W. Todd Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies, Curbside Splendor, 2014
Reviewed by Brian Oliu
Successful [________] encourages the audience to suspend disbelief, to embrace furious language like it's a war cry, like it's a prayer, like it's going to kick everyone's ass if the world doesn't shut up and listen.
Wrestling is constantly counting down: we keep our eyes on the calendar for the next pay-per-view, we wait for the inevitable run-in from the back. There are beat the clock challenges, matches where wrestlers are locked away in cages, matches where bodies fill the ring to capacity until it is inevitable that someone is expelled, tumbling over the top rope.
Your favorite wrestler is probably dead.
My father is not like Kaneko's father, in the same way that my father is not Dusty Rhodes talking about autoworkers and hard times, my father is not Captain Lou Albano upset at Cyndi Lauper for throwing a house party when he is supposed to be out of town. Kaneko's father is not your father anymore than Paul Bearer is the Undertaker's father, and yet simultaneously we are all fatherless and of someone else's blood.
My father hated professional wrestling: he asks me until this day why I still watch it—that I should be too old for it, that I should know better. He has a point: we are expected to grow past a point where we are no longer fooled by all of this. The problem is that we do: we know that the slaps are open handed, we know when people are lying.
Some men are not meant to be champions,
To be a champion, you are expected to lock-up with greatness: you are expected to overcome, to be victorious, to have there be no doubts about who was a victor—to defeat a monstrosity; to chop the incumbent down.
I am not Kaneko in the same way that my father is not Kaneko's father. We have different stories to tell, but we have watched the same stories: him on Saturdays while his father drank beer, me, in a room with a red-blinking cable box that was given to me solely so I did not subject my family to this grandiose falseness.
I remember where I was when Benoit won the triple-threat, when Guerrero hit the small package. I do not remember where I was when they exploded into whatever is the opposite of nothing.
These are elegies in the truest sense: they are here to inform us of what was done and why it mattered. There is always a bit of self in an elegy; we must position ourselves firmly in the ring of the living in order to connect to our audience—that if we went too far into the minds of the dead, we would all be lost along with them.
There is a section in the middle of The Dead Wrestler Elegies about Andre the Giant—a few random selections of the legends of the man's life:
There are gaps in these poems as well—that what we are seeing are just small peeks into the spectacle that is wrestling, that is fatherhood, that is sitting in front of a television and trying to parse out what two men trying their hardest to lift the other to the sky means to the rest of the world beyond a living room.
These poems are stationary, yet they promise movement—they are from the point of view of a constant observer: the author too small to be a professional wrestler—not enough girth, not enough of a guaranteed ticket sale at the door just to be in the same building. It is of living rooms spread across states. It is of the promise of traveling, despite the time for traveling being long over.
Get back in the ring. The count is reaching ten.
To win the rumble, you have to be the last man standing. Knockouts, submissions, pinfalls do not count. The most important part is to not let yourself get picked up off the ground. To win, you must lay low—talking in hushed tones. Do not bring attention to yourself. Slide out from underneath the bottom rope if you must.
The day after Owen Hart died during a Pay-Per-View, the universe acknowledged his absence—there were backstage stories: of how great he was in the ring, how many jokes he pulled back stage. Mark Henry, the World's Strongest Man, read a poem.
[________] can fucking break your heart if you let it.
The wrestler you love might be a terrible person.
"I'm not the shark. I'm not a fish. I'm not an avalanche. I'm a man."
Chris Benoit, like poetry and like wrestling, is both adaptable to everything, yet also forever redacted.
When two wrestlers are fighting, there is always another wrestler outside of the ring, waiting for their opportunity. Some days, they stand on the announcer's table and dance, hoping to distract their nemesis. Other days they sneak a cheapshot in behind the referee's back. Some days, they charge the ring and brawl: there is no room for subtlety.
Get back in the ring.
When you meet another fan of professional wrestling, you talk about potential: you mention how you think things could be done better—that if you were the magical dark hand backstage booking the show, you would have this guy go over, this other person sent back down to developmental. In an ideal world, you could choose who your champions are.
Every time a wrestler dies, we are not surprised. We shrug it off, say it was a shame. Yet we still watch—if their body of work was excellent, we reminisce about their ringwork, their ability to spin a promo.
Don't be a hero if you don't have to—
At some point, Kaneko's father admits that he has no bedtime stories, so he tells him stories of famous matches instead: of the time that Buzz Sawyer and Tommy Rich beat the hell out of each other inside of a steel cage, of how there is no footage of the match, of how everything was passed down by hearsay. We tell these stories too: of events we heard about, of leaked rumors from a friend of a friend. We plant these seeds in our sons.
When we get down to five men in the ring, things get a bit more traditional—battle lines are drawn: the rivalries that we've teased for the past few months are miraculously standing across from each other. There are few surprises here—perhaps a fan favorite sneaks into the finals to tease us into thinking he has a shot at something larger than he could ever hold.
This book could never end: a new wrestler is found dead every few months—Warrior of an exploded heart, O'Haire of a rope around his neck. Kaneko knows this: there is a new wrestler to root for every week: a long list of characters who play their parts and then do the job: disappear over the rope and crash on the ground. They either sulk toward the back or they scream at whatever carnage is left.
[________] is infused with the language and mythologies of the different places it is practiced. Everything is a symbol. Nothing is really a symbol.
Wrestling too, never ends. There is no off-season: every grand payoff is met the next evening with a continuation of the story. When the good guy wins, it is never for long: there is always someone there to try to take their place. The moment the mother leaves, the father must start his own story: to try to pick up from where everything was left off. Just because the story has ended doesn't mean that it does not end with in us: we sit in basements searching through VHS tapes to remember old matches: not because we forgot who got the pinfall, but to experience whatever it was that made each exaggerated flourish real.