The prose pieces in Megan Volpert’s new collection of poetry, Sonics in Warholia, read more like essays, but defining or discussing the boundaries of different genres serves no purpose and would completely miss the mark of this stunning collection. Comprised of eight pieces, the book offers extended meditations, both far-reaching and deeply personal, surrounding the biography of (and addressed to the ghost of) Andy Warhol. Throughout the book, Volpert masterfully weaves together seemingly disparate images, events, and ideas to brilliantly create complete and coherent essays that can appeal to both those who are familiar and those who are unfamiliar with Warhol’s life and work. Volpert’s vision is clever, touching, and singular.
The book opens with a mix tape for Warhol which attempts to boil down his 58 years of life to “fifty-seven minutes and fifty-one seconds.” Volpert mashes together songs that either Warhol liked or was connected to in some way with songs from significant dates as well as some released well after his death. And while making a mix tape is often a loving gesture, occasionally an accusing statement arises from Volpert, which is something that increases as the book progresses. Even though the author is very taken with Warhol, she is not afraid to go on the offense against him: “I am telling you that I know I use quickness of arched eyebrow and cruelty of curled lip as distancing tools . . . and will continue to use it against you. . . . The best defense is a good offense.”
There are a number of exceptional pieces in the collection, including “Illusion of Depth and Vanishing Acts,” “Dear Diary of a Dead Man’s Telephone Number,” and “Ballad of the Maladies.” Sequentially the third piece, “Illusion of Depth and Vanishing Acts,” is a perfect example of the scope of these poems/essays: it covers Bret Easton Ellis, movies, the invention of the phonograph, aluminum foil, a physics class experiment from Volpert’s senior year of high school, Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr., and much more. And it connects all these to Warhol—which in an interview with Charles Jensen at Lambda Literary Foundation website, Volpert describes as “six degrees of Andy Warhol.”
Death is a prominent theme in a number of the pieces. In “Dear Diary of a Dead Man’s Telephone Number,” Volpert finds herself dialing up a number listed for Warhol she came across while doing research. She and her wife also dial up two friends’ phone numbers a while after they have died, not knowing what to expect at the other end of the call. Volpert writes:
Ultimately, it’s the dead connection I crave, Andy, not the living one. My cell phone has become like a Ouija board that promises the gateway into oblivion, manipulated into a sense of dialogue by nothing other than the nervous ticks of my fingers and the human impulse to control what cannot really be known. Death, in its insistence, is utterly respectable.
In “Ballad of the Maladies,” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief break up a list of deaths that surrounded Warhol—their names recalling patron saints when possible, though we’re told “Candy was a darling, but not a saint,” and also:
August 8, 1972: Andrea Feldman, age 24, suicide by jumping out the 14th floor at 51 Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, holding a rosary in one hand and a Coca-Cola in the other. Three weeks later, Heat came out and the significant role you gave her was positively reviewed. You don’t go to the funeral. Andrea wasn’t a saint at all.
The deaths surrounding Warhol are numerous and overwhelming—suicides, drug overdoses, murders, cancer, and AIDS. The phrase “You don’t go to the funeral” occurs again and again, even after his own death: “Your public memorial mass is on April Fools Day. You don’t go to it. Your body is decomposing in Pittsburgh, in the ground at St. John the Baptist: Patron Saint of lambs, of printers, of cutters.” Even in a dark piece like this, there is some humor; after discussing Typhoid Mary, Volpert writes, “Mary: Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Patron Saint of sailors and of cooks, against illness and against epidemics, and very many less ironic things.”
At only 58 pages, Sonics in Warholia is a quick and entertaining read. Volpert takes the reader on a journey through strange connections and fascinating historical details to reach a new understanding of one of the most recognizable cultural figures of the twentieth century.