Reviewed by Nicholas Nace
What would Jesus do? The “if” that necessarily follows this question attempts to bring his exemplary life closer to the details of ours—to make him “Personal”, as Depeche Mode might argue. If he were a high school teacher named James Callahan, Jr. living in a subdivision of Maryland in 1989 who has a “weird thing going on with his mother,” Jesus Christ would wear an “aviator jacket and black jeans,” he would have a curly mullet that the devout would long to touch, and he would desire most of all to be adored by his teenaged disciples. He would be, in other words, one of us. Or so the poet BK Fischer imagines in Radioapocrypha, a novella composed entirely of lyric poems, in prose and verse, that together form a fragmentary narrative in which gospel and gossip begin to seem indistinguishable.
Of course, 1989 marked an end of a world historical era—but for those working through the equations of “Algebra II/Trig,” it was just another summer. “Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about,” the poet Joshua Clover has claimed of this particular year, but what Fischer presents instead is a phone conversation in which the poet herself acts as an amanuensis for a woman named Maren, who is “sifting” through memories, struggling to understand the touching faith she once had in her own personal Mr. Callahan. Maren is the Mary Magdalen to Callahan’s Jesus, and her story roughly parallels the apocryphal Gospel of Mary, which, despite having come down to us with much of its text lost to time, still has enough authority to cast doubt on the gospels deemed canonical.Any recollection of high school, even of its mortifications, will be doomed by the knowledge and rationalizations of intervening years. It will seem, in retrospect, to be “another life,” one that “doesn’t matter” now that adulthood has offered a new perspective in which Maren says, “I feel sorry for her, the girl I was.” Still, despite the lip service paid to these ideas, Maren’s past feels in urgent need of being put straight, of comprehending its dubious visions, hasty interpretations, and fleshy truths she feels she “shouldn’t be telling.” The whole book, in fact, is an act of recovery, starting with the first poem, “Annunciation,” which in its modern context is reduced to its near homophone of enunciation—just being willing to speak for the past sets the conditions for its conception. Details that started as “half of half knowledge” are steadily diminishing at a predictable rate, transformed by the way drama appears increasingly small in the distance of hindsight. Minor characters offer interpretation in place of facts, as in “Denial,” when Parker, a Peter figure, concludes of Callahan that “He was always, um, you know, a little off.” What acts as a preservative—a string on which our memories collect—are the reference points of culture, sacred as rosary beads. In this way, the reconstruction of Callahan’s story involves a balancing of collective memory with individual impressions mixed among italicized quotations from Emmanuel Levinas, the gnostic gospels, as well as Depeche Mode, REM, Prince, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, The Bangles, Sonic Youth, Alphaville, and an awful lot of Joy Division.
Because interconnected fragments dominate our attention in Radioapocrypha and fan themselves out around a central figure who by the end is “gone,” the book’s fifty-one unassuming poems function less as poetic acts than desperate attempts to make coherence. From Spenser’s Faerie Queene to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, narrative poems generally find a consistent stanzaic form through which to work their stories. In Radioapocrypha, instead, we are treated to individual lyrics that edge into a confessional mode. Parenthetically titled prose poems offer documentary speech from Callahan—always trying too hard to charm, and finding himself satisfied with his efforts. Though we have poems labeled as distinct genres (Parables, “Dispassions”), attention is less on forms themselves than on the rhetoric of revelation. Revelations of all sorts are mixed into the suburban mystery as told by Maren, who—perceiving herself tainted—finds solace in a sexual relationship with Callahan. This not surprisingly results in her being “slut-shamed” during their dates at Pizza Hut in which Callahan strokes her ear in front of the entire lacrosse team. It is a testament to the clever construction of the book that we can’t help but understand this episode in light of the scarlet mark of Sharpied shame heaped upon a classmate named Tina in the earlier “Parable of the Slut.”
Maren’s official perspective comes most forcefully through poems titled with the Marian formulary “Our Lady of,” a formula completed with such entities as “Cinderblock,” “the Hair Cuttery,” “the Bachelor Pad,” “Formica,” and “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Side glances are provided by a largely preoccupied band of apostle figures we hear about in sections with the recurring title “Garage Gospel.” (Try as they might to be inspired by the “80s punk” their mentor appreciates in all its “acceleration and shriek,” they keep “falling into the theme from Top Gun.”) Puzzling it all together becomes the objective for the reader as well as Maren, who occasionally leaves literal blanks in place of revelation (“I’m supposed / to be ___________, so you can feel________ / about this”). There is suspense in the way that a diary entry would be suspenseful, and there is suspense in the idea, established very early, that the history being laid down is important enough to be laid down and scandalous enough that it must be fortified against people getting “the wrong idea” about what happened.
Callahan himself is a silver-tongued rhetorician who, in what might be a revealingly apt metaphor, teaches students how to use an eraser to wind back an unspooled cassette tape. The whole book, in fact, is a rhetorically driven act of recovery. As a neologism, “Radioapocrypha” is a Greco-Latin portmanteau that might strictly mean hidden light ray, radiated secrets, or spurious transmissions in electromagnetic waves. As the title of Fischer’s book, however, these composite words are even more significant for the sense they now both give of archeological pastness, of an attempt to preserve and represent the otherwise ephemeral spoken past. However high its original fidelity, this past loses itself in a slow decay.
And the triangulations of multiple mediums are ultimately the message. The final “Renunciation” of Callahan takes place “off record,” and the way we speak of official histories, of being on the “record” or off, calls to mind the record as a technology of captured sound, a medium of storage, like the single papyrus codex in which the Gospel of Mary appears, or the record albums Callahan shares with his disciples, or the device that Maren refers to when she asks, “You sure you have that thing / turned off?”
Without being elegiac, the book is an elegy for, among other things, the cassette tape, the storage medium of the 80s that now delimits an epoch by having become so remote from our lives as to be virtually unplayable. It’s now seen, if it is seen at all, as fugitive trash, unspooled in trees and on the sidewalks in tufts of glistening brown and black. Not even Callahan’s eraser can take us back.
Nicholas D. Nace is an editor at The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. His work has recently appeared in Fence, Prairie Schooner, and Boston Review. His most recent book is Catch-words, published by Information as Material in 2018.