The Dead Wrester Elegies by W. Todd Kaneko
Curbside Splendor Press, 2014, 202 pp.
The word kayfabe is a pro wrestling term that means “The suspension of disbelief used to manufacture feuds, angles and gimmicks surrounding a professional wrestling match” or “The portrayal of action and storylines associated with professional wrestling.” Kayfabe is what keeps people interested in pro wrestling. It’s the feuds that run on for months between hero and heel, it’s the back stabbing, it’s the interviews that sound more like rants. W. Todd Kaneko’s debut collection of poetry, The Dead Wrestler Elegies, uses kayfabe to create a book that is part pop culture, part pro wrestling history, part novel-in-poems, part stand-alone poems, and all incredibly beautiful.
Kaneko combines two worlds: 1) the world of pro wrestling and 2) the world of a fictional son, deceased father, and mother who abandons the family. In terms of pro wrestling, Kaneko writes every poem in this collection about a pro wrestler who has passed away. The likes of The Junkyard Dog, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Ravishing Rick Rude, and dozens of other flamboyant wresters have poems written about their lives in the ring. This book subtly examines the terrible trend in pro wrestling of its wrestlers dying young and violently. The “Notes” section of the book highlights every wrestler in the book and how and when they died. Yukon Eric shot himself in a church parking lot. Sensational Sherri Martel died of a drug overdose. Andrew “Test” Martin died of a drug overdose. Bruiser Brody died of a knife attack. Hot Stuff Eddie Gilbert died of a heart attack in his thirty-fourth year. Ravishing Rick Rude died of the same causes when he was only forty-one years young. The list goes on and on about the young and tragic death of so many professional wrestlers.
But Kaneko is not merely writing about the deaths of pro wrestlers. In almost every single poem in this collection, the fictional son, father, or mother makes an appearance. Sometimes the family is attending a wrestling match, sometimes the father and son are watching VHS tapes of past matches, trying to hold on to all that has been lost, sometimes this family, just like in the world of pro wrestling where feuds create storylines, is swallowed up by their dysfunction, leading to fights, divorce, unemployment, drinking. In a word, kayfabe.
These two strands create a book of poems that moves us from one dead pro wrestler to another but also from one part of our fictional family’s crumbling life to another. Kaneko writes from the son’s perspective in “The Nature Boy Buddy Rogers is History”:
I am sitting
in my father’s chair where I look at these things
he’s left behind. I see a young man’s swagger,
the vainglorious whisper of a motorcycle at dawn.
Oh, if only we could both be in different places.
Whether failed wrestler or failed son or failed father, so many of us know the desire to be in some different place, to return to that time when we were young and full of swagger, when the world held hope.
In another poem, this one examining the mother abandoning her husband and son, Kaneko writes:
Don’t go, I said
into her scent of cigarettes and beer. God,
she said. Don’t be like your father
before unwrapping herself from my arms,
her taillights vanishing in the dark.
The power of this book originates from the fact that although none of us are professional wrestlers gunning for titles and glory and none of us live the story of winning or losing in the ring, we have all tasted the haunt of failure. Whether failed wrestler, failed son, failed wife, or failed father, so many of us know the desire to be in some new place, to search for every escape possible.
In “Here Lies Hercules Hernandez,” Kaneko writes about the fictional son thinking about Hercules Hernandez’s loss to Hulk Hogan:
We both knew about loss, understood
how Hercules ended up with a boot
to the chin—a loser on his back watching
that atomic leg fall from the sky.
Ray Hernandez was from Florida, oiled
down for pose and hypertrophy. We knew
the folly of men who pretend to be anything
other than the men they have learned to be.
Kaneko is, of course, writing about Hercules Hernandez and all pro wrestlers who sculpt themselves into personas of super heroes and villains, who create storylines to draw in an audience, who jump from incredible heights and spill their own blood to honor a storyline. But in the end, no matter what story they strive for in the ring, the sixty four wrestlers Kaneko turns into poems end up dead from suicide, drug use, knife fights, old age, and heart attacks.
But Kaneko is writing not just about Hercules Hernandez, Big John Studd, Playboy Buddy Rose, and June Byers. He is writing about you and about me, about the human experience, about our glories and our failures, especially our failures, about our desire to use story, kayfabe, to sculpt our lives into something grander and more beautiful than what we really are. But in the end, when we manufacture ourselves, when we use kayfabe to become something grander than real, we end up like Hercules Hernandez, flat on our backs for the three count. That is, as Kaneko writes, “The folly of men.”
Sean Prentiss is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave and the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.