M. Scott Douglass, Living in a Red State Blues, Paycock Press, Arlington, Virginia, 2022, ISBN: 978-0-931181-78-8, 72 pages, $14 / POETRY
M. Scott Douglass alternates between meditations and straightforward personal anecdotes delving into the American socio-political landscape in Living in a Red State Blues. A collage on the cover, designed by the author, depicts the Capitol Riots. As the culmination of a tremendous shift in the American landscape, it’s an effective introduction that looms over this tight collection of poems and evokes the anger, dread, and division that permeates the pages ahead. “Darkness” visualizes the violent intensity of the riotous event, but an anecdote within “Twenty Years Later” defines its place within our cultural consciousness.
Glancing back to that moment
and every moment since we huddled
around a small teachers’ lounge tv,
watched a second plane spear
the second tower, knowing we
were under attack, knowing planes
swarmed overhead as someone sorted
friend from foe, I wonder now if we
will ever know the difference again.
I imagine that many shared a similar experience. Helplessly watching the television as the unthinkable unfolds and changes the country forever, then doing the same thing “Twenty Years Later.” The parallels between two of the darkest days in the American 21st century underscore Douglass’ desire to distance himself from Trump’s supporters, the republican party, and the “neoconservatism” or the “neo- counterculture” at large, all of which are frequently metaphorized through the color red (referred to as “Red” throughout). Douglass’ distaste for the color appears in the first stanza of the collection, which includes a reference to the red wheelbarrow trope.
Can we start with a version
where the wheelbarrow is green
or purple or orange?
“A Red-letter Kind of Day” explores the presence of red in American culture and the author’s desire to cancel his “Red Hat Society membership” even though his “whole life is written in red ink.” Many lines reference the author’s previous alignment with the very conservative ideology they now wish to separate themselves from. Douglass often associates shame with red to the extent that he wishes to rid himself of clothing dyed by the color in “Clothes for Sale,” where his red clothes are considered too stained to clean with. The clever writing infers that the blood-soaked garments result from the damage inflicted by Trump’s reign and the conservative movement he represents. Some of the most complex play with Red occurs when Douglass delves into racial politics with “Diluting Red.” Here is the poem in full:
How do you dilute a primary color
when no other primary will do?
You could add white, but
isn’t white part of the problem?
Isn’t white already implied,
a silent, preferred attribute for
any equal partnership with Red?
Options are like compromise:
a dirty word, a blurring of identity.
and let’s be honest: diversity
is not this color’s strongest suit.
Red is uneasy around contrasting colors,
suspicious of unfamiliar shades,
rejects watered-down versions
of its own distinctiveness.
But what is left?
Consider the range of blended alternatives:
orange to purple to muddy brown, it’s hard
to imagine a partner more appropriate
for Red than white.
The result would be a hue to maintain
purity of heritage (in smaller doses),
with only the stigma of arching
into battle at the Capitol and
beyond, waving a pink rally flag.
Douglass uses color theory to address Red’s adversity to diversity through the color’s rejection of any shade darker than white. Implying that Red is, by nature, only compatible with the white race creates interesting implications for Douglass’ stance on America’s path forward. Soon after “Diluting Red,” Douglass asks, “Do you forgive a perpetrator who shows no remorse?” in the aptly named “Forgiving Red.” He states that forgiveness must “find its own justification” and instead suggests punishment, which is explored in “Punishing Red.” The reflection in the piece gives Douglass cold feet, and he appears to abandon discipline as a viable corrective measure for the acts committed during the capitol riot. Here are two stanzas from the piece:
You know a smack across
the knuckles won’t be enough,
won’t stem a pattern of misbehavior
and harsher measures will only
escalate to never ending retribution.
Soon you realize your mistake,
watch it stare where two walls meet.
Red doesn’t see a joining or blending.
It sees a bent and folded reality,
A single wall wedged into itself.
Douglass also effectively uses grotesque imagery, which builds on the layers of negative emotion felt towards Red. “It Is What It Is” uses the scatological to compare literal “shit” to the subject of Douglass’ woes. “Reunion in an Airport Restroom” moves to creative descriptions of public bathrooms and bodily functions to reflect on the social effects of an unprecedented political landscape. In particular, the taboos surrounding elderly sex make “neoconservatives” a viscerally reactive piece with lines such as “arthritic fingers flapping” and “grandma’s eyes glazed open.” I have only encountered such intense imagery on the subject elsewhere in “Windmills” from Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible.
Even when everybody is on the same page, national discourse on Trump and the evolving conservative rhetoric often prioritizes outrage and catastrophizing over understanding and solutions. The entire work steams with anger that threatens to box Douglass’ emotions into an unproductive rage. Yet, he is continuously able to parse their intense emotions and explore solutions for the complex socio-political divisions currently tearing our country apart. Even though Douglass doesn’t have all the answers, “Consoling Red” uses the classic “Scorpion and the Frog” parable to consider negotiating or reaching out to Red and offering comfort. Douglass shows pity for Red, saying, “His pain is a product of fear, envy, lies, weaponized by his own vindictiveness.” In the final stanza, the snake takes the place of the scorpion and guides Douglass to a sobering conclusion:
You try to negotiate around him.
that’s when he strikes. That’s why
he strikes; and you learn a valuable lesson:
You can’t bargain with a snake, can’t
please a snake, can’t comfort a snake.
It is a snake. It will always be a snake.
That’s all you can’t expect from a snake.
“Early Voting” recounts Douglass’ experience voting in the 2020 election. While in line, he notes “a table of happy black women” as they “hand out flyers for Democratic candidates.” The line is the only direct inclusion of Black people and one of two mentions of Blackness in the collection. On its own, the lines demonstrate a well-meaning attempt to acknowledge the Black community’s role in resisting Red. However, the language depicting Black women serving papers to (presumably) white people with enthusiasm shares similarities to the “Black Mammy” caricature. The Black Mammy, employed in the Civil War and Jim Crow eras, attempts to “prove” that Black women were happy in subservient positions to Whites and serve the “economic interests of mainstream white America” (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia). Douglass’ use of the stereotype seems unintentional. Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that the accidental use of stereotypes is an implicit effect of reductive racial rhetoric deep-set within America’s cultural consciousness. The next attempt to connect the role of race in the current American social climate fares better in “A32N81.” In the poem, Douglass emphasizes his disrespectful behavior to a state trooper during a traffic stop that results in a mere warning. in the final line, Douglass wonders “if the outcome would have been the same” if he were Black. It is a sobering connection that shows both an understanding of the author’s own privilege and introduces potentially deadly consequences to what began as a therapeutic motorcycle ride for the author.
In the Foreword, Douglass asks the reader to decide whether or not the collection should have seen the light of day. As I have shown, the pieces utilize Douglass’ unique perspective to contribute productive commentary and stories that conversate with America’s current situation. Even though few poems struggle to stay relevant to the subject matter, the contemplations on relationships, fatherhood, and community show that Red now influences every aspect of our lives. Therefore, it may be worth considering our form of reflection on the issues Douglass considers in Living in a Red State Blues.
© M. Scott Douglass and Michael Fialkowski
M. Scott Douglass is Publisher and Managing Editor at Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Previous books include Auditioning for Heaven, Balancing on Two Wheels, Steel Womb (Revisited), Hard to Love, and Just Passing Through. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and an Arts & Science Council Grant recipient. His graphic designs have earned two PICA Awards and an Eric Hoffer Award nomination.
Michael Fialkowski is a Communications and Creative Writing student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. As a part of his coursework, he researches and writes about the sociopolitical implications of online discourse and narrative. His first published work can be found in Volume 18 of Loch Raven Review.