Thursday, November 01, 2018

False Equivalencies: Parsing Perloff's Forward to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Ed Dorn's Ed Dorn's Gunslinger

Hard to believe it's been fifty years since the publication of Ed Dorn's Gunslinger. To commemorate the occasion, Duke University has brought out a 50th anniversary edition. Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening years, re-reading Dorn's fin d'epoch epic of the west  is, as ever, a pleasure. While time has blunted some of its impact, Gunslinger seems as alive, as radical and as funny as ever. This latest, and highly attractive, edition comes accompanied by a handful of related texts, including Olson's Bibliography of America for Ed Dorn, Michael Davidson's The Elimination of the Draw and Marjorie Perloff's introduction to Duke's earlier edition, as well as a new forward by Perloff. For me, Dorn's poem hardly needs an introduction or surrounding texts, but perhaps Duke thought it provident to pad the book so to give  punters a reason to buy a poem that had only a few years back  appeared in Dorn's Collected Poems. Nor can I quite see the value of including Olson's important Bibliography For E.D., other than to establish the origins of Dorn's polymath credentials. On the other hand, such texts will no doubt be useful to those new to the poem and poet.

But it's Perloff's forward that I find problematical. Not so much that it's  awkward and truncated compared to her more elegant earlier intro, originally published in 1981. It's more what she's saying, or, often, not saying. My hackles were immediately on alert when she quoted her earlier introduction, that Dorn's portrayal of Howard Hughes in the poem "anticipates...the current 'legend' of Donald Trump and his empire." Thin ice, indeed. Though she admits her statement from all those years ago had nothing to do a sense of prescience, given that she knew very little about Trump at the time. As she acknowledges, back then Trump was  simply a silver-spooned property developer, hotel and soon to be casino owner. Perloff then tries to bring it all up to date, only to throw  oil on this would-be fire,  writing, "From Hughes to Trump: it seems a clear-cut example of Marx's aphorism that great men always appear twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." No matter that she's putting a slight spin on Marx's aphorism, which referred to history, not to great men. But the comparison is too easy. Saying that Trump is a farce, only to leave it at that, minimizes the danger he and his presidency represent. A farce, perhaps, but a tragedy for those who are bearing the brunt of his policies. And what about her statement that Hughes in Gunslinger begins as a figure of mystery and charisma and ends up a "Trumpian comic-book character, a mere cypher."  While Hughes is certainly a comic-book figure in Gunslinger, the same can't be said for Trump,  as he twiddles his fingers over the nuclear button. Saying he's a "mere cypher" is  to belittle his responsibility in cultivating his repulsive brand of nativism. And, unlike Hughes in Gunslinger, Trump is not about to simply vanish from the scene.

The comparison, in any case, is, at best, superficial. At least Hughes refrained from doing the country a disservice by running for office. Moreover, Hughes actually produced things. Something Trump can never be accused of doing.  Sure, Hughes was a right-wing narcissist, obsessed with Hollywood starlets. But he was hardly  a danger to the world. Neither did he inculcate or exploit a social movement. Hughes's allure, as exemplified by his presence in Dorn's poem, derived from being a mega-wealthy one-off, someone with buying power, but without much concern for demographics, other than who flew his planes, bought his parts and watched his films. Trump might have begun  as a "mere cypher" (think Gunslinger's "Talking Barrel"), but he quickly mutated into a brand. As president his presence is that of a fifth-rate stand-up comic, devoid of irony and humour. Unlike Hughes, he has his army of followers, many of whom are armed and dangerous, and he  delights in feeding them red meat. At the same time he offers the Mercers, the Kochs, Murdoch and Adelson something to exploit. Perloff calls Trump's rise a case of "marvelous accidentalism," but Trump was no accident; he'd had been planning his assault on the presidency ever since the 1980s. It was then just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and a willingness to be the embodiment of a set of historical circumstances stretching back as far as one wishes to take it. Traces of those circumstances can be found in Dorn's work, from Geography and North Atlantic Turbine, to Gunslinger and beyond, in which he logs the contradictions and impact of corporate politics, supply-side economics and trickle-down neo-liberalism.

If, as Perloff contends, Gunslinger anticipated the bizarre pronouncements and rhetorical games of the Trump campaign, she's definitely over-estimating Trump's linguistic and mental capabilities. Because Trump's fractured rhetoric and over-heated pronouncements, however bizarre, are tailored-made for his base. Unlike anything in Gunslinger, his  language is not only sickeningly prosaic but devoid of so much as a shred of irony or perspective. It's simply  pressing emotional buttons. Lacking any semblance of  linguistic virtuosity, he's as far from Gunslinger's linguistic tropes and games as one can possibly imagine, his non-linearity constituting a mental incapacity that only extends to the nearest slogan or soundbite, the more vile and violent the better.

But Perloff has her moments, citing  Amiri Baraka regarding Dorn's origins and class to the effect that Dorn  "reflected that tribal sense of being somehow distanced from an America he was obviously so deeply part of." "Michael Moore-land," Perloff calls it, and, yes, Dorn did share a similar background and was all too aware of  the effect such demographic marginality brings. But Baraka would have been attuned to the function and drift of Dorn's poetics enough to point out the difference between Dorn's ability to read the fluctuation of historical circumstances and Moore's all-too-easy reductionism, no matter how laudable the latter's politics might be. Nor can one argue with Perloff's claim that Trump's playbook and stunts come straight out of the Barnum and Bailey (Barnum and Bigly). After all,  he's exactly the sort of huckster Americans have long been fascinated with. But this is hardly a reason to conclude that Gunslinger  can be said to "look ahead" to the Trump era, rather than simply stating  what was, and is, embedded in the culture.

In the end, Dorn would have dissected Trump in the same way he had everyone up to Bush II, critiquing  his abuse of power, dodgy logic and language. But Trump might well have been too easy a target. Never one to toe the standard line, Dorn might have opted to double down on his own brand of contrarian politics and set his sights on those who brought Trump to power: not those who voted for such a complete shower, but the power brokers, regardless of political affiliation. Fair enough, Perloff does point out that Dorn would not have had much patience with the way the media, from bottom feeders like Murdoch to respectable news outlets, have dealt with Trump, profiting from him in direct proportion to their depiction of his incendiary rhetoric. And, importantly, she does citie Jeremy Prynne to the effect that  Dorn sought to keep "the language from falling into the hands of those who want to promote it as an oppressive instrument." Of course, Dorn, as Gunslinger aptly illustrates, always had form in this regard, relying on his own tangential approach to subject matter, linguistic turns and phenomenological asides, all to blow the lid off the intricacies of narrative poetry and the language of power. There are few before or after so wide-ranging and radical in their application and critique. Too bad  Perloff doesn't fully explore the contemporary implications of Gunslinger, but mostly settles for what she wrote all those years ago, which isn't enough when it  comes to imagining Dorn's possible critique of Trump.  Perhaps it's just that Gunslinger is a more radical poem and Dorn a more radical poet than she credits. Certainly, Gunslinger was never intended to be a "mock-reality show," as Perloff maintains, but an imagined journey into the heart of the American west. Too bad her forward only skims the surface, pointing towards the relationship between the poem, now fifty years old, and the present but without fully investigating what is really at stake.

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