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On "Colossal American Copulation"


John Marsh

Adrian Louis's "A Colossal American Copulation" borrows heavily from Walt Whitman, whose poetics have been central to much of the American poetry that would follow. Louis, though, appropriates (as Ginsberg's poetry does) the free verse and cultural catalogues that Whitman used to celebrate and cohere a mid-nineteenth century America for its own later project of denouncing that same America. And while Louis' catalogue of what deserves to be fucked ranges freely over late twentieth century America, there is nevertheless a persistent logic to its categories. It targets violence made even more repugnant for its banality ("Fuck the men who keep their dogs chained./ Fuck the men who molest their daughters.") It especially criticizes acts of state violence. "Fuck the gutless Guardsmen / who were at Kent State...." and "Fuck, no, double fuck the Vietnam War." Beyond its critique of personal and state violence, though, the poem also aims at popular culture ("Fuck...The Immaturity of MTV. Those Monster Trucks.") and what we might simply call bad taste (Fuck...my other neighbor who has plastic life-sized deer in his front yard.") The poem is also free with its condemnations of its contemporary literary scene: "Fuck the Creative
Writing programs/ and all the SPAM poets they hatch." "Fuck The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. And all those useless allusions." And (my favorite): "F*U*C*K the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets." Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on--its possible backhanded racism ("Fuck every gangbanger in America") and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques. Nevertheless, all these individual critiques add up to a wholesale condemnation of America and American culture. "A Colossal American Copulation" goes beyond something like reformism to reject the whole American cultural scene and even, I would argue, though they are only obliquely evoked, the foundations of that scene.

The poem begins and ends with a stanza expressing the speaker's resignation:

"They say there's a promise
coming down that dusty road.
They say there's a promise coming down
That dusty road, but I don't see it."

"Promise," in its abstractness, carries multiple meanings. The legal coercion of Indian Removal in the 1830s and 1840s, the promise of "assimilation," which is a nice word, to call forth House Resolution 108 from 1953, for "termination," and finally the promise of cultural autonomy and a decent way of life that goes unfulfilled even today. But that this promise is to arrive "down that dusty road" suggests finally a critique of the promises of Western Civilization and the promises of equality and equal protection under the law contained in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the American incarnation of the West. In an interview with Geronimo, a journal of politics and culture, Louis says of the United States

Oh, it's here. I try to ignore it if I can. (Pause) This country was founded on violence. So it's kind of like karma coming back to haunt us, you know. When the Spaniards came into the towns here they killed more Indians than Hitler killed Jews in his ovens. It's a greater holocaust here than there was in Europe during World War II. That's a historical fact. America is a schizophrenic country. On the one hand, it purports to be the peace loving center of the universe. On the other hand, it's got everything it has from violence and taking.

It's an open question whether the violence and barbarity at the source of America undermines any claims it can make for its contribution to democracy and freedom, its promises. For some, the abuses trump whatever good may have or will come. Except in "A Colossal American Copulation," there is no suggestion of those goods, those promises, which are infinitely promised but also infinitely postponed, until the speaker has given up on ever seeing them. Instead, we get the detritus of
popular culture and a smug violence, metonymies for the larger culture, all of which the speaker equally, and with pointed language, rejects.

Copyright 2001 by John Marsh


Jim Beatty

I’d like to respond to John Marsh’s comments on “A Colossal American Copulation”. While I admire and would echo most of what John says about the poem, one point merits more discussion. In the course of his analysis, Marsh parenthetically remarks: “Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on (its possible backhanded racism-"Fuck every gangbanger in America"-and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched.") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques.”

While I agree that simply celebrating Louis’s irreverent rejection of the US dominant culture would too easily elide some disturbing moments in the poem, I think that the comments Marsh quotes need to be more broadly contextualized. With respect to Louis’s derision of “gangbangers,” it should be remembered that those who we would identify–and who would identify themselves–under this moniker fall under nearly every conceivable racial category. Additionally, Louis follows up this statement by saying “Fuck furiously the drive-by shooters.” Here he is not just objecting to an oversimplified vision of a cultural identity–he is lamenting an all-too-real material practice of those who would call themselves by the name he attacks. Thus in saying “Fuck every gangbanger in America,” Louis is rejecting a commodified posture of rebellion that markets intra- and inter-racial violence to urban refugees of every color–be it African Americans or Latina/os in major urban centers or white kids in Oklahoma or even American Indians on the reservation. Rather than a racist dismissal of an ethnic counter-culture, Louis’s comment may well be a critique of how the commodified version of that counter-culture is deployed to mis-direct the legitimate rage of the oppressedclasses of all races in the US.

Another aspect of a broader context in which to consider some of the poem's more disturbing lines lies in Louis’s self-representation of his poetic project: “Well, the overall theme in my work is personal survival. I'm writing about my life. I guess deep down I sort of fancy myself as speaking for certain kinds of people who don't have a voicefor the downtrodden.” In enunciating the terms of “personal survival,” Louis is trying to come to terms with a postmodern barrage of (largely media-generated) images and phenomenon. Additionally, Ullman comments that Louis speaks as both an observer and a prime example of a condition, as both the accuser and the accused.” In this light, I read his rejection of “That first pussy I ever touched” as regret rather than hatred. I’ll agree that this regret is somewhat trivialized in being paralleled to a regret for “That first cigarette I ever smoked,” yet both do point to specific,often thoughtless adolescent actions that can have long-lasting physical, psychological, and symbolic effects–effects that Louis needs to symbolically reject along with everything else. Finally, Louis follows these two lines with the comic “Fuck it again, Sam,” moving past a simplistic nostalgia embodied in the line he re-writes from _Casablanca_, denying a longing for that first cigarette or first sexual experience–that one that all subsequent experiences in either respect will never equal–as well as a destructive infinite regret.

Finally, Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of “fuck you”s. He does this with obviously playful lines like “Fuck a duck,” a curse I’ve never heard spoken in anything but a lighthearted, albeit resigned, tone. Additionally, Louis startles the reader by including “Mother Teresa” in his list of “fuck you”s. He follows this up with an immediate response to his readers’ reactions by saying “Jesus, just kidding.” I find this to be the most disturbing line in the poem. Yet Louis insists that, at the very least, there is a line between what he is seriously rejecting and what he implicitly values. This line alone undercuts a critique that the poem is simply a reactionary rejection of everything with nothing positive to offer. While the playful and the scathing often overlap in the poem (e.g. the hilarious “Fuck . . . Sam Donaldson’s wig”), Louis deftly deflects, for the careful, sympathetic reader (i.e. one that won’t stop reading at the first “Fuck”) any sort of moral outrage the poem might occasion. In the nihilistic glee of his flipping off the US, we have critique, lament, and paradoxically celebration complexly inter-woven.

Copyright 2001 by Jim Beatty


Michael Simeone

I'd just like to briefly comment on the standing conversation on MAPS regarding Adrian Louis' "A Colossal American Copulation." It seems that at present, most of the critical work treating the poem is largely concerned with Louis' paradoxically resistant and cooperative relationship to dominant culture. Both Marsh and Beatty see the poem as taking dominant culture as its object, a model that is mostly accurate but effaces a crucial element of self-hatred present in Louis' work; the speaker of the poem is just as much a reflexive target of the poem's invective as the U.S. culture that surrounds him. This is not a poem about "flipping off the U.S" (Beatty); rather, it is a poem that treats the speaker's haunting dissillusionment with his own life given the frivolity of U.S. culture and the inevitable decay of the physical body.

Firstly, before anything else, I'd like to make a case for the moral indignation present in these lines. Beatty notes that "Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of 'fuck you's," but this is far from the case. Louis' poem is veritable freight train of "fucks," all irreverantly applied, accumulating a kind of vitriolic, hateful, and sanctamonious momentum that simply cannot be offset by the injection of lines such as "fuck a duck" (which, by the way, I have never heard uttered playfully. In fact, "fuck a duck" is far from harmlessly playful; it is the epitomization of frustration and agression without object. It is anger without a path of release. The line may be absurd, but it is a cruel, contained, and frustrated absurdity). This and similar "playful" variations (fuck you very much, fuck it again Sam, etc.) certainly contain some ludic interpenetration of tradition and discourse, (as does the whole poem), but it is a stretch to say that, given the violence of the poem's speech and the moral valence of many of its targets (vietnam, for instance), the poem's moral force has been undercut.

Indeed, the poem is a kind of angry whirlwhind, sparing little (only mother teresa escapes, but not unscathed; she still gets to be the object of a blunt "fuck you," and despite its retraction one line later, the illocutionary act of telling mother teresa fuck you speaks to the poem's near total lack of concern for the sacred, the respected, and the empowered). Through cursing things like his first sexual experience, his first cigarette, and Bob Dyalan, the speaker not only implicates elements of his life in the upkeep of a frivolous culture, but he also self-loathingly denies the pleasure that any of these things gave him. He thus not only negates the world around him, but also negates himself as a creature capable of happiness.

Crucial to this disillusionment with existance (NOT just U.S. culture) is a realization of the decay of the human body over time. The recount of his personal history through substance abuse serves as a grim reminder of the deteriorization of the speaker's own body, and his pre-emptive fuck you-ing of the man that will see him dead again speaks to the materiality and transience of human flesh. Most notable to this point, however, is his choice to round out the poem with an attack on the disease that affect's his "woman."

Here, the speaker is not lamenting his own choices, attacking the U.S., or even engaging in any kind of disturbing irreverance; he is literally shouting against decay, "Fuck Alzheimer's."

The conclusion of the poem, then, functions less as a nihilistic assertion of the middle finger (Beatty) and more of a frustrated realization of the speaker's position within a frivolus and unjust culture, an aging body, and the unforgiving attrition of life experiences and the passage of time.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone


 

 

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