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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Of all the methods of transformation employed by alter egos—spin in a circle, rip your clothes off in a phone booth, dial H.E.R.O. —my all time favorite belongs to Alan Moore. In order to transform into the fantasy warrior Promethea, college geek Sophie Bangs has to . . .

Write a poem.

Sound easy? In the first issue, a shadow demon is battering at her collapsing door as she scribbles in a notebook. Rhyme, meter, stanza breaks—Sophie’s got to do it all:

I am Promethea and take my name
From he bound to a rock and plagued by birds.
In me burns his Celestial stolen flame.
I am the words made flesh, the flesh made words.

Six more stanzas of that, quatrains, ABAB rhyme scheme, even a loose iambic pentameter. All Billy Batson has to do is yelp, “Shazam!” Promethea wields a glowing caduceus, the double snake wand of Hermes that shoots celestial flame.When Sophie changes back to her old self, she’s gripping her pen and notebook again.  I think she got the better deal.

Still, I’m not seeing Alan Moore on any Contemporary Poetry syllabi. Fortunately there’s a legion of poets with mightier pens.

David Orr, for instance. His “The Chameleon” recently appeared in The New Yorker. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” is another must-have on any superhero poetry syllabus. So is Lesley Wheeler’s “Earth-Two Sonnet” (and not just because I’m married to the poet). And Gary Jackson’s “Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son” just ka-powwed me while I was reading his poetry collection Missing You, Metropolis.

The list goes on. You would need a Contemporary Superhero Poetry course to work through it all. Or at least a Superhero Poetry Anthology to gather it. I suggested the possibility to Lesley, a sort of “Wonder Twins Power Activate!” scheme, since it would unite our two areas of expertise. We both have other shadow demons in need of vanquishing first, but it could happen.

To prove it’s worthwhile, I emailed Graywolf Press for permission to post Gary Jackson’s poem here. And Lesley (she’s across the room chopping onions) just gave me the thumbs-up on hers too (provided I include this link to unsplendid where it was first published). Sophie Bangs doesn’t exist, so I’m hoping she doesn’t mind my including the rest of her poem too.

Be careful when reading these aloud. They could induce unintended transformations.

Gary Jackson
“Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son”

I hold my six-pound baby boy
in my hands, pink as sand.
His skin is glass.

This is not a metaphor.
My wife did not hemorrhage alone
on our wood floor for metaphor.

Even now, he squirms—his small cries
are like the whine of well-worn brakes.
He cuts into my palms and slides

in the creased blood. I see
his tiny organs getting used to their work,
while my wife—bled out—grows cold.

What paper-bag test can this boy pass?
His skin reflects the white of my eyes.
And I know he cannot last.

For a moment, before I drop him,
I wonder how he’d make it?
Even if his skin does harden—

to crystal, to diamond—it won’t be
enough, and I could not bear the sight
of him hanging like an ornament,

a glass boy from a tree, or find him
cracked open, splintered in the  street.
As he shatters on the floor,

everything from his heart to lungs
freezes like the hands
of a wristwatch at ground zero.

*

Lesley Wheeler
“Earth-Two Sonnet”

A caped figure slips through an empty building, inked figment on the brink
of the place where General Lee, tired of fighting, swore to serve as president.
Books wait breathless in their boxes; renovation’s imminent.
The blackboards ache like thunderclouds. Power trying to break.

At dinner, it’s all doppelgangers and secret identities. Captain America’s shield is the Marvel standard for durability,
he explains as our son lists mythic forces that might shatter its
flawlessness. Nova Heat from the Human Torch; Hulk’s avocado fist.
Their mirror-faces glow. Maybe Thor’s hammer, they agree.

May that hammer slam
this Earth-One heroine. Let her drop the shield, ride the bolt to a parallel dimension and learn
to be ordinary. Let the afternoon level its cosmic rays at my back, burn
the scar-shadow-stain of the last few years onto the linoleum,

sketching a record of the armor I recycle, the tights I now peel free.
Allowed to wrinkle; skip a meeting of the League; be indiscreet. Her perfection only a legend now. A vibranium chip of history.

*

Sophie Banks
“I am Promethea”

I am Promethea and take my name
From he bound to a rock and plagued by birds.
In me burns his Celestial stolen flame.
I am the words made flesh, the flesh made words.

I am Promethea, my father dead,
Martyred, his bones daubed red with Heresy
By those who would turn Gold back into Lead
And sour a world by their sour Alchemy.

I am Promethea, God-adapted ne,
Reared in their immaterial hills and vales.
My tale is in the world of substance spun,
Yet is my substance in the world of tales.

I am Promethea, the child who stands
Between fixed earth and insubstantial air,
A thought who yet treads matter’s rain-swept strands,
And mortals are the sandals that I wear.

I am Promethea. From Mind’s pure light
I stoop into Earth’s gloom. From Fable’s day
Descending into Fact’s cold weighty night,
From lyric atmospheres to mammal clay.

I am Promethea, the rumored one,
The Mythic bought Reason strains to bend
I am that voice left, once the book is done . . .
I am the dream that waking does not end.

I am Promethea, Art’s fiercest spark
I am all inspiration, all desire,
Imagination’s blaze in mankind’s dark.
I am Promethea. I bring you fire!

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