'He is good, / but he is a product of the world'

Rhetorics of empire in Scott Abels's 'Rambo Goes to Idaho'

How to be a poet in Hawai`i — or elsewhere — who opposes imperialism, colonization, the military, and yet appears, as a Euro-American, to embody them? I've worried this issue before on my own blog, and thought I'd think more about it here by way of a new book from BlazeVox by Scott Abels.

Abels, whose MFA is from Boise State in the state of Idaho, notorious for its white supremacists, has lived in Hawai`i for several years now.  His thesis forms the basis for his first book, Rambo Goes to Idaho, which moves between Idaho and Hawai`i.  As he writes in the first section of “Idaho Conspiracy,” a poem obliquely about moving to Hawai`i:  “My Composition 1100 assignment was to guess the titles / of the first five poems on the Poetry and Politics website.” Then this: “The only thing I could come up with was / Hawaii comes before Idaho alphabetically” (49).  Abels's move back in the alphabet forces him to look at the problem of American empire, although one senses he did so before his “geographically confusing” move.  For the MFA thesis is set up as that of John Rambo, whose thesis signature page comes after two brief proems called “Screenplay” and “Burst.” It is this poem that begins with the lines I appropriated for my title, those that assert that Rambo is good, but is a “product of the world” (9).  Anyone who reads post-colonial literature knows the character of the bad English teacher, the one who is a secular missionary, who tells children they are not good enough because they speak Pidgin or another local language, and not the good English that he or she represents.  No surprise then that John Rambo “is teaching English” (9), or that his “boss is explaining that English / as a second language / / is essentially the same / as special education” (10).  Here special ed is aligned with special forces, by way of a fictional pop cultural icon who is deeply imbricated in American culture since the Vietnam era.  While Rambo seems a confusing and confused character, Ronald Reagan famously declared him a Republican. Abels's Rambo is more like a Soviet version of Don Quixote: a little bit silly, hardly a strong-man, prone to noting things like "I am a sparrow to his peacock," about his professor, Paul Bunyan.

Writing about the Rambo films, especially the first, as well as other “action movies” of recent decades, Richard Pope notes that, “The films themselves are politically ambivalent: more fundamentally, they trace a certain diminution of the space of politics, or that space in which decisions about the future of society are made and the public mobilized.” The horrific violence of the Rambo films (here I must confess to having only watched trailers on YouTube) would then mark the strength of an assertion about an uncomfortable ambiguity about national, gendered, racial, and individual identities.  While the First Blood title of the first movie denotes its “drawing" of blood, it also gestures to origins.  Rambo's are not simple: he is half Navajo, half European American (German or Irish, take your pick).  The plots to the films that feature Rambo present him as torn between acting as an enforcer of post-Vietnam War American imperialism and being a victim of it.  He has PTSD, he shoots National Guardsmen, he doesn't like missionaries in Asia. Here I rely on John Carlos Rowe's “Culture, US Imperialism and Globalization.” But Anthony Swofford, quoted by Rowe, argues that all war movies are pro-war since Vietnam: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”

Abels does not indulge in overt violence in his version of the Rambo saga.  Instead, he delves into Rambo's inner (bumbling) life in such a way as to echo a member of the audience of First Blood interviewed in Richard Pope's ethnographic study, “Doing Justice: A Ritual-Psychoanalytic Approach to Postmodern Melodrama and a Certain Tendency of the Action Film” (Cinema Studies 51:2, Winter 2012).  That anonymous responder said, “I'm no Green Beret, but I know what it is like to have abilities that are as spectacular as they are worthless.  I know the frustration of being kicked around by people who don't recognize or appreciate my worth.  But I'm not a Green Beret.” Substitute the word “poet” for Green Beret and you see the odd tightrope Abels walks in his book.  Abels's rhetorical stance lies somewhere past irony, within the realm of the absurd, perhaps the only location from which he can negotiate the paradoxes squeezing him from every side.  “I'm a big fan / of the fall of man. // I bought the T-shirt,” is one such statement.  And, on the next page:

is hard for me.

Mañana, aloha.
If Schwarzenegger
can buy Hummers,
then I can have a submarine

while sunshine helicopters
better than practically anyone
fulfill all hope.  (69)

These and many other lines from Abels's book remind me of a line uttered numerous times by Paul Naylor to me on my recent visit to San Diego.  “Capitalism forces us to live complicated lives,” he repeated.  Rambo--like Schwarzenneger--can embody Emerson's self-reliance only by killing everything in sight.  Hope comes dressed as a "sunshine helicopter," like those military helicopters that flew over Paul and me on the beach at Torrey Canyon in San Diego. The film Rambo's occasional violent anti-imperial forays meet Hawaiian poet and sovereignty activist Haunani-Kay Trask's consistent anti-imperialism in her violent fantasy (published in the late 1990s) of beating up a “Racist white woman,” in a poem from Light in the Crevice Never Seen, that begins this way:

could kick

your face, puncture

both eyes.


You deserve this kind

of violence.


No more vicious

tongues, obscene



Just a knife

slitting your tight

little heart


for all my people

under your feet


for all those years

lived smug and wealthy


off our land

parasite arrogant.


Complexity can make us want certainty; what is most certain is the violence, actual and articulated, of our time.  Abels implies that the acquisition of Hawai`i was such an act of attempted certainty: “The President has acquired the last state in the Union / as his generic talisman / toward not getting robbed” (25). What to make of such certitude and the damages it inflicts?

Much as we might want it to, Abels's poetry does not offer us an out, except insofar as it brings that outward violence in, examines its absurdities.  And that is not to be sneezed at. Because the problem we arrive at after the violence of imperialism is counter-violence.  The issue, as Eunsong Angela K. said to me in a different context in San Diego, is “what to do with power.” My colleague Caroline Sinavaiana writes: "As we know, Trask’s poetry can at times offer a fierce and tender beauty. In my view, this particular poem does neither. As reader here I end up feeling shut out of an experience – that of blatant injustice – which I know all too well. As a Polynesian thinker and cultural worker, I am all too familiar with the scourge of colonial degradation and its neocolonial aftermath. Yes, I have experienced rage. Yes, I understand the situation. But no, I do not find it productive to demonize white folks (of either gender) as a class and threaten violent retaliation, however ‘figuratively.’The question for me is not whether [Trasks's] rage is well-founded.  Of course it is. The questions for me is what to do now. How to respond most skillfully? How to step out of the cycle of violence? How to harness the energy of rage, with its considerable power, as fuel for vehicles which can both heal us and restore justice? How to confront and respond to ongoing injustice in ways that strengthen us (and each other), instead of turning the violence against ourselves and our own? I think this poem could point us towards such necessary questions."

By virtue of his subject position, combined with his politics, Abels cannot assume a position of extremity in either direction.  His position is an absurd one, but he has thought his way into that absurdity with a courage different from that of his subject.  What his work offers back are the very complexities we are heir to, delivered up not as entertainment for the masses, but for those few of us who read poems.  In his 2008 review of the last Rambo movie, A.O. Scott noted that, “the movie does have its own kind of blockheaded poetry.” Abels's poetry is not blockheaded in any way, nor is it particularly cinematic. As work that is neither visual nor violent, it offers us a possible space for meditation, a place from which to contemplate the violence of power, and perhaps another--less entertaining, but more productive--way out of it.

Notes (other than those embedded in the text):

Richard Pope, “Doing Justice: A Ritual-Psychoanalytic Approach to Postmodern Melodrama and a Certain Tendency of the Action Film,” Cinema Journal 51:2 (Winter 2012): 113-136).

John Carlos Rowe, “Culture, US Imperialims, and Globalization,” American Literary History 16:4 (2004): 575-595.

Caroline Sinavaiana's quotation is from unpublished correspondence.