Hitler’s Mustache

by |
03/14/2007 12:00 AM |

In his first book of poems, Peter Davis runs the reader through an exhaustive textual autopsy of what is perhaps the most recognizable and reviled patch of facial hair in history: Adolph Hitler’s neatly trimmed, square-ish mustache. In 55 poems, Davis explores this controlling metaphor and driving image in two sestinas, several stanzas of haiku, a checklist, an homage or two, a jingle, and several other textual forms.

The author imagines the tale of the mustache as fiction in “Hitler’s Mustache: The Short Story” and “Hitler’s Mustache: The Novel,” while in “Hitler’s Mustache: The Predictable Response,” Davis presents a cordial epistle to a magazine editor, thanking said editor for the cordial, thoughtful rejection of the letter-writer’s “mustache.” Here, and in several other places in the book, the word “mustache” is used as a pronoun, a stand-in for any number of things. Sometimes mustache is a concept or emotional state, while at others it’s a synonym for the word “poem,” which begs the perhaps too-cleverly-conceived question: Is Davis’ book of poems really about Hitler’s mustache, or is the mustache itself a giant, pejorative historical icon that’s been subverted by Davis so that he can talk about and scrutinize something closer to his heart; namely, the art of poetry?

Early in the text, Davis describes the mustache as a trapdoor, and it’s this implication of functionality and utility (and the inherent mystery in trapdoors) that allows Davis to write and re-write the story of this mustache. He tells us of the mustache’s childhood, of the mustache’s formative years, of its doubts and fears. The personal troubles of this personified patch of lip hair often mirror those of the Führer, but are also benign, even commonplace. The mustache is concerned with art and love. He’s insecure and sometimes jealous. He sees a beard and wonders, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

As a subversive and disarming examination of the 20th century’s worst criminal, and as a smart commentary on poetry itself, Hitler’s Mustache is a success that possesses what poet Alice Fulton has called “the good strangeness of poetry” and the humor so often seen in contemporary American verse.