Spooky Cold War broadcasts inspire new poetry collection

LAWRENCE – Joe Harrington’s new poetry collection is titled “Disapparitions” (Blaze/Vox, 2023), and he designed the cover, which riffs on the minimalist Beatles “White Album.”

It seems appropriate for the slim yet weighty volume powered by misty, Cold War memories of spooks and spies, ghosts and divination mingling in the mind of a boy listening to global – perhaps even otherworldly — transmissions over a short-wave radio.

The University of Kansas professor of English said his third collection could be called “investigative” or “documentary” poetry. There is a section of “Sources” notes at the back, citing works by such writers as William Burroughs, Ralph Ellison and Jean Cocteau, fringe figures like Konstantin Raudive and Akin O. Fernandez, as well as recent news stories.

The poems include ruminations over such strange sounds as the droning “numbers stations” whose broadcasts were received in the home of a young boy in suburban Memphis around the time Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“I don't think there's any doubt but that they were encrypted messages to espionage agents in the field, perhaps in England or Romania or who knows where,” Harrington said. “They were intended for one person with a key code to decipher them, but they were broadcast to the world, including my home in Memphis.”

Historical figures like Nikola Tesla, Patrice Lumumba and George Wallace are cited.

But some of the poems seem torn from today’s headlines with allusions to such haunted characters as the conspiracy-bedeviled “Targeted Individuals” and the neo-Nazi Patriot Front.

“Whether it's the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or what have you, part of what spawned this project was this feeling of a spiritual insubstantiality among Americans,” Harrington said. “Somehow you can see right through us. We’re lightweights. And that's a perfect example. On the one hand, they're scary and dangerous. On the other hand, it's really hard to take them seriously.”

One of the poems delves into the etymology of the word “truth” itself.

“Whoever you’re loyal to speaks truth ... We only believe the ones we believe we can believe,” Harrington writes.

In another passage, the poet wrote, “Writing has always been a suicide note.”

“It came out of this idea of recorded communication, whether it's written or an audio recording, online or whatever, as being something that really is immortal, in a way, because it lasts,” Harrington said. “It can be there beyond the person's lifetime.

You're still hearing the dead person's voice. That's probably the sense in which I meant that line — that it's something that you're leaving behind.”

Mon, 04/01/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service