I have to tell you something. There is an actor in the world
called Joaquin Phoenix, and he’s been acting pretty strangely
lately (messy beard, monosyllables, not promoting random
blockbuster, etc.). Two robots who embody barely one
percent of everything worth hating about the media were
on a 24-hour news channel “analyzing” his “controversial”
interview with David Letterman, a talk-show host.
These polished zombies were speculating about “this whole
controversy” under unkind studio lights, quizzing each
other about whether this actor is acting or actually crazy
or on “drugs”—desperately dry-humping the finer points
of one of the least crucial issues of our moment—
and whether the talk-show host, who all but patented
mainstream deadpan irony, was in fact pissed off
at this actor for appearing on his eponymous talk show
and creating a “controversy” that the human lampreys
who dole out the news with coffee spoons could fasten
themselves to, thus escalating ratings, ad sales, etc.
I have to tell you that I was in a public place, scribbling
about this completely irrelevant but also kind of excellent
Warholian non-interview, and at the very moment my pen
was poking into said cloud of pop-culture effluvium,
I overheard two women behind me, talking about the self-
same non-controvery—let’s call it a nontroversy.
I think it’s an act I think he’s crazy He’s on drugs I don’t think
so You don’t? But I can’t turn around because I’m afraid
that if I see their faces—let alone make eye contact,
acknowledging in even the smallest way that I am complicit
in the nontroversy—a huge blood-crusted mortar and pestle
will descend from the ceiling and grind my head into a paste.
TV news is killing us and the people who own it are killing us
and the criminals at whose behest they concoct more nontroversies
are killing us and the tons of hairspray and makeup they smear
on the toxic marionettes who mouth nontroversies are killing us,
as is our ignorance of the reality of everyone killing everyone.
If it’s true to say the incubus fills us for the succubi to suck us dry,
why shouldn’t I? Pointing into bottomless, topless, sideless
madness is what scads of poets do and have been doing all along:
we take facts and/or feelings, herd them like butterflies
into killing jars, then run pins through them for the aesthetic
and/or ethical scrutiny of a tiny audience made mostly of other
butterfly-killers. I have to tell you something else:
I have “invented” and am promoting a neologism
for the perineum: the boyband—as in,
“I’m walking funny ‘cause I just had my boyband waxed”—
injecting something useless into the lexicon, if you will;
messing on a micro level with the zeitgeist, if you won’t.
I’ve been running this new term—the boyband—
by a number of people recently, thus exposing
and/or confirming myself as the frivolous, vulgar idiot
I frequently am or act like; but that’s the kind of behavior
everyone has come to expect from Americans anyway,
so I am in this scene as American as anyone else.
This poem is turning into a shuddering black hole
of broken rules, much like the Cheney/Bush regime,
albeit silly rules I tend to bray at my students about not
breaking: referring to the poem itself and (worse) to myself
writing it, invoking Penelope and Eliot and celebrities,
hawking awkward similes, referring to “teaching poetry,”
overusing quotes and/or italics, pay no attention to tenses,
not caring whether I’ve inadvertently stolen
a phase or an image, deploying the word “reality,” etc.
Maybe certain poets should have breathalyzers
connected to their computers or typewriters or hands
so they can’t do what I’m doing right now to this poem.
Next week, if I accidentally meet President Obama
because someone I adore performs an amazing feat or merely
something “controversial,” gets invited to the White House,
needs a plus-one, figures I’m good for a laugh, brings
me along, and I get 15 seconds of face time with
our new commander in chief, I’ll just fuck it up: forget
to mention Prop 8 or Darfur or health care or education,
instead squawk some idiocy about how I’ve decided
we should all call the taint the boyband or hey,
what about that Joaquin Phoenix, so crazy! Maybe not
as scandalous as Grace Slick, a singer, who came this close
to dosing Richard Nixon, another president, with LSD, a drug;
but either way, whether Obama cracks up laughing,
high-fives me and says, Yeah, but what about the girlgroup?
or has the secret service 86 me, or barely blinks and moves on
to the next guest, some perfect mound of reptilian excrement
like Rush Limbaugh will catch wind of this non-event and funnel
it into one of his flatulent Hindenburgs of “controversy,”
so folks can be distracted by “that whole boyband thing,”
or christen it Taintgate—once a thing has a -gate, you can stop
calling the thing “that whole ________ thing”—and I’ll take
only this notoriety to my early grave. Nonetheless, I’ll be known
for something—like Penelope, who loomed, or Orpheus, who lyred.
By the way, thanks for nothing E. Spitzer, R. Burris, T. Daschle,
R. Blagor;asld,gkjp—at least S. Palin isn’t, at the time of this
concocting, melting our collective American face off
with her down-home hubris, end-times agendas and meth-
cooking, wolf-killing kin. Has anyone else come up
with the phrase lipstick on a Dick yet? Probably—I call
it The Anxiety of Coincidence (see above for annoying
tics). So much to do, so many rules to redo. But now,
my beloved friend who takes me to the White House,
unwitting kindling for the media blaze, I tell you
this: I’m sorry. Also, you’re welcome. And to those
witnesses who prefer to be protected from poems
and butterflies, I tell you that I’m sorry some insidious force
led you here, but that you, maybe most of all, are welcome.
This poem is such a beautiful thing, a piece of art that works on multiple levels. There are pop culture references up the wazoo: Joaquin Phoenix (remember that beard?) and David Letterman (“who all but patented / mainstream deadpan humor”) and the 24-hour news cycles (I’m thinking Nancy Grace and Laci Peterson and all the small stories that become large because THEY HAVE TO FILL THE AIR). Obama’s here! Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, tried to get Nixon to take LSD in the White House! Rush Limbaugh is described as “some perfect mound of reptilian excrement”! Prop 8, Darfur, and Sarah Palin—all terrible things—are here, too.
But there are also the effortless literary references that you are no worse for if you don’t know. I think LOST used to call these “easter eggs,” so we might as well adopt these TV terms here. Mark Bibbins alludes to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because Prufrock measures his life in coffee spoons, too, uses lampreys—bloodsucking fish that bore into flesh—as a brilliant metaphor for 24-hour TV “experts” like Nancy Grace, coins a new word, “nontroversy,” and references Greek mythology—Penelope and Orpheus—that I’m not even that familiar with. But I don’t have to be familiar with Greek mythology. It’s not necessary to understand the easter eggs in order to understand this poem.
This poem is for all of us that like pop culture and coining new words and discussing taints and mentioning “lipstick on a Dick" and using "fuck" and "dry-humping" in poems. Mark Bibbins is not judging you. He is breaking his own rules about referring to writing the poem and referring to the poetry community (butterfly-killers) and not watching his tenses. I’m glad. Fuck the rules. And if you don’t believe me that you’re the intended audience, whoever you are, read the last two lines again: "I tell you that I’m sorry some insidious force / led you here, but that you, maybe most of all, are welcome."
This poem is from Mark Bibbins’ new collection, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full. He also edits poetry on The Awl.