American Carnage by Sam Cha
Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2018
48 pages / Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs
The book starts with a little drama. That is, the first “poem” in American Carnage is a tiny, one-act play starring three mass-murderers: the two teenage boys who killed a dozen kids at Columbine High School in 1999, and the young man who sniped his college classmates from a tower at Virginia Tech eight years later (Cha names the three killers intentionally and effectively in the piece, but I’ve chosen to leave their names out of this review because fuck those guys). The Columbine murderers, who are both white and US-born, begin the scene in the spotlight. As they pantomime iconic American cartoon-violence they banter a mashup of their own recorded quotes and allusions to various Americana, from Huck Finn to MAGA. Behind them, half-obscured by the lighting, is the Virginia Tech shooter, who is East-Asian and was born in South Korea. He mimics their every movement awkwardly and out-of-synch. The two Columbine killers eventually dance off-stage, leaving the Virginia Tech murderer alone and screaming.
Already in the first few pages, Cha’s multilayered critique of the performative nature of sensational violence and American masculinity feels urgent in a time when actual death moves through social media as viral entertainment. But this scene is only the beginning. Throughout American Carnage, Cha peels back the layers of American-gun violence and its relationship to the narrative of the (white, male) American ego. Cha draws on his own experience as a South Korean-born US immigrant to open a window into the unspoken rules of American identity and masculinity. He recalls instances of racism and othering he has experienced at various stages of his life in the US, from outright childhood bullying to crafty adult doublespeak. The author recounts moments of male-posturing that he both witnessed and took part in, including the first time one of his friends asked him if he wanted to hold his handgun. Cha also takes a hard look at the specificity of anti-Black racism in the US, and how that particular American poison has manifested in Korean-American communities. As he guides us through the many faces of American gun violence, both real and fictional, the repeated story beats begin to feel like myth – not in the sense of something false, but rather in the sense of narrative that inspires and shapes culture.
It’s from this perspective that Cha pegs “archetypal American boy” Tom Sawyer as “a showboating, self-absorbed, dictatorial Dumas fanboy with delusions of grandeur,” and perhaps a budding patron American god of gun-violence. The fact that this deity creates and is created by a particularly destructive and insecure individualized ego seems only fitting. The argument is deepened in “Killer Style: We Need to Talk About Tom’ in which Cha poses an eerie juxtaposition of Tom Sawyer’s acts and speeches in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the journals of one of the Columbine killers. The words by and about the boys mirror each other in action, cadence, and syntax. Looked at side-by-side, it seems clear that image is centrally important to both young American men. Tom is more concerned with the image of his “robber-gang” than any spoils actual robbers might be interested in. “[Tom] wants, above all, to have had adventures,” notes Cha. The Columbine killer, similarly, imagined himself going down cinematically in a storm of bullets, clad in cool black leather after killing other children for no reason, a martyr for the concept of masculine vanity. Later on, as Cha notes, the Virginia Tech shooter would call the Columbine killers “martyrs.”
The summary of themes and illuminations in the American mythology around gun-violence may well attract you on their own, but what makes American Carnage a jewel of modern poetry is the skill by which Cha brings the reader to these realizations. Each word in every piece does several simultaneous jobs, sometimes in more than one simultaneous language. In “물” the titular Korean word for water (pronounced [roughly] mool) is a starting point for a meditation on the language-assimilation that immigration to the US often forces:
In the new world, we drink
water. We forgot our name for water. Did it begin
with pressed lips, like a kiss?
Did it sound a bit like more?
We lose more. See the cards shuffle.
See switches switch.
Sae (새) to bird,
sun from hae (해). Dal (달) to moon, moon (문) to door, dor (돌) to rock.
And in that first piece, when the Virginia tech killer is left on stage, alone, screaming? He begins screaming “아야” which is the Korean equivalent of the English “ouch.” Pronounced “ah-ya” this childlike cry of pain is repeated over and over again, which eventually leads to it sounding like the English egoic pronoun, “I.”
Sam Cha has revealed the American myth that has resulted in children at school being mass-murdered as a matter of routine. This myth has many attributes that continue to be unpacked by modern thinkers and commentators. There’s the toxic masculinity of it all, the white supremacy, and the capitalistic cult – all dynamic modern masks for classic narcissism. If self-absorbed racist white boy Tom Sawyer, lying to his friends to get them to whitewash a fence and glorifying the style of murderous “highwaymen,” was an inchoate American deity, Donald Trump would be its horrifying final form.
An American-style mass murder is by definition vain in both senses of the word. It’s a single ego that thinks it’s been laughed-at, spraying killing lead into the bodies of many people who have nothing to do with it. That ego is number one. It must be known, it must be more important than all the others, so it murders them. It would murder every single other one of them if it could. The mythological and very real American gun is a talisman of that ego. A molten idol that we sacrifice our children to again and again and again.
American Carnage allows us to glimpse just how much power this idol holds over us. It’s not for the faint of heart, but what is in America? If you’re seeking to make some sort of sense of the violence that’s been barraging the US over the past few years, decades, and centuries, Sam Cha has provided here the beginnings.
Jade Sylvan is a Ministry Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. They wrote the book Kissing Oscar Wilde (2013) and the play Spider Cult: the Musical (2016) and some other things. They live in Cambridge Massachusetts with their wife and smelly dachshund.