The Resuscitation of Rhapsody; or, Can Anybody Make Art Anymore Without Someone Comparing it to Game of Thrones?
Who the hell writes poetry anymore?
Maybe I was the only one thinking that as I shuffled to my cramped booth at Joe’s Pub and ordered a slightly overpriced cocktail before the beginning of Icarus in the L.E.S. by Nic Adams, performed by Ronald Peet. I once considered myself a poet, read lots of poetry, gave my poetry to unsuspecting friends and acquaintances who gave me disinterested or downright terrified looks in response. I know there are plenty of open mic nights, slams, and salons that recur nightly in various locations all over the city. I know people actually do this: write and read and listen to poetry. But why? An impassioned Naropa student once said very loudly through a microphone that “poetry is how we restore meaning to language.” I thought that was straight bullshit.
But here Adams was bringing us a nearly 60-minute performance of nothing but poetry. And not just any poetry, but a poetry that hearkens back to the very foundation of western poiesis: the ancient Greeks. Wherefore Adams? Wherefore?!
I’m going to reference Emily Dickinson at this point because why not and there’s a potent connection between her definition of poetry and the most startling part of Icarus. You’ll hear more about that later. Our dear Emily said that she knows poetry when it feels like the top of her head has been taken off. Gruesome, truly, Emily, but a sufficient definition for the surprise and wonder I feel when I’ve experienced great poetry. It’s also an image that’s easier to visualize thanks to the cultural phenomenon that is Game of Thrones. But that’s another story. Let’s get into this thing of Icarus now.
Ronald Peet is the ringmaster of Icarus, an Emcee who also plays all the dozens of parts in the poem. Icarus, having seemingly learned the lessons of his doomed helio-proximal journey, has somehow procured some swank digs in NYC surrounded by the entirety of his mythological cohort. His new path is poetry. And what kind of a poet is Icarus? He seems to be a haphazard one at best, winning an open mic night after improvising a ridiculous haiku (which somehow has 8 syllables in the middle line) and fainting on stage. This is no epic Greek hero. Ultimately, the character invoked is an everyman Icarus, one who has plunged into the teeming mass of bohemian New York. This is where my exegesis began to take shape. My first thought was of the first Daniel Craig Bond movie Casino Royale. Ostensibly showing the beginning of 007’s illustrious career, the blonde Bond makes more than a few mistakes on his way to achieving his goal. The beauty of this reboot was the opportunity to see an almost all-powerful character stumble his way to greatness. Perhaps our Icarus is taking a similar route? But let’s get back to the show for a moment.
Icarus isn’t the only ancient who has taken up residence in NYC. Early on, after arriving at his lover’s apartment, Icarus takes the key dropped from an upper floor and enters to find Hephaestus working as a building superintendent pounding away at a lightning bolt in the dark stairwell while mumbling about delayed building repairs. He catches sight of him again later working on a new residential development. There are many other characters plucked from Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, but Hephaestus gives me a chance to develop this reboot idea further. Hephaestus is a complicated character, but not in Icarus. Here, he is a shallow reference, depicted in a way that makes him instantly recognizable but without all of the agonizing depth of a complicated and contradictory back story. He’s not the focal point of the tale, but he is present. It was at this point I realized that it is not a Bond reboot that resembles the happenings of Icarus, but one of the many group superhero movies that abound at present.
Adams has selected for himself an exhausted field: the remaking of ancient Greek mythology with a dash of Judeo-Christianity thrown in. Here is the problem for Icarus: how is one to climb a mountain when all the handholds have been worn so slick by countless other climbers that no human hand could possibly find purchase on them? It is an impossible task, and I find that the poem’s most riveting moments come when Adams transmutes some ancient material into something surprising. Essentially, when he melts the aforementioned mountain down and forms it anew. It works when he takes the stalwarts of Greek mythology and does a reboot in the style of so many superhero movies.
These moments come when Adams lets the whimsy fly. The severed head of Homer is a peculiar highlight of the performance, it being just the head of a statue of Homer dangling above a bath tub in some SoHo loft transported straight from the 1970s. I feel ashamed for making such a literal reference to our dear Emily’s words, but it is purely coincidence I assure you. The severed head has an empty throat and speaks when wind passes through it. It’s something of an intelligent Aeolian harp, which is a truly startling and beautiful image. It is this sequence, one that Peet performs with aplomb, that delves into the severed head of Homer’s past, his exploits, his mishaps and trials, where I found the show’s high point. The severed head of Homer has been degraded, discarded in wintry sidewalk snow mounds and forgotten inside the walk-in refrigerator of some swank restaurant before being hung on a meat hook above the bath tub. At one point, the repeated line from earlier in the poem “New York don’t love you” snaps into greater focus when applied to the disembodied head of Homer. Even the greats aren’t immune to the indifference of New York. I certainly felt the indifference shelling out money for required drink purchases at Joe’s Pub. New York don’t love me, it just wants my money. And this head of Homer, who would no doubt complement any shabby-chic décor, has it even worse but nonetheless continues wheezing encouragement to our poet/hero.
Adams has picked a tough field to cover what with the luminescence of such poets as H.D. (Helen was never in Troy!) and others who also took their cues from the Greeks. When tripping over the same New York and ancient mythologies that so many poets have previously tripped over, the newness of Icarus gets lost in the cultural maze. When Adams goes deep into the most bizarre fantasies of how the ancients could possibly exist in NYC, he makes something magical, something not unlike a superhero reboot for poetry with all of its formational tales, struggles with limited power, and exploration of changing ethics through the millenia. But now there is no more dactylic hexameter; Adams’ is the free verse of modern poetics. No more gods telling individuals what to do; Adams plays with the dizzying subjectivity of the modern world. And no more separation between the mythos and the mundane; just like in the overloaded world of superhero movies and TV, the gods and demigods walk among us, scribble poetry, and get sucked into the sky after some primo love making. It’s a messy, jumbled work throughout, and it doesn’t always take the top of my head off. But I don’t think any long poem can accomplish that. To get back to the question at the top: Nic Adams is still writing poetry, probably because it is only suitable that he invoke ancient characters and themes using the tools which brought them to life in the first place.