The great American original Ed Sanders (Second-generation Beat poet and fiction writer? Pop and political historian? Underground rock star? Longstanding Woodstock community pillar? Why, yes!) regards his latest work, Broken Glory: The Last Years of Robert F. Kennedy, as a poem – perhaps, to his mind, a heroic, historically situated epic poem in the tradition of the Iliad and the Odyssey. His publishers were apparently loath to call it such, classifying it unambiguously, right on the cover, as a “graphic history.” Again and again, the touching character drawings by Rick Veitch locate the vulnerability and the unjaded spirit in RFK’s weary countenance, as well as the humanity in Sirhan Sirhan’s, among the rest of the real-life cast.
Sanders will read from his new book this Sunday, July 1 at 3 p.m. at the Kingston Artists’ Collective.
Fragmentary but coalescing, multi-strand, multi-perspective, Broken Glory is the stunning yield of more than 40 years of research and rumination and letting facts talk to facts. In the back of his mind, it was what Sanders was working on while he was working on all the other things he has written and recorded in his tireless career as a cultural trickster and serious moral historian.
Locally, the pillar of Sanders’ fame might well be his lead role in the band of rock ‘n’ roll subversives known as the Fugs, but internationally he will always be known principally as the best-selling author of The Family, the first great work on Charles Manson (a subject that he has kept writing about ever since). The ’60s-into-the-’70s is Sanders’ milieu and obsession, but history is never as discrete and neat as the closed narrative frames of books and decades would make us believe; it’s all connected, dude. It was in the process of researching Manson that Sanders first got hipped to some funny business regarding the assassinations of RFK and JFK and MLK, which Sanders believes are interrelated.
Broken Glory proceeds in short, titled bursts of journalistic narrative – facts, mostly, often with citations right there in the fabric of the verse: Sirhan’s youth, his aspirations to be a jockey, his unaccountably lengthy hospitalization for a head injury; Kennedy’s growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and his awakening awareness of a global youth movement, his halting moves toward declaring his candidacy, his unease about the official story of his brother’s assassination; subjects related to MK Ultra and the reality of hypnosis- and drug-based mind control; the assassination of Martin Luther King and all the fissures in the official account. The global pace forward is brisk, but the approach to narrative time is acutely nonlinear as Sanders loops back over the same temporal tracks on different horses, again and again.
This recursive technique is subtle and natural at first – necessary, given the number of horses Sanders straddles – but as the book converges from multiple angles on one critical point, time seems to stop and the intensity of the story – still mostly journalistic in tone – becomes almost unbearable. Our narrative expectations brace for the payoff, the shots we know are coming, the shots we remember; but because of Sanders’s nonlinear, prismatic and pastiche approach, that terrible payoff never seems to arrive and yet happens over and over again. It is torture, but of the most masterful kind.
Most of Broken Glory’s final 150 pages deal with the events of June 4 and 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. As many as 50 pages examine with microscopic patience the architecture of a moment: a series of unexpected changes in the route that the candidate took within the guts of the Ambassador after delivering his speech upon winning what should have been the pivotal California Democratic primary.
Sanders is not the first to look at the RFK assassination as the product of a conspiracy involving the CIA and potentially other parties as well, and he doles out credit gratefully to the other researchers, authors and documentarians who share his path. All of the characters, from the Kennedy’s famous and influential entourage to the sketchy figures central to the conspiracy theories, are present: the man with the German accent and the downturned moustache, the girl in the polka-dot dress.
In his foreword, Sanders begins by acknowledging two things about himself: first, that he is an unabashed fan of RFK and of what might have been: “What a calamity to American history was the murder of Robert Kennedy!” Next, preempting the charges of conspiracy theory that are already ringing in around his words, before he has even finished a sentence, he says an enthusiastic “Yes” to the former, a flat “No” to the latter. Sanders never uses the word “theory”: “How different would the course of the United States have been if a rogue and powerful group had not killed, and covered up his murder, and the murders of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well?” He is certain of it. Too weird? “Nothing,” Sanders writes several times, “is too weird for 1968.” Think what you will, but it is hard to take Sanders’ 40 years of research lightly.
That two-sentence introduction is about as naked and overtly judgmental as Sanders gets here. The rest of the time, his sneaky authorial presence ducks in and out of the story, often inconspicuously, in parenthetical comments, occasional poetic set pieces, a Greek tragedy subplot and in frequent beatnik deviations in voice from the otherwise-reportorial tone. Broken Glory almost concludes with a short, metrical and rhyming poem called “Sung,” in which Sanders plays the role of his own Greek chorus as he asks,
Tell me again why the guns
always aim to the left
with gun powder ballots
& voting with knife heft
never for peace
always for strife
empire & war
a dollar a life.
So, is Broken Glory, all 300+ pages of it, a poem? I vote “Yes.” If your chief objection is that Homer wrote his/her epic historical poems in scannable, metrical verse, whereas Sanders’ prismatic history is told in what appear to be short bursts of press clippings, with some poetic chunking of content and artful lineation, then you, my man, need to catch up with 20th-century poetics and prosodics. In the last words of his foreword, Sanders expresses his debt of gratitude, as one always does at the end of acknowledgments, to his two mentors in the poetic craft, the greater makers.
Famously, Sanders learned from chief Beat officer Allen Ginsberg, who explored long, biblically inspired forms as well as new (old) modes of verse based more on syntactical units than on metrics in Howl and Kaddish and The Fall of America. Less famously, Sanders studied with Charles Olson, central figure of the influential Black Mountain school of poets, author of the epic Maximus poems and a philosopher of poetics who called his approach to poetry “projective verse,” in which cadence and rhythm are based on breath and energy transfer rather than upon rhyme and the counting of syllables, accents or verse feet.
Both Ginsberg and Olson owed much of their own poetic conceptions to William Carlos Williams. Williams may be known for his glazed wheelbarrow and his stealthy plums, but it was in Patterson that the good doctor proposed both what a modern epic poem might look like and what modalities of verse best serve a modern epic voice. So, by that sturdy standard and in those great traditions, Broken Glory absolutely checks out as poetry. In fact, its approach to line shaping and page design practically qualifies as concrete poetry. The units of content that seem arbitrary at first focus and intensify the narrative energy to a point that is tortuous and heartbreaking, without ever much violating the decorum of the reportorial voice. For, as much as Sanders wants RFK to be a unifying, epic hero presiding over justice and prosperity in the manner of Odysseus, history made a tragic hero of him instead.
Ed Sanders reads from Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy on Sunday, July 1 at 3 p.m. at the Kingston Artists’ Collective, located at 63 Broadway in Kingston. Admission costs $10.