‘Flatman’ Cheryl Caesar
‘Flatman’ is a chapbook subtitled ‘And Other Poems of Protest In The Trump Era’ The title poem starts,
‘You may not know he’s flat
because you’ve seen him in profile.
In fact, he has just two views, front and side:
he flipflops between them.’
It’s true: most pictures of Donald Trump are taken front-on or in profile. The poem ends,
‘He doesn’t believe in us, the 3-D people.
And yet he does, and then we frighten him.
He wants to steamroll us like a cartoon cat.
He can never cross the dimensional border.
And so he hates us (hate being
the flattening emotion), hates us all. Hates the round world.’
It captures some of Trump’s contradictions, this man who been bankrupt yet has a reputation as a businessman, this man who behaves as if he has no need of people yet needs their praise, this man who sees people as servants but fears being found out as an imposter, copes by bluster and steamrolling. Flat also suggests incompleteness. This is not a rounded individual with a mix of good and bad qualities, merely two-dimensional, lacking.
Cheryl Caesar takes a swipe at his enablers too, in ‘Rally of the Plastic Cheeto’ (Sing to the tune of “Plastic Jesus” as you heard it in “Cool Hand Luke.”)’
‘They don’t care that he lied and tricked ‘em,
mocked the hero and shamed the victim,
their Plastic Cheeto at the podium.
They didn’t listen to Dr. Ford;
She just scared ’em with six-bit words,
but now they laugh and think they’re not so dumb.’
Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony should have been enough to prevent Brent Kavanaugh’s election to the Supreme Court, but Trump backed his pick and Kavanaugh was elected anyway. So long as they’re winning, Trump’s supporters don’t care who they trample on. The rhymes are apt, particularly: ‘Ford’/ ‘words’, ‘podium’/ ‘dumb’ and the rhythm fits the tune.
Trump’s love of fake tan becomes a recurring motif through the poems, in ‘A Short History of Mirrors’, which starts with the image of Narcissus gazing at his own reflection,
‘Now we have selfies and Photoshop instead.
The new Quixote, Don of Orange, trims his pudge
and lengthens his fingers. Look at me! he boasts,
the way I really am! But are they looking? He flips
through channels, seeking that elusive image
that keeps receding, even on Fox and Friends. He reaches.
Now he’s leaning, leaning…’
This was the man who boasted of his social media status and complained the news wasn’t focused on his triumphs as news of coronavirus victims started taking over the headlines. So far, the poems have focused on Trump’s image, or at least his desperate attempts to shore it up, so it feels fitting that the last few poems focus on what his legacy might be. ‘Children Draw Themselves’ compares American children in summer camps with those in refugee camps,
‘In summer camp
Full face, in makeup.
Michael Jackson forelock falls
over the brow, but
disappears where it bisects
the sensitive open eye.
In detention camp
Sharpie stick figures
guarded by more stick figures,
wearing hats and guns.
Black bars cut through blank faces.
Cell lock: drawn in more detail.’
Michael Jackson is no longer the hero he once was seen to be. The make-up was as much a disguise as Trump’s fake tan. America doesn’t look so great for its own children. It looks even worse for those caged in refugee camps who don’t even bother with self-portraits, just stick figures. That the ‘hats and guns’ of the guards get more attention and detail than the guards themselves is an economical way of showing how the children are thinking. An image underlined by the details lavished on the locks.
‘Flatman’ like all good satire starts with poking fun at its subject, turning Trump into a clown-like figure, painting him as a vain man more focused on his appearance than the legacy of his presidency. The final poems mark a change in mood as attention turns to that legacy. The widening gap between rich and poor, children locked in cages and a president more concerned with ratings than actual achievements. Cheryl Caesar has created a sequence that balances the humour with seriousness.