Aware of the Dark Absurdity


Westward Haut, Edward Dorn (Etruscan Books)


Ed Dorn died in 1999. Some of the material in this acerbic yet hilariously funny collection previously appeared in a Penguin Selected and in High West Rendezvous (Etruscan). Although there are comparisons to be made with his previous work Gunslinger, there are no central characters in this book, bar perhaps the two dogs, Odin and Saluki, anthropomorphised to a degree, on a plane from Peru to North America, wheeling and dealing and representing both the worst aspects of the human species as well as being somehow 'above it all' and at least not inferior in their moral outlook. It's hard to see this as a narrative poem, though it is represented as such, because the incessant wordplay and shifting of language, from snippets of German, French and Spanish to English is all filtered through an Americanised drawl which combines unexpected puns and usage, and leaves you focussing less on the plot - as far as one exists - than on the exquisite playfulness of the writing itself.

This is a work filled with cultural references, political perceptions and a somewhat scary predictive quality which foresees the mess we're in right now, with regard to the near-meltdown of the banking system, the ecological nightmare on the horizon and  the ongoing instability and mayhem in the middle east. The artist Dorn most reminds me of, in fact, is Frank Zappa - though I suspect Dorn had a more worked-out political angle than Zappa ever did - as he weaves his tragi-comic way through the excesses of American oil consumption and the crazy realpolitik of the loony Right. I'm also thinking Joseph Heller and Orson Welles, those liberal commentators on the sourness of the American Dream, but again, I feel Dorn was more left-leaning than either of the above, even though he didn't let the politics get in the way of his extremely funny and wayward 'storytelling'. Take this example from the long poem 'El Peru / Cheyenne Milkplane':

        The Bipeds snooze and snuggle in their pillows,
   their slowly firing idling brains,
   their somnambulant systems
   halting and hunting like an engine,
   along their dampened hertzian waves,
   A cargo of nuisances transiting l'Amerique Centrale--
   “Das big Konzerne” has got a CLOSED sign
   hangen on der door.
        The lights are low … the cockpitdoor is open
   the digits of red and green glow like embers
   throughout das Sustem …
   on the ground the deathsquaders buckle
   their Israeli hardware and prepare to lock & roll.
            (from 'Across the Cold Hiss of the Nightflight
               Odin Enters the Downlink')

Dorn presents a cult-infested society which has abandoned the reason of  enlightenment values - maybe these values were never enough in the first place seems to be the gloomy subtext to this collection - and descended into madness and self-destructive militarism. It's a mixture of Jonathan Swift and the dystopian, apocalyptic science fiction of James Blish, with the added glory of a poetry which is both high-art and popular culture at the same time. Like the late, great Paul Violi, Dorn broke down the barriers between the two, to produce work which is both entertaining and provocative, thoughtful and very, very funny, in an extremely dark manner:

   The Drenchers advocate more water everywhere
   whether by silver nitrate dispersal
   or by drilling water mining.
   They make no distinctions between good and bad water.
   Main enemy: the Dredgers.
   Both sexes, however, are reductionist.
   The Drieden regard everything with dread,
   awe or reverence.
   They want to drop the bomb
   just to get it over with.
   Many members from southern Indiana.
   The Dredgers.
   They sprinkle flour over everything
   and hope for the best.
   Large membership from Michigan.
   They all live in fear of Polly Decimal,
   the Queen of the digits.
            (from 'Radicals on the Great Plain')

I never heard Dorn read live and really must access some of his readings. You get the feeling that he may have performed in a variety of voices as some of the material here is crying out for such presentation, particularly the more comic elements which often have a cartoon feel. For example when I read:

   So Slughi, you wanna buckle down or not.
   What I'd like to do I'm apt to put off--and that's
   good advice for die whole Welt.
          (from 'Aboard the Tan Am with Odin, a Dog of Judgement')

I'm hearing the voice of
Top Cat (was it Phil Silvers?) and the play on 'die' adds bite. References to film critic Pauline Kael feel savagely satirical as do a plethora of snippets aimed at the military industrial complex -'They want to drop the bomb/just to get it over with' - but there's an irrepressible sense of 'flow' to these poems which make them so easy to read and to enjoy while also being inescapably aware of the dark absurdity of Dorn's subject matter. This is Doctor Strangelove meets The Omen, a dark but bitterly funny sequence of poems which really hits the nail on the head in terms of our multi-predicaments. Utterly excellent.

    © Steve Spence 2012