By Michael Madsen
13 Hands Publications, 2009.
One of the most heartfelt and honest poets of modern times has a new book out. His new book is his eighth published book, perhaps a culmination. He hints that it might be his last book. His literary canon already includes the prestigious Firecracker Alternative Book Award in 1999 (one year prior to The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry garnering the same award) and the Red Hen Press Lifetime Achievement Award for Poetry, which came after publication of his Complete Poetic Works Volume One, 1995-2005. And it is a shame that too many people reading this are already saying to themselves wait, hold on, you mean Michael Madsen the famous movie actor?
Madsen’s creative sincerity is once again on regal display in American Badass. Featuring a heavy dose of photos from his various movie roles as well as his personal photography, upon first glance it seems like a picture book geared toward his legion of movie fans. Nothing could be further from the truth, and within the literary framework of the book’s forty-one poems, Madsen makes this poignantly clear. American Badass allows us to see that an ongoing struggle of Madsen’s is the trapping of movie-stardom fame and the resulting implications to one’s ego. Reading Madsen’s poems, one can only imagine struggling with the same thing, if we were in his shoes.
For readers familiar with Madsen’s prior books of poetry, American Badass will seem like a chronological step in his writing career. For readers unfamiliar with Madsen’s poetry, American Badass serves dramatic introductory notice that Madsen is a poet to be seriously reckoned with. Having reached fifty years of age and raising six children and married to his third wife, Madsen has come a long way from the streets of the South Side of Chicago, where he was a thinking feeling son raised by a creatively gifted mother and a rough and tumble blue-collar father:
from the poem “UNTITLED”
My father stood slightly higher on a curbway
when I hugged him, so my head rested on the top
of his once mighty chest.
It was at that moment,
9 years old again,
I let go,
all the years of anxiety
that had haunted me.
What must it be like for a husband and father who happens to be a thinking feeling poet doing his loving best to provide for his family the only way he ever learned how, which just happens to be making not nearly enough Good Guy movies and too many Bad Guy movies, movies that bring the anvil of celebrity? The poems of American Badass illuminate the answer through the cunning of Madsen’s writing and the braveness of his humanity:
From the poem “THE YELLOW CAGE”
I was shooting a movie in Paris
and looked out the window of the office
of the second floor across the street and saw
a little yellow birdcage no bigger than a shoe box
Sometimes I feel like a bird in a cage. The more I looked at it
I began to realize the bird was not moving, it was just a toy…a fake.
Sometimes I feel like a toy. Sometimes I feel like a fake. The actor on the
roof in the rain.
From the poem “RED DRAGONS”
The dragonflies have an airstrip in Thailand: they line up like little
red helicopters along a stretch of stone next to the pool at the hotel.
You know you’ve been in a place long enough
when your farts start to smell exactly like the jungle around you.
There are a lot of different kinds of jungles and a lot of different
kinds of farts.
I spent the night playing a crazed American mercenary
massacring Asian families and burning their village to the ground.
The last time I came back from here I spent a few days in a nut house.
I hope that doesn’t happen again.
From the poem “MAYBE IF”
I broke up with my wife after a big blow up over nothing
and checked into the Sportsmen’s Lodge on Ventura in Studio City.
It’s a great place that I would recommend to anyone
who wants to live in the Twilight Zone for a few days.
Drinking white wine and smoking unfiltered Camels because the
guy in the shop recognized me and I didn’t want to let him down;
people have expectations of me and it’s not always easy to live up to.
Anyway, expectations lead me back to Malibu, to my wife
who was not there, but my baby son reached up his tiny arms to greet me
when I walked down the stairs and in that moment I was glad I came back.
Reflecting on the past, even when it’s something happy or good,
makes me feel lonesome and lost,
I don’t want to write after this, that is what I might do.
American Badass is dedicated to the late David Carradine, the actor whom Madsen has said was the closest thing to a brother he ever had. The book starts with an introduction written by Carradine, followed by a poem Madsen titled So You Did It In Bankok, written in the aftermath of Carradine’s death that was ruled a suicide. That one poem, more than any other in this indelibly fine book, makes one hope that Madsen will keep on writing and publishing his work.
Reviewed by Robert M. Zoschke
Robert M. Zoschke co-edited and wrote for the international tribute anthology Reflections Upon the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and he is the author of Door County Blues, both from Kentucky’s Published in Heaven Books. Door County Blues—a collection of his short stories, poems, essays, letters, and newspaper parodies—was recognized as a # 1 bestseller in 2008 in Door County, Wisconsin, where he lives and writes. In 2009, England’s Purple Patch Poetry Magazine named him a Top Ten Overseas Poet. His first novel is excerpted in the anthology Other Voices from Wisconsin’s Cross+Roads Press. He is a winner of a Chicago Sun-Times essay contest and Wisconsin’s Hal Grutzmacher Award for Literature.