Michael Simeone: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

I'd just like to briefly comment on the standing conversation on MAPS regarding Adrian Louis' "A Colossal American Copulation." It seems that at present, most of the critical work treating the poem is largely concerned with Louis' paradoxically resistant and cooperative relationship to dominant culture. Both Marsh and Beatty see the poem as taking dominant culture as its object, a model that is mostly accurate but effaces a crucial element of self-hatred present in Louis' work; the speaker of the poem is just as much a reflexive target of the poem's invective as the U.S. culture that surrounds him. This is not a poem about "flipping off the U.S" (Beatty); rather, it is a poem that treats the speaker's haunting dissillusionment with his own life given the frivolity of U.S. culture and the inevitable decay of the physical body.

Firstly, before anything else, I'd like to make a case for the moral indignation present in these lines. Beatty notes that "Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of 'fuck you's," but this is far from the case. Louis' poem is veritable freight train of "fucks," all irreverantly applied, accumulating a kind of vitriolic, hateful, and sanctamonious momentum that simply cannot be offset by the injection of lines such as "fuck a duck" (which, by the way, I have never heard uttered playfully. In fact, "fuck a duck" is far from harmlessly playful; it is the epitomization of frustration and agression without object. It is anger without a path of release. The line may be absurd, but it is a cruel, contained, and frustrated absurdity). This and similar "playful" variations (fuck you very much, fuck it again Sam, etc.) certainly contain some ludic interpenetration of tradition and discourse, (as does the whole poem), but it is a stretch to say that, given the violence of the poem's speech and the moral valence of many of its targets (vietnam, for instance), the poem's moral force has been undercut.

Indeed, the poem is a kind of angry whirlwhind, sparing little (only mother teresa escapes, but not unscathed; she still gets to be the object of a blunt "fuck you," and despite its retraction one line later, the illocutionary act of telling mother teresa fuck you speaks to the poem's near total lack of concern for the sacred, the respected, and the empowered). Through cursing things like his first sexual experience, his first cigarette, and Bob Dyalan, the speaker not only implicates elements of his life in the upkeep of a frivolous culture, but he also self-loathingly denies the pleasure that any of these things gave him. He thus not only negates the world around him, but also negates himself as a creature capable of happiness.

Crucial to this disillusionment with existance (NOT just U.S. culture) is a realization of the decay of the human body over time. The recount of his personal history through substance abuse serves as a grim reminder of the deteriorization of the speaker's own body, and his pre-emptive fuck you-ing of the man that will see him dead again speaks to the materiality and transience of human flesh. Most notable to this point, however, is his choice to round out the poem with an attack on the disease that affect's his "woman."

Here, the speaker is not lamenting his own choices, attacking the U.S., or even engaging in any kind of disturbing irreverance; he is literally shouting against decay, "Fuck Alzheimer's."

The conclusion of the poem, then, functions less as a nihilistic assertion of the middle finger (Beatty) and more of a frustrated realization of the speaker's position within a frivolus and unjust culture, an aging body, and the unforgiving attrition of life experiences and the passage of time.

On "Colossal American Copulation"

Adrian Louis's "A Colossal American Copulation" borrows heavily from Walt Whitman, whose poetics have been central to much of the American poetry that would follow. Louis, though, appropriates (as Ginsberg's poetry does) the free verse and cultural catalogues that Whitman used to celebrate and cohere a mid-nineteenth century America for its own later project of denouncing that same America. And while Louis' catalogue of what deserves to be fucked ranges freely over late twentieth century America, there is nevertheless a persistent logic to its categories. It targets violence made even more repugnant for its banality ("Fuck the men who keep their dogs chained./ Fuck the men who molest their daughters.") It especially criticizes acts of state violence. "Fuck the gutless Guardsmen / who were at Kent State...." and "Fuck, no, double fuck the Vietnam War." Beyond its critique of personal and state violence, though, the poem also aims at popular culture ("Fuck...The Immaturity of MTV. Those Monster Trucks.") and what we might simply call bad taste (Fuck...my other neighbor who has plastic life-sized deer in his front yard.") The poem is also free with its condemnations of its contemporary literary scene: "Fuck the Creative Writing programs/ and all the SPAM poets they hatch." "Fuck The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. And all those useless allusions." And (my favorite): "F*U*C*K the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets." Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on--its possible backhanded racism ("Fuck every gangbanger in America") and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques. Nevertheless, all these individual critiques add up to a wholesale condemnation of America and American culture. "A Colossal American Copulation" goes beyond something like reformism to reject the whole American cultural scene and even, I would argue, though they are only obliquely evoked, the foundations of that scene.

The poem begins and ends with a stanza expressing the speaker's resignation:

"They say there's a promise coming down that dusty road. They say there's a promise coming down That dusty road, but I don't see it."

"Promise," in its abstractness, carries multiple meanings. The legal coercion of Indian Removal in the 1830s and 1840s, the promise of "assimilation," which is a nice word, to call forth House Resolution 108 from 1953, for "termination," and finally the promise of cultural autonomy and a decent way of life that goes unfulfilled even today. But that this promise is to arrive "down that dusty road" suggests finally a critique of the promises of Western Civilization and the promises of equality and equal protection under the law contained in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the American incarnation of the West. In an interview with Geronimo, a journal of politics and culture, Louis says of the United States

Oh, it's here. I try to ignore it if I can. (Pause) This country was founded on violence. So it's kind of like karma coming back to haunt us, you know. When the Spaniards came into the towns here they killed more Indians than Hitler killed Jews in his ovens. It's a greater holocaust here than there was in Europe during World War II. That's a historical fact. America is a schizophrenic country. On the one hand, it purports to be the peace loving center of the universe. On the other hand, it's got everything it has from violence and taking.

It's an open question whether the violence and barbarity at the source of America undermines any claims it can make for its contribution to democracy and freedom, its promises. For some, the abuses trump whatever good may have or will come. Except in "A Colossal American Copulation," there is no suggestion of those goods, those promises, which are infinitely promised but also infinitely postponed, until the speaker has given up on ever seeing them. Instead, we get the detritus of popular culture and a smug violence, metonymies for the larger culture, all of which the speaker equally, and with pointed language, rejects.