Noel Black’s Moby K Dick is a chapbook of poems and collage images. Each poem’s title follow the example of the collection’s name, humorously combining references to two items of culture (“Slaughterhouse 2666,” “Watchmen in the Rye,” “Journey to the End of Ulysses”). The accompanying images likewise are reproductions of paintings in which Black has pasted comic-book images cut from magazines and post cards.
Course it’s always fun to be in on a joke. So when I read this book I was pleased when I encountered poems whose titles referred to works with which I was familiar. I was distressed when I didn’t get the all the references. I then had to ask myself, do I read enough? Watch enough TV? Am I cool enough to write this review? Does it matter?
Moby K Dick stands alone as a chapbook available from Ugly Duckling Presse, but it also forms a section of Black’s book entitled Uselysses (which is also available for free download). So you’re getting the gist, here, right? This chapbook voices the exhaustion of the artist in postmodern age, the age that David Foster Wallace among others criticized for being paralyzed by superficial cynicism, by a preference for snarky self-reference and ironic posturing over honest attempts at art. By displaying the very obsession with references to cultural in-jokes that it seeks to criticize, Moby K Dick breaches the problem of how the stories we consume in turn consume us:
Uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous, American
We took their word to determine our own
The blank insanity of Ahab, ere the white whale:
a sheet of onionskin paper blurred third or fourth carbon
And this brought about new revelations –
stolen libraries of earth spilling fiction by autorocket
Do you see that queer fashion where fluke minds the tongue
like an Android brain humming to say from beyond
“The sperm would have you forming yourself”
To all who had fused; you owe it to them
Not the less true to be recorded
in the empathy box.
It may seem that in an environment marked by such a penchant for the sort cultural insider-trading dealt with in this book, the static in the signals between transmitters muffles authenticity. And yet despite the validity of this critique, the fascinating results of Black’s pretty hilarious hybridizations also may provide the solution to the very problem they identify. Maybe Replicants do have souls?
What’s with it, this strange pleasure we find in a well-executed imitation, or a particularly appropriate mashup (sorry, the word mashup: ew)? Perhaps it’s just a matter of ego: the hipster’s pride in his familiarity with both high culture and pop culture. But it may also be that, in imagining that our essential texts possess independent lives, that they may in fact socialize amongst themselves, they attain a new reality. That is, at least, the peculiar feeling I had in reading the poem “Watchmen in the Rye” whose speaker’s split voices are those of Dr. Manhattan and Holden Caulfield:
Manhattan: I made a mistake. Some super-duper nostalgia where once
we all lived for our sentence
Boy I felt miserable – like atheist Jesus with a lot of makeup. I felt so
depressed you can’t imagine
Is there something peculiarly American about the habit of excessive self-reference that this book deals with? In addition to the first line, “Uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous, American,” a reference to national identity appears multiple times, for example in “Frederick X-Men”:
I remember feeling the uneasiness of myself
appearing as though by magic, the unseen mutant.
My illness: America, I was much given to fantasy.
My costumed youths attacking me as a foe,
I took table with skeptics in the library, was tired,
for I am indeed one of those destined to steal
a novel of transitional thoughts dealt only in symbolic essences.
Like the great epics, our book-length thriller begins:
“I will live my life a lesser man, a poet –
a muscle-bound bookworm in the silent chamber of invisible eyes.”
The unwriting writer vigorously lathering my genitalia & yodeling
The Waste Land to protect mankind.
If Black identifies an anxious pursuit of authenticity with the American identity, he’d not be the first. But this chapbook is memorable for how it blends the deployment of a technique (anxious snark) with a critique of that same technique. Because we have here not just another disgruntled commentary on the vapidity of whatever. It’s a genuine (yeah, genuine! – and also funny) lament, not complaint and not diatribe, but sincere concern for the dwindling room for revelation between story and reader, brought on a tightening spiral of self-reference that is our meme-ridden cultural field. In the poem “A Cloud Atlas is Hard to Find,” Black writes:
Words grew ears filled with noises devoid of meaning
like sometimes a man says things he don’t mean
so I built a mound of stones for memr’y –
the only one that ever raised the dead
Does he verge on laying it on thick? I wondered whether by the last poem, “Slaughterhouse 2666,” perhaps it weren’t all becoming too clear:
Allow me to introduce no one.
No one remembers the writer.
He tore himself to pieces
for a new technique.
Then again, as I said, I’m pretty sure I’m not cool enough for this book. So you should read it and tell me if I didn’t get it.
Moby K Dick is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Sally McCallum is from Tucson and lives in Paris right now. She writes reviews of poetry and science fiction at nonsunblog and sews books for Spork Press.