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My Secret Wars of 1984 by Dennis Etzel, Jr reviewed in the Volta Blog

 

Review: My Secret Wars of 1984 by Dennis Etzel, Jr.

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by Laura Madeline Wiseman

“You put your thumb on a button and somebody blows up 20 minutes later, says Ronald Regan,” writes Dennis Etzel, Jr. in the closing poem of My Secret Wars of 1984, a book that examines the words written and spoken by cultural figures like Ronald Regan during the culturally significant literary year of 1984. For Etzel, 1984 was the year he entered high school from middle school, the year his mother came out, and the year he played Dungeons and Dragons, while also reading books that appeared that year such as Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Etzel’s secret war reads like a chorus, for the voices here with quotes arranged alphabetically in 366 sentences for the leap year of 1985 include bell hooks, Lyn Hejinian, George Orwell, popular culture writers and editors, and the national weather service, for this storm of language also alludes to an ice storm in Topeka, Kansas, one that sheathed the city in cold, left over 80% of the population without power, and destroyed hundreds of trees trying to bare the weight of two inches of ice. Arranged as blocks of text, the poems offer voices that echo and complicate, layering meaning as they seem to reflect and trouble who spoke that year and why. Etzel writes,

An unspent lunch money becomes a sustenance of comic books. And a number of pages were excised by that agency head there, the man in charge, and he sent it on up here to CIA, where more pages were excised before it was printed, says Ronald Reagan. And as soon as we have an investigation and find out where any blame lies for the few that did not get excised or changed, we certainly are going to do something about that, says Ronald Reagan. And as the heroes watch, they are watched in turn. And each evening the pace back home matches the sun’s setting. And I start high school at my lowest. And now we are putting up a defense of our own, says Ronald Reagan. (23)

Here, former president Reagan’s quotations work as a sort of troubling reminder of the cold war tactics that pitted capitalism against communism, of the way politicians speak in the doublespeak that Orwell described in 1984, and of the concerns of teenagers finding imaginary superheroes and imaginary powers a solace amid troubling growing years, as much as the lines remind that Reagan lost his mind as so many do due to Alzheimer’s, a disease that eats holes in the brain and excises what one thought they knew by swapping it with others. The rigorous constraints of My Secret War of 1984 make this first full-length collection an enjoyable and creative read, part of the pleasure reading for how the poet turns each sentence against the ones before and after it, how the poet moves through the alphabet as much as he moves through the spoken and written thoughts produced during that year, and how such lines move against the sweeter, more innocent lines and references such as those like “Please come to my rescue, Atreyu. Please let me find a place to hide” (61), for they remind how the social and cultural world shape us, shape our children, and shaped our younger selves. My Secret Wars of 1984 show how such youth and youthful pasts are full of thinkers, individuals who question and trouble the stories told about war, government information, and gender norms. For example, Etzel quotes hooks, “Feminism defined as a movement to end sexist oppression enables women and men, girls and boys, to participate equally in revolutionary struggle” (34), a line that suggests a powerful and necessary, if secret, war against which the protagonist of such a memoir in verse struggled, one that empowers such a revolutionary poetry of resistance. Collections like My Secret Wars of 1984 that speak resistance through poems retell and reimagine the historic moment, taking on the fragmentation of information and layering it into something whole, complicated, and smart.

BlazeVOX Books (2015): $16.00

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

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My Secret Wars of 1984 by Dennis Etzel, Jr Now Available!

 To read My Secret Wars of 1984 is to ride an old wooden rollercoaster through a spacious gallery of stained-glass windows, all their colorful shards having been stolen, shattered, then chewed into shape: what we have here are gorgeous and wise assemblages of sharp, scavenged graffiti. Ricocheting from Pac-Man to Topeka to institutional structures to AIDS awareness to Reagan, Dennis Etzel, Jr. masters the skills of fragmentation and disharmony without losing one bit of torque. Sharpen your political acumen on this poetry-memoir of the highest order—and discover much pleasure in the process.

—Amy King, author of The Missing Museum


The sentence inscribes a trauma, bumps over a secret, and accretes toward continuance, which is life. In My Secret Wars of 1984, Dennis Etzel, Jr. constructs little sentence survival packets, brimming with Reaganite Cold War fear and the inescapable “I am” of a teenage boy in a threatening world. Our Superhero of Fragility threads these lines with tenderness, wit, and humor, and comes out the other side more whole than before.

—Allison Cobb, author of Green-Wood


The world of 1984 has a deft tenacity in the hands of Dennis Etzel, Jr. This book blends the personal to the greater political as only the best possible memoir can do. We are all in this world together and the strangest things occur, sometimes when other strange things occur, and I thank Mr. Etzel for his brilliant, sharp reminder.

—CAConrad, author of ECODEVIANCE


Some years brand our history: 1861, 1968, 2001; others are best known as fictions, like 1984, made famous by George Orwell in the real year of 1949. The actual 1984 featured Ronald Reagan's race against Walter Mondale, the discovery of the AIDS virus, dead U.S. Marines in Lebanon, and Prince's Purple Rain album. It was an era in which popular culture and foreign policy came together in Star Wars. Dennis Etzel, Jr., then a teen-ager, played a part in that history. His mother came out as a lesbian in the conservative city of Topeka, Kansas. In prose poem boxes, with sentences arranged alphabetically, the confinement of these years is enacted and challenged. Using sources that include Orwell's novel and Lyn Hejinian's "Rejection of Closure" (another artifact of the 1980s), Etzel re-constructs the era and proposes some ways out, foremost among them feminism. Using the language of that era, Etzel pries opens its boxes of secrets.

—Susan M. Schultz, author of Dementia Blog, vols. 1 & 2 and Memory Cards: 2011-2012 Series (Singing Horse Press)


“My fellow Americans,” Ronald Reagan joked during a microphone sound check in 1984, “I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” This was the same year that the infamous “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was set to three minutes to midnight, the closest the clock had come to the zero hour of annihilation in 31 years. How did we get out of the 1980s alive? Dennis Etzel, Jr.’s My Secret Wars of 1984 attempts to answer this question, documenting a year in which the young poet was surrounded by the apocalyptic millennialism of the Reagan administration at the same time that his mother was coming out in conservative Topeka, Kansas. Deploying language appropriated from comics, gaming, and political speeches of the era, Etzel frames these texts with urgent appropriations from work in poetics and gender studies that he would read later in life—when he, indeed, had survived the ’80s. Even when the young poet of 1984 revels in pop culture escapist pleasures, he discovers that it is impossible to transcend political reality. Amid the kinetic “flash of red and yellow” of his comic books, he admits, “I still hear my father’s warplanes.” Etzel’s masterful merging of the personal and political is matched by an equally vital attention to the politics of poetic form. Unfolding in wildly appropriative, politically astute prose poems totaling 366 sentences—one for every day of that leap year—My Secret Wars of 1984 offers a moving account of a young boy’s effort to find a new language for public and private worlds constantly under threat of extinction.

—Tony Trigilio, author of The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood)

Dennis Etzel Jr. lives with Carrie and the boys in Topeka, Kansas where he teaches English at Washburn University. He has an MFA from The University of Kansas, and an MA and Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Kansas State University. His chapbook The Sum of Two Mothers (ELJ Publications 2013) and My Secret Wars of 1984 has work which appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, BlazeVOX, Fact-Simile, 1913: a journal of poetic forms, 3:AM, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, and others. He is a TALK Scholar for the Kansas Humanities Council, and volunteers for the YWCA in Topeka, Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, and other Kansas spaces. Please feel free to connect with him at dennisetzeljr.com.


Elaine M. Rodriguez is a Kansas-based artist, illustrator, and freelance graphic designer. Her work has been featured in XYZ magazine as well as other local venues and exhibitions. Elaine earned her degree studying art in both Kansas and Arizona. Through subtle design and evocative line-work, she hopes to draw you into the subject that a poet, author or she herself conveys. She has loved storytelling through visual and verbal mediums as long as she can remember.

Book Information:

· Paperback: 102 pages

· Binding: Perfect-Bound

· Publisher: BlazeVOX [books] 

· ISBN: 978-1-60964-223-5

$16

 
 
 
 
 
 

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