NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
HOTUS POTUS by Mark Young
(Meritage Press, San Francisco and St. Helena, 2015)
Born in Hokitika, New Zealand, and now living in North Queensland in Australia, Mark Young has been publishing poetry for fifty-five years. His work has been published widely and his essays and poetry have been translated into several languages. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, primarily poetry but also including speculative fiction and art history. He edits the online and print journal Otoliths.
For non-American readers, I should point out that the acronym POTUS stands for President of the United States. The 20th century cliché was that POTUS was the most powerful man in the world. Mark Young explodes this myth as a load of hocus pocus in this highly original collection of poems in which he sets out to document for posterity the utterances of all the Presidents of the United States. There is a poem for each President that runs in chronological order from George Washington to Barack Obama. (Grover Cleveland, who was the only president to hold office for two non-consecutive terms, gets two bites of the cherry). The result is that Young brings to the reader, presidential insights from a variety of sources that includes slave owners and supporters of emancipation, governors and generals, tradespeople, liars and truthtellers.
All of the poems are set out in a series of four line stanzas and each one in some degree or another focuses on issues facing America today: war, racial and sexual discrimination, climate change, energy policy, the gun culture, greed, and the problems of self-image. There is mention here of celebrities, cyberpunk, phone scams, computer programmes, ipads, kindle stores, bloggers, etc., which means that these poems are firmly rooted in the present and say more about contemporary America than they do about its past.
Seen in this context, the Presidential utterances are, of course, purely fictional – they are a means to an end and serve their purpose in bringing to the fore some of the issues that America faces today. That said, there are also subtle allusions which allude to the presidents that are buried woithin the sub-text: Lyndon B Johnson’s recognition of the country‘s unjust treatment of Native Americans; Gerald Ford’s contract offer from the Detroit Lions (which he turned down in favour of Law School); James Monroe’s fondness for luxury watches; George H W Bush’s enjoyment of tennis; Jimmy Carter’s famous telephone call to his mother when he decided to run for the Presidency; the use of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Home for video demonstrations of yoga. I could go on....
Here are a few examples of the way in which Young uses his text to speak of America as it is viewed today:
The pre-occupation with self-image in A line from Woodrow Wilson:
nada about make-up, but
the longest running pod-
cast on the planet offers
an insight into the simple
tricks of the trade. Now
looking chic is effortless.
The problem of attitude, intolerance and discrimination in A line from John Adams:
I’m a white heterosexual
male & I think that’s awe-
some. It is, in fact, very much
the prevailing cultural
followed by this from A line from Zachary Taylor:
...The dictates of
religion mean that no-
thing is remaindered, &
if you’re young & gay
& Jewish then you won’t be
staying long in Wisconsin.
or these telling lines on American foreign policy, again, from A line from John Adams:
the guilt of an unnecessary war
never lasts long.
This is biting satire in the true sense of the word.
The theme of deception comes to light in the opening poem – A line from George Washington:
...Better to be alone,
face covered in a light dust-
ing of flour. Concealer is a
beauty essential that can hide
America, it seems, is in crisis. According to Young (using the context of computers) There’s no book that tells us how to self-correct. In A line from Harry S Truman he sums the situation up by commenting that
accumulates in sensitive
issues over time. My wife
removed several large cater-
pillars from our tomato plants.
The Senate is in an uproar.
For those who follow the machinations of American politics with an ear to the ground, whether at home or from abroad, this book will, in its own unique way, entertain and delight with its erudite wit and caustic sense of humour.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2015). His website is at www.poetrypf.co.uk/neilleadbeaterpage.shtml.