Cover image courtesy of Coach House Books.
Ode to a Rolling Blackout
Teachers in Oklahoma seek to stop students
from discovering the gateway of digital drugs.
We’re all having a hard time, but some problems
are preferable to others: the problems of the very rich,
for example. Some swear the pile is the only known
enemy of the hole. O pretty girls tripping on night,
enjoy this next round, as your pupils pour out
past last call. One of you will soon stop caring
for your hair and your delicates will start to sour.
You will pick your teeth clean with your coke nail.
Now you crackle like a coal, lips slick with petroleum.
Little pots of hot pink clink like crystal as you travel
down the black tube toward morning. Did you kiss
the devil’s ass in the alley? Please, no more questions.
— from Dear Leader (Coach House, 2015)
Despite what literary scholars and theorists have been telling us for decades, it’s still a common natural impulse when reading poetry to look for the poet’s authentic experience in the subject matter. Knowing that Anne Sexton committed suicide adds a certain aura of authenticity to the anguish in her poems. But are poets under any obligation to deliver this kind of confession? Can we still be moved by a powerful poem about, say, a father’s death, if a poet writes it while both his parents are living? Of course. And yet, many readers still crave to connect a poem to the poet’s biography.
But in an age when over-sharing personal information is ubiquitous to our culture, then what avenue of self-exploration can still feel daring, powerful, even just resonant? The family secrets Robert Lowell unearthed in Life Studies are child’s play compared to the tell-all memoirs of the last few decades, and Sylvia Plath’s daddy issues are on full display on the internet. If all is revealed on Instagram, then what artistic purpose could a confessional mode provide? Or, to put it in another way, how does a lyric poet respond to this new situation? How can we touch on, or gesture toward, personal experience without descending into cheap diaristic navel-gazing?
One strategy that Damian Rogers employs in this poem, and one that I see a lot of elsewhere (including in my own work, I admit), is a coyness about how much of a dark truth is truly personal. We aren’t sure how many of the experiences being referred to here are “confessions” and how many are just within the realm of the poet’s imagination. And the blurriness of that line seems to be exactly the subject of the poem itself.
Starting with the second stanza of “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” Rogers employs a war-weary older-sister tone that mixes flippant generalization (“We’re all having a hard time,” “some problems are…”) with the implication that real darkness lurks beneath the surface. Nothing personal is yet revealed, but she nevertheless lands on a brilliant, biting discovery: “Some swear the pile is the only known / enemy of the hole.” It’s a new aphorism that could be applied to everything from road repair to sexual politics to drug abuse and it hovers over the rest of the poem like a guiding principle: a pile of words in a poem fighting the hole of meaninglessness, a small pile of cocaine fighting a feeling of emptiness in the addict, etc. etc.
The speaker then turns her attention to address some “pretty girls tripping on night,” and this is where the poem really takes off. Forgive me if, to my English professor ears, this phrase reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with its “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” The failed Romanticism of the two passages, and the warning that contains elements of longing, feels similar.
But the source of disappointment in Rogers’ poem is not quite so abstract or hifalutin as in Eliot’s work. The images that follow are of the various ways that some young women put themselves at risk in search of a “pile.” Notice all the p’s in the next sentence: “O pretty girls tripping on night, // enjoy this next round, as your pupils pour out / past last call.” In a poem that hasn’t yet called a lot of attention to its musicality, it’s a notable moment of alliterative play, one that will recur later in the poem. But the music in use here is not a pretty one: multiple p sounds don’t really sound “beautiful.” They evoke something more like rough laughter or spitting.
Most of these “pretty girls” will likely survive their youthful misbehaviors “tripping on night” and the speaker seems to wish them well, but her interest zooms in on the one who will more dangerously lose her way: “One of you will stop caring // for your hair and your delicates will start to sour. / You will pick your teeth clean with your coke nail.” I love how the prim euphemism “delicates” contrasts with the more brutal and slangy “coke nail.” It’s as if the speaker herself can’t decide whose experience she most relates to – the one who strays too far or the one who observes her fall. The speaker’s knowledge is intimate enough that we wonder if she has been through it herself (how else would she know?) but she refrains from saying so explicitly.
In the next stanza the camera lens pans back out to the group of girls, and the image of their primping is almost repulsive – “lips slick with petroleum” – as she observes them leaving the bar “down the black tube toward morning.” The black tube could refer to the lipstick tube from the previous line, a subway ride home, or the more metaphoric tube/hole beckoning the young women out to the future. Within that space is the flashiest sonic music of the poem – “little pots of hot pink clink like crystal…” – that evokes for me both desire and disgust in the speaker who may view these younger women with something between worry and desire.
Her identification with the girls reaches its climax with the accusatory (or is it just gossipy?) “Did you kiss the devil’s ass / in the alley?” But that question seems to trip a protective wire in the speaker. She’s gone far enough, she doesn’t want to go farther, and so she shuts down her line of thought with “Please, no more questions.” It’s a wonderfully surprising line, because of course we haven’t been asking any questions. Nevertheless the speaker seems suddenly to feel our curiosity upon her, and she turns herself away. Weirdly it’s that moment of refusal that reveals the most vulnerability in the voice. We know that, in her opinion, “We’re all having a hard time,” and so we can guess she has problems of her own, but until she puts her hand up, it doesn’t occur to us to wonder how deep those problems go.
In some ways this turning away exposes more than any explicit confession might. I remember an acting teacher once saying that watching a performer struggle to hold back tears is often more moving to an audience than watching her cry on stage. It’s our sense of the forces in conflict that connects us to a performance. Similarly, in “Ode to a Rolling Blackout,” we feel the desire in Rogers’ speaker to claim connection to the “pretty girls” and their adventures, but we also feel her desire to refrain from divulging the sources of her hard-won wisdom. Her reticence, her refusal to “dish,” is as much what makes the speaker an adult as her ability to sidestep any ass-kissing in alleys.
This returns me to the question of authenticity. The speaker’s position between confession and restraint, identification and distance, seems to me the central subject of the poem. And so whether or not the speaker of the poem, or the “real” Damian Rogers, knows what it’s like to pick her teeth with her coke nail is less important than the feelings of trepidation, of empathy and worry, and even a bit of nostalgia for an earlier, more dangerous and exciting life, that the poet reveals and explores. How much does she really know about it? The sufficient answer for the poem is “maybe some.” And the more complete answer is none of your damned business.