“First They Slaughtered the Angels”

by Lenore Kandel
   This epic poem is a graphic protest against martial violence, social and spiritual desecration, and political oppression. Collected in Kandel’s 1967 book Word Alchemy, the poem derives from an earlier period of composition centered in Beat aesthetics and cultural expression, the register in which the poet first raised voice and vision. The poem is spoken by a collective narrator—“we”—who represents survivors of an unspecified holocaust, the “angels” left after the first slaughter. These survivors have been witness to surreal barbarity (“the bellies of women split open and children rip their / way out with bayonets”) and slaughterhouse cannibalism (“the cherubim are gone / they have eaten them and cracked their bones for marrow”), the work of the murderous invaders of the title line. The poem seeks revenge and swears defiant resistance to the dark forces seeking to impose conformity and surrender at any cost.
   The five-section epic depicts war zone destruction, watchful hidden resistance, and then a regrouping, as if telling of a descent into hell that is followed by a rise from the underground (“we are rolling away the stones from underground, from the / caves”) to “do battle” in revenge. This journey is voiced in terms of Beat Generation themes and aesthetics and gives way to the emergence of a new-age suggestive of the sixties counterculture, so the poem seems to span the two countercultural bohemian eras of its time. Beat Generation nihilism and dour cold-war predictions depict the celestial slaughter, as divine allusions mix with earthly locations (“who flushed St. Peter’s keys down the mouth of a / North Beach toilet?”) and contemporary slogans (“in an effort to make friends and influence people”). The cold-war fifties of bomb shelters and nuclear paranoia (“radioactive eyes”) mingles with domestic retreats to Levittowns of “dishwashers and milltowns.” Junkies, catatonics, and androgynes make appeals for deliverance, but only a weary and wary hope is permitted.
   The poem’s performance of signature images and verse forms from William S. Burroughs and allen ginsberg, which typify Kandel’s Beatinflected works, align it with the early postwar hipster manifestations. Kandel’s evocations of Burroughs’s visions of totalitarian torment (“the penises of men are become blue steel machine guns / they ejaculate bullets, they spread death as an orgasm”) are modified by surrealist images evocative of “howl”: “standing spreadlegged with open sphincters weeping soap suds / from our radioactive eyes / and screaming / for the ultimate rifle / the messianic cannon / the paschal bomb.” Uses of anaphora and long-lined catalogues also make reference to Ginsberg and his Whitmanic borrowings. The “Moloch” section of “Howl” comes through in a skillful passage that likewise blends its enunciation and form: “Lobotomy for every man! / and they have nominated a eunuch for president / Lobotomy for the housewife! / Lobotomy for the business man! / Lobotomy for the nursery schools! / and they have murdered the angels.” The poem writhes in contempt for oppression. This 1950s-inflected epic envisions the 1960s in the febrile aftermath of the angels’ holocaust. Rising like Lazarus from the grave, the hipster–warrior survivors, emboldened by vision (“peyote-visioned eyes”), vow confrontation and revenge: “we shall stare face to face with naked eyes.” From the cold war to the dawn of the antiwar counterculture of the love generation, the poem’s jaded witnesses testify against the slaughter of “angels,” the affliction or “armageddon” of the narration.
■ Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation: The Tumultuous ’50s Movement and Its Impact on Today. New York: Scribner, 1971.
■ Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
■ Johnson, Ronna C. “Lenore Kandel’s The Love Book: Psychedelic Poetics, Cosmic Erotica, and Sexual Politics in the Mid-sixties Counterculture.” In Reconstructing the Beats, edited by Jennie Skerl, 89–104. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
■ Wolf, Leonard. Voices From the Love Generation. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
   Ronna Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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