For a long time after I first saw spoken-word artist Sarah Palin recite for a national audience, part of me doubted her existence. I have nothing against regional dialect poetry, and hers hasn’t suffered from lack of attention. Last fall, the Utne Reader described her work as beat poetry, comparing her Katie Couric interview line-by-line with works by Ginsberg and Kerouac. In Salon, Camille Paglia, the Sarah Palin of essayists, described her Alaskan counterpartâ€™s style as â€œcloser to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.â€
Still, I remained skeptical. Palin’s ice-fogged personaâ€”equal parts Northern Exposure and Manchurian Candidateâ€”seemed too calculated to be credible to all but the most serious Ted Nugent fans. It didnâ€™t help that the author of her signature convention speech is a vegetarian animal rights activist, or that the names of her six children (Snipp, Snapp, Snurr, Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka) sounded too familiar. I kept waiting for the J.T. Leroy/ James Frey-type moment that would blast her story in a million little pieces, revealing â€œSarah Palinâ€ to be the creation of a bored Berkeley creative writing student, or Tina Feyâ€™s older sister.
But Palin is indeed real, and the past month has shown that I clearly misunderestimated her artistic skill. A governor is a lot like a performance artist, but with actual responsibilities. With her recent resignation, Palin has brilliantly freed herself from the chores of governance. Much like the title character in the childrenâ€™s story Duck for President, she will find that quitting frees up time to work on her memoirs and give speeches only other ducks can understand. Her farewell rant in Alaska, which many found inscrutable, ranks as a surrealist tour de force, sledding over the icy tundra of grammar and diction like an American Idiotarod of freestyle improvisation.
Even better, late last month on Conan Oâ€™Brien’s show, â€œmaster thespianâ€ and Canadian mind-control expert William Shatner performed cover versions of Palin’s farewell speech and Twitter posts. Palin joined a select few over several decades–notably, the Beatles, Dylan and Pulp–deemed worthy of Shatner covers (remarkably, Shatner is six years older than John McCain). For those like me put off by Palin’s chirpy delivery of her own material, Shatner’s covers were a revelation. Following up on his moving and poignant 2004 masterpiece Has Been, Shatner used his martini-dry delivery to make Palinâ€™s words boldly go where no prose has gone before, peeking at the â€œbig wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.â€ Or, as one of Palinâ€™s tweets makes perfectly clear:
Left Unalakleet warmth for rain in Juneau tonite. No drought threat down here, ever…but consistent rain reminds us: “No rain? No rainbow!”
William Shatner, performing Sarah Palin’s Tweets
I doubt that even Shatner knows the first thing about splitting the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs. But his spinning salad of Palin’s prose added a new layer of intrigue. I briefly recalled Ken Nordineâ€™s worldly and other-worldy word-jazz. Even more, I thought of the surrealist beat poet Ted â€œThe Hipsterâ€ Joans. As poets, Joans and Palin are a little like Captain Ahab chasing his nemesis: Joansâ€™ Moby Dick was Dave Brubeck; for Palin, itâ€™s Barack Obama. Joansâ€™ credo was â€œjazz is my religion, and surrealism is my point of viewâ€; for Palin, religion is her jazz and surrealism is her language. Joans spoke of poems as â€œhand grenadesâ€ meant to â€œexplode on the enemy and the unhipâ€; Palin uses poems as hand grenades to explode on the unrighteous. Joans said â€œyou have nothing to fear from the poet but the truthâ€; we have nothing to fear from Sarah Palin but her lies.
Ted Joans, “Jazz is My Religion”
Most of all, listening to Shatnerâ€™s take on Palin made me think of his encounter with another feisty, dangerous brunette a generation earlier in the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever. Iâ€™m no Trekkie, but if Shatner had a moment as a master thespian, this is it. Due to a deliciously preposterous alteration of history which forces the crew to go forward into the past, Shatnerâ€™s character, Captain James T. Kirk, is transported into the United States in the 1930s, where he has to choose between saving humanity from Hitler and hooking up with Joan Collins. In the sixties, this was apparently considered something of a close call. Love and hormones almost get the best of Kirk, but in the end justice triumphs.
As aired, City on the Edge of Forever enraged Harlan Ellison, author of the original script for the episode. The TV episode suggests Collinsâ€™ character, a Depression Era do-gooder named Edith Keeler, was supposed to be killed in traffic accident. But unless corrected, the accidental change in history would spare her life, allowing her to spearhead a pacifist movement delaying U.S. entry into World War II. That delay would then have permitted the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and conquer the world. When the episode aired at the height of the Vietnam War, the antiwar Ellison disliked having an unsubtle bird flipped at the peace movement against his wishes.
Listening to Shatnerâ€™s performances last month made me think of a more contemporary moment at the edge of forever. All kidding aside, Sarah Palin could conceivably become President. Iâ€™d bet against it, but I remember how far-fetched it once seemed that we would have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura as governors. At a time when climate change is already occurring and Alaskan glaciers are melting with surprising speed, having a President who once said she was â€œnot one who would attributeâ€ global warming as â€œbeing man-madeâ€ could recklessly alter historyâ€”not our past, but our future. Describing Edith Keelerâ€™s commitment to peace, Spock in City on the Edge tells Kirk, â€œShe was right. But at the wrong time.â€ By contrast, Sarah Palin is wrong, and at the wrong time.
Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”
William Shatner, “Common People”