The Red Kool-Aid Professor: or, Why Some Girls Like Unicorns: or, How I Failed, and then Succeeded, to Review Poetry Books for The Rumpus

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A few days ago when we woke up, my girlfriend told me this dream: she and her father were seated in a brown 1983 VW Rabbit, he driving, she in the back, when the Red Kool-Aid professor appeared in the passenger seat. He was holding a graduated cylinder filled with red liquid. “Is this a red Kool-Aid steam powered car?” she asked excitedly. “Yes,” he answered matter-of-factly without turning around. The three of them then drove to the university without speaking.

I thought about this dream in silence for a few minutes. I imagined myself standing on a tower outside of the university, one composed solely of light, looking down onto the campus quadrangle where a group of students were surrounding the Professor. Without warning, I opened my eyes and shot up in bed: “The Red Kool-Aid Professor was taking that stuff to his students. They drank it! I know they did!”

The community got together, as communities will,
And waited together for death. Some of us
Were colorblind, so when they lifted the red flag
To signal the drink, we had to be prodded
By neighbors.
….
But within fifteen minutes or so,
The prodding subsided, and after that the drinking,
The twitching, and we all lay dead in the field.

I remember the story about the People’s Temple and Jim Jones. A massacre down there in Guyana. Without rehashing the whole incident, and without going into details (you can read about it here) I would say that all of those who died, did so because they believed. Truth telling, being the normal state of affairs, doesn’t prepare us very well for the lie. On a personal level, we can tell when someone’s being shifty. But the good liar doesn’t think small. The good liar thinks big. Big lies are hard to detect. The bigger the lie, the closer it comes to resembling the truth. Think of WMD. We wanted to believe what they were telling us. We’re so conditioned to truth-telling that we have a hard time questioning intention. But the Internet plus writing can breed anonymity. And with anonymity and assumed and/or created identities operating in a space with different rules, truth telling becomes a mere convention.

Several months ago I was asked to write a review by the editor of a certain online review journal. Let’s call him John. I said “OK John, send me some books and I’ll see what I can do.” I waited for them to arrive. A few weeks later a package showed up on my doorstep. In it were some BOOKS OF POETRY and some funny looking proofs with a badly Xeroxed cover called The Waste Land and Other Poems written by one John Beer, due to be published shortly by Canarium Books. I opened it and read a couple of the blurbs. Then I read the dedications, an untranslated quote in German that I couldn’t understand, and the opening sequence. Before I could go much further, however, the whole thing started vibrating in my hands, pulsing with strange colors, and giving off strange smells.

I handled the thing like it was nuclear waste, holding it by the spine and dropping it in a plastic bag which I duly deposited in the corner of a far room near an open window, hoping it might come to life some dark night and zoom off out the window never to be seen again. But it lay there silently and stubbornly for months. Not glowing, not pulsing. Just being bookish and demure. So I forgot about it. A layer of dust, a discarded sweatshirt, a pile of manga soon buried it where it lay.

A few months passed and the review police came calling, asking what was taking so long.

“I can’t do a review on something called ‘The Waste Land,’” I said. “It’s already been done.”

“Not this ‘Waste Land.’”

“But this ‘Waste Land’ is a bigger ‘Waste Land’ than the first ‘Waste Land’ or the second ‘Waste Land’ or even the two of them combined.”

“What do you mean, the ‘first Waste Land?’” my editor replied.

“You know, the one by that Cawein guy with his ‘graying dawn’ and ‘old despair.’”

“I’m not familiar with that one,” he said.

“Some people say that Eliot borrowed a bunch of lines without asking from a poet named Madison Cawein. I don’t know. Nowadays we just call it sampling. To tell you the truth, I thought they both sucked, so it hardly matters. Besides, both of them are dead.”

“Sucking is no reason not to review something.”

“But this one doesn’t suck. That’s the problem. It scares me a little, but it definitely doesn’t suck. Deciding to write something about it is like considering whether or not to eat moldy cheese. Maybe the mold is supposed to be there. Maybe it will make the cheese taste better. Or maybe it will kill me. But since I’m not starving, and don’t like cheese all that much anyway, I think I’ll just choose not to eat it.”

“But reviewing a book can’t kill you.”

“That’s true, but still, I’d rather not.”

“Do you have reasons?”

“Well, first of all, can an author really be named John Beer? It sounds too generic. And it rhymes with Shakespeare. What do you know about him?”

“Nothing. You?”

“Not much. There’s a YouTube video of him stumbling through his poems at your average coffee shop. He has the right sort of beard and not so cool glasses which make him über-cool. He has a FaceBook page with too many friends to count. Some of them are my ‘friends’ too. The FaceBook links are pretty generic. Like he likes COLOR. When you click on it, it goes to the Wikipedia link to color, that sort of thing.”

“Sounds innocent enough. Maybe he’s being ironic.”

“Right. Have you ever read anything by Brian McHale?” I asked.

“No. Who’s he?”

“He wrote The Author May Not Exist: — I can’t remember the rest of the title. Actually I haven’t read it yet either, but the mere existence of that book makes me nervous around any book.”

“Why are you asking me about books neither of us have read?”

“It’s complicated, so let’s just start from the beginning. The proofs that you sent contained two blurbs: one by a poet named John Ashbery and another by a poet named D.A. Powell.”

“That’s pretty good company.”

“I suppose. But there was no blurb by anyone named Kent Johnson. There wasn’t. I have the book in front of me here. Only two blurbs.”

“So?”

“On the Canarium Books website there’s a blurb by Kent Johnson that sounds a lot like ole uncle Ez. Or is Ez. He says something about having known the poet in London, when he was ‘living out the tragedy of Europe,’ that sort of rot. Very last century. I’m too lazy to cross check anything these days.”

“Well, ‘The Waste Land’ poem is an analogue, right? Maybe the blurb is an analogue too!”

“Do you think Pound wrote ‘The Waste Land’?” I ask incredulously.

Shhhh. I’m allergic to melodrama.

“He definitely edited it.”

“So if Pound was Eliot’s Gordon Lish, who’s Beer’s?”

“Good question. Why don’t you research it.”

“I’d rather not. Like I said, I’m too lazy. Besides, we’re getting sidetracked. I was just a little surprised at Ashbery calling Beer a genius. For a first book of poetry, no less. And the Powell blurb about tailoring stolen snippets — what do you make of that?”

“I don’t know. You figure out the blurb business. I just want a review.”


Ed McFadden is a writer living on the island of Shikoku in Japan. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in Gulf Coast, RHINO, Open Letters, Cerise Press and Kyoto Journal, among others. He currently has 0 personas. More from this author →