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Jeremy Benson on Rachel Loden

Dick of the Dead by Rachel Loden

Ahsata Press 2009

Review by Jeremy Benson

 

1. A Book By Its Cover


When a reader lifts Dick of the Dead in front of his/her face, the cover creates a sort of two-faced character: one half is the reader’s face (eyes focused on Rachel Loden’s packed language), the other half is Nixon flashing that mostly charming campaign smile.

I don’t think the effect is coincidental. One, because (cleverly), it would be easy to call Nixon two-faced. Two, because there’s little difference between Nixon and I (and you (I assume)).

Culturally, Nixon has been boiled down to a lump of cowardice and paranoia, with mouthparts constructed entirely of jowls (my own personal Nixon library contains primarily scenes from Futurama*, Forrest Gump, and a bad impression by Robert Olen Butler, for instance).

In the tapes and their transcripts, the Frost/Nixon interviews (and 2008’s dramatization), and most definitely the infamous line, “I am not a crook,” Nixon comes out as a weasel, maneuvering and twisting to make his reality kosher, by trying to either mesh it with the at-large understanding or obliterate the latter.

But confirmation bias is a pandemic among us. A personal confession: I will always weasel in the face of identity-destructive interview questions (grumble, then sigh, then smile). And on my worst days, I so desire the administrative power to order the installation of lavalier microphones in my bed- and livingrooms and wiretap my cellphone, to protect myself. (Two years before Nixon installed his system, the theme to The Italian Job was “Get a Bloomin’ Move On,” also known as “The Self-Preservation Society.”)

The only difference between what hides behind my sometimes charming mug and Nixon’s is media coverage. Without a press corps at every airplane landing, we’re just the same dangerous mixture of stubbornness and neurosis, fearful of our friends as well as enemies. “What in the Christ! / We need our own side burying these things,” Loden writes in “The Nixon Tapes.”

*I’m not the only one. In “Milhous as King of the Ghosts,” Loden uses the line, “I sit with my head like a Rushmore in space,” clearly referencing the jarred head of the President of Earth.

 

1.b. Even the recordings in which he is not ordering a break-in or denying a charge have him pretending to know-all—like the xenophobic “Jewish and Negro spies” conversation, in which “are” is abused, definitely. Furthermore, in some tapes, Nixon appears just plain lonely, as if he had called Donald Rumsfeld, or whomever, just to hear another person’s voice. Maybe it’s my recent reading of D.F. Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (which is highly influencing this entire review/essay) and the fact that the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the first nationally-televised presidential debate, was broadcast 50 years and one week ago, but I can’t help thinking that Nixon was a victim of circumstances. Just 30 years (an outer limit) before Nixon was elected, FDR’s polio was a well-kept secret; just as the horrors of war were limited to radio broadcasts and Saturday matinee reports. With Nixon’s presidency, the nation crossed into the television age; suddenly, all his personal blemishes, including the disastrous conflict in Vietnam, were visible to the public eye. Recording all of his private conversations was the next inevitable phase; had his microphones been hidden cameras, his White House would have been the first reality television program. 

“My Picknick with Dick,” a brilliant pantoum, and proof of Loden’s wizardry, ends:

Deep Throat at the south portico—

Please Smash the webcam, if you can.

Dick’s blinking eye is all we need to know.

He says he has a secret plan.


I don’t know, maybe that’s all a stretch, of grace as well as reason.

 

2. This Numbered Section has Little to do with Dick of the Dead

 

If it counts for anything, I once saw the American flag flying above the bluffs at La Casa Pacifica (Nixon’s “Western White House”), while I walked the beach at San Onofre.

 

3. Dicks. Or, How About I Actually Talk About the Book?

 

Opponents of the Nixon Administration need not fear that Dick of the Dead is 93 pages of well-enjambed tape transcripts and odes to the E.P.A. Nixon’s presence throughout the book is obvious—even haunting—although each individual poem may not directly reference anything about him (at least not without playing “6 Degrees of Separation”). Actually, the poems map the cultural parallels and shifts occurring between the late 60s and present day.

Much of Loden’s language is startlingly “Web 2.0,” complete with googling and txting. “How to Search” plays on the search for enlightenment in light of a search engine; “I Know a Brand” pits the survival of language against materialism.

Politically, bridging the 40-year gap is not hard to do, when dozens of the main players from the Watergate Scandal, the Nixon cabinet, and the Vietnam War have stuck around Washington: Rumsfeld, for example, bounced around the Nixon White House (Nixon called him a “ruthless little bastard”); 2008 Republican Presidential Candidate and Law and Order veteran Fred Thompson was minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. It’s also helpful to Loden (and myself, in terms of the puns), that a second Dick by the name of Cheney was assistant to Rumsfeld, and held various positions in the White House from ‘71 to ‘75. From “Cheney Agonistes,”

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.

 

Of course the dueling Dicks of the Dead draw attention to the unpopular, never-ending wars each fought. Vietnam is not so expressly mentioned, but poems like “Sympathy for the Empire” express the same sentiments about the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that could have been chanted by protesters 50 years ago, “But / it is a bunch of teenage privates in Kuwait / who have to spill out of their Bradleys / through the black smoke of live-fire exercise.”

 

3b. Dicks, or, Complete Lackthereof

 

This book has poems about lesbianism.

 

4. This Book is Monumental

 

If a poet was ever invited to be a correspondent on The Daily Show with John Stewart, Loden would be it. Of course her breadth and depth of knowledge alone makes her a fine candidate, but it’s her delivery that would get her the job.

“Today not a single statue of Dick Nixon / stands astride an American city,” writes Loden in “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” a poem from Dick of the Dead, which happens to include selections from Loden’s chapbook Richard Nixon Snow Globe. But perhaps these two publications, along with Hotel Imperium (University of Georgia Press, 1999), stand as a virtual monument-shrine to Nixon.

But if ever there was an individual who might erect a shrine to Richard Milhous Nixon, I imagine it would be Rachel Loden. I’ve couched-surfed with a Czech woman who built a shrine to Mao Zedong (a startling marriage of Buddhism and Maoism), so I know these types of people exist. I can only assume the tangible shrine is centerpieced with a fittingly kitschy snow globe.



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