Cassidy McFadzean, “You Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea”

hacker-packer-cover

 

“You Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea”

 

This time of year, Agamemnon’s

tomb is swarming with Beliebers.

If I was your boyfriend, Clytemnestra…

What’s the theme of this one, teacher?

 

We raised our iPhones in the dark

like gold-leaf masked talismans.

Our ringtones were a Greek chorus

calling from the hive to lion guards.

 

I’m a novel with the pages uncut.

Someone flipped me open and had enough.

Now reading me rips me in two.

What’s a poem for? What’s it to you?

 

Whoever said size don’t matter lied.

The shaft of the cistern in the hillside

had me on my hands and knees.

I lapped up clay with my teeth.

 

We were catamarans in my last fantasy,

skipped in this world like a stone over sea.

You stole me away from the treasury.

Freedom, Siri, was a machine.

 

— from Hacker Packer (McClelland and Stewart, 2015), used by permission

Cassidy McFadzean’s shimmering debut Hacker Packer dances between scholarly travelogue and a skewed but loving embrace of popular culture. Underneath the playfulness, however, there are more serious matters at stake. It’s easy to get distracted by the fun, but in “You Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea,” the speaker has some serious concerns about love, power, and the imagination.

The poem finds us at Agamemnon’s Tomb among the ruins of Mycenae, taking in a scene with the incongruous combination of guide-book information and contemporary technological accouterments common to tour groups (I don’t need to explain that Beliebers are those fans who believe, with a perfect faith, in Justin Bieber, right?). McFadzean blurs the two influences on her experience so that Justin Bieber’s seduction song is directed at Clytemnestra and the gathering of tourists becomes something like the fans at a concert, holding up their iPhones in an act that feels more about worship than it is about light.

Some brief background: in Greek mythology and literature, Agamemnon is one of the kings enlisted to help return Helen from Troy. He assembles his fleet but for days there’s no wind. A priest finally tells Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to get things moving and he does so. Ten years (and many adventures) later, Agamemnon returns home (with treasure that includes the Trojan priestess Cassandra as a concubine), but his wife Clytemnestra has not forgiven him and, with her new lover Aegisthus, kills Agamemnon in the bath.

So if Justin is singing to Clytemnestra, is it in the voice of Aegisthus, pledging to treat her (and their offspring) better than her husband did? Or is it in the voice of a younger Agamemnon, making promises he will not keep? Either way, it’s unclear if our speaker approves. The last line of the stanza, “What’s the theme of this one, teacher?” suggests that like us she’s trying to figure out what this combination of impressions signifies. And who is this teacher? Is it a question for a tour guide? A playful wink to her travel companion? Or a recognition of us as readers, hovering over her shoulder, tempted to educate her?

Some further background, lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “If I Was Your Boyfriend”:

          If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go,

          I can take you places you ain’t never been before,

          Baby, take a chance or you’ll never ever know,

          I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow,

          swag swag swag on you

 

Or if you prefer, see the video for the song here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GuqB1BQVr4

You might also be aware that Justin Bieber, famous since childhood for his sweet voice and man-boy persona, has more recently run into trouble for some of his more outrageous antics, including vandalismdangerous driving, and assault.

In other words, Bieber and Agamemnon have some things in common. They are both deeply flawed, larger-than-life male figures who attract our attention and admiration despite (and even partly because of) the wrongs they commit. Agamemnon’s military prowess and his loyalty to his male compatriots outweigh the damage he does to the women who rely on him. And Bieber’s physical attractiveness, wealth and fame outweigh his sophomoric destructive misdemeanors. Can we learn about the standards of masculinity in cultures from which these “heroes” emerge?

But back to the poem. In the second stanza McFadzean has some more fun conflating the contemporary worship of a celebrity like Justin to the worship of a warrior king like Agamemnon. iPhones like talismans, ring tones like a chorus. In the hands of a lesser poet, this comparison, and the fun implications that can be made from it, would suffice. The poem would end there.

But out of nowhere the third stanza starts with what looks like another quotation – you could be forgiven for assuming, on first reading, that these three lines are more Bieber lyrics. But they’re much darker, and as far as I can tell, they’re not cut-and-pasted from any other source:

           I’m a novel with the pages uncut.

           Someone flipped me open and had enough.

           Now reading me rips me in two.

The references to a book with uncut pages puts us somewhere historically between Agamemnon and Bieber. And the imagery, as well as the near rhyme of uncut/enough evokes the kind of heartbreak (with implied sexual violence?) that romantic poets and songwriters use. Is the speaker of these italicized lines the same one who is now at Agamemnon’s Tomb? Or is she referring to some other story or poem? Either way it suggests that our tourist has turned her attention away from the attention-getting men and is thinking more about those who pay the price for their behavior. And the stanza’s closing line: “What’s a poem for? What’s it to you?” continues the train of thought that first emerged with “What’s the theme of this one, teacher?” The question of what impact the poem might have, and the challenge to an interpreting “you” (who, me?!) is now something close to defiance and resentment.

In the fourth and fifth stanza things are changing direction very quickly, and the sentences are disconnected, seeming to refer to a few things at once. Is the “size matters” comment really about ancient water systems? Is McFadzean using a phrase like “had me on my hands and knees” deliberately in order to evoke images of sexual submission, despite the fact that she seems to be referring literally to exploring the site? Is the fantasy of catamarans skipping over the sea connected to the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, or is it a romantic image of two lovers sailing together on their lives’ voyages? And most disturbingly, by admitting that “You stole me away from the treasury,” is the speaker connecting herself to Helen and Cassandra, to a legacy of sexual violence that persists even in contemporary pop lyrics?

The declaration at the end, “Freedom, Siri, is a machine,” feels like a final turn in the screw. On the one hand it seems to imply that the way to get freedom is to procure a machine. (Imagine an advertisement for Harley Davidson with that caption.) On the other hand, the sentence can also be read as a way of saying that “freedom” is merely another kind of machine, that it won’t necessarily protect us from the dangers present in the poem. The clincher of course is that it’s addressed to Siri, another semi-mythological machine with imperfect answers for our questions. Siri cannot provide us with companionship or love, nor will Siri leave an archeological footprint that tourists millennia from now might explore. Or has Siri been the companion we’ve been talking to all along?

We are left with a sense that McFadzean’s speaker is overwhelmed by the legacy of hero worship that can build magnificent tombs, launch global celebrity careers, and develop oracular technological tools, but cannot protect women from abduction or girls from their fathers. If she has a chance to find a way out it’s through her way of seeing the world that makes insightful connections between the disparate stimuli she encounters, and a shape-shifting, penetrating wit that has a reader delightfully off-balance throughout the poem.

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