“Mass culture is a machine for showing desire.” – Roland Barthes
Fame and celebrity are big, vulgar things that are at once ubiquitous yet exceedingly rare. Rarity is constantly delivered to us by magazines, reality television, movie and television advertisements placed all over cities, awards shows, internet gossip sites which branch off into their own reality television series, etc. and so on. Is there any room within these oversized arenas of money and adulation to say something intelligent or nuanced about the people we alternately elevate and denigrate, or about us, the public, who are both the progenitors and consumers of this cycle?
I don’t know, but these poems try. On the one hand, it’s easy to be critical of fame and celebrity since it breeds so much worthless junk culture. On the other, somewhere in this scrum, are our own wishes and desires and dreams. On still another, there’s a lot of art made by hardworking, thoughtful, talented people, art that’s genuinely intelligent, moving, and worthy of admiration. The poems in Ghosts and Doppelgangers critique but also totally celebrate the television, movies, and people that comprise the pop culture that’s so utterly pervasive we can’t even clearly see that which haunts us. Or haunts me, anyway.
We could’ve been anybody,
the bad guys at the edge of redemption
after a lifetime of doing bad things,
in the zero degrees of dawn,
heads tucked into pink wings
as the fighter jets scream by.
We didn’t think of our own shadows
one way or another until we heard
about Punxsutawney Phil,
him and the mayor in a top hat and spats!
What a couple of show-offs,
smiling for the thronging
camera crews and pretty anchors
with dark hair blowing
across mega-watt smiles.
Maybe we could’ve been happier with less,
electricity, clean drinking water,
a couple of sturdy clay pots
and warm socks. Now we’ve
got all these e-readers and
tattoos that can’t get covered
up any more than they are.
Now we’ve got these ATVs
on which we want to race down
red carpets so bad we can taste it.
To Do (Or: Brad Liening’s Business Model)
Release internal memos to the general public.
Conquer my fear of spiders by holding a spider in my mouth for no less a duration than thirty seconds.
Stitch my shadow back together.
Find a puppy and play with it.
Stretching is important.
Untangle the circular for the local drugstore from the vines that have yet to come into leaf and as of yet are still brown and dead-looking.
Stop staring at the vines.
Stop staring at the models in the circular and thinking morbid thoughts about their blank eyes and vacuous, vapid expressions that upon close inspection appear positively embalmed and dead-looking.
See Slumdog Millionaire like every other person on the planet.
Linger on the fringes of oblivion.
Anticipate the next big thing, adjust expectations of future generations, grow frightened, then get in on the ground floor.
Eat some food.
Get up and/or get down.
Get out while the getting’s good.
Scrub the blood from the toothbrush’s bristles with second toothbrush.
Assert alpha male status by belligerent drinking at local bar.
Pretend to be dumber than I am.
Pretend to be smarter than I am.
Deny all wrongdoing.
Spend an inordinately long time fussing over whether or not “to do” is hyphenated or isn’t when it is used as an adjectival phrase versus when it is used as a compound noun and then decide the whole thing just really isn’t worth the trouble.
Cut my losses.
Look at my reflection in the mirror for a duration of no more than thirty seconds.
Ask myself what the hell it is I think I’m doing.
Have at least one good answer.
Give an effort.
Check the stitches in my shadow for wear and tear.
Chuck the thing, get a new one.
Sing along: all right.
Test my political viability by adopting an unpleasant demeanor and quasi-unpopular platforms to be delivered in a monotone.
Profess to hate flightless birds.
Check e-mail and then never again.
Write a bildungsroman.
Turn it into a musical.
Pour my heart out into a single letter and then take that letter and seal it up in a wall for future generations to find and exult and puzzle over.
Be punk rock until I die from being all like punk rock and therefore have everlasting punk rock credibility forever and ever amen.
Get some health insurance and then that operation.
Get paid to do this by doing it on TV.
The lovers disappear into the jungle.
Uh-oh or maybe hooray?
We’ll have to wait
until one is changed into a viper
then back again,
till the letter is first lost
but later speeds across
several decades and the sea.
How slow, the going-by.
By then we may not recall
how sad we were
among the strange bird calls.
The smell of popcorn.
How dull to suffer
in the liminal fringes
like a largely forgotten celebrity,
remembered only among clucking grandmas
and even then but hazily.
Stale rock candy, bruised fruit,
a swarm of whirling bees.
We want the lovers to suffer,
of course, to be quartered,
in a burning stairwell.
Everything must first
be lost or forgotten
like certain cities of the Midwest,
before they are remembered,
re: the new murder capital
of the nation, the birthplace
of a promising star.
The Secret to Lil Brad’s Success
My tell-all book about my famously wealthy family and friends.
Written at a seventh-grade reading level.
My complex and compelling ideas about the various ways in which we are responsible for pushing art forward and producing challenging new work.
Never looking back, not even for an instant.
Insert high literary/Biblical reference.
My tell-all book about all the abortions I’ve had.
A magic crystal ball sold to me by a very mysterious and very old woman who was later revealed to have died over a century ago!
New name, new attitude!
Leprechauns grant wishes – the only trick is catching them and then successfully avoiding their poisonous leprechaun bites.
All the famous people I’ve slept with/abused drugs with/walked dogs with.
The puppy I’m holding right now.
Assorted tawdriness, mawkishness.
Now on at 8 PM CST.
Every night is ladies’ night!
I’m a handsome guy with a real big penis.
Building a mildly compelling case for war based on little credible evidence while simultaneously suppressing dissent via public shaming.
Heaving a satisfied sigh.
My provocative fashion sense.
The business I started out of my garage.
The band I started out of my garage.
What I did and the beard I grew and all the profound observations and insights that caromed through my head during my long years of exile.
The Twitter account I started on Twitter.
My unnamed collaborators, buried by history.
My upbringing on the mean streets of New York City.
Sleeping in a ditch.
Waking up and finding my underwear gone.
Smoking a variety of substances through various hollowed-out bones foraged from strange black dumpsters that were never to be found in the same place twice.
Following convoluted clues.
That man is not who you think he is.
That woman is who you think she is.
A series of grand and rollicking adventures through which I learn valuable lessons about human nature and myself, lessons that upon further reflection prove to be kind of facile, easily digested and easily excreted.
My cruelest spring.
I didn’t come here to make friends.
A vertiginously delirious subplot about how I found love while fleeing my homeland in a crude raft and then losing my love to sharks and then living as a refugee, lost and without bearing, before ascending to prominence in the political and artistic worlds of your country, so unlike those of my dear home.
A goddamn shit-ton of swearing, motherfucker.
A kick ass soundtrack.
Buckets and buckets of blood.
Poem (Sunday Edition)
The hard scrabble of the earth
doesn’t get any softer in the hard sun.
At least I’ve got this little doggie,
which is about all any of us can say,
even those poor unfortunate souls
bereft of doggies,
left holding the baggies,
those who chose to go down with the ship,
who can still tell time
by looking at the sky
even in the growing overcast of October.
One administration swapping in-
terminable wars into the next
for mild profits on the lecture circuit.
One band of rebels storms the rubble
the other rebels burn down.
One group of sadists turns things
over to the next group of sadists
who have their own army
of telemarketers calling those
who can’t afford to bury
their dead, the one group still
standing in solidarity and good stead,
while in all the cold nighttime caves
late-night TV hosts start getting mean.
The frozen lake inside
the musician is getting bigger.
It looks like a frozen ocean,
an island of garbage and excess
caught between coasts,
lit on fire and set to wax,
and what magnificent hair!
Who knows how many
midriffs it’s touched?
It would look even better
on YouTube or in a loft
in a borough so fucking cool
it doesn’t have a name
even though it’s our nature
to name what we love
and thus erase it from the earth,
at which time corporate
sponsorship is conferred.
Ditto video game rights.
Here’s your official t-shirt.
Welcome to the semi-
annual festival of mirrors,
occluded and dark!
This lemonade costs thirty dollars!
The back-story eclipses the actual story,
the point of which no one
was too sure about, anyway.
The band recorded their
last album in a trashcan
three thousand feet below
the earth’s surface
in a cave full of bats.
Onstage, they looked tired
and pale and they thanked
us all for coming.
After the show,
which was a lot of fun,
we decided to go to a party.
On the way there,
some of my friends
were clubbed over
their heads and dragged
down dark alleys.
One fell into what
looked like a tiger pit
concealed in the sidewalk.
We ran the last couple
blocks because we
were being chased by
someone who kept
asking us to wait, wait.
At the end of the party,
which was a lot of fun,
the ghost of Henry Ford
appeared over the punch bowl,
which turned into blood,
and promised us all jobs.
Poem (On This Day In History)
You thought you were saved
when the moon started singing
a recognizable tune,
sheet music rustling
though the mossy trees.
It was like you
had never changed into
an animal with eight tusks,
ripping the chiffon,
leaving the oven on,
turning a staircase
into a column of smoke.
The bathtub gathers
menace like a shroud,
the night sky clustered with stars.
You thought you were cured
when the doctors left
and turned everything over
to gum-chewing techs.
Elsewhere: tanks approach
the blackened embassy
and grim politicians
fill up the massive airport TVs.
On this day in history,
one hundred famous people
broke box-office records.
It’s your birthday and
you’re starting to feel better.
The graveyard is full of deer.
I’ve Replaced My Brain with Google (Brad Liening Strikes Back)
Ask me anything about rats
and I’ll be able to vomit
on your shoes.
The leaves are nice right now,
buried under a foot of snow
that’s also on your shoes,
don’t you think?
Sometime, hopefully soon,
I will have you over for dinner.
While we eat I will lower
a large white screen
with a remote control that I’ve
secretly strapped to my left thigh.
You will be surprised
but will still be eating your dinner
because I’m a very good cook.
With another remote control
strapped to my other thigh
I will start the movie.
It’s not much of a movie,
more just a series of rapidly
flashing colors combined
with the screech and squeal
of industrial manufacture.
“I call this movie Seasonal Changes,”
I’ll say, and it will make
the meal as unpleasant as possible.
Then we’ll see who throws up.
Then we’ll see who’s smart.
The Last Will and Testament of Brad Liening
I, Brad Liening, of sound mind and body, do wish for the following to be done with, for, and/or to my good-looking and earthly remains:
Regardless of when or how I pass on, be it in a discotheque or haunted house or while operating a fog machine at either these localities of which I was always very fond, I assume my earthly remains will in fact be very good-looking.
If a group of close friends and family may look upon my face and body and all agree that my remains are an accurate and positive rendering of my physical prime without much discussion or any party’s major objection or dissenting opinion, my body should be displayed in the entrance of the downtown Minneapolis Public Library, exactly like Lenin’s, except I should be totally nude.
If, however, I were to pass on in a horrible fire raging through a nuclear submarine at the bottom of the ocean and in this way my earthly remains are irretrievable from that other world’s deep blue deathly embrace, a monument not less than fifty feet tall with my eastward-looking face at its apex should be erected in Saginaw, Michigan.
Upon completing construction of this monument, a man, preferably an old man of mildly stooping posture and gait, should be employed nine months out of the year to keep my visage free of bird droppings. Or a fair number of rubber snakes should be super-glued to my giant stone head for that same purpose.
If, however, I were to pass while on the top of a mountain, the following should occur: a fleet of helicopters painted mourning black should bring my remains down as slowly as the physics of flight allow. The helicopters should play The Rite of Spring at maximum volume. Small rocks will dislodge so that it will appear that the mountains themselves are weeping.
Upon landing at the nearest airport or USAF base, this same fleet of helicopters should then more or less take off again and convey my good-looking remains to the top of another, different mountain that I totally didn’t die on, whereon I should be flash frozen and smashed into a million pieces which are to be buried under a bonsai tree to be tended to by an entire monastery of mildly stooping monks.
If, however, I get squashed while saving stray puppies and kittens from an out-of-control, wildly careening street sweeper with peeling paint, which is spitting sparks that hiss to their tiny wet deaths in the gutters, with blue exhaust belching in noxious little clouds, all through the nearly deserted 4 am streets of Chicago, Lake Michigan curving just out of sight like some possibility or dream, I would like my squashed but good-looking remains to be buried posthaste under second base in Wrigley Field, an act which would repeal one curse while simultaneously instituting on the people of this forgetful world a new and wholly more magical and wonderful curse.