Love is bloody. It’s Blood Eagle bloody. It’s not just about heart and mind but, as Crittenden suggests in the symbolism of the title, it’s bout the viciousness of humanity. It’s bodily.
In all relationships there are little intricacies. Crittenden strikes upon these with a sensitive voice that is aware of possible big brutalities. All the mundane day-to-day stuff of life is in Blood Eagle. And the beautiful thing about this collection is that although there are connotations of violent acts, we get the sense that this love will continue not despite of the viciousness but because of it.
This isn’t just about two people in a relationship who can be brutal to each other, but about being brutal and bloody to the relationship itself. Crittenden captures the tensions between mythic and reality partly by choosing the sequence of his poems. In “Married People,” Crittenden remakes a poem by Frank O’Hara to explain the mundaneness of a bookshelf, while the next poem, “She Has A Bullet With My Name On It,” demonstrates the struggle – a bullet! And in this poem, there is the insertion of “You are Penelope. I am Odysseus,” which relates to the mythical and demonstrates that sometimes we think of ourselves as something more than we are. Then in the very next poem, “The Happiest Place On Earth,” a Notley remake, he discusses Disneyland “to forget the wars we committed to” but there’s also an acknowledgment of decay in the relationship: “You ask me if I have dreamed lately / and I quickly say no.”
The first poem of Blood Eagle is fittingly titled “The Ending Is Forever The Same And That Is That It Ends.” But can this truly survive until the bloody end? Hence this first poem seems to be the beginning of the end, with a sense of twitching death: “My eyes twitch / and these lungs / spread backward.” But the relationship itself is consistently a matter of “we” and “our”: “this body we call a body” and “these / feathers we call our feathers and these cells / our cell” (my emphasis). But despite the “we” and “our” realization, they are still “barbarians” in this relationship “ready to paint the sky / with sloppy swords.” And then the first insertion acts as a break in the text of the poem: “Let’s take a moment to remember who we are” as if to say “let’s recollect ourselves.” There are mundane arguments that don’t matter in the end. Yet the tension persists and the battle has started: “The violence is not your violence / nor mine, but ours” (my emphasis).
Crittenden follows through with this aesthetic of symbolic war in the next poem, “Triage,” where leeches won’t do anymore to stop the bleeding. Cauterizing won’t do. “Repeating the behavior of our neighbors, our celebrities” won’t do. He’s struggling for help for the sake of the relationship. Here’s where he sets up the connection between mythic battle and reality throughout the book. The couple, the “we,” are in this literal war but they come to needing the survival advice of the people they know personally or through celebrity. Hence in the very next poem, a remake of Auden, Crittenden’s interpretation of advice from one of his poet-leaders in this war.
Crittenden cleverly uses themes of bloody/bodily war, for instance, by comparing a bullet to a “hot slug” slithering through the body. Or in “Cartilage”: “my lungs carry a chunk of my torso away” but his lover doesn’t even notice this change in him. There’s a suggestion of how lovers become blasé about the relationship and that’s where the destruction happens.
There’s even these “insertions” within “remakes” such as inserting Nirvana lyrics into a Bishop remake, which suggests the timelessness of these love-wars. Nirvana inserted into Bishop. Little hints of this timelessness such as in “Empire Mind” where “teenagers spin the bottle on a flat tombstone” whereas youth is gambling with death. Finally, the ultimate question of what would you sacrifice for the other: “Cannibalize your head / or cannibalize someone else’s?” This grandiosity of our minds being an empire, more than what they are? As if to say “Let’s cut to the chase and be real about it…what will you sacrifice for me?” The ultimate question for a lover.
And they need to keep it real because there is so much façade and outside distractions in contemporary life: cobwebs that aren’t cobwebs but Halloween decorations in “The Illusion.” There’s Bruce Wayne and Clarice Starling. There are things we let insert themselves into our war that only makes it bloodier. There are the dualities of the roles people play. There’s Nintendo, there’s internet, and TV. There’s more blood and ultimately an acknowledgement of having no answers and continuing anyway.
Reading a good collection of poetry is like going on a date. You don’t know what to expect, but there’s something there that makes you want get to know it, to revisit all its intricacies. It can lead into something refreshing, but something you still need to battle with. Adam Crittenden’s Blood Eagle is one such refreshing work, even when splattered with blood. Keen, witty, aware, viciously hopeful blood.