Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Reading Report . . .

Rachel Loden
August 6, 2009
BookShop West Portal
San Francisco

Oh what a wondrous story! This past Thursday night (August 6th) here in San Francisco, Rachel Loden – author of Hotel Imperium (1999) and Dick of the Dead (2009) – gave her first public reading in – wait for it here, please – more than thirty-five years!

And she was magnificent! It was as if she’d never missed a beat, as if her last public reading had been just a few days before, not back in the early 1970s. There were about forty of us who witnessed this grand event, filling the folding chairs (with some standing in the back too) in the brightly lit bookstore located just west of Twin Peaks in the City, on a street that serves as the shopping hub for a couple neighborhoods. San Francisco poet D.A. Powell was also on the bill, and he must be given a huge thanks here, for as Loden explained it was he who invited her to read.

As I think you’ll agree from my report immediately below, the fact that Loden is reading again in public is great news if you love to hear poetry. This is particularly true for those in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, where Loden has scheduled additional readings later this or in the coming months (dates and links are provided at the end of this post). But first, my report.


Loden began her reading Thursday night with “Miss October,” the first poem in Dick of the Dead. The poem has 36 lines, in nine stanzas of four lines each. Loden in the poem sharply pokes at the cultural myth of the playmate and its avatar Hugh Hefner. And yet it is more complicated than just that, since there is an overlay, to say the least, of death and desire. Through it all is the exuberant play of Loden, a sparkling, brainy-in-the-best sense, beautiful older woman, voicing a poem titled “Miss October” that begins,
If I have to be a playmate
in my time on earth
I want to be the girl
Of drifting leaves . . .
I mean, it’s a turning-of-the-tables delight of the highest order. Loden (or the speaker in her poem) is the antithesis of the air-brushed, fabricated and dumbed-down for the male masses Playboy centerfold. From the poem’s first lines, the audience tuned in to this twist, turned on to it actually, and zoomed away with Loden and her words.

We went with her all the way through “Miss October,” including especially in the following very barbed lines, from near the poem’s end:
Soon all Hef’s dreaming

Will be ash, his favorite pipe
And smoking jacket,
Last vial of Viagra
Safely under glass

At the Smithsonian

This got a big laugh from most in attendance. And who wouldn’t bust up? That’s one funny image, or series of them. The idea of the jacket and vial in “the Smithsonian” perfectly suggests the depth of our cultural acceptance of all things Playboy. And even more, it’s a scary-funny image, in that while it seems absurd at first, that thought (of how impossible it seems) is quickly followed (at least in my mind) by the idea that Hef’s shit might actually end up entombed at our national museum.

Please also note the stanza break (the double space), and thus the slight pause that heightens the comedy, before the “Smithsonian” punch line. And the music in the phrase “vial of Viagra.” Loden nailed the reading of these lines, the timing of and the alliterative spark in them. It was a great opening poem.


Loden next read “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” also from Dick of the Dead. This is one of her by now, at least to readers of her poetry, almost famous Nixon poems. Here, the voice in the poem is Nixon himself. He muses aloud to former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, or more precisely to the broken statue of Brezhnev while in the Moscow-area monument park referred to by the poem’s title.

The Loden-Nixon voice in the poem, as read last Thursday night, was dead-on. I – and the others audience it seemed to me, given the reactions during the poem – especially latched onto the couple of lines that include Nixonian expletives. In this regard, here are the two couplets with which the poem begins:
Sometimes I like to think about Leonid Brezhnev
whose white marble torso stands here dreaming

in the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments. Leonid,
I say, it’s Dick. Where are your goddamn legs?
That last sentence is just irresistible. Or at least it was to us at BookShop West Portal the other night. Notice also the ground Loden covers in these four short lines, the concision and elegance of the set up. It’s one-two-three-four and just like that we have the speaker (Nixon), his addressee (Brezhnev), the locale and the musings (voiced aloud, of course, by Loden in her reading) of Mr. “I am not a crook” himself.

That kind of full-on approach, which if I were to label (complete with hyphens) I’d call let’s-not-waste-time-here-there’s-a-lot-to-say, fills “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” with rich details. Here are the last four lines, which when read the other night by Loden, just killed (remember, the poem’s voice is Nixon):
I’m late to catch an Elks convention shambling
through my library in Yorba Linda, California,

laden with cheap “Elvis Meets Nixon” keychains
and a queer uneasiness they cannot place.

Hearing these lines read aloud, the mind travels, more like zips, from the Elks to Yorba Linda, to those goofy keychains and the queer uneasiness, all of course in the company of Nixon and Loden. It was invigorating fun.


Loden next read five poems from Hotel Imperium, her 1999 collection for which she, as she remarked, had not read from in public when it came out or since. I’m not going to detail each poem here (the “set-list” is appended below). However, I will mention two of them, and use the two to discuss what I feel are a couple important characteristics of Loden’s poetry and her approach or style when reading aloud.

The first poem Loden read from Hotel Imperium was “My Exchange.” It’s a scathing, smart, and somewhat prescient take on things economic (the poem’s epigraph is Alan Greenspan’s comment, regarding the markets, “irrational exuberance”). The characteristic I’ll emphasis here is Loden’s voice. The sound of it. It is musical and natural and just works perfectly with her poems. When Loden, near the end of “My Exchange,” read aloud the sentences/lines:
                        Oh irrational exuberance,

you make me weak! Let me lie among
the fallen orders, vermilion petals at my feet.

the satire was utterly convincing and – here’s my main point here – the satire was delicious, as Loden’s firm, clear, nicely ranging voice made it seem the lines were almost sung. This effect, of course, was helped by the near rhyme of “weak” and “feet” in the lines.

But let me say more about Loden’s “ranging voice.” In this poem, as throughout the reading, the tones and timbres varied. It wasn’t sing-songy at all, but was musical and nuanced, so much so that sitting there listening I leapt to the conclusion – which Loden confirmed to me after the reading – that she’d done some singing (in fact, she said as a child she wanted to be a singer). In my opinion, she has an innate skill for sounds, a great ear for how the words will sound aloud.

The last of the Hotel Imperium poems Loden read – “My Test Market” – serves to highlight a couple other characteristics about Loden’s work that came across Thursday night: it’s smart, and it can be hard. “My Test Market” is a short poem (18 lines) – now imagine you’re sitting there, and it’s Loden’s beautiful voice you are hearing – that includes the words “Olestra,” “qanisqineq,” and “Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.”

Wow. Now, there might be other poems in this world that include the two words (the name) “Vigdís Finnbogadóttir,” but I’m pretty certain none of them were being read aloud within let’s say a couple thousand miles (at least!) of BookShop West Portal.

The only hint about this and the other strange words in Loden’s “My Test Market” was in the poem’s first line, which begins, “Let’s fly off to Finland . . . .” But even with that tip, the unusual words as Loden spoke them were a mystery to me. And as I’ve written before, mystery is not a problem for me, and in fact is a mark of something special, because, as the title of the old radio serial puts it, “I Love A Mystery.”

I loved that Loden read “My Test Market” and other poems with similarly challenging vocabulary or constructs. Part of a good poetry reading is getting one’s head spun, and Loden’s work delivers plenty of that kind of action.

Especially interesting are poems – and here “My Test Market” again serves as a great example – that not only spin thy head via the unfamiliar or mysterious, but also have moments of great beauty. Consider please the deep, yearning, I’ll suggest elegiac glory embodied in the question spread out over four lines that come just about in the middle of Loden’s poem:
                                                . . . Where
are the snows that make no sense

so early in the morning, when the snow
is blue and blowing on the steppes?

Snows that “make no sense” and snow “blue and blowing on the steppes” (the latter of which works equally well if only the homonym “steps” is heard) stuck with me for a long time Thursday night, and since; these images drift and stick in the mind.


After “My Test Market” Loden then returned to her just-published book, Dick of the Dead, out of which she read for the rest of the night, a total of eight more poems. The first of these final eight, let me say it just like this, was an almost unbelievable Jesu Christu rip-snorter.

That poem, titled “A Redressed Poet That Seems Living, How to Make Him Sing” consists of eleven relatively long-lined couplets. Loden explained it was inspired by reading an on-line recipe (the word “redressed” is borrowed here from the vernacular of the kitchen). The poem details just exactly what needs to be done to make a poet sing; Loden mentioned it was for all cranky and bitter poets out there.

“A Redressed Poet” is grotesque (read: hilarious), appalling (read: rollicking), and often downright disgusting (read: priceless). How is the poet who seems living, made to sing? Here are the first three of the twenty-two lines in Loden’s poem:
First, thrust a Quill into his brain from above, or else
slit his throat, as is done in Jerusalem. Cut his skin

neatly from his Tongue unto his Rump and pull it off.
And folks, I kid you not a whit, the poem from this point only gets wilder, by which I mean the things advised to be done to the poet to make him sing proceed steadily to all-hell-breaks-loose crazy! For example, “an apparatus of Iron” appears, along with the directive to “shove this through” the poet’s spine and legs, and even that Sadean shocker ain’t the end of it, not even close. May I make a suggestion? You gotta buy Dick of the Dead, if only to read this poem, really!

Loden read “A Redressed Poet” in a mostly deadpan fashion, as if she were almost just giving a recipe to a friend, but key here please on the “mostly” and “almost.” You see, while she read the poem essentially “straight,” her voice knew exactly what it was saying, and what the words when heard would do (induce rollicking hilarity) to the listeners. Loden’s voice had a full smile in it, a mischievousness exactly perfect for the delivery of (and listening to) the poem. The impact, on me at least, was strong. Almost pee my pants strong!


Loden next read “Affidavit,” a very short and powerful poem based on a police detective’s official account of a murder. I recently posted an essay about this poem (click here to go, if you please). Loden on Thursday night very kindly mentioned my name and the post. Not only that, she was kind enough to ask me before the reading (I showed up early to say hello, having never met her before) if she could mention the post.

That sort of consideration, I think, stems from a careful awareness, a sensitivity, that seems to mark much of the work of poets whose work I love. That awareness, I believe, is reflected fully in “My Cupboards,” another poem read by Loden in the last half of Thursday’s reading. Loden explained that “My Cupboards,” is “about writing poems, or not writing them” (my quotation may be a bit off, but the essence is correct).

“My Cupboards” is a compact thing (six couplets, with almost every one of the twelve lines only three or four words long). The conciseness serves its subject matter: it’s about how sometimes writing is hard, how the hoo-doo magic of the muse(s) sometimes, when it comes to making a poem, can seem a ridiculous fantasy. I love the title too, with its associations of domestic life, a trope that is developed in the poem itself.

What I love most in “My Cupboards” is the language and images, which are rich in connotations of the un-magic. I was going to type some excerpts here, but heck, it’s so great, and tight, I can easily do the whole thing, and it’s the only way to do it justice:

No tincture of seahorse.
No cloudberry poultice.

Don’t look there
when pixels spill

over the drawers, blow
loose letters

down the stairs.
Bare, as they say. No

one to sweep
the word-hoard

into Saturday. No
broom. No sorceress.


Loden ended her reading with the title poem from Dick of the Dead. As might be surmised, it’s a poem in the voice of Nixon. The poem has seven couplets, and each ties together, to be a bit cheap about it, the badness of Nixon with – at least as Nixon imagines it – that of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and similar contemporary figures.

Hearing Loden read “Dick of the Dead” was a revelation. The couplet form gives the poem a nursery rhyme quality, an effect greatly enhanced by Loden’s musical voice. And yet the words themselves have an edge, a very spooky, scary and at points raw edge. Here are the first three couplets, (remember: the voice is Nixon; the italicized lines, I believe, should be “heard” as Nixon speaking to himself):
Sent out the crows to the four corners, did I?
     Cheney’s heart is skipping for me.

Swept sandstorm with the dead ones, did I?
     Rumsfeld’s spectral legions know me.

Prayed on the White House floor with Henry?
     Dr. Rice is kneeling for me.

The final four couplets have a similar tone and involve, among other things, a black candle at a door, the sedating of Martha Mitchell, the Lincoln bedroom, a strapped-on lie buggering heaven, Colin Powell’s balls, and, in the final couplet, a return of the crows seen (heard) in the first line. The strap-on buggering and the balls certainly give a charge, especially when heard aloud, that wickedly contrasts with the poem’s nursery rhyme feel.

Hearing about the crows – and hearing, strongly, in Loden’s voice the sense of a good-witch who knows well, very well, her way around all things wicked – made me think a bit of Helen Adam. Adam, a great Bay Area poet from the 1950s (and after), renewed the grand tradition of Scottish ballads and musical verse in poems that sometimes (often) involved quite horrifying matters – goblins, human-eating crows, woman who kill off men, etc.

Adam’s ballads and other poems are far more narrative than Loden’s, but both poets share some of the same vital and, to me invigorating spirit. A spirit full of piercing intelligence, a very wide worldliness, a willingness to mix it up with the down, dirty, and wicked ways of the world, and a very musical way with words.


While she inscribed and signed a couple books after the reading, I told Loden how much I enjoyed hearing her, and how it didn’t at all seem she’d not read for decades. Loden explained that she practices, a lot, by reading poems out loud not only to herself, but to her husband, daughter, and grandchildren (the latter a toddler and an infant).

That folks, is one family I consider mighty blessed! Similar to how I consider myself blessed to have been present, on August 6, 2009, for the re-appearance in public, after so many years, of Rachel Loden’s poetry.


Rachel Loden
August 6, 2009
BookShop West Portal

San Francisco

(in the order read)
from Dick of the Dead:

Miss October
In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments

from Hotel Imperium:

My Exchange
Premillennial Tristesse
Variations on a Theme by Woody Allen
Revenge, Like Habanero Peppers
My Test Market

from Dick of the Dead:

A Redressed Poet That Seems Living, How to Make Him Sing
My Subject
Lapland Not Actually the Country of Lesbians
The Richard Nixon Snow Globe
My Cupboards
My Night with George Costanza
Dick of the Dead

1 comment:

Ed Baker said...

this sonds like it was much fun..

not so much poetry for me
as an history of..

couldn't stand Tricky Dicky when he was Ike's VEEP

and before that as a prosecuting (young) attorney for Joe McCarthy

Agnew was a piece of crap too!

do you know if Rachel lived in D.C. 1960's-70's?


not a big deal but just about everybody drops "Institution" from

The Smithsonian Institution

thanks for this post...

I've just made a connect