The book design of USO: I'll Be Seeing You (2013) is by "Don't Look Now!". I begin here because this work of conceptual poetry by Kim Rosenfield has a commandingly elegant design that procedes with a minimum of mediation from paratext to text to paratext. The front cover, title page, and a Beckett epigraph (from Watt , on the kinds of laughter) are all that appear before the first part of the three-part text. The copyright page and rear cover (with blurbs, price, ISBN, bar code) close the book. A photograph of a ceramic sculpture, Ceramika I (1965) by Alina Szapocznikow, wraps around the covers, evoking not the World War II title anthem about those who were left behind but the 1960s protest song about so many of those who went away: a severed head vase, oriented upward, with the stems of flowers stuck in the mouth. Where have all the flowers gone? All the old familiar places? Don't look now!
USO is, as far as I can tell, a collage of appropriated materials. I mean this in two ways: I can't say for sure if Rosenfield took everything that is in the book from other sources; and, to tip off too much of what's coming would detract from the wonderful experience of discovery. The first section is made up of comedy routines: jokes, monologues, and skits that reverberate with the words of Bob Hope, and then, it seems, Abbott and Costello, Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, and others. The second part is an almost ninety-page poem that could be read as a series of interview answers by one or more USO show performers if it were not set in lines of one to three words that form columns. The third part is a short selection of songs and a skit allegedly lifted from a manual for performers.
In the United Service Organization shows, from 1941 to the present, Rosenfield has found an evocative topic. From local dances in community centers to star-studded overseas extravaganzas, the USO has displayed a heartfelt generosity to give some joy to those who've sacrificed so much to serve in the armed forces, a generosity which is beyond reproach. And yet, there is an element of propaganda in an institution that fosters a mindless propensity to accept and even endorse all of what the service in the armed forces has brought to America: not only freedom and glory and respect but fear, ridicule, and hate. From a war we had to win to save the world, to wars we seemingly couldn't help but fall into, to wars we lied to launch, the American empire has saved and slaughtered millions, salvaged and destroyed civilizations, honored and devastated the lives of those who served, and now, the monumental cost of too many worthless military adventures has driven us all from prosperity to the brink of ruin. By presenting the USO in its own words, Rosenfield must question but not answer what it means to support the troops. USO the book is essentially respectful to USO the institution—to the people who served and to those who performed for them. Even the corny bits have a genuine warmth, a sense of fellow feeling, and many of them are still quite funny.
Funnier still, and more to the point of examining what the USO has come to mean, are bits that take liberties. That Bob Hope should be the only comedian who is identified is fitting, inasmuch as nobody did as much as he did to make the USO what is was and is. But it's hard to imagine that this showbiz bastion of naughty propriety would allow Sarah Silverman within a thousand yards of the perimeter—much less putting her on stage. And then there's the intriguing case of Richard Pryor, supposedly regaling the troops with drug war stories about setting himself on fire while free-basing cocaine. Kidding aside, Pryor starred in the 1982 movie Some Kind of Hero, which has...