Kings of the F**king Sea by Dan Boehl

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In reading Dan Boehl’s book of poetry, Kings of the F**king Sea, I’m compelled to recall the epilogue from Moby Dick and its quote from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” Like Ishmael, the speaker in Kings of the F**king Sea hops aboard a ship in search of adventure—and experiences it in the events of two rival clans of pirates fighting—and, in the end, escapes as the sole survivor, “untethered to the world, adrift on a raft, stuck between horizon and home.” The speaker emerges from the book’s events confused and unaware of his convictions, yet suddenly aware of the ethical problems of his sea-journey with nothing to show for his adventures but loneliness.

Boehl’s book has an intriguing and eclectic construction. Before the book proper begins, Boehl presents a cast list—including Jack Spicer and Mark Rothko as rival pirate captains—that foreshadows the book’s theatricalities and its concerns about art as a replicative device. This cast list gives us a glimpse into the tension between reality and a constructed presentation (or representation) that runs throughout the book. In the opening poem of the book’s first section (both of which are named “Map (of the New World),” the speaker interrogates mental representations and constructions and their disconnect from reality:

Remember how smoke
issued from the stacks
like the dreams of factories
when the factories were the dreams of cities
and cities were the dreams
of our immigrant parents?
There are no factories. The city
rises in a cacophony of billboards
dreamt for us
like the factories and the steam
of our orphaned language.

Despite the mental conjurings of smoke and factories and cities, we’re reminded that these are really just constructions, and not real things with the negating gesture of “There are no factories” and, in the poem’s closing line, “There is no city.” The gesture is the same one from the “No Hay Banda” scene in Lynch’s surrealistic film Mulholland Drive, which shares with this poem–and the book itself–a deep interest in the disconnect between the real and the representation. It also seems that the poem’s opening question, and the imaginative leaps the simile and metaphor initiate, suggest unstable ontologies and referentialities, as affected by the need to mentally construct/reconstruct (“remember,” “dream”) and illustrate things via comparative proxies (simile and metaphor).

I’m also drawn to the idea of “orphaned language” in this context of interrogating signification and representation. By the sheer nature of this book’s project, many of the poems have a fair amount of self-consciousness about both themselves and the way they accumulate to produce the book’s narrative trajectory. It does not seem surprising, then, that language may be stripped of its progenitors, and exist for the sake of itself. These concerns with the rootlessness of both language and experience suggest the closing lines from another poem in the “Map of the New World” section, “Lighthouse,” when the speaker asks, “Is it true / that to sever our roots is death / or is there life on the ocean?” We’re left to consider with the speaker if it is possible to exist in the middle of the sea, “like the ship / rootless / watching the world / unwatched.” And it seems, according to Kings of the F**king Sea is also a subtly political work that interrogates past actions and present motives, and how the intersection of the two creates the speaker’s present self. A recurrent tension runs through the book in which the speaker expresses his desire for belonging while ignoring the costs. The enjambments in “Ceremony (Heroes),” suggest this tension:

This is the part where
the admiral
tells you you’re great
for all the terrible things
you’ve done to those people.

The enjambments enact the speaker’s paradox of acceptance and clean conscience, with a figure of importance providing affirmation, though for terrible things and ultimately the recognition of fault by the hard self-referentiality that comes with the personal pronoun that begins the last line of this section. The breaks affect the speed of the lines—and the speaker’s thoughts—in such a way that we are painfully aware of the speaker’s suspicions juxtaposed against his struggle to accept the accolades and community. The poem concludes with the lines

And I looked
at the other sailors
their tables decorated in ribbons
and I wanted to be on the sea
forever and ever.

In these lines, the speaker answers his previous question about whether one can live on the sea, unrooted to the world. In finding community in the other sailors, he indeed establishes roots, though only temporarily, soon collapsing beneath the weight of his loneliness made greater by the sea. In the end, he realizes that “Nobody wins. Some just lose more beautifully.” Kings of the F**king Sea is a book that compels us to cling to the imagination and the “desire to remake the world” that it entails as a way to salve our loneliness, which comes at us ever like a flood.

Jason Storms is a poet and writer living in the Detroit area. He is the founding editor in chief of the journal Echo Cognitio. More from this author →