Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Road Warrior Hawk: Poems about Depression, Anxiety and Pop Culture by Brian Alan Ellis. (House of Vlad)
The first Brian Alan Ellis book I read was Sad Laughter, which was a series of tweets that, in the end, made me feel foolish to even begin critiquing it. Basically, he continually broke the fourth wall and let me know that he knew what I was trying to do and then essentially said, “Why bother? We’re all hurtling towards inevitable death and this is what you’ve chosen to do? Read and review a book full of my one-liners? Sad. You can laugh now.” And, you know what? It was a great introduction to Ellis. I got a good feeling for who he was and what he was trying to accomplish.
And now, we get his new book of poetry, Road Warrior Hawk: Poems about Depression, Anxiety and Pop Culture, another collection that feels so off-the-cuff and sincere that I was immediately drawn into it. Then, of course, it made me feel a little silly for even beginning to analyze it, but what are you going to do?
As a 32-year-old, I’ve noticed something my group of friends tend to do. We take moments in our lives and tie them back to some form of pop culture, almost like a base to help each other understand the context of the moment, no matter how big or small. There was one night where we hiked through the woods to explore some caves. During this spontaneous journey, we found ourselves in a large field with tall grass. Even in the moment, as we tromped through the grass, Ethan and I looked at each other and then started talking about the scene in The Lost World when the velociraptors took out a whole group of soldiers by hiding in the grass, much like the kind we moved through. Not only did this give us context, but it made the night more fun and exciting because we had a concrete emotion to tie the moment to.
Ethan and I were both cinephiles in high school and we watched movies more than most people, so I’d always assumed this was unique to our kinds of people—and hell, maybe it is—but reading Ellis’ new book I can see that this tactic of constructing our very real lives into the structure of fictional moments is more universal than I’d assumed. Maybe this is just how millennials experience reality: through a lens of fiction.
Ellis is taking heavy subject matter that may not be overly accessible and, not only does he make it easy to understand, he makes it fun.
I think it’s an interesting way to talk about your past and a good way to anchor emotions, especially when you’re expressing it in a form like poetry. Ellis could have spent a lot of time highlighting and describing all of his feelings and emotions about the way he was raised, or he could have said, “If asked to / on the fly / I can draw Bart Simpson / pretty good.” And goddamn if I don’t have a pretty good idea of who Ellis was as a kid and how that’s carried over to his adult life. But I should also say, if you aren’t familiar with pop culture of the late eighties and nineties, this collection might not have the same kind of emotional resonance. You might look at that and say, “Why the fuck should I care if he can kind of draw a cartoon?” To that—well—I think you’re still on the right track.
The first descriptor in the subtitle of this collection is “Depression” and it’s apt because Ellis isn’t shy or subtle about this mental struggle. He’s laying it out and relating it back to comedic moments that deepen the struggle. Sure, it’s mostly gloom, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor about it. Or, he’s using humor as a coping mechanism. With that statement, let me provide another poem where I feel retroactively burned:
“People who should not be taken seriously”
Someone who is/was in a ska-punk band
Someone wearing tie-dye
Someone climbing out of the backseat
of a two-door vehicle
Someone chasing after a runaway Ping Pong ball
Someone who talks like Vin Diesel
Someone very serious
I’d fit into that last one, in case it wasn’t clear. Anyway, forging ahead despite my shame of being called out as someone who may be overly serious, I think this is what’s effective about Road Warrior Hawk, Ellis is taking heavy subject matter that may not be overly accessible and, not only does he make it easy to understand, he makes it fun. I had a good time reading this collection even if it was permeated in the aforementioned gloom.
So, were you born between the years of 1978 and 1988? Did you (or do you) have a dark sense of humor? Can you accurately describe the Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” music video? If you answered “yes” to all those questions, then do I have a book for you! If you answered “no” to any of those—I mean, you should still check this collection out, but you might need to ask a few more “why” questions to tease out the point behind it all. Even then, it’ll make for a satisfying read.