©2023 By Paulina Subia

“I like to be worshiped,” Richard Hell declares in “Love Letters,” one of the first poems featured in his latest offering, What Just Happened (Winter Editions, 2023). The collection comprises new poems—his first in decades—followed by “Falling Asleep,” a morbidly driven essay written with a hint of optimism, and “Chronicle,” a list of musings from Hell’s notebooks kept in recent years. The concept of worship coupled with a punk ethos poses an intriguing juxtaposition, going against the popularized “no gods, no masters” ideology that defined the early stages of punk in the 1970s. But this contrast is precisely what makes Hell’s work, and his place in the pantheon of punk culture, so appealing.

Hell can be described as somewhat of an accidental icon. I’m reminded of the scene from the seminal oral history Please Kill Me (Abacus, 1996) described by photographer Bob Gruen: “The first time I saw Richard Hell, he walked into CBGB’s wearing a white T-shirt with a bull’s-eye painted on it, and the words Please Kill Me written on it… for somebody to walk the streets of New York with a target on his chest, with an invitation to be killed — that’s quite a statement.” Hell’s quoted response claims no recollection of wearing the infamous T-shirt, claiming he was “too much of a coward” to do so.

Photo ©Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

Adopting a dismissive attitude regarding one’s ascent into punk iconography has become the mainstay of those who are still with us to tell the tale. Consider John Lydon (or Johnny Rotten)’s brazen arrogance in his memoir Rotten, or Patti Smith’s rejection of being perceived as spectacular in her craft (though, certainly deserved), as remembered in Just Kids and the more recent Year of the Monkey. The punk-poet ethos is founded on this separation between ego and persona, one that Hell finds himself grappling with throughout the course of What Just Happened.

Writing in the throes of the pandemic, Hell is face-to-face with his own mortality, reckoning with his old age and memories of his youth. Occupying the space between hopefulness and nihilism, he becomes reliant on the latter as his work tackles the opposing forces of love and death, fame and obscurity, hedonism and guilt. The poetry is the stand-out portion of the collection, written with candor and the occasional wit, and formulated with stylistic nods to the poets that pushed the once-high school dropout into the so-called “New York School” of punk poetry.

Hell’s thoughts—and subsequently, his words on the page—are plagued by dualities, and he desires an existence without such burdens. “Psychal Anecdotes or Cycle Annie (‘I heard her call my name’)” calls a world lacking in dualities a “paradise,” wondering whether it can subsist or, “does consciousness eliminate the possibility?” He attempts to reconcile with his visceral reactions to reality, and to the situational isolation and loneliness he cannot escape from. “I favor images / that mutate in only the way / that words can enable,” he writes in the aptly-titled “I’m Afraid.” Hell often “breaks the fourth wall,” so to speak, aware of how some readers may interpret his words, almost painfully astute to the fact that he will be perceived. This then begs the question, does the tendency come from ego or uncertainty? Is this a response to the aforementioned dualities of life that he resents? Hell does not come to any conclusions, as he continues to perceive himself from an outside lens, inadvertently harnessing the duality that he so despises. The poem “Advanced Age,” a stand-out of the collection, defines his observational mode of questioning, as he states, “I never before tended much / to dwell on my past. It’s awful / to realize that one can no longer assume / the bad behavior was aberrant. / I’m not the person I thought I was.”

Photo ©Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

Evidently, Hell is fixated on his past, contemplating how he will be remembered by the generations to come. He becomes caught up in his own thoughts, as if his mind is spiralling onto the page, and certain parts begin to read more like long-winded think-pieces. The ars poetica “Falling Asleep” is perplexing; while eloquently crafted with assistance from generous quotations from the likes of John Ashbery and Gérard de Nerval, its impetus—that language has the ability to mutate into multiple forms of being, and thus complicates the patterns of life—takes on a life of its own. Perhaps this is intentional; Hell remains haunted by his self-awareness, and thus crafts a narrative that mirrors the all-consuming nature of his views on mortality. The essay, though tedious at times, poignantly reflects Hell’s desperation to make peace with the fact that he will, indeed, die one day. This realization serves as the catalyst for his thoughts to run rampant, making grand statements such as, “Death is as real as life and therefore everything is being.”

An intriguing passage towards the end of “Falling Asleep” claims that a poet is “a person who’s impractical, who cares about underlying realities more than worldly ambition and appearances, who’s absent-minded… it’s the place of fewest false values. A commitment to beauty as ridiculous as looking at the clouds all day, preferably a curious and therefore analytic commitment. Poets are fools.” Hell reconvenes with himself in a dream-like state, deciding that being in a half-asleep state will bring him as close as possible to reality. Ending the collection with “Chronicle,” a list of 88 passages from various contemporary journals, is assumedly a conscious decision. If Hell wishes to guide our way of discerning his work through “breaking the fourth wall,” perhaps allowing us to read his personal notes will compel us to see him in a more intimate way than his poetry will allow. There are some notable lines that signal Hell’s continuing themes of self-perception, such as “4. whenever I learn that someone has read something by me I realize I haven’t written what I thought I had.” There is also the notion of reassessing oneself over time; Hell repeatedly contemplates nostalgia (“a longing for a greater degree of innocence”) and cynicism (“Nothing matters very much. We’re all what we have to be,”) the continuation of the passages show Hell’s slow progression towards peace with oneself—albeit an unstable one.

Photo ©Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

What Hell uniquely offers, perhaps as a response to his own mind, is an admitted lack of understanding. He never claims to hold the key to the answers of the universe, nor the meaning of life or the secrets of death. He is well-aware that his position as a poet begs for metaphors to be crafted, in order to answer his never-ending questions about one’s existence. It seems, however, that he cannot yet find it in himself to play the role of preacher (even if he wants to). Rather, he is just a man who yearns to be understood, to be worshipped.