Edward D. Wood, Jr., Selected Poems – Review

Edward D. Wood, Jr., Selected Poems, Unexpurgated Edition
Black Scat Books, 2020

Yes, it really is that Ed Wood. Recalled in cult movie circles as the bizarro planet’s Orson Welles, Wood was writer-director-producer of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster, among other Golden Turkey recipients. Yet, there is more to Edward Davis Wood Jr than the mere obvious. Beyond the movie infamy, Wood is probably best known for his cross-dressing, but within a filmmaking and fiction-writing career, latent credit is due for his bold introduction of a once-secret drag society to a conservatively fearful America. The fact is, Glen or Glenda?, which featured Wood in the titular role(s) and included others from the L.A. trans community, premiered in 1953—the year of the Rosenbergs’ executions–as the Hollywood Blacklist, loyalty oaths and whitewashed conformity raged on. The seventeen years leading to the Stonewall uprising was a lifetime away.

Ed Wood Jr poetry

Wood’s output through the ’60s focused on horror, crime and the supernatural, increasingly incorporating lurid sexual imagery (i.e., Orgy of the Dead). At baseline bizarre, these films often walked the line between pseudo-experimental and merely exploitative. Into the 1970s, suffering from major depression and alcoholism, Wood earned a meager living writing porn and taking the odd role in X-rated films. He died in 1978, just 54 years old.

A review of Wood’s rather sordid writing life clarifies that he was a kind of prodigy, even if largely of the bad, having completed at least one work of non-fiction, engaged unsuccessfully in authoring drama for the stage, and penned multiple articles, numerous screenplays, and some 80 pulp novels (occasionally under the pseudonym Ann Gora) including Take It Out in Trade, Raped in the Grass, Necromania and Death of a Transvestite. Somehow overlooked, though, was the poetry. According to legend, Wood in 1968 decided that these poems were worthless and released the chapbook manuscript into the La Brea tar-pits. Posthumously, Selected Poems was published in a limited edition in the 1990s, followed by a brief run by Black Scat Books that has since fallen out of print, leaving very few with the knowledge that this work even existed. However, on November 7, as per the publisher’s announcement: “In honor of Donald Trump‘s historic election loss we’re bringing back an out-of-print classic from our Absurdist Texts & Documents series”. Certainly seems timely.

Unexpurgated as it is, the title page shows a photo of the author’s original cover, handwritten in fountain pen. Also included is the image of one of his typed interior pages decorated with corrections, deletions, blotches and even a line of poetry, long lost. Far from deeply artistic, the work remains a fascinating document. Some of the poetry is grown from screenplay synopses and science-fictional visions, while others are based on the author’s wider musings and ideals, much of it leaving the reader with only more questions. Opener “There is No Here There, Either” (page 11) is dedicated to Gertrude Stein, yet his focus remains on the supernatural. Or does it?

There’s something out there/out there in the cemetery/that’s too near/for comfort there

The piece begins with a seeming renunciation of fantasy escapism, committing to only the “you” cited herein; as per the dedication, the subject is Stein, the celebrated author and fully out lesbian of a still earlier, even more groundbreaking time. The symbolism seems of particular import (and I’m locked up here/not there), though far too brief a gaze into Wood’s personal struggles. Unfortunately, there is no indication as to when these poems were actually written. He offers more insight with “The Woman Thing” (pp 16-17) which was composed “for Glen and Glenda”, perhaps a challenge to those refusing to accept the trans lifestyle. Later in the book, Wood responds with more overt militancy in “Screw You, Mistress Crowley” (page 24):

Can your heartthrob stand/my shocking corset/the mink straitjacket/
I’m a pretender in the nightlight/and there’s no pretender!

The poems, however, which directly relate to his 1950s films are, as expected, bizarre enough. See “Poem Nine from Outer Space” (page 20) and “Second Thoughts” (page 15), both of which appear to be stage direction excerpts from the script of Plan Nine, the latter actually having been read aloud on screen to the footage of Bela Lugosi, that which was shot briefly before the actor’s death.

So much of Wood’s work, in every media, was riddled with conflicted sexual concepts, often of a violent sort, so a piece like “Paula” (page 18) opens with generally erotic imagery that is soon realized as the rape of a sleeping or drugged woman. Halfway through the poem, the rape is ironically attributed to Eros, the Greek god of love, but it ends hauntingly cold:

Paula running/Paula running/running beside the road.

This theme is also evident in “Nothing from This World” (page 13) which vacillates between the other-worldly and the brutally guttural:

It’s getting dark/where she is pointing/
His awful wife/buried in the ground/
Pointing up while he/lies down sealed in a vault

Within this mix of emotional upheaval and splintered symbolism, Wood closes the chapbook with a particularly notable piece, one indicating his inclusion in both the literary underground and the LGBTQ community as well as the sorrowful reality of unsuccessful arts careers. It is dubbed “Howl” (page 25) and opens with a sharp, satiric awareness of Ginsberg:

I saw the best flicks of my generation destroyed/by critics/ranting hysterical mutants/
Dragging directors in drag through the mud like/blood-thirsty bullies

Here, Wood deems himself “the angel-headed genius in the orange neon dusk of Hollywood”, and observes his audience both laughing at and cheering him in the cinema before

They staggered off into the sunset strip/
Leapt off the Hollywood sign into the bliss of the curvaceous cult-womb/
That wrapped them forever in its loin-lit angoric embrace

More information on Selected Poems of Edward D. Wood Jr. is available at the Black Scat Books website.

–John Pietaro