The Rumpus Original Combo: Rachel Loden

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Rachel Loden is the author of Hotel Imperium as well as four chapbooks, including The Last Campaign and The Richard Nixon Snow Globe. Her second full-length book, Dick of the Dead, was published by Ahsahta Press in May 2009. What follows is a review of Dick of the Dead followed by an interview with Loden—or, as we like to call this literary twofer: The Rumpus Original Combo. Enjoy!

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The Rumpus Review of Dick of the Dead
By D.A. Powell

Poetry and pop culture are odd bedfellows, though there are some terrific examples of overlap: Frank O’Hara’s poems about movies and movie stars, David Trinidad’s Barbie poems, Joe Wenderoth’s paean to fast food (Letters to Wendy’s) and Cathy Park Hong’s cargo culture vision of the future, Dance Dance Revolution.

When I first heard about Rachel Loden‘s Hotel Imperium, a book filled with elegiac portraits of the Nixon Whitehouse, I was sure someone was taunting me. Rather like the first time in Iowa I saw the phrase “pork fritter” and thought, “those two words should never have wedded, but I can’t wait to sink my teeth into their progeny.” So too did I salivate at the thought of Nixon poems.

And they were delicious.

In her second book, Dick of the Dead, Loden continues her forbidden love affair with the Trickiest Dick of them all. And not just Richard Nixon. Little Richard. Richard Cheney, fondly known as Dick. Even in the poems where she flirts with lesbianism, one feels the presence of Dick just around the corner.

Rachel Loden’s father was ruined by the House Un-American Committee and the FBI. Nixon is the catalyst and the objective correlative of that ruin.

My own obsession with Dick began as a child, while living down the street from Nixon’s Key Biscayne hideaway. My mother made friends with the Secret Service. Bebe Rebozo was a cohort to my grandmother. Reporters hid among the palm fronds near our house on Harbor Drive, hoping to get a photo of the haunted president, who was already beginning to buckle under the weight of Vietnam and the unfolding mystery of what had happened at the Watergate apartments.

In Loden, I’ve found a kindred spirit. Her Nixon is a fallen monument, an apparition who stalks the grounds of the Whitehouse; who sits with his head “like a Rushmore in space” awaiting his ultimate pardon. Later, he is a bauble, a plastic man inside a snowglobe “while hoodoo snow is falling.” Loden’s Nixon is the crooked leader for whom I grew nostalgic, as the eight torturous years of the Bush regime raged on like an unchecked virus. Deeply human, deeply flawed, he is the most tragic figure ever to appear on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Nixon is but one in a long line of arrogant, if flaccid, politicos who have mongered the wars of our empire. Rachel Loden is not afraid to follow the money; to show us where the bodies are buried: “And if a hospital ship sails out of Baltimore/it must be filled, it cannot come home empty.” If this be a tragedy we live in, it is practically Wagnerian, and Loden’s Dick is the Loki at its darkest heart. Cue the Ride of the Valkyrie. With all of the mordant wit she can muster, Loden celebrates the smell of napalm in the morning, the war on terror and its most ironic emblem, a ship called the USNS Comfort.

We live, Loden reminds us, in the midst of an “epic struggle against stupidity.” Leonid Brezhnev, Martha Mitchell, Deep Throat—like ourselves, they are but the bit players in the story of reckless ambition and our foolish, foolish ways.

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The Rumpus Interview with Rachel Loden
By Anthony DiFrancesco Jr.

Rachel Loden’s newest book, Dick of the Dead, presents a work that leads us by the hand through the gates of the past.  As we traipse deeper and deeper into the cemeteries of our nation’s and our own personal pasts, there are keen hints of an insight so acute it seems to shun the outside world.  Dick of the Dead‘s tone couples with its slightly erotic awareness to guide us with a zombie-esque persuasiveness that offers a finite comfort.  This is not to say that Dick is a safe collection of poetry.  Its genre-shifting, tonal diversity, and range push the limits to within an inch of their lives, only to bring them back checkered with ash and visions of a new light.  These poems show increasing maturity and sophistication without forgetting to delve into the blacker, basic nature of human life.  In the last words of Richard Milhous Nixon I implored Rachel Loden: “help…”

The Rumpus: Dick of the Dead intimates some very important concepts, among these a complex eroticism.  What should the educated reader look for?

Rachel Loden: Well, there seems to be a sort of mania for classification in the culture at large, and that plays out in our erotic lives as well. “Lesbianism, with its Better Strawberries,” now included in Dick of the Dead, first appeared in a magazine called The Hat and set off a small kerfuffle in the blogosphere. People I’d never met were discussing my sexual proclivities and whether (fundamentally) I was entitled to write this poem. It seemed to cause considerable anxiety that I might have written it without the right sexual credentials, as far as anyone knew. What was I thinking? Why hadn’t I first applied for permission?

So the crazed lepidopterists are out there, with their butterfly nets and their chloroform, and they are trembling with enthusiasm. It beats hell out of thinking about human beings as they really are, which is to say riven with complexity. As H.D. puts it in “Eros”:

Where will this take us,
this fever,
spreading into light?

The point is we don’t know – and the longing to know, to pin down, to pretend we know is a way of limiting our risk, and thus our pleasure. It’s tricky to venture into the erotics of the unknown, even the erotics of language itself.

My hope for the educated reader is that s/he be, as Keats put it, “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” That’s a point of view I was forced to adopt as a child of mixed parentage, a mutt (as Obama described himself), which is to say somebody poised between two warring cultures, with special insight into both, but belonging, really, to neither.

It keeps you intellectually nimble to be, in some sense, a tribe of one within a web of intricate connections. And it was useful training for me in the world of poetry, where again people didn’t quite know what to make of me; I didn’t pledge allegiance to one (and only one) of the card-carrying “schools,” and didn’t fit the reassuring taxonomies.

Rumpus: Was this a conscious choice?  It seems to allow you the freedom to straddle at least two positions in Dick. Does this just go with the poetic territory or is there some other reason you chose your own method? Does a poet ever have to “apply for permission” as you put it?

Loden: I don’t think so. Mrs. Patrick Campbell famously said that she didn’t care what people did, as long as they didn’t do it in the streets and scare the horses. So in my daily life I mind my p’s and q’s, but a kind of aesthetic ruthlessness better kick in while I’m writing. In other words, if I’m not scaring myself a little bit, I’m probably not doing my job.

So if you’re applying for permission, you better apply to yourself. Nobody else can grant it – and if they try, it probably isn’t worth a damn. Each of us has to decide where to draw these lines, and it’s perilous, or it was for me, because as a red diaper baby I knew I was supposed to keep some things secret, even after many decades, because my parents themselves were so terrified, each in their very different ways.

Still, it slipped out a bit in poems like “Premillennial Tristesse,” in my first book Hotel Imperium. It was awkward to sit with my father as he read that he was “sputtering in Canada, forty years / after the blacklist,” but I didn’t want him to discover those lines on his own, and he seemed bemused, and maybe even a little proud that I’d noticed. There was certainly no way he could deny it.

I try to remind myself of that great line of Faulkner’s, that “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” The old ladies may not agree, of course, and they don’t have to; the trick is to talk yourself into believing that while you’re writing.

And now that my parents have both cakewalked off the stage, I plan to write for their FBI files.

Rumpus: And schools and taxonomies? What about those?

Loden: I was well aware of them, and I do have my lineage, of a sort – but I wasn’t studying with anyone and didn’t have to constantly choose sides. It was shocking to me later to realize how fiercely people police the perimeters of their little fiefdoms, how precious that literary territoriality becomes to them. It’s all they have, in some advanced cases, and they pride themselves on their ignorance of those on the “wrong” side of the divide. I didn’t have that problem so I could read anyone I wanted, which was all to the good. At least, I always like to straddle at least two positions in Dick!

Rumpus: Speaking of Dick, what would you consider your own personal Watergate?

Loden: Well, I was going to say that it was a tangled skein of family secrets, many of them over a hundred years old, leading back (as I discovered in only the last few months) to the graves of an infant and a young man in the Studebaker family plot in South Bend, Indiana.

But there’s a long string of them – from my parents’ communism to my mother’s schizophrenia to my own panic disorder and agoraphobia, and the way all of those militated against any sense I might have had of being like other people, being acceptable to other people, not being a freak.

And that’s very Nixonian, I think. You learn to cope with your difference, to cover it up, maybe run for president as a giant form of overcompensation for the fact that you’re always going to be that clumsy, shy, thwarted son of a failed lemon farmer from Yorba Linda, California.

But really that’s only part of it. Last year I was proofing Dick of the Dead, reading it over and over in a way no one else ever will – in that psychedelic, almost psychotic way you do when you’re closer to a text than you will ever be again, and the very words are falling apart before your eyes.

What hit me was what should have been obvious all along: I am Nixon. I am my Nixon, anyway. I am most avidly interested in not dying. That’s why I’m whistling up my replicants, as I accuse him of doing in “The Winter Palace.” I’m making these little word-machines and hoping somebody finds them and falls in love with them. I want to be president! I was, after all, born in D.C.

Rumpus: So how tricky are you? Really?

Loden: Hmm. There are the ways I trick myself – many of which can be clustered under the banner of what might be called “the prettiest are always further,” after a line from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It seems I’m always hunting through the OED and elsewhere for the lovelier word – and for the one after that, which beckons even more alluringly, and (especially when a host of more “important” things are pressing), whyever would I want to stop? Sleep is for sissies, right? Or I’m going through old documents, collecting evidence, unraveling mysteries, and the next clue is the crucial one, or is it the even more compelling bit that’s lodged in the beyond?

These are probably traits I need to have, to do what I do – and I would have made a pretty good detective, or a journalist, but too often I exhaust myself in a manic sort of way while all the smart money’s long in bed, and perhaps better off for it.

Nixon probably started out this way, too, full of nerve and ambition, and look where it took him. As Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

There’s also the frank trickiness of art. We poets are tricksters, jesters, shapechangers, I think, at our best, and if you’re not prepared to employ a little sleight of hand, give it up.

Rumpus: Nixon has been a magnificent obsession for you. Are there others that threaten to take the lead at this point, or will Dick always be the lodestar for Loden?

Loden: He’s too American and irrepressible to disappear entirely. But I’m resisting pretty hard; I actually haven’t written a Nixon poem in about a year. Even in Dick of the Dead there are only 11 (out of 58) that take him on directly, or even refer to him in any way, although you could say that it’s Dick’s world, and the other poems live in it.

The project I’m longing to move on to examines class (among other things) through the lens of my own very checkered family history. A recent wedding has forced me to look at that, as has the discovery of those graves in South Bend. I’ve unearthed a story so bizarre and glamorous and heartbreaking and contradictory that it’s been really difficult to pull myself away and turn toward other things, like seeing this new book into the world.

So I’m thrilled at the prospect of pulling together a lot of documentary materials, like my parents’ FBI files, and letting them take me where they will. It’s hard to imagine that the ghost of Richard Nixon won’t be roiled up when I get those – he’ll be too exhilarated to see them, and remember the heady days when he put himself on the map, but it won’t be his book.

I am, however, hoping to get out to the Library & Birthplace when I read in Los Angeles in September. How could I fly so close and skip that? So one way or another, I guess I’ll always have Dick.

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Read “Body Politic” by Rachel Loden in Rumpus Original Poems.

Rachel Loden will be reading with D.A. Powell at 7 p.m. on
Thursday, 6 August, at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco


D.A. Powell is the author of Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He teaches at the University of San Francisco and lives in the Bay Area. TJ DiFrancesco lives in San Francisco via Dansbury, CT. He enjoys social experimentation, red licorice for its taste. He can be fascinated by small fires or pyrotechnics. More from this author →