NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Saltwater Empire by Raymond McDaniel
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)
Special Powers and Abilities by Raymond McDaniel
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2013)
In Galatea Resurrects #21, I reviewed JealousWitness by Andrei Codrescu. Part of that book concerned itself with the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. One of the reasons why I expressed an interest in reviewing Raymond McDaniel’s collection, Saltwater Empire was because it covered the same subject and I was interested to see if there were any points of similarity in the way that these two writers approached their subject. In the end, rather than trying to establish some sort of common ground, I was more interested in the differences that lay between them. Both accounts are startlingly original and graphic in their description.
Born in Florida, Raymond McDaniel now lives in Ann Arbor where he teaches at the University of Michigan and writes for the Constant Critic. He is the author of three books of poetry. His first collection, Murder (a violet) was a National Poetry Series selection. His other two books are reviewed here.
Saltwater Empire is a tour de force of poetic metaphor that is as powerful as the waters that break through the levees and the hurricane that wreaks such cataclysmic devastation. Reading it, our senses are assaulted and at the same time captivated by its sheer energy and magnetism. The poems go beyond New Orleans, rippling out into wider issues that are ecological, political and religious and speak of cruelty, resilience and, ultimately, survival.
This is a book full of unruly rain and the unreeling weight of the sea –of water in all its destructive fury – waves of pure bass…fossils in flood…the wreck of rain…the circumstance of rain…a rain that wrings clothes to a rope on a line…weave water…well water…white waves that adorn and destroy the shore…sea that has sluiced its way through fortification gates. These are just some of the phrases that grace these poems like jewels. The book starts at sea level – an appropriate place to begin – and rarely leaves the shoreline. Some poems seem to take place in a kind of underwater terrain, others are never far from the river or the sea.
Moments of magic are conjured up in the opening poem, Sea Level:
what witchery remains in a standing piano
what room for choruses before they become other people’s music
what innocence perseveres in boxcars buried beneath sea level
what accelerates a train so that it skips like a stone
from St. George’s to Port au Prince
what then-excellence is the experience of sleep
on a bed of old guitar strings…
The same spell-binding musicality reappears in the poem Driftglass:
Vessels, missiles, her glass-cracking love letters.
That shade-hole up in the sky suggests the fate
Of all the stones she’s thrown, stuck in circles,
Consigned to lesser lights, showboat satellite.
In Assault to Abjury the effect is that of opening up a treasure trove of flotsam and jetsam, pebbles, beads, glass shards, the threads of jellyfish, castaway trash…these are the magical elements in the book.
The book is structured to reflect the many voices whose lives it reflects. Six texts are spaced throughout the book with the title “Convention Centres of the New World” – these are poems that are drawn from interviews conducted by volunteers for “Alive in Truth: the New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project, which records life histories of people from New Orleans, Louisiana, and nearby areas who were affected by Hurricane Katrina. The poems were assembled by recombining several of these histories. They are plain-spoken texts offered up as reportage and provide a strong contrast to the other styles of writing in the book.
Thirteen poems consisting of eleven lines each, which are all written in italics, form another feature of the book. Ten poems with titles in italics are also placed throughout the volume at strategic intervals. For the most part the titles of these poems refer to deities from Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology.
The collection is peopled with characters who are variously described as radio souls, sea-breathers, weredogs, fishermen, sorcerers, straightrazors, first-person shooters, strippers, psychomagicians, army men, sailormen, marines and legionnaires. William Tell is here, as is Robin Hood and Bushido. There are also the recorded voices of the survivors many of whom bring out the political and religious argument:
I just feel like, the government has really, really failed us.
It’s just unreal.
I think the government failed us. I think the mayor failed us,
I think the government failed us. I think our president failed us.
I could pray but whatever God want to hand me,
He gonna want to hand me.
The poems are often fragmentary which is entirely in keeping with their subject. The full impact is felt when they are read as part of a sequence rather than as single entities. The book is a fitting testament to the resilience of a people who have seemingly lost everything yet continue to survive. Highly recommended.
Raymond McDaniel’s third collection, Special Powers and Abilities, is a very different offering altogether. Highly original, often accessible and certainly amusing, it is a brilliant poetic gloss on the world of the adventure comic. These poems draw upon characters and plots associated with comics such as Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes published by DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.
The book is arranged into three sections headed Gold, Silver and Bronze which I take to be some kind of Olympic ranking for the heroes. The text is interspersed with brief biographies of the dramatis personae pitched in poetic terms and neatly packaged in boxes, three boxes to a page. Plots are retold or imagined from the actual pages of the comics and, when these are not being told, a series of poems starting with the generic title “What to Expect” introduce the reader to life in the 30th century where
Sibling rivalry persists
Girls have come to trust girls but boys will be boys, dumb, stupidly sentimental.
We are told that
There will be hair pulling but as a rule we will stand on ceremony
We will grow up. But we will never grow old.
In passing, we are informed that
World War VI was fought in 2783 with superweapons wielded by
computer minds but all that is so, so long ago…
As the book proceeds, we are told what to expect in terms of future ecology, gadgets, the world of fashion, crime and punishment. These texts afford the author with an opportunity to philosophize on specific subjects that are very much bound up with the present let alone the future.
The characters of the plots are skilfully drawn. They have names like Supergirl, Dreamgirl, Sunboy, Chameleon Boy and Shrinking Violet. They are teenagers with superpowers who display the most basic of emotions without actually coming alive as real beings. This is as it should be for they belong very much in the realms of the adventure comic. McDaniel finds just the right level at which to pitch these characters – they are too otherworldly, too fantastic to be believed. Their speech is the poetic equivalent of Lichtenstein’s WHAM!! and ZAP!! – they find a voice on the printed page which is more often ecapsulated in a speech bubble – and it is all done with incredible finesse. Having said that, McDaniel’s characters are not exactly cardboard cut-outs – they have more than one string to their bow but operate within defined limits. Like marionettes, McDaniel pulls the strings. They are all in the spring of blooming youth and with the gift of magical fabrics look good enough to eat.
Throughout the book we are dazzled with the gadgetry, the technical detail:
After the cashiering of amalgonite refineries, comfort is secured by fusion
powerspheres, for which there is no black market.
The Joneses keep up with Worldwide 3-D News, sponsored by the ultimate
road vehicle: the Astrovette 8000!
We are linked via visiphone; we adduce the aberrant via crime computer;
we keep track of our cohort with the Monitor Board…
We are in a world full of telepathic plugs, transsuits, molecular glue guns, anti-telepathy, helmets and battery beds.
Technical wizardry aside, basic impulses are still very much to the fore. In Colossal Boy Loves Shrinking Violet
Thom can induce
gravity’s pull and increase the mass of objects and Gim
can get real real big.
He’s always loved her but even more since she changed
to the new costume
with the black leather thigh-high fold-over boots…
Throughout the volume, a super-intelligence, Brainiac 5, masterminds the scenes but even he is not infallible. No sooner has he solved one problem than another one follows:
…The stress is immense. Sometimes the torsion coils superhelical. And sometimes what I superintend I instead superordinate; what I wish to supervise I supervene.
The real mastermind is McDaniel himself.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014).