By Jerome Sala
In the 1960s, Guy Debord offered a now iconic description of contemporary society as “an immense accumulation of spectacles,” where “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” One might update his statement for our own time as “an immense accumulation of ‘content’ where the directly lived has now become just another story.”
To anyone who works in any form of communications, the phrase “it’s all about story” has become a mind-numbing cliché. There are so many stories now being told by so many people through so many channels, that each, no matter how dramatic, seems to mean less and less. Such a glut leaves contemporary writers with a challenge: how to tell a tale that actually means something?
Tony Trigilio’s Proof Something Happened and Jack Skelley’s Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson offer two solutions to this dilemma. Both are hybrid books, mixing poetry and prose, re-telling tales from popular culture. Both authors are “hackers” in the sense that media theorist McKenzie Wark defines the term: they are cultural workers who produce new information out of old. To do so, both authors refresh, and in some cases abandon, storytelling conventions. By rewiring the form of spectacular narratives, they awaken the content; and these narratives begin to actually speak again. Both tales are embedded in 1960s history; through their skillful re-telling, we get to experience the period through the inner landscapes of some of its key pop-culture figures.
Tony Trigilio’s Proof Something Happened
Trigilio, a professor of creative writing at Columbia College, Chicago, is no stranger to working with material from pop culture. Among his previous collections is The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), a multi-volume project that offers a poem on each episode of the classic Dark Shadows television show. The poems in Proof Something Happened center around one of the original UFO abduction stories, that of Betty and Barney Hill, which occurred in 1961. The book won the 2020 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize, judged by Susan Howe.
A book that seeks to add something original to such material is faced with a problem. Whether or not humans have actually been captured by beings from outer space, it’s certainly true that our culture industry has abducted aliens. Such tales, which once carried a mystical, “culty,” underground aura, have now been exploited to the max—so much so that when new visions are reported, they don’t carry any more charge than the latest Elvis sighting, or worse, feel like just more clickbait.
One of the many virtues of Proof Something Happened is that it captures the original wonder and terror of such tales. More than that, the book encourages empathy and sympathy with Betty and Barney Hill. Rather than ironic winking, you feel what its figures are feeling. Trigilio makes three conceptual moves to accomplish this feat:
First, a return to original sources: Working within the tradition of Ed Sanders’s Investigative Poetry, these poems arise out of original research: journals, hypnosis transcriptions, memoirs, television coverage, letters and postcards sent to Betty Hill, and other documents. As a result, there is a sense of time travel: the documentarian style brings you back to the originary moments. You feel you are as close as possible to actual events. The poems also sound like their time period. From the Introduction: “Whether the book’s language is adapted from original archival documents or invented by the writer, its only purpose is to deepen the verisimilitude of the book’s historical narrative.”
Second, realism: The Hill’s tale is full of shock and wonder. But rather than adopt some sort of exaggerated rhetorical tone, the events the poems describe are rendered with great verisimilitude. The writing brings the spectacular down to earth, heightening its believability:
A sack of bone-meal fertilizer steady
in the trunk, Staccato, stomp—
song of the blackout at daybreak—
electronic beeps like someone
dropped tuning forks all over
the back of the Bel Air. Staccato, fizz,
Betty sagged her cheek against
the passenger window, their car missing
in gimp thrusts, sputters. Stared
at the cigarette she didn’t know
how to light…
And, finally, Rashomon style: Each of the documents collected in Proof Something Happened offers a different perspective. Providing a symphony of tones, the book communicates its story without relying on a single, narrative structure, and without sketching out a plot, event by event. Freed from the traditional logic and conventions of storytelling, a number of the poems draw you deep into the minds of their characters. Evolutionary literary critic Brian Boyd offers insight into why this approach is effective. He writes: “freedom from narrative allows thought to shape its own contexts and prompts,” mirroring the way we actually think. Thus, such poetry “allows us the illusion of access to another’s thoughts.”
The associational logic of many of these poems creates a convincing sense of interiority. Here is an example from a poem based on one of the hypnosis sessions Barney Hill underwent to recover his memory of “missing time”:
…At least once in my life very late
at night, I’ve felt the presence of another.
The poor bunny thought he was safe. I wanted to hear
a jet, kept thinking it was a plane—a cigar flying sideways
in front of the moon. Wanted to hear a hum.
To hear a motor. It’s got to be—I’m a practiced
Piper Cub watcher and I wanted to hear a jet, badly….
They dragged me up a ramp and I didn’t want to open
my eyes. I pounced, threw my hat on him and captured
the poor little rabbit who thought he was safe.
The result of such access is that you are drawn into the minds Betty and Barney Hill, and you start to identify with their emotions. You want their visions to be real. But the book isn’t simply about inner visions. Through details let slip along the way, we get the sense of the threats the Hills face in 1961 America because they are an interracial couple. Barney Hill, in fact, carries a gun to protect them. One can’t help but feel this outer reality informed what they witnessed. To Betty, the aliens seem like fascists (who look upon them as mere experimental subjects). Of such beings, she remarks, “I had the feeling that if we had died, they wouldn’t have been too bothered.”
In the end, Betty and Barney Hill become deeply sympathetic characters because of the fidelity they demonstrate—both to each other (despite the obstacles they face because of the country’s racialized climate) and to the truth of their experience. They exemplify the more utopian aspects of the 60s—those moments in which the era stuck by its ideals, no matter the opposition.
Jack Skelley’s Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson
In addressing material related to Manson, the Beach Boys, and the psychedelic era, Skelley faces a challenge as daunting as Trigilio’s: how to create something new about a moment in cultural history that has been so commercialized? The fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders occurred in 2019, and this prompted a new spate of books, television documentaries, and films, including Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
But if there’s anyone who would be up to the task, it’s a writer from a milieu like Skelley’s. Born and raised around Los Angeles, such popular mythography is certainly part of his consciousness. He earned his creative chops by participating in a group of post-punk-pop poets, fiction writers, and performance artists centered around Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center in Venice, CA. Calling themselves “the gang,” the group included such luminaries as Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, Benjamin Weissman, David Trinidad, Sheree Rose, the late Bob Flanagan and Ed Smith, and a number of others. The “gang” is the subject of a recent exhibition and documentary (“Fear of Poetry”) at the Hammer Museum and the Huntington, including an installation by Sabrina Tarasoff. Skelley was the editor of the legendary Barney, the Modern Stone Age Magazine and is the author of underground classics such as Fear of Kathy Acker and Monsters. He is also a member of Lawndale, an instrumental rock group: think the Ventures merged with psychedelia and punk.
Where Trigilio’s book is primarily poetry, with elements of prose mixed in, Skelley’s is closer to narrative fiction, which explodes frequently into poetry—and events are accentuated through wonderful illustrations by artist Brian Walsby. And where Trigilio brings the spectacular down to earth, Skelley elevates his material so it approaches the mythic. Though not a documentarian project like Proof Something Happened, Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson nevertheless also works toward a key goal of Investigative Poetry; through it, to paraphrase Ed Sanders, poetic writing assumes “its rightful position as chronicler of the Time Track.”
Skelley’s project, like Trigilio’s, breaks with standard narrative practices. The dark backdrop to the Beach Boys’ music is the abuse suffered by Brian and Dennis at the hands of their sadistic father, Murray. Rather than deliver this backstory through the standard, pop psychology clichés, Skelley accelerates his chronicle, drawing on the rhetorical structure of a poem like Howl:
It was all forged in a crucible of pain.
Brian was driven to de-haunt his innocence from the fucked-up torments of their dad Murray—
● who boxed Brian’s head till it bled, making his right ear permanently deaf,
● who screamed “You pussy!” when Brian flinched then bashed him again,
● who hit Dennis even harder,
● who forced Brian to shit on a newspaper in the kitchen,
● who popped-out his glass eye and made the boys peer into the hideous hole,
● who, even after their adult success, fraudulently sold their catalog, Sea of Tunes, worth a fortune, for a measly sum because the songs were “outdated.”
Writing in bullet points, rather than long, tortured paragraphs, the book gets across the speed at which angry violence occurs. Such a stylistic choice also re-tells this now classic tale through the impatient filter of our own moment: the listicle is, of course, one of the primary ways commercial writers today organize their “content.” Skelley, whose background includes advertising and public relations writing, takes this practice and applies it innovatively to an artistic form. Because he is able to tell his story faster, he is able to get to the “soul” of Dennis Wilson in a mere thirty-five pages.
Through the use of poetic devices, Skelley is able to offer historical insight through biting satire. One of the book’s chapters consists of a dramatic monologue by Manson. Here prose is abandoned in favor of something resembling Blakean prophetic verse. The contrast between the elevated, Biblical rhetoric and the nutty, comic book-like material results in a mock-heroic tone. The scene is outside the home on Cielo Drive where the Tate murders occurred:
I am called Jesus, I am called Buddha, I am called the Big Boolabog.
I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.
Dennis dummy Wilson took me here with Terry Piggy Melcher.
I see these hills, this house I slip inside.
I see because I watch. Hear because I listen.
I see Revelations number 9. I sing revolutions of time.
I see dumb boys and star friends in a city of dumb angels.
One dumb angel can’t speak, another dumb angel can’t hear.
And this little piggy went to Hollywood.
The speaker of this poem, calling everyone else “dumb,” sounds pretty ridiculous himself. Manson comes across as especially dangerous because he is so ignorant. And, when this goofiness is mixed with mythic rhetoric, it resonates beyond the specific events of this tale. One of the problems of U.S. history is precisely that dumb people make up dumber conspiracies to justify their own narcissism and violent acts. Another problem is that we don’t take such kooks seriously enough. Skelley takes us inside the mind of Dennis Wilson, for moment, to show his reaction to one of Manson’s rants:
Everyone was a freak these days. This weird-ass talked racist Jesus shit about black people. Apocalypse prophesies. But when Dennis was high—when wasn’t he?—the Charlie rants poured like mystic party talk. Plus Charlie had songs. And Brother Records, The Beach Boys’ new label, needed fresh talent, not more nostalgia.
At such moments, Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson, like Proof Something Happened, becomes somewhat prophetic, but in a different way. Where the Betty and Barney Hill story points ahead to an era’s ideals, the Wilson/Manson tale suggests how those ideals begin to crack, and cynicism sets in. Commitments to peace, love, justice, and progressiveness all sort of go down the drain in a swirling mess of psychedelic highs, “mystic party talk,” and commerce. Who cares what people stand for if they offer “fresh talent”?
This chaos and carelessness result in the demise of Dennis Wilson, who accidentally drowned when he was smashed. Portrayed in a villanelle at the end of the book, Wilson dives once more into the mess of his life, but this time doesn’t re-surface. Here are the first two stanzas:
Diving off a dock of darkened memories
A father with one eye and a son with one ear
He plunged into the drink and never surfaced
It was nearly Dennis and not Sharon Tate who Charlie got first
He threw me in the deep end cried Christine McVie
Diving off a dock of darkened memories
In conclusion, the muse of (cultural) history is speaking again to today’s poets and experimental writers. Such inspiration has already produced one masterpiece in Tyehimba Jess’s Pulitzer Prize winning Olio. Add to that the exemplary Proof Something Happened and Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson, two books, which, read together, offer contrasting bookends to the 1960s: the first, pointing to the era’s idealism, the second, to the decline and fall of its utopic visions.
Jerome Sala is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Corporations Are People Too! and The Cheapskates. His other books include Look Slimmer Instantly, Raw Deal: New and Selected Poems, The Trip, I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent, and Spaz Attack. He lives in New York with his wife, poet Elaine Equi.