Monday, May 14, 2012

Natalie Zina Walschots, Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains

Lady Deathstrike

with body modification
all flesh become sheath

skin enrobed
widen to skeletal gauge

labial tissue stretched
a bat’s veiny wing

you give every metal detector
a fat dermal punch

laced with adamantium
exhale god’s wind

breath a typhoon
taut body torpedo

blood boiling jet fuel
each tip thrums fuse

For her second trade poetry collection, Calgary-turned-Toronto poet Natalie Zina Walschots give us Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2012), produced with illustrations by the illustrious Evan Munday, wisely published in the midst of a season of Big Summer Blockbusters in American film. It’s been said by actors over the years that it’s far more interesting to play a villain than a good guy (is this why Walschots wrote poems for supervillains as opposed to a collection of poems for superheroes?), and, for comic book fans, we owe quite a debt to John Byrne, who brought depth and dimension to Doctor Victor von Doom during his lengthy run on The Fantastic Four in the 1980s.

What is it about supervillains? One could say that a book of poetry on comic book characters, especially by a woman writer, is quite subversive, but perhaps not in the same way it would have been, say, a decade or two ago (I’d say I know as many female as male comic nerds/geeks/enthusiasts these days). Subversive less so as well, given how mainstream the big company comic books have become over the past twenty years, especially in mainstream American film (Paul Davies did a lovely ECW Press title a number of years ago on the 1960s Marvel Universe I’d recommend, if you can find it).

In her poetry collections so far, from Thumbscrews (Montreal Q: Snare Books, 2007) to this current book, Walschots composes from a combination of concept and content, writing poems that explore a particular subject or idea, with this one focusing on an array of past and present supervillains from Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Not that all on her list are even currently considered supervillains (but have all been throughout their histories), which even draw on their complexities, as, for example, Magneto and Toad are now with the X-Men, Deadpool currently works with the X-Men wetworks team, X-Force, and Quicksilver teaches at Avengers Academy. Still, most villains are never straightforward, and the best of them are those who ride nuance, complexity and even contradiction (Magneto being a fantastic example). And Walschots’ subject-work follows in the tradition of a number of recent book-length works of poetry writing from seemingly-unlikely sources, including Alessandro Porco’s porn-poems, The Jill Kelly Poems (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2005), Lisa Robertson’s use of the scientific language of weather in The Weather (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2001), Michael Holmes’ poems on professional wrestling in Parts Unknown (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2004), Rachel Zolf exploring the dehumanizing language of office-speak in Human Resources (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2007) or M. NourbeSe Philip writing out legal language to humanize an inhuman story in Zong! (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2008). And, given what is happening throughout the X-Men/Avengers titles currently, her poem on the late, lamented Dark Phoenix might even be timely:

Dark Phoenix

frail cipher
white dwarf burnt out to a cinder
a chain reaction relit your core

our friend has gone nova
reborn a firebird
red and luminous
gobbling light

a single eyelash
could light this cathedral

wreathed in lava
gold and pearl gone molten
a wretched and crawling heat
a rosary rendered down to ruined stars

your universe is expanding, my friend
neither Kepler nor Brahe
could bring you back to us now

I light these standard candles
cry beeswax
mouth your luminous name

Walschots composes poems set as sketches, or quick character studies, writing poems on many names both big and small, including Doctor Doom, the Joker, Lex Luthor, Magneto, Electra, Lady Deathstrike, Ra’s al Ghul, Doctor Octopus, Bullseye, the Green Goblin, Deadpool, Sinestro, General Zod, Clayface, Harley Quinn and Dark Phoenix, as well as sections on various comic book geographies. The book is sectioned into five, from “Rogues Gallery: Domination” (male villains), “Stronghold” (countries and other similar locations), “Rogues Gallery: Girl Fight” (female villains), “Bondage” (prisons and other similar locations) and “Rogues Gallery: Destruction” (darker male villains). Her two poems for Joker play against the two sides of his character, from the predominant view of the character over the decades, to the much darker view presented in the infamous graphic novel, The Killing Joke, and the terrible, terrible things he did to Batgirl/Barbara Gordon that left her confined to a wheelchair.


The Killing Joke

cleverness a cleaver
slit tine grin
in the serrated rape
trap teeth squeak maestro

voice box a soup can
sinew strung rung
to rung with vertebrae
crackling in the gruesome
toymaker’s cheek

smile navel to nose
uncoils fat lips
and drools
steaming tongue
this body made mouth

Throughout the collection, Walschots leaves me with a number of questions. Is the Atlantis the DC or Marvel version, and why is the “General Zod” seemingly for the version portrayed in Superman 2 as opposed to the comics (unlike the version from Smallville, which seemed reduced than previous incarnations). These poems really do feel like sketches, as she writes in the last part of the poem “Deadpool”:

deep within the viscera
you laugh to scratch

your mirth is subcision
bloody and precise

Sharp as hell, but her Deadpool poem (ignore the version from the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film) somehow doesn’t capture the characters precise and outlandish madness. And I wonder, with two poems for Mastermind and but one for Mr. Sinister, is she giving the former too much credit, and the latter, not enough? Still, this is a fun and precise exploration of characters through poems, and a worthy collection. The only disappointment is knowing that there are so many more illustrations Munday did for the collection than appear in the final book. Whatever became of them?

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