Rambo Goes to Idaho by Scott Abels
(BlazeVOX, Buffalo, N.Y., 2011)
I wish I had a less Herbal Essences way to say this, but it is invigorating to read Scott Abels’s Rambo Goes to Idaho (BlazeVOX, 2011). Rambo is so truly strange, strange to its very core, that it reminds me what multitudes one book, and one person, can contain. This is not the only way in which Rambo brings to my mind Leaves of Grass: both are rooted in power and possibility, but shot through with gentleness and specificity. Many of Abels’s poems are in couplets, often end-stopped and sometimes seemingly unrelated to each other. Those couplets can feel like words streaming across a ticker tape display—context-less blips of information, coming in over the transom. But in the unexpected movement between stanzas, the variety of tones and voices, and surprising bursts of lush lyricism, Abels creates strange and beautiful new contexts. From the book’s first poem, “Screenplay”:
Rambo’s matching panties.
Never anything in his Inbox. …
Releasing the grip from his neck:
I am not my conflict.
Nearly every couplet in the poem consists of one of these micro-scenes, an image culled from the collective cultural consciousness, conveyed with familiar wording. What makes it new is the relentless build-up of these scenes across the poem, and Rambo being their star. Abels takes language and sentiments other poets would leave for dead—“matching panties,” “I am not my conflict”—and rather than trashing them, he repurposes them. In the space between stanzas, before Rambo plunges headfirst into another cliché, I read passivity—there is something pathetic in Rambo’s alacrity, his extra’s willingness to appear at, say, “the key party.”
As these bits of “Screenplay” suggest, Abels has a brilliant ear for the tones and sounds of American life and popular culture. For example, in the poem “Time to decide. What don’t we know,” he writes,
It was time to write about action
and adventure, hazards and traps,
one solid word
for something the body registers
as poison, and frickin’
wasn’t in the dictionary.
It is kind of exciting to see frickin’ standing boldly the end of the line here, appearing right before the verb just as it might in casual speech. And that effect is amped up by the other tones Abels conveys in the tiny space of these three stanzas—the Hardy Boys-ish tone of the first stanza and the more poetical tone of the second stanza.
The book has a pleasantly messy feeling that contributes to its sense of strangeness; after “Screenplay” there is another poem in which Rambo is a character, then we are presented with Rambo’s MFA thesis, Angel vs. Ghost, which is split into several sections with titles like “Karl Rove Will Be Your Graduating Speaker” and “SEXUALLY DEPRIVED FOR YOUR FREEDOM.” None of the poems in Angel vs. Ghost are titled; rather, individual poems are identified on the table of contents by their first lines.
My favorite poems in the book are labeled “Obituaries/Erasures: from The Idaho Statesman,” and despite being erasures, Abels has kept them generally obituary-like and character-driven. They filled with gorgeous lines, among them my favorite in the entire book, and my favorite thing I have read in a long time, “There will never be enough words / to describe this.” Also in the “Karl Rove” section but on their own page are the birth and death dates of Robin Bush (George W.’s sister, who died as a child) and Reba Rove (Karl’s mother, who committed suicide). Though there were moments throughout Rambo where I was unable to parse tone or meaning, this was the only moment where my inability to understand intention detracted from my overall reading. I felt directed toward a specific conclusion, but I did not know why, or what that conclusion was.
Several lines stood out for me as potentially metapoetical. Toward the beginning of Rambo’s thesis, Abels writes (quite arrestingly, to my ear), “Fuck the intersection of anything” and, later, “Fuck metaphors for depth forever.” These statements feel connected both because of their similar construction and because of how they seem to instruct or inform our reading. Their tone, and the unique tone of much of this book, seems like that of a child narrowing her eyes when she is playing at being evil or angry—it is Nerf-gun fierce, comic but not entirely harmless. At other times, the tone is one of more direct critique, and Abels has a way of intensifying and reviving this more familiar type of tone: he is critical and political without seeming angry. I find an example of that type of tone in the poem “I am a limo.” Abels writes,
I am planting
hot dog seeds.
I am here waiting
a historical fax
from my cold dead pants
(it’s like throwing
an orange at an orange)
from a cult of Corn.
I have come from
This poem, from the section “Victory Punch,” critiques the kind of jingoistic language and sentiment Rambo would probably unabashedly accept—but alongside that critique, I think, is a genuine interest in and even admiration for that language and mindset. “I am a limo,” like other poems throughout the book, recalls for me Rae Armantrout’s work in its clipped couplets and the mishmash of American cultural signifiers through which a speaker must navigate. But while Armantrout’s speaker often exists to critique this wasteland, Abels’s speaker is heroically, perhaps slightly tragically, planting hot dog seeds in it.
Abels achieves moments of deep beauty and pathos in the midst of the ridiculous. For example, in the poem “Be sober, but have some beer for after,” the three-line stanza, “Your donut made you smile, / mumbling how we suffer. / Your cheeseburger made you tired.” Wedged between a donut and cheeseburger (as actual suffering so often is), the middle line anchors the stanza and the poem—for me, it becomes like a beating heart around which the haphazard essaying of the rest of the poem moves.
Rambo is nearly suspenseful for me, because of Abels’ ability to, in an instant, part the tide of the familiar and deliver a gorgeous line seemingly out of nowhere. As American as their hero is, reading Scott Abels’s poems feels like being driven by a good driver through a foreign countryside: you have no idea where you’re going, or what the rules are, but you trust him entirely. What could be better?
Lucy Biederman is the author of a chapbook, The Other World (Dancing Girl Press), and many poems, some of which are forthcoming or have appeared recently in The Portland Review, Gargoyle, Many Mountains Moving, and Shampoo.