Postmodernism is a fascinating school of literary theory that focuses on the abstract, the post-structural: “For the postmodernistfragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief” (Barry Chapter 4). Postmodernism celebrates the unshackling of traditional narrative and literary structures and vies for something new; in this way, Dennis Cooley’s book of poetry Bloody Jack is a quintessential example of this phenomenon. Loosely following the life of famous Canadian outlaw John Krafchenko (otherwise known as Bloody Jack), Cooley’s poems straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction, transcending genre and defying definition. By putting into question what is real and what is not, what is poetry and what is prose, Cooley’s Bloody Jack works well as a work of postmodernism.
One of Bloody Jack’s strengths as a postmodernist book is its wildly different use of style and tone in each poem within it. In ‘dear valentine,’ the chaotic structure of the book itself is mirrored in the uneven placement of every other line in the poem; nothing is capitalized, some words are shortened (‘yr’ instead of ‘your’) and imagery is at once clunky and eerily effective (“you are the oil can / melts my rust”) (Cooley 7). The following poem, ‘the yard,’ has a completely different structure altogether, beginning with a three-line stanza and moving on to a fragmented litany of phrases and images, language becoming more and more incoherent until the end of the poem trails off: “the air. eggshell air. stiff. icecube sunk in your chest” (8-10).Other poems involve strict descriptions of Bloody Jack himself, as in ‘Description of Krafchenko’: “John Krafchenko. Age 33. Height, 5 ft. 10 inches. Weight 175 lbs” (Cooley 12). Despite this, there are unique motifs that stick through the poetry; Cooley makes use of color in many different instances to create a consistent color code to evoke emotions: red is used in ‘dear valentine’ to evoke violence and passion (“you home in yr red toque”), while the same color is used for warmth in ‘the yard’ (“stomach melting food into sugars pour into darkred tubes”) (Cooley 7, 9). These emotional notes keep us moored to some semblance of order in the midst of the chaos that is Cooley’s poetic style, while also contributing to the emphasis on simulation and perception that postmodernism alludes to.
The structural playing Cooley engages in also involves him as a person/character; in ‘high drama,’ he actually struggles with the character of John Krafchenko over supremacy of authorship in the book: “According to the script, Kraf, you get yr ass out here. Then Penny is supposed to make a play for me. Wrote it that way. A clear case of textual authority, of my authority. My authorization” (222). In this segment, the author himself writes about his inability to control his subject, which provides a wonderful bit of metatextual commentary on the author’s role in shaping his work.
Bloody Jack himself, as previously mentioned, is an active participant in the writing of the book (along with Cooley and the audience, as part of the process of reading the text). At every turn, he refuses Cooley’s attempts to define him through language, and even taunts the reader that he cannot be restricted to such a limited form of literature. He rejects the idea of “making me one of their characters”, and tells the reader “you can’t see me on the pageto find me you must read between the lines” (Cooley 24-26). By making the main character/subject of the book an adversary in the conflict over authorial authority, Cooley makes his book exceedingly postmodern. Things like language, time and color are used in unconventional ways throughout the work, providing a constant surprise and redefinition of what it means to be a work of literature.
One more thing that Cooley does to make his book exceedingly postmodern is that he subverts the idea of history and the past; the background of the book is ostensibly Canada at the turn of the 20th century, but also puts in names of his contemporaries, showing the setting of the book as being somewhat unmoored in time and space. This could signify any number of things, but most likely demonstrates a muddy link between Cooley and his subject, the author inserting himself and his own biases and nuances into the textual reality of the work: “I for one am not in the least amused by Dennis Cooley’s writings” (101). This allows for a much more ambiguous sense of when we are and how things work in the world of the book.
The varying genres that Bloody Jack engages in contributes to its postmodern feeling; there are poems (‘dear valentine’), works of prose (“last will & test I meant”), letters (“March 22, 1984”), newspaper cuttings, (“PINS FROM SHIRT WERE USED ON LOCK”) reports (“jail break, update”) and more, Cooley using these different formats to explore the significance or definition of writing itself. The book mimics all of these forms, which eventually leads to a whole work made out of a mishmash of styles; this evokes Baudrillard’s notion of simulacrum, as the book creates “representations” of these narrative forms (and Bloody Jack himself) that ends up being as real as he was (Barry, Chapter 4).
Cooley’s ending also subverts traditional narrative forms; there is no real, definitive end to the narrative, as it just ends with the closing time of a bar, with the implication that tomorrow will lead to a hangover: “Closing time folks” (Cooley 274). Instead of this actually ending the book, it instead connects the literary present to a possible future. By stretching the possibilities for Jack’s story into the infinite future, the book does not really have an end, and defies the expectation of one.
In conclusion, Dennis Cooley’s book of poetry Bloody Jack is a signature work of postmodernism, being at once a collection of poems/prose and a post-structural battle between an author and his creation for supremacy over the work with which they are both concerned. Structural changes and differentiation in style exemplify each new section of the book, and Cooley himself appears as a character in his work, fighting for the right to control Jack’s actions and thoughts. Bloody Jack, meanwhile, fights back against his representation, mixing fact with fiction and defying all attempts to contain or define him in prose. Even the end of the work defies the perceived need for said ‘end’; by continuing the conflict into the unforeseen future, Cooley implies there is more story to be found – but not in this book. With these attributes, Bloody Jack becomes a uniquely unmoored piece of literature, with fiction and nonfiction blending together in a postmodern soup that cannot be concisely described.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 2002. Print.
Cooley, Dennis. Bloody Jack. University of Alberta, 2002. Print.