASL translation shows the raw, naked emotion of the poet, for example, “You knew how much they hated ‘Poetry,’/the ASL sign for ‘music’ initialized with ‘P.’/Childhoods filled with their intelligence belittled/had turned them against the Bible of English/and its acolytes who preached the superiority/of speech, the only religion that had to matter.” Here’s the same stanza, directly translated from ASL; “Deaf vomit P-oetry/P-oetry same music, hearie-snobbery/Deaf people mind-scarred hearing deflate/Feel like nothing, clumsy/Deaf resistant hearing speech/Speech English only religion finish”.
Raymond finishes his history of poetry with ‘Pixels’, a commentary on the evolution of art, going from cave paintings, through Renaissance masters, to the invention of the photograph, to the development of television and ending with high-definition computer monitors. His last line says it all, “Each dab of color is now a damn pixel.”
For the second part, Raymond slips completely into character as Roland Rieves, presenting his manuscript The Warmth of Winter (Winner of the Shugill Poetry Paper Award 2213).
In the inside cover, Rieves thanks the United States World Arts Council for authorizing the printing of ten author signed copies on the last known stock of blank legal sized paper from evergreen pulp, made in 2133 CE.
The Warmth of Winter is a tribute to a season no longer known since the catastrophe of global warming destroyed not only winter, but the seasons in general. In the opening poem ‘Dear Reader’, Roland urges his readers to treasure the feeling of rare paper, to keep the poems close to their hearts, and to their graves. “I ache to have your hands caress my roots on these pages of extraordinarily rare paper. Try to feel through the skin of your hemp-cotton gloves these poems, as if they are in Braille, slowly and patiently as you would with a new plant from the greenhouse.” He nearly finishes with, “When you are done, Dear Reader, will you please take these warm words to your grave and murmur the possibility of wintry love you’ll ever know?”
In ‘Temperatures (In the Year of 2007)’, Rieves recalls the shifting of global temperatures, Mother Nature sending a warning that the days were growing shorter, “Greenland, long blanketed/in white and gray, is starting to melt/its permanent sea ice./The global temperature has risen/only four degrees Fahrenheit./Spring always brought rain,/but never a flood of tears.” As the temperatures climb and the Earth begins to change, people still try to hold onto their humanity. “In the depths of our bed,/the temperature stays constant./With each kiss, we emit/the pure passion of oxygen.”
Rieves takes the coming of the wasteland in a folky angle with ‘The Last Country Song’, a poem reflecting the folk love tradition of country music and the belief that their love will conquer all, even the dread of a turning planet. “A long time ago there was a man and a woman/up north. Some old story: they met, they married,/they made babies, and their babies made some more.” The couple lives into old age, never fearing the coming winter, they’re used to it, they think they know what to expect as Rieves closes out in the last lines, “Instead they’re thinkin’ what a fine hot summer day/they’re gonna enjoy when the storm’s done./That’s wind chill, baby, that’s sweet wind chill for you.”
The focal point of Rieves’ manuscript is his closer ‘Seasons at War’, a narrative spoken from the perspective of the four seasons, showing their dominance over humanity. “In the beginning we chuckled at/how the mortals figured out the power of fire,/the strength of ax against timber,/the versatility of water and seeds./But then the stupidest idea entered their heads:/the Bible told them they were predestined,/so they multiplied. Our doings were now/the work of the Devil. We had to be tamed.”
But despite man’s instance of dominance and control with the blessings of the Good Book, the seasons know they will have the ultimate say so. “There’s no God. We seasons are the true gods/of temper and temperature. Our blood/will be transfused with lava and water./Our family history, just like their Bible,/will be rewritten by the stars.”
Rieves brief manuscript shows the humanity of the desolate landscape he now lives in, where people still love, still have hope and where the planet will retake control and heal itself from the damage inflicted by humanity’s arrogance.
The third and final part, titled ‘Leaves of Glass: 2363 CE’, is the wildest section of all. Combining the dystopian future first presented in The Warmth of Winter and mixing it heavily with the ghosts and spirits of poetry past, Raymond lays out a bleak future where poetry begins to become the resurrection of humanity.
‘Libraries Under a Magnifying Glass’ sets the background for this bleak place, where the Earth has shattered, reaching a population of 9.7 billion. Florida becomes a wasteland of barren retirement homes, “lined with skeletons of those too adamant about moving north to the first wave of biodomes being built and losing out on their investments in prime real estate”. It is written that even “Niagara Falls turned its roaring volume down to zero”. Books are precious artifacts, sealed in glass to protect them from the vicious termites and the people still dream of touching them, reading them, running free; “They dream of being reckless as Walt Whitman, never worrying about the sinister and unforgiving sun while outside”. But they remain locked in their biodomes, just trying to survive in this new brutal planet. “Burn, baby, burn. It’s 451 degrees out there.”
In ‘The Twelve Olympians’, underneath the ruins of Athens, the old gods have watched humanity become like gods themselves. “There was always room for improvement:/arrows, horses, chest armors, bayonets,/battleships, planes, bombs, submarines,/grenades, machine guns, atomic bombs./All had to be fine-tuned for maximum efficiency./Biological and chemical warfare/has never sounded so tasty. Just think!/Supreme power all theirs with a single command.” But as humanity has destroyed itself, the old gods realize that their time has come yet again to rise as the poem ends, “Mythology, the perfect antidote to science,/has exacted its revenge. One/must seek new gods and pray./The promise of science is a lousy rain dance./Let the new myths begin.”
Raymond uses shaped poetry to bring the old gods further to life with ‘The Lyre’, a piece of twenty-four rhyming couplets mimicking the shape of a lyre. The simplicity of the lines also brings forth the sweet folk songs of centuries past. “I have tamed her notes./I never play rote./I have sung of love/and the gods above./But you are a sight,/a woman in white/blazing still on ash,/a chariot dash.”
He takes the shaped poem to a strange new frontier with the sprawling ‘The Hydra’, a swirling beast half written in the form of a multi-headed serpent, a good chunk written in six line stanzas and the wriggling form of the serpent, now one headed, ends the poem. While the words themselves are striking, manipulating them in such a way adds a striking vision to the piece, slamming the image of a dreaded serpent home.
The prose poem ‘The Annunciation’ shows the potential for the rebirth of poetry. Telling the story of a boy who has hoarded an old copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the young man has a vision of nature, of water, mud, wild trout, birds in the air. He is confronted by an old gentleman, implied to be Whitman, and he asks where all this came from, the old man replies, “Poetry’s all three: brain, heart, and groin.” After the kid finds himself back in his sparse room, the old man tells him what he must do, “Now I want you to touch the pages of the book the same way you touch yourself, lovingly, with unadorned passion. It’s the only way to save poetry!”
The third section and the book ends with ‘The First Tear’, a brief narrative asking what had happened, how the speaker should have known these great poets and visionaries while he was alive, was it all real, had he been hallucinating or granted divine vision? It closes with this: “My love, let’s both drown together./There’s no finer death than resurrection.
This book is simply astounding, there is nothing like it out there today. I’ve been a long-time reader of Raymond’s work and it’s strange comparing this to any other poetry book he’s released so far. When he first told me about it, he said it was going to be a book that destroyed expectations and left people wondering. He said he was going to … well, kill poetry. He has killed it. Killed it and resurrected it in his own image. Even if you’re not a big poetry reader, pick this one up, it’s so surreal in its execution that it will leave you thirsting for more.
It only leaves me with one question for Ray: how are you going to follow an act like this?