By Peter Oresick
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 102 pp., $16.95
Peter Oresick's Warhol-O-Rama is as much performance as poetry collection, and in the best way possible. The Pittsburgh-based poet's pop-epic suite of 53 verses -- just published on what would have been the Pittsburgh-born art icon's 80th birthday -- is a tour-de-force of slyly constructed and fully inhabited postures and poses, assemblages and ephemera, capturing Our Andy with all the revealing superficiality of a faux-candid Polaroid snapped at a Chelsea cocktail party.
Andy Warhol was the seer as cipher, his own pose of genuine artifice a maddeningly precise reflection of the postwar popular and consumer cultures, and we are endlessly fascinated with our endless fascination with him. Oresick, who teaches at local universities, gets this. His personal Warhola fixation dates partly to learning during his 1960s childhood (mistakenly, it turns out) that new celeb Andy was a distant cousin (as well as a Carpatho-Rusyn homeboy). But the poet knows that you can't really take the Pop Art Peter Pan personally. So Warhol-O-Rama, even its title a wink, is built, a la Marilyn silk screens, mostly from appropriated material: news articles, Web tailings, literary parodies. Each is a shard in a Warhol of mirrors.
The titles of all but a couple of the poems begin with the words "Andy Warhol for ...," as in "Andy Warhol for Interviewers." This puckish device doesn't just mimic Warhol's trademark endless reproductions; it leaves us wondering what "for" means. Is it "as explained to" ("Andy Warhol for Beginners")? "As he appears to" (" ... for the FBI")? "Shilling on behalf of" ("Campbell's Soup")? All of them, each of them, none of them.
Some of Oresick's putatively found material seems too good to be true. "Andy Warhol for PhotoShop®," for instance, is instruction-manual prose that perfectly replicates Warhol's philosophy by telling an anonymous consumer how to painlessly forge his aesthetic. "Now Andy-up / the pixels in delirious colors. Unsure? See Warhol's Che Guevara x 12 / as a guide." Other poems, like "Andy Warhol for Undergraduates," sound lifted whole from some blog.
Of course, worrying about what's "real" here and what's "fake" is to miss the point -- along with half the fun. It's also to slight Oresick's skills as both a mimic and a re-composer of found verbiage. Models and fodder range from astrology columns to Warhol's own gnomically banal profundities ("I'd like my tombstone to be blank"). There are delightful parodic homages to Allen Ginsberg poems ("Andy Warhol I've given you all and now I'm nothing," kvetches a comically embittered city of Pittsburgh in Oresick's take-off on "America"). In a blindingly simple juxtaposition Warhol himself might have loved, in "Andy Warhol for St. John the Evangelist," the poets pops Warholisms among King James sonoroties: "Then He saith unto them, Uh mmm – sort of. I can't tell," complete with the Words of Warhol in bold-face.
Oresick lets his performer's mask slip just enough for counterpoint and perspective. Most notable is "Andy Warhol for the Andy Warhol in the Vanity Mirror": "You're just a man in a bad hairpiece, dying your eyebrows / when your brother phones from Pittsburgh: ‘Mum is dead.'" While several poems deal with Warhol's near-death after the 1968 Valerie Solanis shooting, this one suggests that, ultra-cool facade notwithstanding, Warhol was desperate to flee intimations of mortality.
In Warhol-O-Rama, Warhol meets Nixon, is deconstructed by art theorists, becomes the namesake of an Internet worm -- a dizzying array. In the process of sorting Oresick's meanings out, you think of lots of interesting things, though without necessarily arriving at any actual conclusions. Perfect: It's portrait-by-facet, and even if each of the 53 facets merely glimmers with another identically inscrutable Andy, it's as fitting an inquest as it is a tribute.
Peter Oresick reads from Warhol-O-Rama, plus poet Heather McNaugher. 7:30 p.m. Fri., Aug. 29. Mellon Hall, Chatham University campus, Shadyside. Free. 412-365-1190