September 12, 2018KR BlogBlogLiterature

Re-Reading Edward Dorn’s Long Poem “Gunslinger”

Book I of Edward Dorn’s long poem, Gunslinger, explores a number of serious sociological and philosophical themes in a humorous manner. The comic tone allows the reader to absorb the serious societal critiques without the distance created by a dry or pedantic delivery. Consumer culture is one of the text’s central concerns. The poem often pokes fun at a character named Howard Hughes (a historical icon of wealth).

One of the characters, Miss Lil, says of him, “Hughes had a kind of interest / about him, namely / a saddle bag full of currency” and then a bit later, “They say he moved to Vegas / or bought Vegas and / moved it.” This last line comments on how having money in twentieth century America can make people feel entitled to reshape their world, as reflected in the implication that Hughes could relocate an entire state—but also in the way in which the text relocates its own meaning (from “moved to Vegas” to “moved” Vegas).

The Gunslinger is a kind of gun-toting, spurs-wearing “Western” spoof of a sage of whom the poem’s “I” is a disciple.  As they sit in a brawling bar, the Gunslinger enlightens his devotee, “this place is / in the constructive process / of ruin.” He asks his follower, “What is the principle of what / you see?”, to which “I” responds, “Leverage.” The Gunslinger informs him that this is not the principle, but the “mechanism,” and finally reveals the principle to be, “Auto-destruction.”

The term “Auto-destruction” is reminiscent of Heidegger’s “destruction of metaphysics” to which Jacques Derrida’s “deconstruction” is a response. In keeping with this philosophically deconstructive tone, the worst fate in the poem is to be “described.”  In yet another hilarious intercourse, the “drifting guitarist” salutes the “Bombed Horse” with “Hi! Digger” to which the eager “I” chimes in, “Heidigger? I asked / the Xtian statistician / is that who you are?” The horse responds, “Are you trying / to ‘describe’ me, boy?’”

Dorn may have chosen to write in a parodic “Western” form because it is a genre of cowboys who take over land, cows, dames, you name it, and this poem seeks to liberate ideology from the tyranny of the grand narratives—Western Philosophy (Heidegger) and American history (cowboys) with its hegemonic heritage.

With its deconstructive tone, it is no coincidence that the poem puns on a philosopher concerned with the nature of being, only to recommend that the world not be pinned down through “description.” The amusing form in which this cerebral subject matter is addressed highlights the absurdity of a logocentric (or search for the final word on any given subject) search for truth.