If it is true that no great and enduring volume can be written on the flea, it is equally true that the function the flea cannot be made to occupy will be well served by ever-more great and enduring volumes. Recourse to material (sometimes transubstantiated as materiel) reveals the very basic question of subject— how it is chosen, if it is chosen, if it even exists to be chosen. We reach for what is at hand; the reaching implies effort and the incitement that merits that effort, but the fact remains that we cannot make use of that which is not at hand, however mightily the hand might struggle to seize items of glory, intrigue, curiosity or simple use. Thus the phrase at hand; using whatever is at hand; what is at hand for writer v.6 is often no more than what was left behind by writers v>6. Whole galaxies of effluvia have been spun from the generative heat of the debate over whether poetry should have a subject. Not all poets wait for the debate’s resolution, though: sometimes poets do have a subject, or at least a subjective state, which is even better. Bryan Dietrich’s Krypton Nights narrates the cast monologues of various members of the Superman Family: his subject, as well as his subjectivity, are thus supernal.
Superman! Not Nietzsche, not Shaw, but Detective Comics.
Krypton Nights consists of four character-based monologue sets: “Autobiography of a Cape” (as spoken by Clark Kent/Superman), “The Jor-El Tapes” (as transcribed by the late father of the infant Kal-El, aka Clark, aka Superman, prior to the destruction of Krypton), “The Secret Diaries of Lois Lane” (as written by the ace reporter regarding the trials and benefits of her dating of, and engagement to, Kal/Clark/Superman), and “Lex Luthor’s Complaint” (which is, I think, the first prison manifesto composed by a licensed supervillain.)
These four sections are preceded with the solitary “I Kent”, an introduction by way of disaffected and psychologically compromised lament:
Listen, it isn’t even my planet.
I just work here. A man of letters, mild
mannered, nerves of less than steel. Yes, I can
outrun most anything—thieves, mid-range sports
sedans, Shoemaker-Levy—can chew
a mouthful of coal to a cud of diamonds,
but I’m not as Delphic as you dream. I get
sleep apnea, hemorrhoids, runs in my tights.
And so we begin, by returning immediately to a familiar convention and the equally familiar, in fact predictable, convention of reversal. Knowledge of Superman is tantamount to the dismantling of Superman; the mockery of the type, the what-if (how does he shave? How does he fuck? Why does he wear his underwear on the outside?) is actually more commonly understood and practiced than is what we mock. Dietrich is hyper-aware of this hazard, and while he doesn’t circumvent it utterly, he more than halfway redeems the contradictory impulse to gawk at the mythological and bask in it.
Krypton Nights’ dependence on myth intrigues because Dietrich does not commit a depredation of the popular by assuming it suspect. He knows the iconography of Superman is necessarily laced with the consequences of a half-century of serialization; he strikes a cautious balance between assumed points of reference (Krypton, Luthor) and degrees of more intimate detail (the Fortress of Solitude, the mermaid Lori Lemaris, the Legion of Super-Heroes). While refusing to discount the cumulative effect, the archaic strata of myth-building, he also finds room for mythopoetic correlatives in his intensive and frequent referencing of Judeo-Christian text and habit.
This is a happy and prudent choice. The more immediate Super-affinity is Greco-Roman: the spectacle of unalloyed form, physique as metaphor and artifice. When Superman is mistook as a god, it is not often as the god of Abraham; collapsing such polychromatic sensationalism into such a text-rich tradition, and one leavened with moral uncertainty and remorse, leads the collection to periodically inspired flights:
On my planet we read books. Our own.
others’. Little, it is said, escapes
us. Your people have a story,
of Jepthah, the Gileadite. You claim
him unwilling conscience to the carnage
n his blood, his people’s. now what this meant
to your Hebrews—this sacrificial pact
a man made with an often arbitrary
God, promising up of first meat,
of the first active soul across his
threshold to deitary hunger (this,
the deepest cut your story gives),
the accidental indenture of his only
daughter—what this meant, in exchange for luck
in battle, I have only the vaguest clue.
from “On Jephthah”
This is a cool appraisal, but when you consider that it is offered as an address to an alien world made by a moody scientist who is about to sacrifice his son in the possibly vain hope that the boy will escape the conflagration set to consume his antiseptic birthworld, and when you consider further that the father knows he will afflicting (or gifting) this new host world with a de facto divinity . . .
Of course, that’s a lot to consider, isn’t it?
The alternative strategy Krypton Nights suggests is one that more closely resembles the voyeurism to which we subject our most proximate icons. In “The Secret Diaries of Lois Lane”, we are offered the following meditations:
1. What is it like to love a man with a secret identity?
2. What is it like to love a man of deathless physical perfection?
3. What is it like to have aero-sex with this man?
4. Are his sperm as superior in form and function as his more global attributes?
5. My God, how to manage the wedding party?
6. What it will be like for him when everything he knows withers and suffers the time to which he is immune?
The problem with these questions isn’t that they are trite or of the schoolyard. The problem is the reverse: the woman given to ask them is a woman about whom we know too much to validate the rhetoric of poetic inquiry. In the culture of impassioned comics scholarship, this is known as a problem of continuity. Lois Lane just doesn’t talk like this:
. . . Canopic jars
too, those many-headed urns jammed
with the body’s imperfect jewels, mummies,
the urge for children even, the pagan plates
adopted by Rome and traded up for tombstones . . .
Gee whiz, Miss Lane!
I am perfectly aware that on one level this is the pettiest of all possible complaints. If Dietrich cannot claim the liberty to change the terms of his mythological fodder, then he is left with no option but to gild or reify it, thereby likely defeating whatever aspect of the material he first found provocative.
Nevertheless, Krypton Nights relies on more than one model of material change, and the one that demands superior consideration is the superior method. The voices of Clark and Lois are inevitably distortions of the diction (and the identities delimited by that diction) with which the readership can be either minimally or pathologically familiar. The problem is that Dietrich needs this familiarity in order to make his conceit operate; an utterly known Superman has no properties upon which the poet can elaborate. To attach to these characters sentiments and bases of knowledge, bathroom ejaculations and applique woes, is to immediately erode the very impossible but very necessary clarity we bring to the myth. The moment Superman achieves a pedestrian status is the moment in which the possibility of appreciating that irony dissolves. What-if can never become what-is.
Fortunately, Dietrich has discovered a vector of insertion that bears less fatal and more fruitful changes to the myth-narrative. Relative to Lois and Clark, Jor-El and Lex Luthor are unknowns: one dead and rarely imagined, the other long a cipher, a foil with only the most cursory inner life. What Dietrich does with these two is glittering and grievous and altogether unnerving: the authority of their monologues is absolute. It is no accident, then, that it is these two whose historical and spiritual speculations take on their most accelerated (and touching) forms. What Dietrich has correctly intuited is that it is the adoption of the cast-off, the negligible, that generates resource—these are lights by which the once-unimagined can be illuminated as the now-necessary. To seize the focal light itself, the Son and Sun of Krypton, is to elide the very object whose untrammeled force casts the shadows that Jor-El and Luthor inhabit. Their poetries are possible because they obtain in the realm of what cannot be said, but must only be suspected, so that the myth-favored may speak with their enameled tongues and persist in their perfections.
Perhaps, since Krypton Nights is not just myth but the quotidian context of myth, we should refer only to these incessant returns to the capital-M-myths to illuminate the range of what Dietrich has, at his most daring, achieved. I like to think of the frequency with which the Metamorphoses suffer translation, and the rate at which snippets and turns from the original have found their way into subsequent poems. The glory of the Metamorphoses is that they are themselves appropriations: uninvented and common, Ovid used them with disregard for their function but with utter respect for their features. When we return to this work, we return because of the power afforded by that prior recklessness; what we too often abstract from the reading, however, is a toxic confusion of what can be preserved as sacred and what the sacred elicits or obscures.
Krypton Nights is precisely one-half majesty. Dietrich’s tenderness to the unknown never decays into the sap of raw sentiment or facile psychologizing; he gives his greatest intelligence to those who must live in an imagined world with a very real Superman.
I’ll let Luthor have the last word here, since he earns it so rarely in the real world, the one Dietrich knows his figures both must and cannot inhabit:
Instead, when I am even older yet—my hands
no longer heavy with his restraining
clause—I will show my grandchildren a torn
cape, some singed tights, and watch them shrink, point,
adorn me with aahs. Only then will I suffer
the interest of children. Come to me, I might
say, trace my tracks, my crow cracks, the long ladder
each scar has become. He thought he was eternal,
but he couldn’t grow old.
In this is the truth of obvious paradox, Talmudic and recursive, and it is here Dietrich and his new gods find their truest home.