War of Dictates by John Baltisberger (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

WarDictatesHere we have a first for the Splatterpunk Awards: while the Best Collection category is typically given over to volumes of short prose fiction, War of Dictates is a poetry collection. Or, perhaps, a single narrative poem divided into bite-sized pieces, depending on one’s perspective.

The narrator of the saga is the fallen angel Semyaza, who relates how – as per Genesis – he and his fellow sons of God lusted after the daughters of men (“We watched as they danced. Our new forms had appetites/We watched as they loved. Our new forms had loins”), a lust that finally reached an outpouring of violence:

The panicked screams were an astonishing hymn/sung by those torn limb from limb/until the only screams left were those of my quarry./The blood shed had been a new sensation/the fear in the eyes, now dumb deaf and blind/rolling free of sockets on the ground underfoot/ignited that feeling of godhood and I understood,/erect and throbbing with divine purpose/I turned my attention to the worthless;/I wrenched them apart/and clenched a blood-drenched wench/close enough to taste her heart,/I did not know her name, just saw her frame;/I knew I had to tame the flame in my newly formed blinking cock.

This excerpt is typical of John Baltisberger’s graphic and rhythmic verse, which is closer in tone and form to rap lyrics than to anything in Paradise Lost. There is a good deal of wit alongside the brutality, the rhymes often becoming outright sardonic: “Raising from the smeared mess/I realized we would need more finesse.”

The union between the fallen angels and the mortal women brought forth the giant Nephilim, who tear out of their mothers’ bodies and emerge as “wrong creatures/bleeding molten clay from veins of woven reality”. A war breaks out, one that implicates humans, angels and even golems; the book informs us that “Angel biology would not give in to bacteria” and so the celestial casualties are left to never decay: “the angelic corpses lay splattered on the cruel earth,/As fresh, bloody, and beautiful as the moment they were slaughtered.”

Figures from the Old Testament are worked into the narrative as it unfurls. We meet Enoch, who pleads without success for the fallen angels to be treated with mercy following their transgressions (“Enoch, oh Enoch,/lawyer, judge, jailer still a failure”). Later comes King Og, the Nephilim (“Cruel mongrel child of divine jizzum shot through slaves/who drank his mother’s blood like nectar ambrosial rain”).

The story of Noah’s flood is given an appropriately revisionist retelling (“He searched and he found the hope of mankind,/an insane man set to build a boat on dry land;/schizophrenic, pathetic old fool seeking to protect his genetic offspring”) during which King Og manages to secure a place on the Ark. From here, he is able to play a decisive role in multiple narratives from the Torah – founding Sodom and Gomorrah, hardening the heart of Pharaoh during the Egyptian plagues – before finally being slain.

A narrative that develops in the midst of all this is the relationship between the spirit Ashmandai (a corruption of Ashmadai, the demon also known as Asmodeus) and Lilith. Ashmandai is introduced after the rebellious Semyaza is bound; although he turns down the latter’s request for sexual favours (“He had acted vizier and was now king, perched on a throne of falling wings”) he offers to act as a go-between, overseeing the Nephilim on Earth.

His machinations are intricate indeed. It is Ashmandai who allows King Og to survive the flood, and he later sends the plagues of Egypt, but we learn that his story begun long before this (“Ashmandai was no more idle after the fall of idols/than he had been before the tide of their rise”). One poem describes him in the Garden of Eden on the sixth night, when he first saw Lilith:

The first woman. She was not soft, or gentle,/not the rounded submissive thing Eve would become./Through eyes as dark as the night he was born/she watched him, saw a kindred spirit who was miscreated […] The first man did not care that Lilith had needs or that she did not love him./The first man cared only that Lilith belong to him. And this crime was unforgiveable.

After the two had sex, Ashmandai and the pregnant Lilith eloped to “those places so far away from what the first man could dream” while Adam is granted his second wife, “his soft submissive missus showering him with kisses”. Lilith’s final act in Eden is to tempt Eve to bite the apple. But then came divine punishment from the “Destroyers of will and strength,/subjugation of each nation of self-willed autonomous beings”:

The breaking of women for use by men broke the natural order/and naturally broke Lilith who had worked so hard to emplace it./And she fled to deepest caves under deepest oceans to rage and weep alone.

Through all of this, Ashmandai’s love for Lilith remains:

The half-formed king spent many years studying the natural orders of science./He studied men and women and those in between,/perhaps his studies became obscene, would Lilith approve?

The narrative passes through the reigns of David and Solomon (the latter of whom is replaced and impersonated by Ashmandai; he is implied to have written the Song of Solomon for Lilith) and eventually leaves the Biblical era altogether. Lilith and Ashmandai return to Earth on the eve of the First Crusade, a time in which “painfully and blatantly corrupted priests” are turning peasants into zealots, “armies of unwashed Christians to topple monuments”, killing those who do not share their faith (“Why travel across the treacherous lands of sand and Muslims/when there were Jews here to ventilate?”) It is into this world that Lilith sends forth her lover: “The oldest enemy of mankind’s poison and greed speeds their creed/towards obliterating of the other that is no other…/So, go Ashmandai, be my vengeance and wrath.” And so, Ashmandai enters the Crusades…

There in the Rhine amongst the old country wine and swine/the daily grind ground to a halt by columns of cross wearing charlatans/bearing swords and axes beaten from plowshares to tale their share/of property from those they had decided didn’t count as human./Those that would convert they subverted to their cult. […] When he rematerialized, they realized their life was trivialized,/their demise so sudden as Ashmandai ripped their lungs from gaping mouths/that found themselves so suddenly filled with blood and inhuman flesh.

Ashmandai’s battle against the crusaders pits him face to face with none other than Emicho, the historical figure responsible for the anti-Semitic Rhineland massacres. War of Dictates depicts Emicho as an avatar of Azazel, this entity having “left its prison throne/to enact a bloody vengeance on the lineage of Enoch”. Azazel turns out to be a formidable foe, being “no common, rotten thug who wallowed in the debasement of humans/but a philosopher king who reigned in a theology of violent ideology./A professor of violent psychopathy”. By contrast, “Ashmandai was to Azazel, a child before a titan,/a rag doll thrown about the synagogue without effort”.

Lilith, however, is Azazel’s equal: “Two titans that caused the earth to shake as they bellowed/in eons old hate at one another, toppling homes and churches/with a fight that could not be won by either primordial force.” This conflict – Ashmandai and Lilith on the one side, Azazel and anti-Semitism on the other – continues for centuries. In the Second Crusade Azazel finds a new avatar in the Jew-hating monk Rudolf, and after this come plague and pogroms (“Treaties broken with treacherous treason towards decency/as the gates of hell opened allowing the citizens of Stasbourg,/entry into the ghetto, with the angelic watchers at their head”).

Next, War of Dictates enters the modern era. Azazel’s side is represented by the Confederates in the American Civil War, and in World War II his latest avatar is none other than Hitler. In his bunker, the Fuhrer has a nasty surprise when Eva Braun (“like Eve with her demeanor to please”) turns out to be Lilith in human form.

The final poem is entitled “Deplorable” and takes place on June 1, 2020. Azazel’s contemporary avatar – the “king in orange” – sits in the Oval Office, which he refers to as “my throne room, where ignorance trump science/and power is bliss”. Azazel unleashed communications technology as one more weapon against the world, but it backfired and served to enable the protests now raging outside.

Ashmandai confronts him in the White House; Lilith is absent in form but present in spirit, as Azazel sneers at his rival’s “whore-wife”. Ashmandai is unfazed by this slight: “You try so hard to weaponize her sexuality but you don’t realize./As I do not own her body, mind, or her soul I am not slighted./You wish you could own her intense sexuality—that is why you rage”. The book concludes on an ambiguous but optimistic note: “The vaccine to tyranny was an injection of equity/and humanity was finally ready for the reception and retention of freedom.”

It has to be admitted that War of Dictates loses some of its spark once it arrives in modernity. A poem positing that the Song of Solomon was actually written by Asmodeus to Lilith is working in an altogether subtler manner than one depicting Trump and Hitler as two avatars of the same evil force. But while the book does not quite stack up alongside the best of Milton, Dante or Blake, this is because Baltisberger is consciously operating on a different level to those poets. As noted, the verse in War of Dictates functions in the same manner as rap lyrics – punchy, visceral and direct, raw passion more important than the creation of work that stands up to analytical dissection. This exchange from the Civil War section is emblematic:

“I was expecting someone other,/a wonder you are brave enough to suffer here little brother,/you come to face me in my own element beside my own regiment./A testament to bravery, but it means excrement. You see,/you come to your detriment; death is eminent my elegant impediment.”

Throughout War of Dictates John Baltisberger shows himself to be an occultic iconoclast counterpart to Lin-Manuel Miranda: he overturns icons, constructs a a rich mythology from the rubble of that which has been torn down, and conveys it all with pulsing, infectiously inventive trash-talk.

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