by Laura Madeline Wiseman
“You put your thumb on a button and somebody blows up 20 minutes later, says Ronald Regan,” writes Dennis Etzel, Jr. in the closing poem of My Secret Wars of 1984, a book that examines the words written and spoken by cultural figures like Ronald Regan during the culturally significant literary year of 1984. For Etzel, 1984 was the year he entered high school from middle school, the year his mother came out, and the year he played Dungeons and Dragons, while also reading books that appeared that year such as Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Etzel’s secret war reads like a chorus, for the voices here with quotes arranged alphabetically in 366 sentences for the leap year of 1985 include bell hooks, Lyn Hejinian, George Orwell, popular culture writers and editors, and the national weather service, for this storm of language also alludes to an ice storm in Topeka, Kansas, one that sheathed the city in cold, left over 80% of the population without power, and destroyed hundreds of trees trying to bare the weight of two inches of ice. Arranged as blocks of text, the poems offer voices that echo and complicate, layering meaning as they seem to reflect and trouble who spoke that year and why. Etzel writes,
An unspent lunch money becomes a sustenance of comic books. And a number of pages were excised by that agency head there, the man in charge, and he sent it on up here to CIA, where more pages were excised before it was printed, says Ronald Reagan. And as soon as we have an investigation and find out where any blame lies for the few that did not get excised or changed, we certainly are going to do something about that, says Ronald Reagan. And as the heroes watch, they are watched in turn. And each evening the pace back home matches the sun’s setting. And I start high school at my lowest. And now we are putting up a defense of our own, says Ronald Reagan. (23)
Here, former president Reagan’s quotations work as a sort of troubling reminder of the cold war tactics that pitted capitalism against communism, of the way politicians speak in the doublespeak that Orwell described in 1984, and of the concerns of teenagers finding imaginary superheroes and imaginary powers a solace amid troubling growing years, as much as the lines remind that Reagan lost his mind as so many do due to Alzheimer’s, a disease that eats holes in the brain and excises what one thought they knew by swapping it with others. The rigorous constraints of My Secret War of 1984 make this first full-length collection an enjoyable and creative read, part of the pleasure reading for how the poet turns each sentence against the ones before and after it, how the poet moves through the alphabet as much as he moves through the spoken and written thoughts produced during that year, and how such lines move against the sweeter, more innocent lines and references such as those like “Please come to my rescue, Atreyu. Please let me find a place to hide” (61), for they remind how the social and cultural world shape us, shape our children, and shaped our younger selves. My Secret Wars of 1984 show how such youth and youthful pasts are full of thinkers, individuals who question and trouble the stories told about war, government information, and gender norms. For example, Etzel quotes hooks, “Feminism defined as a movement to end sexist oppression enables women and men, girls and boys, to participate equally in revolutionary struggle” (34), a line that suggests a powerful and necessary, if secret, war against which the protagonist of such a memoir in verse struggled, one that empowers such a revolutionary poetry of resistance. Collections like My Secret Wars of 1984 that speak resistance through poems retell and reimagine the historic moment, taking on the fragmentation of information and layering it into something whole, complicated, and smart.
BlazeVOX Books (2015): $16.00
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com