Aug 16 2022
Poetry review – EXTERMINATING ANGELS: Charles Rammelkamp reflects on Alan Catlin’s willingness to confront life’s misfortunes
Alan Catlin’s poetry has always been filled with profiles of tragic, pathetic, unlucky and just plain stupid characters, full of the hubris that brings down so many of the protagonists of Greek drama, American fiction or Hollywood films. Catlin’s also known for repurposing and/or reconsidering art, movies, music and exploring the lives of the artists who create them, often shining a sinister light on their tortured souls. Vincent Van Gogh and David Lynch don’t take a lot of adjustments to reach that perspective, nor do Stephen Crane and Diane Arbus, necessarily. But Catlin has his own unique perspective and expertly employs language to illuminate his vision.
Exterminating Angels is full of desperate characters, very ordinary people whose shabby stories he improbably props up by association with works of art – or perhaps explains or indeed illuminates is the right word, gives them universal relevance. Take the poem, “Sympathy for the Devil,” after the iconic Rolling Stones number.
After an extended childhood spent watching MTV stoned on whatever he could score, he had the alt-rock look down: Doom Cult t-shirt, sleeveless and soiled, washed from black to almost gray, beyond tight dragged out jeans, pointed shit kicker boots, all the facial hair he could grow beneath requisite medusa knot locks.
If we haven’t all known somebody like this, we’re all too familiar with him regardless. Catlin spells out the fantasies of stardom that swim in his head and then tells us, “In real life he was a / wannabe roadie known for his skill / at rolling perfect doobies and not / much else.” Despite his self-destructive impulses, we pity him nevertheless, flinching at the train wreck that his life will inevitably be.
And so it goes with the other cringe-worthy lowlifes that slither through these poems, portrayed under the marquees with the glamorous billings, names up in lights. “Live and Let Die”? Are we looking for Roger Moore as James Bond? McCartney crooning the title song? A character who lives up to his fantasy life, the legend in his own mind?
In his dreams, the women all have porn star names: Monica Mayhem, Lexxi Love, Victoria Sin. All of them ached for his He Man body, though in real life, he resembled Oliver Hardy after a week’s long Roman feast that the emperor Nero would have enjoyed.
Exterminating Angels is divided into three parts, “Pulp Fiction” (after Tarantino), “American Psycho” (after Bret Easton Ellis) and “Exterminating Angels” (after Luis Bunuel), the titles of poems coming from noir movies, novels, and songs, juxtaposing jaded Hollywood glitter with the kind of quiet desperation that usually goes unnoticed. “As I Lay Dying” channels the gothic Faulkner novel about the burial of Addie Bundren.
The only reason he’d never slept with his sister was that his father never got around to having another child. Was like one of those Faulkner backwoods characters, more feral than human.
“The Crying Game” features an MTA cop convinced of his superiority. “Patriot Games,” “Jaws,” “Murder, My Sweet,” “Born on the Fourth of July”: these are some of the movie titles that Catlin uses for his poems about losers and psychopaths. The character Catlin writes about (in the poem after the Oliver Stone movie about the Vietnam veteran cum peacenik Ron Kovic, starring Tom Cruise) is a guy who sees himself as the Christopher Walken character in another tragic Vietnam film, “Deer Hunter.” A daredevil, he takes one too many chances and winds up “reduced to earning his folding money / racing motorized wheelchairs over / uneven sidewalks or cars through / intersections against the turning light.”
The exterminating angels in the title poem?
Once they had been someone’s little girls, off to college in preppie clothes and jeans, who were, by junior year, looking like they’d been kidnapped by Rastafarians who braided their waist-length hair into dreds, clothed them all in Marley t-shirts, no bras allowed, and distressed jeans so torn, the fabric was more for preventing complete display of what was underneath than actual clothing.
These girls form a sad punk band, but you can tell they aren’t going to be successful. Another desolate, depressing existence that’s somehow derailed.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Stepford Wives,” “Lust for Life,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Night of the Living Dead”: Catlin vividly captures the freak gallery of the underbelly of American life and throws it back at us in all its mock glamor. “Look Homeward, Angel”:
From twenty feet away she looked a wayward angel, a silent screen It girl strutting her stuff and proud of it. Up close and personal, plastic surgery scars suggested a prototype for Bride of Frankenstein too ugly for a screen test or animation.
While the lives Catlin portrays are bleak, it must also be acknowledged that Alan Catlin has a flair for the deadpan comic. The wannabe rock star, the wannabe cocksman – all shown in their comic tragedy almost like characters from slapstick taking pratfalls on the stage. My favorite is the opening of the poem, “The Family” (think, Manson?):
The family were all jesus junkies spouting Old Testament verses from Genesis all the way to Exorcist.
Alan Catlin’s poetry is never exactly “uplifting,” but it does provide a perspective we can all use as a sort of mithridatic curative against the poisons of crushing disappointment life can throw our way, the odd healing that comes exposure to everyday tragedy.