Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Book of the Undead, Part Two: Ce Rosenow Reviews Ryan Mecum's Vampire Haiku

This past April, P&PC turned to haiku expert Ce Rosenow to get her take on Ryan Mecum's 2008 collection Zombie Haiku. Now—and just in time for the season three premiere of a little HBO series called True Blood—Rosenow returns with a review of Mecum's follow-up volume, Vampire Haiku (2009). What's her verdict on the 400-year love story and bloody romp through American history featuring cameos by Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger? It's something to hang a fang in—but not for the reasons you think.

Part II: Vampire Haiku

Vampire Haiku, the second book in Ryan Mecum’s Horror Haiku series, basically follows the same recipe as his earlier volume, Zombie Haiku. The humor, book design, and references to popular culture adapt the basic formula of Zombie Haiku to accommodate the experiences of Vampire Haiku's main vampire, William Butten. Also like the first book, the poems in Vampire Haiku sustain a narrative and are presented as entries in the protagonist’s haiku journal. Unlike the first book in the series, however, Vampire Haiku has a serious subtext that distinguishes it from Zombie Haiku and perhaps gives the reader something more to, well, sink her teeth into. It suggests that American history and culture, from colonial times on, is inextricably linked to violence.

The narrative begins in 1620 England with young William composing in his haiku journal: “red sunlight burns through / with the approaching new dawn. / Time for me to go.” This anachronistic opening—the haiku only became a poetic form decades later with the work of Matsuo Basho and others, and the form itself didn’t find its way from Japan to England until the 19th century—emphasizes that Mecum isn’t interested in creating an accurate version of haiku history. In addition, as discussed in my review of Zombie Haiku, he isn’t interested in maintaining the formal characteristics of literary haiku either. Instead, Mecum is interested in using a love story to comment on American history.

First, the love story. William Butten and Katherine Carver were English travelers on the Mayflower. Vampire Haiku imagines that they meet on board, a la Kate and Leo in Titanic, and locates their love story in the New World. Using the names of actual passengers on the Mayflower for these vampire characters begins the book’s critique because it suggests a lack of essential humanity in America’s founders. Katherine turns William into a vampire, and William then kills Katherine’s vampire husband (John Carver, the Governor at Plymouth) so that nothing impedes the blossoming relationship: “If you are in love / with a married vampire girl, / make her a widow.” Unfortunately for the new couple, the murder brings too much attention. Katherine leaves to spend several centuries evading capture, while William searches through those centuries for his lost beloved: “I know she was here. / The paper had a story / about some odd deaths.” Although Katherine occasionally resurfaces, she always disappears again.

During William’s quest to find Katherine, he participates in—and feasts at—an array of significant historical events, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars:

A revolution
that leads to war and bloodshed
is like one long meal.

My country at war:
When 600,000 die,
eating gets easy.

William also participates in the Battle of the Alamo, turning Davy Crockett into a vampire who later returns as David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect, and he appears at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, as well. William’s presence at these events helps sustain the synchronicity between American history and violence that runs throughout the book. Certainly vampires would show up at events with significant carnage; however, constructing an American history comprised largely of events that create such carnage also characterizes that history as one rife with brutality.

In addition to historical events, William also encounters many famous historical figures during his quest. Some, like Amelia Earhart, are already vampires; others, such as Emily Dickinson and J. D. Salinger, are turned by William. These cameos are typically humorous: “It wasn’t the crash. / Amelia Earhart was killed / because of sunlight.” Nevertheless, they also suggest that America’s icons were, beneath their famous personae, monsters; the best writers and adventurers that America can produce are inhuman, which signals—or so Mecum's logic goes—an inherent lack of humanity within America itself.

Other figures are even more disturbing in their connections to real-life acts of violence. Consider this haiku about the serial killer, Son of Sam:

So he worked for me.
I didn’t tell him my name
but he called me Sam.

And again the cult leader, David Koresh:

He felt safe in forts.
This one was Alamo-like,
except filled with girls.

While it might be amusing to think about Amelia Earhart as a vampire, the two instances above reference individuals charged with serial murder, child abuse, and statutory rape. Such references suggest that the brutality of American history exists not only in large-scale events like colonization or war, but also in the American individual.

As a vampire, William consistently treats human tragedies with irreverent humor which lessens the sense that these experiences are in any way lamentable in a violent culture. Note his response to the difficult years of the Great Depression:

The Great Depression.
Great for making more homeless;
not too depressing.

Flimsy little homes,
which some folks call Hoovervilles,
I call lunchboxes.

William also views mining disasters as a chance for feasting:

Sometimes I would cause
coal mining caves to collapse;
me inside with them.

To time it just right,
drink your last dying miner
as help shovels through.

William’s irreverence emphasizes that these events are less preventable or avoidable calamities than simply characteristics of human existence and opportunities for (in)human predators.

A haiku about MySpace, takes William’s indifference for human life one step further. The poem itself is funny: “Checking the menu, / officially called MySpace, / for a bite to eat.” When read against the accompanying illustration of a MySpace page filled with young girls, one of whom is circled in pen, it becomes much more disturbing. The reader moves away from associating the poem and image with a fictional vampire and toward the reality of young girls falling victim to predators they meet online.

In the end, the relationship between vampire and human violence is the book’s most interesting achievement. Overlapping the fictional realm of vampires with the brutality of war or the deprivations of the Great Depression, and weaving together the acts of American serial killers, cult leaders, and online sexual predators with the vampire identities of famous people, undercuts the belief that instances of shocking individual cruelty belong to a small group of extremists. Anyone, Vampire Haiku suggests, can become a monster, including the average citizen and America’s revered icons.

Reading vampire violence against American violence suggests that the inhuman actions of the vampire are actually all too human and ultimately American. Mecum's narrative does not abandon this suggestion as it concludes its love story with a reference to American television history. A vampire slayer (not Buffy, but I won’t spoil the surprise) kills Katherine, and William must endure eternity without her. At first he contemplates suicide-by-sunlight but then realizes, “She created me / and her creation will live / with her memory.” He discards his haiku journal and moves from America’s past into America’s present with the same haiku that begins the narrative: “Red sunlight burns through / with the approaching new dawn. / Time for me to go.” In other words, the bloodshed will continue.

Ce Rosenow founded Mountains and Rivers Press in Eugene, Oregon, and is current president of the Haiku Society of America. For a recent interview with her, check out "Fast Five with Ce Rosenow."