The concept of poet Dan Boehl and visual artist Jonathan Marshall’s Kings of the F**king Sea feels like something thought up in an Austin bar after an MFA workshop, between their third and fourth Lone Stars. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s an appealing looseness in the execution of the book’s idea, which I’ve mentioned twice now without explaining. Jack Spicer is the captain of a pirate ship whose crew goes by the name in the book’s title, and includes Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell. The Kings face off against Mark Rothko, the captain and sole member of a rival ship called the Cobra Sombrero.
Amidst the utter absurdity (which, I suppose one should anticipate, given the title) there are moments of great poignancy, as promised in the book’s epigraph from Whitman, which bears repeating, especially these days:
I observe the famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d to
preserve the lives of the rest.
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the
poor and upon negroes, and the like.
All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.
With this in mind, Boehl has concentrated his imaginative efforts upon the lines between life and art, and between war and life. He writes, in “(Shipwright) European Oils”: “He went off to war while the older ones, the alcoholics in khaki pants, dripped paint all over the place, worried about the redness of red and blackness of black.”
In lines such as these, one senses guilt, the kind of guilt Bataille describes as inherent to the artistic endeavor. That is, there is something that needs to be done, and meanwhile, the writer writes, the artist makes art. Sees, hears, and is silent, except for his useless words.
Boehl paraphrases Roberto Bolaño, “There is a time for art, and there is a time for fists.” The trouble, of course, is that these days, our hands are too busy putting food in the fridge to make a fist and join the protesters in Madison. At least that’s what we tell ourselves, right? So Kings of the F**king Sea at once poses and exemplifies the problem of art’s inability to touch or affect reality the way that, say, a bomb can.
Both writer and artist here obsess over amputation, hangings, and sea-based warfare. One of Marshall’s images is a video-feedback-laced still of Gregory Peck as Ahab. “(Armistice) Second to None” is based on a painting of Santa Anna surrendering to Sam Houston, with collaged silhouettes hearing out the surrender beneath a large tree, while more brightly colored silhouettes hang from its branches.
Boehl’s poetics integrates touches of Matthew Zapruder’s semi-surreal narratives, (“This is the part where the crane folds the people. This is the part where the swallow slays the dragon.”) with an ardency that reminds one of Rachel Zucker (“We let the kid shoot them down. After all, we’re all human.”). One can very much feel a young poet deciding on his aesthetic, resisting certain pulls. “Pickup (Gaza)” begins:
I took the package
and he said,
“Sell your cleverness
and buy bewilderment.” I guess
that’s what he thought
he was selling and I
Though, one could argue that the youthful feel of this book works against it. There is a definite machismo which permeates the text, and not always in very redeemable ways. “The war / will not be won / by clean-shaven men,” Boehl writes in “Decouverte des Malfaitures.” And that’s the whole poem. To be impressed by facial hair isn’t very impressive, and perhaps even less so in a book in which women are reduced to populating the ports the “Kings” visit, so as to make them “just littered with ass.”
The collection also seems to lose sight of its original intention, and gets a little heavy-handed while wrapping up its narrative. From “Island”: “Am I actually going / to die here / and there’s no fucking god?” Rather than diving into melancholy, one wishes the potential of Jack Spicer as a pirate captain had been realized, especially when one considers the resonation of this project with For Lorca, in which Spicer assumes the voice of the surrealist poet.
Kings of the F**king Sea promises youthful machismo, and delivers it for better and for worse.