Review of The Richard Nixon Snow Globe by Ron Silliman.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Rachel Loden’s The Richard Nixon Snow Globe is a brilliantly crafted suite of 20 poems that take – with some generous exceptions – the 1970s as their image base & the poetics of roughly the same period as a cue to form. As well executed as it is, there’s a curiously retro feel to the project as a whole, one that reminds me in part of the invariable fallacy of the well-wrought urn. The next generation can always do it better, cleaner, more sharply defined than any generation that leads by making it new. A poem like “My Subject” or “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Station” will always outshine its model¹, but in do so can never be its equal.

Loden attempts to overturn the problem thematically, suggesting at some level that Bush II’s regime is an echo of the Nixon cabal. But in spite of the presence of Rumsfeld & Cheney on both playing fields, the analogy doesn’t hold. The Nixon administration was never a kleptocracy, which is all Bush II would have been save for the bungled wars on Iraq & Louisiana.

Loden’s second strategy extends the work out beyond the field of the Nixon regime altogether: Hugh Hefner, Cinderella, a crime scene on the San Francisco peninsula, notes from a surveillance. Individually, as with “Miss October,” these can be among the most effective poems in the book. Thematically, tho, they cause it to feel more diffuse. And the book as book is never stronger than when it’s focusing on the complex, overwhelmingly dark persona of Mr. Nixon, a voice Loden captures with spooky accuracy.

Indeed, at some level, this book is not unlike Nixon himself – brilliant, frustrating, ultimately self-defeating. It makes one wonder how it might be done differently, say, by focusing on the current set of gangsters defiling the ornate upholstery of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There are figures in the present regime every bit as complicated & conflicted as any in Nixon’s environs – Colin Powell & Condi Rice in particular. Kissinger was hardly more of a Rasputin figure than Karl Rove. Rove, tho, as a personal figure, is the essence of bland. He radiates pudgy softness with an undertone of resentment as his driving force, a figure more suited as the villain for an Our Gang comedy than the more Shakespearean tragedy Loden projects around Nixon. Linguistically, the current set offers up only the malapropisms of Bush II & the arcane self-justifications of Donald Rumsfeld – both, it’s worth noting, have already been set into verse elsewhere.

Possibly, the analogy Loden is seeking is more Marxian one: the first time (Nixon) as tragedy, the second (Bush II) as farce. If so, the project overall feels incomplete. There are minor figures – Haldeman & Erlichman, for example, Martha Mitchell, the Watergate burglars themselves – all of whom might have been mined to deepen the project. Ditto the prosecutors who eventually pushed him from power, especially Senator Sam Ervin, “Maximum John” Sirica or the avuncular Archibald Cox. There is, tucked in the history of that administration, the outlines of a larger, deeper, finally darker project than the 20 poems printed here, or their companions in the earlier Hotel Imperium & The Last Campaign, suggest.

Rachel Loden has struggled with Nixon in her own way as deeply as Kent Johnson wrestles with Araki Yasusada. Ultimately, as an idea, Loden’s is the far more important – and difficult – project. Scattered as it has been across different books, however, it never quite fully comes into focus. If anything, the best point of comparison isn’t Johnson at all, but perhaps something closer to the way Robert Duncan ran Passages amid the poems of several different volumes. But – as I’ve written here also of Passages – Rachel Loden’s Tricky Dick poems would have far greater impact gathered into a single collection in which they – and they alone – are the focus. Given that there is no sign yet that she has exhausted this fixation with the dark side of American public life, that book may still be in the making.

Ron Silliman

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