The Scarborough by Michael Lista
(Signal Editions, 2014)
When Kenneth Goldsmith appeared on The Colbert Report to promote his book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, Stephen Colbert stated that reading the book (which consists of conceptual poems transcribing live news reports of events ranging in scope from the death of John Lennon to the World Trade Center attacks) felt vampiric. Goldsmith denied the vampirism of the poems, resorting to tired clichés about the importance of dealing with uncomfortable material in literature.
Although desiring a more “original” response from Goldsmith might mean I’m missing the point, it seems instead like Goldsmith has missed his own point. The literary value of Seven American Deaths and Disasters lies precisely in drawing out, highlighting, and extending the vampirism inherent in the reports themselves. If you read the book (yes, read it — while a fan of Goldsmith’s work, I disagree fundamentally with his insistence that you don’t need to actually read his books), what seems most striking is the way that the events become narrativized. Reporters recognize, within the chaos, the makings of a story, and Goldsmith’s McLuhanesque gesture of “freezing” the live reports in print allows us to see how the sublime terror of these moments becomes banalized into capitalist products, nation-building experiences. Goldsmith, despite feeble protests, is a vampire. One turned traitor. Seven American Deaths and Disasters is offered as its own report: Here is how we fed on these corpses. While they were still warm. As we still do today.
What does all this have to do with Michael Lista’s The Scarborough? The back cover copy and press materials misidentify The Scarborough as “a conceptual project,” one that “ignores its concept.” We shouldn’t make much of press copy, but it is worth setting an actual conceptual project like Goldsmith’s against Lista’s faux-conceptual project. The point is not to highlight the strengths of one nor the weaknesses of the other. More than anything, this is an interesting tangent, one that could be followed to help explain how Lista and others who are often critical of conceptual poetry fail to understand what it is. More to the point, the two books are related in terms of their vampirism. Lista’s subject is the Canadian death/disaster of the abduction and murder of Kristen French by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
If this book were a conceptual project, and if somebody like Goldsmith were writing it, then The Scarborough would somehow present the language from the videotapes (now destroyed) of French’s torture, or from the court proceedings or press, or otherwise source and reframe language relating to either the atrocity itself or the three-day period in 1992 during which French’s torture and murder took place. Lista, instead, has crafted a series of poems “set” over these three days (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday). Lista’s “concept” is that the poems cannot directly refer to the events. Instead, Lista leaves the events to hover in the background, casting their shadows across poems that otherwise attest to be about something else.
To the degree that Lista follows this “rule,” The Scarborough succeeds. The most impressive poem, in terms of how Lista’s approach enlivens his material, is “Today’s Special!”:
Well I guess that’s all locked up tight.
Says Sam who guards the mall at night.
Sam’s a puppet! He can’t use his eyes.
His body is an excellent disguise.
I’m Muffy the Mouse! I’m condemned to rhyme
Until the Christmas special end of time. (21)
The poem continues to develop as an ode to the children’s show Today’s Special, which the 9-year-old Lista watches while French, elsewhere, is tortured. It thus operates like a eulogy for childhood. French’s is over, while Lista’s will end when he learns what has been happening to French. The wonder and magic of the TV show’s description at once praises the sort of innocent enjoyment that these flat descriptions (written by the adult Lista) cannot recapture — they seem more nightmarish the flatter they appear, highlighting this distance. At the same time, the poem operates as an elegy for French, like a strange allegory of her own nightmare, which Lista (like Muffy) is doomed to rhyme about, in meaningless reruns.
Lista’s continual averting of his eyes works, on one hand, to avoid vampiric “feeding” on French’s pain though its translation into art, while at the same time (and on the other hand) being problematically vampiric in its own way. “The Perfect Victim” addresses this darker aspect of the poems directly. Rather than hide behind his own averted gaze, Lista describes the poetic process as a sadistic torture of its own, a rape of the muse:
You tell the poem: do what I fucking say
Or I’m really going to have to hurt you,
It won’t listen. It breaks down and cries,
Dries up, does its best Catholic shy girl bit,
And you’re left holding your Bic, unsurprised
That the muse declined your romantic bait.
What the poem refuses the poet takes. (40)
Why won’t Goldsmith admit his vampirism in this way? The vampirism is what makes these books work. The vampirism is the point. When Lista turns his gaze away from French, only to turn towards this turning away, the poems draw their blood. They are part of a sadistic project. The project’s sadism lays bare the reader’s sadistic interest, and the media’s exploitation. Lista plays a dangerous game by picking this subject, but he knows the game, and knows its danger. When the poems stop being about what they are supposed to be about, and instead become about Lista’s hatred of himself for being powerless to help French, and for wanting to write poems about her, the book bleeds.
When The Scarborough starts to fall apart is when Lista, at the end of the second section (“Saturday”) hears about French’s disappearance. The poem, “Radar,” concerns a teddy bear named “[Radar] after the guy from M*A*S*H” (46), which Lista loses.
We search for him an hour, but surprise:
He’s gone. Driving home, dad says he likes Oakville
As the snow turns into rain. Then mom cries
As CBC reports a missing girl,
And I understand where Radar’s gone. Of course:
To go retrieve her for us, our new world, (48)
This precise instant, when Lista breaks the “rules” and withdraws from his supposed “concept,” The Scarborough begins to falter. This problem is inherent in Lista’s concept, which has the structure of a horror story. In radical horror, the monster represents truth and reality — a “more-real reality” behind the illusion that we take as reality. The horror story describes a process of awakening to the truth that the world is a nightmare, where God is dead, evil, or irrelevant, and chaos is truth. When the 9-year-old Lista hears the report and understands what he hears, the story is over.
On one hand, the boy is wrong — he hasn’t understood — he thinks that Radar is going to save her. On the other hand, the next poem is called “The Devil” and begins with “Something is happening. / The smell of shit, or meat / Rotting” (51). Safe to say, Lista (the character) has had an epiphany. These poems are individual, closed systems, but this book is allowing a narrative to unfold beyond their veils, hinting at a story too dark to tell. This is the book’s strength, in terms of its relation to horror — Lista’s conceit testifies to his understanding of the sublime nature of the best, most radical horror, how it exceeds comprehension and explication in something so human as a poem. As a result, “Radar” would work as the book’s final (or near-final) poem, but as the end of the “Saturday” section it produces an early climax.
The poems of the “Sunday” section have strong moments, but are anti-climatic and seem too self-conscious and direct. Witness “Easter Parade”:
Then comes the marching band up Beatrice
Who even as a girl was walked all over
By sandaled local men in costume
Behind the band, the same man has played Christ
For twenty years. He worries that he’s aged.
He wants a face as empty as a page,
Unwritten by the lines of getting old.
Who wants to see an old Christ in the cold
Being whipped by Romans on College Street,
Pain faked uncannily with real wrinkles? (55)
It is too easy to read French as Beatrice to Lista’s Dante (a comparison suggested clearly in “Radar”) and also read Lista as a pathetic Christ, writing these poems 20-or-so years later and failing to take on the suffering of French (who also works as a Christ figure, transmuted through her pain). The following poem, “Heaven,” finds Lista’s speaker (the Lista character) making a failed pilgrimage to “[t]he house where it happened” (57). Whatever the value of these poems on their own terms, they weaken the book due to the aforementioned structural issue.
In part, it’s not fair to blame Lista for this issue, since it is inherent in his concept. However, it displays the problem of working with concepts — another thing that the comparison between Lista’s book and Goldsmith’s book helps to clarify. Goldsmith’s book, for example, is weakened by the inclusion of Michael Jackson’s death: a “tragedy” that needs quotation marks, which also functions anti-climactically after reports of the World Trade Center attack. This anti-climatic effect might be Goldsmith’s point, but Goldsmith might still be blamed for the poor conclusion. Who said he needed seven American deaths and disasters, or these seven? (The number is explained by the title’s allusion to the Warhol paintings by the same name, but this title is not a necessity.) Lista, by contrast, is compelled to include poems “set” on the day French was murdered, despite the structural problems that this creates given his bad luck to hear about the abduction on the previous day.
Ultimately, The Scarborough stands as a significant achievement. Its strengths are many, its poems impressive, and its weaknesses are to some degree unavoidable.
Jonathan Ball holds a Ph.D. in English and is the author of three books of poetry (Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives) and the academic monograph John Paizs’s Crime Wave. He also co-edited, with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry, and directed the short films Spoony B and Opening Band. He writes the humour columns “Haiku Horoscopes” and “What Rappers Are Saying,” and lives online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.
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