Unacknowledged Legislations by: Steve Henn
On the bottom right hand corner of page VII in Steve Henn’s recently published book Unacknowledged Legislations is the phrase “May God have Mercy on us all.” The last time I’ve heard anybody say “May God have Mercy on us all” was when I was about to blow chunks all over the place at the Kosciusko County fair in 5th Grade. I’d just gotten off of one of those spinning strawberry things and I was looking at the sky trying to hold the puke down, when some wild lady sat down next to me and started mumbling the phrase in question. In a lot of ways the book that Steve Henn has recently released is quite reminiscent of that experience at the fair. You see, reading the book is like stepping inside of a giant plastic piece of fruit and sitting down as some carnie claiming to be “the wicked wit to come out of Warsaw, Indiana since Ambrose Bierce” smiles at you and closes the little knee-high door. Once inside, each one of Henn’s short and biting poems keeps spinning you faster and faster until you start feeling that Chili-cheese dog from the 4-H Beaver Dam Stand reaching its way up to your esophagus. By the time you finish the book, you’re stepping out of that spinning strawberry and the only way to prevent yourself from ralphing is to sit down on a bench and look up at the sky above you. And then some wild lady sits down next to you mumbling “May God have Mercy on us all” and you think to yourself, “Indeed” even though you’ll slowly start to lose your faith in God and even though you never say words like “Indeed”.
Steve Henn’s first full-length book is the culmination of a decade long period of intense artistic productivity for the northern Indiana poet. From his co-founding of the notable small press magazine “Fight these Bastards” to his work with the Midwest Poetry All-Stars, his live readings, his band The Invisible Robots, and his numerous chapbooks, the high school English teacher is needless to say a heavyweight in the Warsaw artistic community. He is a friend of the laudable small-press poets Don Winter and Oren Wagner and I may also add that Steve Henn’s presence has been of great personal importance to myself and my own work.
Henn’s newest release is a piece that is very significant to the northern Indiana identity. Therefore I’d like to shortly look at three aspects of Unacknowledged Legislations: the use of radicalization, the emotional sincerity of selected pieces and the setting of Warsaw, Indiana.
The use of radicalization in Unacknowledged Legislations is something that functions, on the surface, to bring humor and a comedic element to his texts. We notice Henn’s use of radicalization right away with the first poem of the book: “Come Live on My Commune!”. Henn portrays a radical, sixties-esque commune in a cornfield in Kosciusko County. The idea in itself is something that seems absolutely absurd. How exactly could a communistic society be formed in the middle of a conservative leaning Midwestern County? How could the sex-fearing and God-fearing inhabitants of Warsaw “develop a breakthrough form of sexual intercourse” (P. 17)? The other wild absurdities that Henn describes in the poem further the radicalness of his imaginary commune.
But this example of radicalization should not be seen as merely humorous banter. On a deeper level, we notice that often times, Henn’s most extreme and absurd poems are linked with political topics. For example: “Democrat Sighting Reported in Kosciusko County”, “When Obama Was Inaugurated”, “God of Thunder Joins Eco-Terrorists”, and “Homosexual Mercenaries Take over Baghdad” among others. These frequent associations between radicalization and politics parallel the current political polarization in the US, which can be widely seen through the establishment of the Tea Party and the success of personalities Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck. Henn’s fusing of the political with the radical can definitely be interpreted as an expression of political discontent.
A possible effect of contemporary political polarization can be seen in a desire for the moderate, which is well executed in Henn’s poem “Confessions of a Flaming Liberal”. Here, Henn breaks down stereotypes of what a liberal is. Contrary to popular belief, Henn creates a liberal character who is not vegetarian, who “wouldn’t rule out voting Republican”, and who believes “in equal rights for homosexuals”, but still likes “to make fun of gay people” (P. 24). It is exactly this moderate liberal character that is so intriguing. Often in discussions about politics in the Midwest, the conversation turns into wild yelling and repeating of radical political ideas and/or logical fallacies. In contrast to this wild radicalized political world, Henn’s description of the “flaming liberal” is, in and of itself, rather mundane. This juxtaposition generates an absurdity. Normally something radical stands out from the mundane. But in an area that is so overrun by fanatics, Henn implies that it is, absurdly enough, radical to be moderate. In all Henn’s use of radicalization is a brilliantly humorous way to approach very sensitive topics with lightness, while at the same time digging to the depths of contemporary political issues and discontent.
A second wonderfully executed aspect of Henn’s book is the emotional sincerity and closeness that grows as the book progresses. Although most of Henn’s work is characterized by his biting wit and humor, there is a sentimental side of the author that shines through in some of his pieces. This sentimental side can also be seen in his 2010 chapbook release The Book of Nate, which contains descriptions of the various aspects of a good friendship, and leaves the reader with a strong feeling of camaraderie and warmth. In Unacknowledged Legislations similar warmth comes from poems like “Daydream”, “Myrtle Beach”, “On the Day Before My Eldest Child’s First Communion”, “A Note to Dr. David Haines”, and “When I Die”.
The musician Daniel Johnston, who Henn quotes in his book, is a master of achieving closeness and warmth. One reason why Johnston’s work is so powerful is because Johnston honestly, bluntly, and almost embarrassingly reveals his deepest inner workings. In a similar manner, Henn achieves this warmth by breaking down the barriers of embarrassment and self-restraint. Henn gets to his innermost and rawest human emotion in part by using the real names of his friends, but also by sincerely and gently handling the incredibly personal subjects of his “Eldest Child”, as well as his father (in “A Note to Dr. David Haines”). Instead of letting these personal subjects become points of embarrassment, Henn boldly paints himself and those closest to him into his art. Through this process he powerfully brings the reader into the realm of his world, of his reality, of his innermost existence.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the role of Warsaw and Kosciusko County in Henn’s latest book. Henn’s work contains conflicting views of his native area. On the one hand it is written in the Acknowledgments section that “he [Henn] is a big fan of the place where he grew up, and still resides”. But in Kaveh Akbar’s Foreword, Warsaw is described as “a station marked by indifference (or open hostility)” directed towards artists. This is the world in which Unacknowledged Legislations lives. It is a preternatural world where frustratingly radical conservatives burn books about sexual education, but also where young artists produce “tendril promising nourishment / for all the unbelieving ears” (P. 92). The town’s dullness allows the writer’s mind to wonder freely, dabbling in and out of pop culture, beers amongst friends and “Non-Lethal Uses for Your Standard Issue Suicide Machine”. Steve Henn’s poetry is simultaneously a commentary on the city in which he resides as well as a product of that same city.
Perhaps the most revealing poem in relation to Warsaw, Indiana is Henn’s piece “(Sigh)”. “(Sigh)” is the most ambitious poem that Henn undertakes in the book and stands as, in my personal opinion, the best example of Henn’s brilliance and a cultural artifact of utmost importance to Kosciusko County. At the end of the poem Henn yearns for a time when he “can go back to Warsaw, Indiana, without the slightest hint of regret” (P. 83). This passage and poem captures the feeling of Northern Indiana to a T: a place where one must always regretfully return to and where one can never truly get away from. It is a place that disgusts us, but only because it has captured us and refuses to let us out of its grasp. The only way to find contentment in the madness of the Lake City, is to find those who have also, for whatever reason, become trapped in the bastardly clutches of that God-fearing and God-forsaken county. Thus bleeds Henn’s pen in the poem “(Sigh)” . . . for he has lost a friend, Zeb, who it appears once helped him cope with the madness of living in Warsaw, Indiana.
Steve Henn’s first complete book of poetry Unacknowledged Legislations is a hilarious and profound journey into the mind and life of its author. It is a behemoth of Warsaw art, because of both its ambition and its execution. For everyone with any association to Kosciusko County, Unacknowledged Legislations stands alone as the most important book of poetry to come out of the region this year. Steve Henn’s full-length debut can be found online at nyqbooks.org, amazon.com as well as in the Barnes & Noble online store. More Information about Steve Henn can be found online at http://www.bookthatpoet.com/poets/hennstep.html
May 10, 2011