Essay on Krypton Nights

On Krypton Nights

By Curtis Shumaker (Reprinted from The New York Review of Science Fiction

THE BOOK 

Krypton Nights, Bryan Dietrich’s recently published book of poems, winner of the 2001 Paris Review Prize in Poetry, is a multi-layered, densely packed revision of, and commentary on, the Superman mythology. While the subject matter is familiar to the general science fiction and fantasy audience, the book’s sophisticated poetic technique and sometimes esoteric allusions may make it hard to access for readers who are more comfortable with fiction and not well versed in poetic traditions. Therefore, in addition to reviewing Krypton Nights this essay will also address some of the difficulties in comprehending the poems.

The overall structure of Krypton Nights is actually rather straightforward—the book consists of an introductory poem, “I Kent,” followed by four sections, each containing seven poems. Each section is told in the first person voice of, in order, Clark Kent/Superman, Jor-El, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor. This approach is a major factor in the book’s success. With well identified speakers, the poems break down many of the barriers created by the titles which separate them, and the voices weave together narrative strings, making the book read more like a story than a poetry collection. The poetic voices express drama, angst, humor, and develop character insight so well that one could almost see them as word balloons in the panels of a Superman comic book.

The common theme that binds all four sections is the problematic relationships between ordinary, mortal humans and a super-powered, super-intelligent, apparently immortal being. Superman himself struggles with the ethics of solving humanity’s problems in his section, “Autobiography of a Cape.”  From a remote space and time, Jor-El meditates in “The Jor-El Tapes” on the effects of sending a superior being to a civilization still grappling with its own identity crisis.  “The Secret Diaries of Lois Lane” record the often humorous and moving thoughts of a woman who finds herself in the ultimate unequal relationship. Finally, in “Lex Luthor’s Complaint,” the mad genius scribbles out tracts from his cell in Arkham Asylum, explaining how Superman, not he, is the true threat to the human race.

To fully absorb Krypton Nights, one must realize that Dietrich is writing about three Supermen. The first and most obvious is the Superman of popular American imagination, the selfless, uncomplicated hero of thousands of comic book issues, plus several films and television series. Dietrich makes liberal use of references to the Superman myth, as well as assorted DC characters on its periphery: Lori Lamaris, the Swamp Thing, Green Lantern, and the Legion of Superheros among others. Such touches give Krypton Nights a light-hearted and nostalgic feel in places, which to some extent balance the darker aspects of the book.

The darkness comes mostly with the second Superman in the book, the sociopolitical Superman. This figure will be familiar to readers of The Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and other works of the last two decades or so that explore the problems of placing superheroes in a realistic political context. For example, does Superman’s X-ray vision violate the Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search? Does his habit of scooping up bank robbers and taking them directly to prison cheat due process? Is taking down a super-villain with a blast of his heat vision an unconstitutional use of excessive force? Or, from a less legalistic standpoint, can society and individuals maintain their self-reliance and self respect if they let a super being do for them the things they should do for themselves?

This political Superman is not merely a comic book character, but a concern of the history and literature of the past two centuries. After the rise of Napoleon, an apparent super being in terms of genius and willpower, factions in Western culture began to speak of a new kind of man, an advanced being capable of mastering the seemingly impossible challenges posed by the governments and economies of the Industrial Age. This is Nietzsche’s Uberminsch, the great being who transcends ordinary concepts of good and evil in the quest for progress and advancement. It is Wagner’s Teutonic heroes of myth who, not to be bothered by the trials of lesser men, fight for glory against cosmic forces. Finally, it is the superior race of the Nazis, willing to put aside the frailties of compassion and pity for their version of the greater good of humankind. However, Dietrich’s Superman ultimately belongs in the tradition of literature that reacts against these ideas. Krypton Nights, in a roundabout way, belongs alongside the works of Dostoyevsky, which attack the notion that humans can transcend their nature—as with Raskolnikov, the character in Crime and Punishment who plots a murder to prove he has severed his bonds to the human weaknesses of guilt and fear, but in the end only makes his weaknesses more apparent. Krypton Nights  explores the ramifications of having an Uberminsch in our presence, one who possesses the superior power and intelligence, but perhaps has not entirely transcended human weakness.

The third Superman of Krypton Nights is Superman the god. At first sight, Superman in his tricolor body suit and cape seems more like a jester when placed in the context of the ancient gods, but consider his life: Superman was sent to Earth by a heavenly father, grew up to perform miracles and to save the human race. This is not a new story; it is a very old one. From the beginning of the book, Dietrich connects Superman to his ancient origins with a quote from the Zend-Asvesta:                       

He thought according to the Law, spoke according to the law, and did according to the law; so that he was the holiest in all the living world, the best ruling in exercising rule, the brightest in brightness, and most glorious in glory, the most victorious in victory. And at his sight, the demons rushed away.

Of all the allusions in Krypton Nights, the most common and most significant are the ones that superimpose a series of gods and savior figures on the character of Superman. Connecting Superman to the mythic and the sacred reinforces the central question of the sociopolitical section above, but places it in a cosmic frame: Should humanity trust its own ability to solve problems, or surrender responsibility (and power) to a greater being?

THE POEMS

In “Autobiography of a Cape,” Clark/Superman questions the role that has been given to him (or that he has taken) as protector and defender of earth. He entertains fantasies of disappearing forever, either by becoming Clark Kent permanently, or by fleeing earth altogether. In the first poem, “The Fourth Man in the Fire,” he says, “.  . . I find I suspect / this Superman I’ve become. Dressing down / is easier, the lie somehow less circumspect.” This poem also has one of the many historic/mythic/literary allusions that may click with many readers only after a reference search for their meaning and some analytical thought on how they apply to the poem at hand: Clark says he is less like Pericles and more like Prospero, that is, he feels less association with the great Greek civic leader and defender of Athens, and more with Shakespeare’s powerful magician in The Tempest who withdraws from society to an isolated island. (Tangentially, it could also allude to the Prospero of  Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” who walls himself inside his castle as plague kills his subjects.)

In “The Trials of Job,” Clark uneasily considers how much power the world’s governments have surrendered to him:                        

. . . The half seen                       

gestures of this politico, that pontiff,

the anchor’s sly nod at half a hundred stations,                       

editors, my boss (most people, really, if                        

you want to know the truth), they, their nations,                        

whole parliaments have ratified me.

Also in this poem, Dietrich makes use an interesting technique of word play based on line breaks. In the first stanza, he describes how he could “ . . . vanish, over lunch, say some strange event / horizon.” Here, the phrase “strange event” has two possible meanings. One, when the reader pauses at the end of the line, that it is simply a strange event that Clark vanishes from his table at lunch, flying away faster than the eye can follow. The second, when the reader considers the entire sentence and ignores the line break, is the event horizon of a black hole from which images cannot return, one place Superman can go where no eye can follow. Readers must study these poems carefully; similar lines can be found throughout the book, and the word play may be more subtle and more meaningful than in this example. Often, an important nuance of a poem may be missed entirely if the relationship between word, sentence, and line is overlooked.

“The Theft of the Firstborn” provides readers with one of the book’s most challenging allusions. In short, the poem tells how Clark would like to go back in time, steal his infant self from the Kents’ cornfield, and raise himself on a distant, unpopulated planet where the S on his suit has no meaning. However, the last line of the poem is the most enigmatic and, once it is understood, meaningful: “On a field, yellow, the letter S, gules?” A dictionary will define gules as red, or, more appropriately for this reference, a pattern of vertical lines that, in engraving code, symbolizes red. What is more difficult to discover is the source of the allusion—it is a play on the last line of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which describes Hester’s tombstone: “On a field, sable[yellow], the letter A, gules.” Thus, Superman compares the S on his chest to the mark of shame, guilt, and perhaps defiance of Hawthorne’s novel. This is an important notion in the poem, and for the book as a whole, yet it is doubtful that even those who have recently read The Scarlet Letter will easily remember this line, and it would be exceedingly difficult to look up. This example points to the main objection that can be raised against Dietrich’s style. Although it is good that he trusts the intelligence of his readers and challenges them with complex signs, word play, and matrices of allusion, he can be obscure for the sake of clever technique in the very places where, for the sake of the work, he should be most clear.

In “The Letter of the Law,” the meaning of the S is troubled even more by Clark’s revelation that it is not a letter at all, but simply the curved pattern of red flames in the Kents’ yellow cornfield that led the Kents to the infant Clark’s spaceship. Ma Kent felt that the shape was a sign and, “ . . . stitched / something less letter than Kansas cornfield / to my chest, anchored me to my past, affixed / me to an arc dark as blood, was it heraldry or shield?” Meditating on the role the S sign played in his destiny, Clark comments wryly, “I’ve tried to follow suit.”

In the remaining poems of Clark’s section, he considers more ways to disappear, to destroy the Superman he has come to mistrust, perhaps by letting one of Luthor’s ray guns “burn away the steel.” However, he realizes that people have depended on him too long, and that if he disappeared now, they would just resurrect him like an ancient god king.

The Clark section provides no real answers; in the end Clark is left with what he began with—doubts. Interestingly, Clark’s section is built on a structure that links the poems in a way that reflects their circular nature. In poetic terminology, the section is a crown of sonnets, a sequence of seven sonnets where the first line of each repeats the last line of the previous poem. In the traditional crown, the lines are repeated exactly, but Dietrich allows some variation in the wording so that the line pairs not only serve as links between poems, but also create meaningful ironies and contrasts. For example, the last line of “The Fourth Man in the Fire” reads, “I can stumble, fumble, fail. I can always quit the Planet.” And “The Trials of Job” begins, “I could stumble, fumble, fail, quit the planet . . .”  The play on “planet” indicates that Superman is considering two possibilities: giving up his day job at the Daily Planet (and, perhaps, his Clark identity) or leaving the Earth entirely.

As a further example, consider the end and beginning of “The Letter of the Law” and “The Face of the Deep”:

“She and Pa still read the sky. I’ve tried to follow suit.” 

“My folks still read the sky I’ve tried to follow. The suit,

though, gets in the way of being human.”

The most significant variation in wording comes between the first and final poems. In a crown of sonnets, the first line of the first poem repeats the last line of the last poem, connecting the sequence together in a sort of circle. “The Fourth Man in the Fire” begins with “Home from a hard day’s Armageddon,” and the final poem, “Behold the Man,” concludes, “coming home to a hard day’s Gethsemane.” Thus, the cycle of Superman/Clark’s life is mirrored by the cycle of the poems; every day, he fights battles to save the world, and every day, he, like Christ in the garden, struggles to come to terms with the cup of fate appointed to him. 

Of the book’s four sections, the “Jor-El Tapes” is the most science fictional in conceit and tone. At the beginning of the section, we are told that the poems were received by the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico (an occasional SETI host site) when the antennas were pointed in the direction of Supernova 1993J, suggesting that this supernova was the culprit in Krypton’s destruction. In the first three poems, Jor-El strikes a very personal tone, expressing his feelings about the end of his world, and encouraging the people of Earth (all seven poems are direct addresses to humanity) to meditate on their own ultimate fate. In “The End of Days” he speaks movingly of the desire to leave something behind, to be remembered: 

. . . you still expect                       

so little from your salvation. A burial

spoon, an onyx spear, a monograph                       

on Galvanic law. A pair of shoes.                       

Any of these, the knowledge of their having been                       

left behind, would prepare you for your own                       

absence, the kind you are used to.

However, in a planet-destroying event, archeologists have nothing to recover, as “Krypton Nights” laments:                       

No, remember there is no this. No                       

me. No reader, no last planetary                       

observer. No journal, no witness,                       

no conclave, no revival, no grand 

                       

revolution, no susurration,                       

no sea to come from, no sun to return                       

to, no Krypton days, no Krypton nights.

Jor-El’s fixation on loss and oblivion suggests the reason he sends his son to Earth—to keep the memory of Krypton, and himself, alive. Interestingly, Jor-El clearly has some conflicts with the choices he makes. In “On Jephthah” he recounts the biblical story of the king who sacrifices his own daughter for success in battle, and speculates on how it applies to him. In “The Mysteries of Azazel” Jor-El, in a taunting manner, suggests that humanity’s contact with a superior race may not be such a good thing. The poem begins evocatively,  “What if I told you your gods were dead, / and where to find the bodies?” What follows is virtually a cultural literacy test of famous mysteries—Roanoke, the Anasazi, Earhart, Ubar, the Kennedy assassination, and many more. The gist of this poem is that maybe we don’t want to know all the answers, or at least have them given to us by an outsider. The idea that help from superior powers would diminish, rather than advance, the human race is developed further in the final poem, “The Curse of the Pharaohs,” which begins, “My son will be your Moses.” Despite the positive beginning, Jor-El quickly and succinctly lays out the problems his son will cause for humanity: “What limits can one legislate for him, who is his own / (and only) legislation?” And later, in what is perhaps the key passage for the entire book:                       

And, unimprisoned by you, freed on account of the madness                       

In your hears, for the purpose of breaking the laws you need him to                       

maintain, he will, like some gusty god-king, have power over you,                       

and he will bruise your heel. And there will be enmity

between what he stands for and what he accomplishes . . .

Jor-El seems to be suggesting that, simply because of Superman’s superiority and our desire to put it to use, conflict will arise. In addition to the thematic content of the passage quoted above, notice the use of the line break word play in the first three lines, and the allusion to the serpent in Eden in the last two.

As a brief tangent to the Jor-El section, it is worth noting how successful Dietrich is in rendering scientific concepts in elegant, poetic language. In “Krypton Nights” Jor-El describes the electromagnetic waves of his messages: “Only charmed figments of electric / residue. This ghost of light, pulse, / silence. Binary diaspora.” In “The Else” Jor-El gives a taste of poetic biology: “Think of your own / roots, the slow ages of ozone, oxygen / and carbon learning to share a common bond.” And finally, space travel in “The Curse of the Pharaohs”: “Crossing the dark channel between folds between worlds, / he will arrive through the open maw of that jewel-toothed gulf.” 

In contrast to the dark and philosophical mood of Jor-El, “The Secret Diaries of Lois Lane” provide some witty and light-hearted verse, though the concerns established by the first two sections always lurk beneath the surface. “The Wedding Party” begins with an absurd vision of the strange guests who would show up at a Lois/Superman wedding: “Oh God, and the party-crashers. Swamp Thing, / Solomon Grundy.” However, like most of the Lois poems, what gaiety there is soon turns to melancholy thoughts:                       

Like one of those virgins I used to study                       

in the Gospels, should I trim my lamp,                       

prepare for the Bridegroom’s uncertain coming?                       

Or is that long dead world’s Last Son                        

impervious to my burning?

“His Maculate Erection” endows the section with the strongest, above-board humor, yet still manages to touch on a key mythical motif that runs throughout the book. Lois fantasizes about what happens to Superman’s sperm when they have sex in the shower: There, in the dregs of the porcelain dark, / following raveling threads of sewer, / a billion souped up cells continue to swim, / blind and eternal, toward the light.” In a clever allusion to the immaculate conception myths, especially the one about the return of Zarathustra (which involves a virgin bathing in a lake infused with his immortal semen), Superman’s reproductive cells work their way into suburban bathtubs, and “some months from now, maybe a year, / familiar tails will be retold, all the old fables / recycled.”

On a more serious note, “Man or Superman” and “Necropolis” pick up the theme of inequality, with Lois emblematic for humanity as a whole. In the former poem, she compares the dream of marrying a superman with the reality, deciding that she can only live under his shadow and at his disposal. She can hide nothing from him, and he will always know more even about her own body than she. Would he keep from her the cancer only he can see, perhaps curing it without telling her? Would keep from her the knowledge privy only to super beings? “ . . . will you wonder / what he may have seen growing inside / you? What death he may have burned away / what left behind?” In “Necropolis,” Lois wonders how much Superman can truly know about humans since they share a fate unknown to him—death. When they flew over the great tombs and mausoleums of human history, she noted that “he shook / his head, disgusted at what he could not see / as anything but wasted life.” If he cannot understand the basic human need to be remembered, how can he really empathize with humanity? If a human live is just a passing moment in his own life, how can he truly love Lois, or any individual? “Nothing that touches the afterlife / touches him. I wonder what he’ll do then / when I’m gone? Or Jimmy. Lana. Perry. All / Metropolis?”

The inability of Superman to relate to humans on an equal level is central to “Lex Luthor’s Complaint.” Locked in Arkham Asylum, the DC home for the criminally insane, Luthor pens his manifesto, lucidly explaining how he is both sane and morally correct in his opposition to Superman. He is the megalomaniac who believes he is a savior, the Lucifer who believes he is a god. Ironically, Luthor, of all the speakers in Krypton Nights, is the most self-aware, the most in touch with his drives and internal agendas. He exhibits none of the moral waffling of Clark, nor none of the ambiguous motives of Jor-El. Luthor is pure in his contempt for Superman, and his reasons for it.

His first poem is titled “Midrash,” appropriate since Luthor, like the ancient Hebrew theologians, sets out to rewrite scriptures, imposing his own interpretations on the Superman mythos. In “Midrash” he tells us “how I do believe in law, in jurisprudence. / Not in spite of what I’ve done, but because.” Echoing lines from Jor-El and even Clark, Luthor explains how Superman is the true threat to the law; he, not Luthor, is the usurper of humanity’s rights and destiny. He compares the human race to the great statue with feet of clay in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Superman is “the cobbled stone you’ve thrown / only at yourselves. He cannot stand / for what he must, by definition, break. / So I must break him for you.” (Once again, note the word play along the line breaks.) In the most damning lines in the book, Luthor argues that Superman’s ultimate goal, overt or unconscious, is humanity’s destruction. His tricolor costume is a “false trinity,” and his paternalistic protection of the planet                       

will only  last as long as he needs you                       

to serve his final longing, his heaven                       

brought down to earth. Krypton, I’ve heard,                       

was barren at the end. Do not mistake                        

his purpose. Though you may not believe                       

it now, already he has bruised your heel,                       

already he goes to prepare a plot                       

for you, a final potter’s field.

(Compare this passage with the one quoted from Jor-El’s “Curse of the Pharaohs.”) In a parting shot, the poem makes a rather complex allusion, claiming that what Superman has taken from us is not “purely Occidental.” Here, several meanings come into play; the first and most obvious is the play on accidental, suggesting again that Superman has a conscious agenda in undermining earthly authority. Another meaning stems from the term as applied to religions. In a somewhat flawed classification, the Occidental, the Western, religions are sometimes called religions of law, while the Oriental ones are referred to as religions of the spirit. Thus, Superman has stolen not only humanity’s laws, but its spirit as well.

Although “Midrash” contains most of Luthor’s sharpest attacks, the rest of the poems in his section elucidate his argument more subtly. In “The Dark Knight of the Soul,” a poem sure to bring joy to hardcore DC fans, Luthor compares the costumes and attitudes of Superman and Batman. In contrast to the former’s self-righteousness, Batman “skulls the streets, fighting / crime with crime, at least bats make no bones / about hypocrisy.” The ears on his hood symbolize “the devil he denounces even as he serves.”“Through a Glass, Darkly,” the final and longest poem in Luthor’s section, as well as the book, attempts to tie the various threads of theme together. The first 20 stanzas take the poem’s title, which is a quote from Paul’s II Corinthians, and deconstruct it, both in a literal and Postmodern sense.  For instance, the narrative discusses the various meanings of the word “glass” as it applies to contemporary audiences, King James era readers, and Paul’s original addressees. This poem is much more of a lecture, losing most of the personal narrative found elsewhere in the book, and as such seems out of place. Yet in the final two stanzas, it gives the resolution needed. Luthor, in a more introspective move than any of the other narrators, turns inward to transcend Superman as an independent entity, and finds his true meaning is in ourselves:                       

. . . We, the world we read, are Torah.                       

Superman, the constancy of his concupiscent star,                       

is less than this. A big red S. A text                        

we read too lightly.

In the end, the S, which according to Clark was not even a letter originally, becomes a variable cryptogram, not only for Superman, but for all the myths, social, political, and religious, that are built on the concept of the super being—from Nazi to savior. If the poems in Krypton Nights are sometimes obscure, and if the questions they pose are never satisfactorily answered, perhaps that is as should be. Like the best prose science fiction, this book examines the paradoxes that haunt the human race, and opens doors to greater mysteries. In a recent interview, Dietrich addressed the problem of interpretation:

See, the poems, the "answers," are only ever questions.  All words make us associate, and in association lies all beauty, all context, all meaning, all metaphor.  What we want to believe, the "maybe," is what matters.  Not what "is."  Because there is no is...  None of which means the same exact thing to each of you reading this.  Does it mean nothing then?  No, it means everything.  Thus "maybe" is the universe.