In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines an elegiac collection that explores loss, race, and alienation.
Random Exorcisms by Adrian C. Louis
$17.95, 78 pages
published March 2016
Grief and irreverence rarely align in poetry. We have our wistful poets and we have our witty poets, conventional wisdom insists, and everyone guards their own dominion. In his most recent collection, however, Adrian C. Louis embraces mournfulness and mockery alike. Guided by a wife’s passing, Louis’ poems also lament the difficulties of aging, the marginalization of American Indians, and the legacy of regional decay, all while poking fun at academia, pop culture, and the male libido. Taken as a whole, Random Exorcisms succeeds as a book of haunted, lonely lyrics where myth, memory, and self-effacement bridge us over the ache of personal trauma and cultural genocide.
Widowhood and its ensuing alienation cast a long shadow in Random Exorcisms. In “A Necessary Exorcism,” an early standout and one of the book’s many prose poems, the speaker mocks his youthful lust for white girls when he “dreamed of a future where my lips might boldly graze upon their pretty, pale globes.” True fulfillment comes in middle-age, when he instead marries a fellow Indian “& picked red drama, the joyous pain of it all.” Brief as it is, the poem builds to a potent imagistic climax, morphing from a sensual confessional to an apostrophe addressing the beloved dead: “darling, I drove six hours to silently stand with my hot hands upon your frozen tombstone, the pitiful prairie snow whimpering down.” Other elegies, such as “An Unsent Valentine to Someone in Pahin State,” “Unending Exorcism: 2006,” and “Infection” resist mere heartache since they capture the comingling sadness, uncertainty, and stagnation that so often ensue after the death of a spouse, and which, as these poems bravely testify, never fully resolve.
Equally tragic, the cultural decimation of indigenous Americans remains an omnipresent theme in Random Exorcisms. Like Richard Hugo, Louis depicts the Midwest as harsh, barren, and impoverished, full of dive bars, jalopy cars, and ghost roads. Here, First Peoples relegated to reservations bear the worst burden, as each day they confront the appalling reality that they have never been a variable in the equation of the American dream. Poems such as “Venison Child,” “Semi-Fictional Father,” “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em,” “Exorcism Occurring Upon the Return of the Black Sheep Boy,” and “Home Again” accept a certain degree of personal and ancestral desolation, even as they celebrate religious myths as agents of healing that can help restore self-worth and tribal pride by reminding us that these bleak conditions arise from an even bleaker history. One of the book’s best poems, “Der Führer of North Dakota,” unifies Louis’ various strengths, as its juxtaposed scenes of professoring and panhandling provide a stringent commentary on race, with several laughs along the way. The poem follows in its entirety:
The undergrad reads her poem
about her boyfriend shooting pool
in a bar in the North Dakota oil fields.
He is dancing & drinking, doing,
she says, “the sippy sippy shake.”
Sounds like the “Hippy hippy shake,”
I say, but I come from another century
& no one in class knows that song.
Someone Googles it on their phone
& plays it for the class. I say, “Folks,
everybody dance now,” in my best
Lawrence Welk imitation. Of course,
they do not know who he was either.
Frustrated, I climb into my time machine.
1968. Doyle & I are panhandling in L.A.
near the ABC studios where Welk beams
his schlock to the American heartland.
We’re doing exceptional, our bell bottoms
bulge with coinage, so we take a break
& adjourn to an alleyway to fire one up.
At the instant we become elevated,
two Welkian musicians in sky blue
band blazers materialize inches from us.
One asks for a toke & soon all four
of us are levitating in furious laughter.
“Tell me about Lawrence Welk,” I say.
“Der Führer of North Dakota,” one says,
blazed out of his gourd in his sky blue blazer.
Throughout, Louis’ comedic observations and self-deprecation provide levity, sustaining us through the book’s somber themes. “Plan 9 from Inner Space” reads like a stand-up routine, poking fun at the ichthys (or ‘Jesus fish’) magnets some Christians display on their cars as a “futile/End Times frat pin.” “American Vampire” imagines former Vice President Dick Cheney as an undead bloodsucker. “Edelweiss & Morphine” employs gallows humor to mock a near-death experience during a hospital stay, where the vision of Heaven includes angels who “had sore butts & sat primly on glaciers.” Perhaps the most hysterical poem in Random Exorcisms is “In the Republic of Facebookistan,” which, at little more than a dozen lines, eviscerates the narcissism that social media facilitated during the past decade:
Maybe it was on Twilight Zone,
that story about some fool who
wished to be able to read minds.
Somehow his wish was granted.
In a crowd, the swirl of others’ thoughts
drove him batshit mad. Facebook is like that.
At times I think Facebook is a mind control
device…probably alien technology
given to our government in exchange
for human flesh. For every ten people
joining Facebook, one human is abducted,
probed & then slowly barbecued.
I am sending you a friend request
& a dick pic. I couldn’t love you
more than I already do.
Random Exorcisms falters in some poems that feel rushed and single-minded. “Corrective Interlude” wallows in nostalgia, lacking the eloquence and craft found elsewhere in the collection, as these lines—reminiscent of late Bukowski—can attest: “I know looking back hurts like hell/I do it anyway & find her via/Google & she seems to be doing OK/& has been doing OK all the decades/since she escaped the asshole, me…” Similarly, the teacher’s lament “Another Day at the Factory” backfires, as its attack on a “homely/poetaster” student inadvertently generates sympathy for the pupil and dismay with its grumbling speaker. “Ghost Dogs,” the most curious inclusion, is an eight-page prose poem that, though tonally compatible with the other work in the book, seems more like an unfinished short story on each subsequent reading, and one ultimately wonders to what extent it belongs.
Robert Frost famously wrote that “a poem begins with a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” Adrian C. Louis realizes the full measure of this adage by mourning the loss of love, the obliteration of tribal peoples and their values, and the ascent of an American worldview increasingly ahistorical, consumerist, and solipsistic. Much like Sherman Alexie, Louis documents hard truths unflinchingly, yet administers wit in large doses to inoculate our growing premonitions of doom. Freewheeling and profound, Lena-Miles Todd Poetry Prize winner Random Exorcisms is as tenacious and wily as the coyote that graces its cover—a rewarding read full of laughter, grief, and ghosts.