Mission Creep by Joshua Trotter
Review by Bill Neumire
No poetry book or work of art will last long without beginning ambitiously, and Joshua Trotter’s second collection, Mission Creep, is loaded with dynamic scope. It’s a caffeinated spill of cultural criticism newsfeed running on an engine of repetitious wordplay, humor, irony, and wit. Though broken into separate poems with sly titles like ‘Life Is Hard and Full of Miniseries,’ the book is really one long, somewhat narrative poem peopled with characters like Iron Wind, The Oracle, and Evel Knievel. As a long poem, it employs numerous and varied strategies of propulsion, from Whitmanian anaphoras and catalogs, to Homeric repetition of phrase. The acknowledgments section explains that the book makes use of the CIA Human Exploitation Manual, but it’s also fairly classical in many of its references, alluding to Daedalus (which brilliantly becomes “data loss”), Icarus, The Phoenix (which becomes The River Phoenix, pointing its allusion backward to ancient Egypt and simultaneously to pop culture), and the minotaur. The major character of this mythical book, though, is the “professional life risker” Evel Knievel, an American daredevil who attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps and holds a Guinness Book of World Records entry for survivor of the most broken bones in a lifetime at 433.
Much of the excitement of the book comes from its grabbag of novel and quirky conventions: it employs the use of words stricken from official documents (“<unintelligible>”), but also Megahertz frequency numbers, mysterious page references, and seemingly random capitalizations of phrases such as “MAXIMUM DENSITY” and “THE BANALITY OF EVEL KNIEVEL.” Mission Creep’s words often disassemble and reform into other, similar-sounding words and phrases with drastically different meanings; for instance, the speaker in ‘A Growing Group of Concerned Citizens’ says, “The Oracle grew appendages. Penned adages. Adagios” (9). The book is also so full of allusions and erasures that a set of footnotes might be longer than the text itself, and at times it alters the language of those allusions ever so slightly, as in its nod to Cummings that removes the h from “hands”: ““Nobody, not even the rain, had such small ands” (32). In fact, the book constantly sets up predictable patterns of language only to veer away at the last moment, sometimes even heaping together cliches to imbue them with new meaning via new context; “a word repeated is another word” (60) the speaker claims, and later, “Each word is newfangled, unique, crisscrossing morning with a flashy trunket in its beak” (69). It is an inter-referential text that hinges on sentence-level and more overarching repetitions, such as the anaphoric “Let us” at the beginning of clauses throughout all of these poems. Without the breathing room of white space, the poems appear as prose in one thick block down the page, and they are long, multi-page pieces for the most part. As a result, the form makes it feel like a newsfeed deluge, like a stream of infinite data. There’s one section that even employs the language of an online Q&A: “<<Is the Iron Wind called the Iron Wind because of its colour/texture (iron-like), because it whips the victim like iron flails (whilts mutilating it of course) or because of something else entirely? Thanks!>>” (48). The book can, after a while, seem to become too complacent, too entertained by its own cleverness, such that a line like “Beware the Pacific Rimbjob” (21) struck too many times isn’t funny so much as groan-provoking. The speaker revels in the danger of such mutable language, though, and in ‘Transmission Creep,’ one of the last poems, that language quickly breaks down into nonsense: “Late summer remainder silence. Pwallowuime silence. Oovo-Bonarch butterfly silence. Ptanch-the lawking-Bannheim silence (…) uhese’p a flaph, apqark, pqou-telding” (87): Initially, the wordplay is fun and incisive, but tortured enough, it finally becomes fruitless.
Despite any minor flaws, Mission Creep is inventive, quirky, allusive, trendy, and clever. It wallows in pop culture with lines like “I once was lost in the mountains of Brad Pitt” (56) and “Don’t believe me, believe my status updates” (90). It’s deeply submerged in a complicated (and implicated) criticism of government, of war, of culture and capitalism; and its sense of the speaker’s own culpability, of any armchair critic’s culpability, is palpable as well, as the speaker asks,
if you think the name of her weapon is beautiful, are you implicated in the crime? What kind of gun did Annie Oakley use? What kind of gun did George Zimmerman use? What kind of gun did Walter White use? What kind of gun did Patrick Swayze use? See Red Dawn, Patrick and Jennifer grunting in the sun. The kids grunt in the sun because they’re hungry [masculine] and they’re hungry [feminine]. The kids aren’t lost, rather, crazed with lust, loosed among foothills with endless ammunition (60).
The voice possesses a commercial quality, as if it’s a critique that can’t escape being part of what is critiqued: it’s a voice that’s willing and thrilled to be lewd, obscene, comically dark. It’s also a voice that presents a complex sense of identity, a sense that the “I” is created by a public, that an individual consciousness is a construct of a society. Consequently, there’s a distancing from the self that happens, for example, in ‘A Growing Group of Concerned Citizens’:
I watched my myself dig a
hole and drop my myself in. I covered my myself.
Watered my myself. I watched my myself bloom. It
grew a penis. It grew a beard and glasses. It looked
familiar. The ghost is clear, it told me (31).
But there is still an other, a “you,” and the speaker yearns to be one with the public “you,” striving to thrust himself into the public consciousness: “All I ever wanted was to drift at a great height, forever gracious, soaring through local argots in my Bell Magnum, dissembling my myselves” (97). This is a self in love with pop culture and the public in many ways but also swallowed by it to the point where “The only way to travel, now, is travel by proxy, copying and pasting my myselves over vast distances” (57).
In Mission Creep, Trotter solders classical myths, epic ambition, and Whitmanian parallelism and repetition to a sardonic, twenty-first-century voice drowning in a capitalistic, voyeuristic, pop culture war machine; it’s a voice roiling with irony, puns, sexual innuendo, witty linguistic jokes, and an ambiguous, self-implicating criticism. To this, he adds a surreal and disorienting narrative in which Evel Knievel, a man who made his living by creating arbitrary obstacles and leaping them for public entertainment–maybe not so different than a poet’s work–takes center stage in a ridiculous epic of the age of memes and torture manuals.
Bill Neumire‘s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award. His poems appear in the Harvard Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and West Branch.