Poetry by Dan Boehl, art by Jonathan Marshall. Kings of the F**king Sea. Birds, LLC. 2011.
On a shelf, Kings of the F**king Sea by Dan Boehl looks like many other poetry books. Thin and softbound, its shape cries “Poems! A poem collection! Loosely bound by theme, maybe a voice!” Yet Kings is not a mere collection. It is an avant-garde play. It is a museum exhibit. It is art criticism. Four years in the making, Kings is a collaborative project between poet Dan Boehl and visual artist Jonathan Marshall. It is a book that pushes against the norms of printed poetry collections, taking risks in form and content. Where it succeeds, it shines, and where it fails, it fails. Yet in this poetic narrative of artist-pirates on the sea even failure has value, for when “you don’t know shit,… this is how you learn.”
Published by Birds LLC, Kings of the F**king Sea is Boehl’s first book. In it narrative sequence, ekphrastic poems, 16 artist’s prints, and a personal lyric merge under the flag that flies on the pirate ship after which the book is titled. Through five sections, readers follow a thirty something artist who gives up suburban life and escapes to society’s margins to sail with human traffickers, battle other vessels, and ends up an Ishmael—sole survivor of a sea creature’s attack, afloat and “stuck between horizon and home” as if some morbid variant of romantic solitude. Yet real people fulfill Kings’ fictions. The world is populated by artists-turned-seadog—Jasper Johns and First Mate Robert Motherwell, Captain Jack Spicer and Captain Mark Rothko. Kings glorifies those who work on the social fringes as artist, writer, pirate, or soldier. These censored many defy social expectations to expand the world’s map and mythology despite (or because of) a “profound notion we are all about to die.”
As the first sequence, “Map of the New World,” ploddingly establishes this pseudo-epic’s imaginative setting, the conflict between art and censorship is foregrounded. What’s at stake is artists’ confidence to say we “don’t paint / to have painting careers,” that art should get beyond the treasure of objects and get at “what treasure represents”—the corporeal actions of artists, not things. This is a call to a new generation of artists to go “off to war” and not be like ‘the older ones, the alcoholics in khaki pants,” who “dripped paint all over the place, worried about the redness of red and blackness of black.”
Kings is Boehl’s attempt to be that active artist. He takes formal, stylistic, and conceptual risks in effort to write a new kind of poem. Towards that effort, Boehl redefined Kings’ use of form. Functionally, each form indicates that poem’s role in the narrative. Visually his free form lyrics are familiar thin swathes with ragged line breaks that hug the left margin. These poems expand the map, progress the story and extend its core moments. One might think of them as photos. These photo-poems alternate with prose poems. Each is labeled [Aside] and functions just so, providing the context of history and commentary through the voice of a character’s depth.
In Kings, the sea is the world’s depth of time and space. When in the crew “everybody was talking / bullshit bullshit / about the new sincerity,” the protagonist looks “out over the ocean” with a historicizing gaze—an act of resistance against rehashed platitudes. To make a real statement, one must speak of and from history. Boehl does that best with his center piece, Kings’ most unified section and certainly the section that best attempts to write a new poetic. Originally published as a chapbook, the 18-poem sequence Les Miseres et les Mal-Heurs de la Guerre is a semi-ekphrastic response to a print series of the same name by baroque printmaker Jacques Callot. One of western culture’s earliest anti-war statements, Callot’s depicts the soldiers in battle, their success and failures, a public’s violent response, and a monarchy’s indifference. Boehl borrows the title of each print and writes poems that merge Callot’s stance with Kings. Framed and centered in the mise-en-page, this sequence defines the collection’s center as a gallery space in which one can see “1000 people hang from one tree” and the failure of survivors writing “odes to their missing limbs.”
Artist J. Marshall’s images continue that space into their gloss print insert. If each poem is a photo from the narrative, each drawings, paintings, sculpture, and print is a relic of the world about which Kings is written—the flags of two ships, depictions of armistice, an outline of poet-pirates consumed by bright fractals, and a static-laced still of 1956’s Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. The censorship of the title word Fucking continues into Marshall’s pieces where all words are blacked out—classified and protected? horded and restricted?—just as Kings’ artists are censored and pressganged to the sea.
When “1000 dead hang from one tree,” the statistic count hides the names of artists like Rothko and Spicer who sacrifice themselves for adventure and discovery. These artists are risk takers, and Boehl aligns his book with their actions. Like the anti-war statement of Jacques Callot, these poems’ relevance will persist. This book complicates the romantic divide of “artist or soldier”: “I used to believe in just war: / good vs. _____….What would these old men say if they knew how much money we were making”? The answer floats, waiting, amid the debris of Kings of the F**king Sea and its masculine beards, bloody palm trees, pop culture icons, industrial scenes, nautical tools, and gorgeous blunt wreckage.
Dan Boehl is a founding editor of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry publisher. His chapbook Les Miseres et les Mal-Heurs de la Guerre is available from Greying Ghost. He writes art reviews for …Might Be Good and Art Lies and was awarded a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Fellowship for his work. He writes a website for the University of Texas at Austin.
David Antonio Moody is just a small town boy who writes out of Tallahassee where he pursues a PhD in poetry at Florida State University. Former poetry editor for SawPalm and Juked, David is production editor of Cortland Review and Southeast Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sweet, Eleven Eleven and Spillway.