I recently came across a quotation from James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced." The importance of "facing"--of paying attention to something, of witnessing, suggests the way in which art can play a fundamental role in social change. If the principal duty of every writer is, in Henry James' words, to be one upon whom nothing is lost, then Rachel Loden's poetic dialogue with our times in Hotel Imperium and The Richard Nixon Snow Globe offers us a vital poetic model. Her work engages the cultural/political/historical moment in ways that move beyond both the antinomianism of 1960s oppositionality and the uncritical, quietistic, or unwitting embrace of it by so many of our contemporary poetries.
A panoramic subjective history of the Cold War, Hotel Imperium (1999) oscillates between the American scene (rife with Nixons, Gulf Wars, pop cultural oddities, and the products of capitalism--Clairol, corporate memos, Cruella De Villes, Elvises, lingerie ads, etc.), and the Soviet one, with its own insanities (Lenin's corpse, Beria, the Chechen leader Dudayev and his marvelous fleet of cars, etc.).
Loden's poetry is wisecracking in two senses of that term--it demonstrates a tough, youthful, whipsmart talking-back to authority, as well as a hardbitten wisdom of someone who's been around the block, and out of the Hotel and Snow Globes of our United States.
Written in a taut, musical language that bridges formalist and experimental modes, Loden's poetry is alternately funny and terrifying, as in "Reconstructed Face":
Surely this face—generic, blank—
betrays no terror. But her other face
is lost and floating on the river,
upturned like a lily in the air.
The police artist has slapped the flesh
back on her, wants us to know her,
makes her smile in that special way
a reconstructed woman smiles
after she's found without her face on
in a river, as though she tried
but failed to save us from the trouble
of her being there, our having to admit
that yes, we know her, smiling in the clay
the way we know the face of our own mother,
the reconstructed face that never
fooled us, built as crudely as it was
upon the scaffold of the other.
Such a poem, though not explicitly political as many others in the collection, could be read merely as a kind of exploration of the mysterious and frightening opacity of one's mother. And yet, in light of the feminist discourse around masks that emerged in the late 1960s (typified in the line by Muriel Rukeyser that became the title to an early feminist poetry anthology, "No More Masks!"), this poem bears an uncanny critique of the ways in which generations of women, particularly under Cold War containment culture, found themselves masking themselves. Such masking, for the speaker, suddenly seems as disturbing as a corpse's remade face (herself, perhaps, a victim of a more explicit violence).
In "Clueless in Paradise," Loden moves to the explicit, beginning with the snow globe image that she has returned to--that canned space of televisual reality--and then breaks it, metaphorically. Outside the snow globe, outside the quaint and seemingly honorable language employed by the Head of State--we are fighting for freedom, to save an invaded country, to topple a dictator, etc.--is a seething violence.
"Clueless in Paradise"
"Kenneth, what is the frequency?"
--query to Dan Rather from
Sometimes, when you shake your head,
it is like snow settling
on the little village in the paperweight.
Other times, it's not--and that's why
God made the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
He can't always put a plaque up
on the spot. Sometimes even He
is forced to settle for a souvenir. Perhaps
Flopsy the Bunny isn't what you want,
and yet you won her at the fair. Like we won
a great victory against Iraq (applause).
Tie a yellow ribbon 'round my eyes,
whirl me in circles, send me careering
toward the map. I love humanity. I'll stick
a pushpin into any random dot, and smile
endearingly. I'm a consultant. And nude
--I mean, naked--aggression, is what this thing
is all about, plus Bernie Shaw
quavering beneath a table when the smart
bombs start coming in, and Dan Rather
looking itchy in his sweater. Kenneth,
what -is- the frequency? Men on CNN
are weeping and surrendering, kneeling
while they kiss their captors' hands.
I wish there were more poets as secretly angry as Loden at the state of things, whose rage is shaped in kewpie doll phrases, kewpies that are voodoo dolls full of pins.
Her chapbook, The Richard Nixon Snow Globe (2005) continues the work of Hotel Imperium, and moves us into the post-Soviet, post-Cold War moment, with the characteristic black humor that occasionally terrifies:
Kuyunjik, palace mound
Nineveh fallen. My
Silver-bell ankle rings
Babylon Cadillac. Black
Elvis in Cuneiform
Fifteen-gate city of
Mooncalf & talisman
Nineveh fallen. My
Daughters of Sargon
Be carried away
In light of the decline of women's rights in the post-Saddam, post-Iraq "liberation" era of U.S. occupation, these last lines of this vigorously formal poem have a kind of keening that will keep me up late at night, wondering whether I could have done anything more to have stopped this war.