What are the words we use to describe something that we never thought we'd have to describe? In Seven American Deaths and Disasters, Kenneth Goldsmith transcribes historic radio and television reports of national tragedies as they unfurl, revealing an extraordinarily rich linguistic panorama of passionate description. Taking its title from the series of Andy Warhol paintings by the same name, Goldsmith recasts the mundane as the iconic, creating a series of prose poems that encapsulate seven pivotal moments in recent American history: the John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and John Lennon assassinations, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the Columbine shootings, 9/11, and the death of Michael Jackson. While we've become accustomed to watching endless reruns of these tragic spectacles—often to the point of cliché—once rendered in text, they become unfamiliar, and revealing new dimensions emerge. Impartial reportage is revealed to be laced with subjectivity, bias, mystery, second-guessing, and, in many cases, white-knuckled fear. Part nostalgia, part myth, these words render pivotal moments in American history through the communal lens of media.
By transcribing and collaging radio and television coverage of seven watershed events in recent American history, Goldsmith (Uncreative Writing) repackages the media's language as it grapples with tragedy. Out of its original context, the reporting on the attacks on the World Trade Center of September 11th, 2001, for example, turns chilling as the horror of the event overwhelms the descriptive power of the journalists covering it. Radio coverage shortly before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy unfolds as a jarring collage of turkey meat commercials and pop songs before reports of the assassination cut in. Similarly, what seems to be a radio scan, on the day of former Beatles singer John Lennon's murder, juxtaposes some of his greatest lyrics with discussion of how his music and activism affected individuals as well as society at large. Goldsmith is a poet who has previously expressed his fascination "with rendering the mundane" in writing by transcribing newspapers, his own quotidian words as well as old weather reports. Here, his attention focused on these tragic events, he creates a fascinating, poly-vocal document that not only investigates the nature of language but challenges both individual and collective memories of these moments played out in real time.