To say David Herrle’s new book, Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, is about obsession is a real understatement, but it’s a good enough place to begin. Herrle portrays and examines the excesses of violence to which lust drives men and the extremes of depravity that our zeal is used to justify. The deaths of three beautiful women – Marie Antoinette, killed by the peasant mobs in the French Revolution, Mary Jane Kelly, the most comely of Jack the Ripper’s prostitute victims, and Sharon Tate, Manson’s gorgeous moviestar victim – are the focal point of these meditations. Along the way, Herrle analyzes the nature of beauty and the aesthetics underlying beauty’s effects on our behavior.
But to describe Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy in this way makes the book sound dry and academic when the verse is related in a manic, lyrical speed-freak intense voice and generously laced with Joycean wordplay. Moreover, the noir superhero ending gives the collection the quality of a dreamlike divine comedy.
But make no mistake, this is an impressively researched effort. Each of the six sections is prefaced with a handful of quotations, serving as epigraphs, ranging from Moby-Dick to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, from Doctor Zhivago to W.H. Auden, and there’s a three-page list of suggested readings at the end that includes Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (Remember Saul? The guy Sarah Palin called a terrorist, accused Obama of “paling around” with?), Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Blake, Jacques Lacan and a laundry list of other famous thinkers. Indeed, some of the poems address these people directly. “President ‘Pontius Pilate’ Truman” addresses Carl Sagan, “Bhagavad Rita” is spoken to Rita Hayworth, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Princess de Lamballe” is addressed to Marie Antoinette’s friend, who was executed by guillotine.
A section entitled “Sermon,” midway between the other six sections, like an intermission at a play, containing the single poem, “Beautylicious” – dedicated to John Ruskin and James Whistler – might very well have been called “Lecture” instead. The poem is an impressive dialectical five-page rant that calls on Blake, Delacroix and Baudelaire, Manet, Magritte, and Kandinsky and a coupe dozen others in examining art and beauty. Indeed, in a recurring theme elsewhere in the collection, Herrle takes on the moral purpose of art (versus art for art’s sake), the efficacy of poets to influence anything.
So what do the pointless murders of three women have to do with aesthetics? Good question. Herrle isn’t so much making any cause-effect conclusions as he is placing them in a context of ideas about beauty, justice, social harmony. The Manson Family were hippies, all about peace and love; the French Revolution was all about liberty, equality and fraternity. Yet they both resorted to unspeakable carnage. Herrle invokes Hitler and Pol Pot, Stalin and Jim Jones, the Hutu genocide in Rwanda in his rants on the pervasive and almost overwhelming inhumanity of man, but just as equally he calls on Beyonce, Cher, Miley Cyrus and the Barbie Doll in his seething verses on perfection and the lust that so often ends with torture and murder.
To sum up, the poem “Count the Sands,” from the third part (“Black Dahlia Nihilismus”) begins:
is like counting
the sands, says
And art? “Art Doesn’t Save” (also from the (“Black Dahlia Nihilismus” section):
Wagner sang Hitler.
Mao was a poet.
“What an artist
dying Emperor Nero.
“I’m an artist!”
murderer and former
Manson boy bobby
to SF Weekly.
What was the name
of the companion plane
for the Hiroshima and
The Great Artiste.
But it’s not as bleak as it sounds! In the concluding section, Herrle invokes the Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Emma Orczy’s original masked hero who saved various French aristocrats from execution, to rescue Sharon Tate and her fellow victims (who included Gibby Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee fortune) – it’s Herrle himself in the guise of Davidus Thermidor (elsewhere identified as a Psalmic Eeyore, after the donkey in Winnie the Pooh – choose your saviors where you will!).
Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy is a really thought-provoking, original read indeed, if the subject matter may be a little grizzly. As the ending to which I’ve alluded may also suggest, though, there’s a good deal of the comic involved as well. In the climactic scene, the savior Davidus levels a “Galt-long lecture” at Tex Watson himself, a reference to the long-winded character in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – but then Tex rants right back!
One reviewer, Ward Abel, has noted that Herrle plays his words like jazz, and indeed his punning has a delicious Joycean quality, as is evident in some of the poem titles: “I Pay the Toll for Thee, Belle,” “Beneath the Planet of the Jackanapes,” “I’m So Over the Rainbow,” “Leap to Conquer.” A la Joyce, to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” from the poem, “Celestial Guillotine”:
Robe, Robe, Robespierre knee-deep in a sanguine Seine,
Mirabeau, Mirabeau, Mirabeau, Mirabeau, all life ends in sleep.
Or, from “The Ripper: Molls of Whitechapel” (related in the voice of Jack the Ripper himself [aka, “Mathematicus,” “Saucy Jack,” “The Whore Killer”]) in boasting of how he mutilates his victims:
Know what the coroners will sing at the inquests?
my moll Madonna? “Like a Surgeon!”
In this same poem, Jack tells us, “For my swan song, I rest my predacious roving finger/on the mother lewd, the cream of the crotch.”
Ouch. Great fun and lots to think about.
Similar Reads: L.D. Brodsky – Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems of the Shoah