Aug 27 2022
Poetry review – INTERSTELLAR THEME PARK: Charles Rammelkamp accompanies Jack Skelley down a pop-culture memory lane
In a sense, Interstellar Theme Park is “Jack Skelley’s Greatest Hits,” a metaphor that especially works because so much of this book rocks and rolls through pop culture, dancing irreverently to the soundtrack of the last third of the twentieth century. New and Selected Writing is the subtitle. Think High Tide and Green Grass, the first Rolling Stones’ greatest hits compilation. The Stones loom large in section 7 of this collection, called “Rawk!”
Interstellar Theme Park is an apt title for this collection, suggesting not only the fantastical, absurd, surreal nature of the trip Skelley takes us on but the sheer comic fun and the constant bombardment of our attention in today’s online/on-air world. It is also the title of the very first poem in the book – in the “Planet of Toys” section. That poem reads like the rant of the unleashed id, almost every line beginning with “I want.”
I want quasi-suspended animation (genital arousal optional) I want a planet of toys I want a jihad of joys And a gulag of Karens I want Rimbaudian grammar police I want Stormy Daniels balloon rides
And the list goes on: “I want Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to levitate the Tomorrowland Terrace.”
Interstellar Theme Park consists of eight sections, sampling like a DJ from forty years of Skelley’s creative work. “Planet of Toys” channels scripture and the movies. “Product Placement” highlights the gaudy super-saturation of commercialized “product.” “Artificial Heart” continues to explore the incessant craving that motivates us (“You Make Everything Move Me” satirizes desire to the tune of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”) “Toxic Assets” delves into political culture, especially during the Reagan years. The poem, “Toxic Assets,” like “Interstellar Theme Park” and others, is constructed, mantra-like, around a repeated phrase – “It wasn’t.”
It wasn’t Joe the Plumber or someone dumber. It wasn’t Bernie Madoff or Rod Blagojevich or any other sonofabitch. It wasn’t a house of cards scattered, and it wasn’t lives shattered to shards. It wasn’t “clean coal” or “safe nuclear energy.” It wasn’t a carbon Bigfoot. It wasn’t the shoe bomber or the shoe thrower. It wasn’t the Pentagon and it wasn’t the Octomom.
Again, the catalogue of outraged, indignant denial goes on, until, punchline-like, Skelley tells us, “It’s that they were all insured against failing.” And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the so-called American dream, the rigged deck.
Section five, “Athena Del Rey,” contains riffs on Pac-Man and Marie Osmond, more poems and rants on the cult of celebrity. The poem, “Athena Del Rey,” begins as a mock press release: “Homeland Secretary Miley Cyrus announced today the appointment of Lana Del Rey as new Chief Avatar of Pandemic Defense.” Section six is appropriately called “Disneyland,” that original California theme park dreamland, and then comes “Rawk!” with its vignettes about the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys. The concluding section contains excerpts from Skelley’s decades-long work-in-progress that maps the punk underground of 1980’s Los Angeles, “Fear of Kathy Acker,” a sort of homage to the spirit of the postmodernist punk writer whose transgressive writing flourished in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some of Skelley’s biblical satire in the first section reads like Groucho-esque one-liners. “Old Testament Role Reversal” goes: “Job’s lot was Lot’s job.” “Totalogy” goes: “Sometimes fate is inevitable.” (Can you see that in a Chinese fortune cookie?) “Shit-Lit” goes: “I invented YOLO, then I got Me-Too’d.” You Only Live Once. “Non-Binary” is especially clever:
They say there are 2 kinds of people: People who divide people into 2 kinds of people, and people who don’t. Put me in that group.
Cue the rim shot. “ba-dum-bum-CHING.”
Jack Skelley is essentially a sit-down comic. His Falstaffian vulgarity lights up the page. Take “Reagan Is an Old Fart” from the “Toxic Assets” section:
Reagan is an Old Fart. Reagan is a stinky oily fart seeping out the anus of an old corpulent Boss masturbating in the Dark. Reagan is the fart and everyone smells it every day.
BlazeVOX has done a splendid job with the presentation of this volume. Each section begins with an astonishing Pop-art-like illustration: Ronnie Reagan popping out of a television set; a happy white family at Disneyland framed by Mickey Mouse’s ears; Brian Jones’s fractured face in a guitar. The cover art depicts a spaceship with three people aboard, as if in a ride at an amusement park but somewhere out there in deep space. Erin Alexander did the illustrations.
I found the five vignettes about Brian Jones particularly intriguing, from his supreme self-confidence in the early stages of the Rolling Stones, through his meeting with Anita Pallenberg, their break-up, the rest of the band (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, who had stolen Anita from Brian, Charlie Watts) offering Jones £100,000 to leave the band, and finally to the asthmatic Jones’s sad drowning. No less intriguing are the six selections about the Beach Boys and their association with Charles Manson.
Interstellar Theme Park revisits the trauma and glitz of an earlier time that persists today in the gods and idols the culture elevates. As Skelley notes in his introduction, one “lifelong, obsessive theme persists: a perverse celebration of pop iconography.”
And these icons, he notes, are essentially comic.