Excerpted from The Annotated Poems of John McEnroe by Clarence Washington (By Matt Beard), a book set in a reality wherein esteemed tennis player John McEnroe lost his first major tennis tournament instead of winning it. Thereafter, McEnroe gave up tennis for poetry. This turned out to be the most consequential career change in 20th century history.
Zodiak of the Forest
What follows is an annotated edition of John McEnroe’s third book of poetry. Completed sometime between the fall of 1987 and the spring of 1988, the book was later published by the now defunct Other Voice Books out of Olympia, Washington in 1990. Other Voice was forced to shutter its doors after the high profile lawsuit LA Families vs. Other Voice Books set a precedent that individuals could sue book publishers for printing books that were shown to have sewn sedition or violence.
Zodiak of the Forest has long been viewed as one of McEnroe’s most mysterious and occult books. McEnroe devotees and conspiracists try to link current calendar years with the poems in the book, drawing arbitrary or metaphorical links in order to moor the poetry to real world events.
The book serves as an important piece of the poet’s legacy. Many have interpreted the poems herein to violent ends. Others, particularly McEnroe scholars, have sought to show how the poems can be read as works of art meant to unify and shine a light on our shared humanity. I will provide annotations. The choice of interpretation, however, is up to you.
Associate Professor of Humanities
University of Colorado
Year of the Deadly Bees
In the Year of the Deadly Bees* when much
of what you thought was True has vanished
the world will become a small, dark mirror.
Your twisted features unrecognizable, you will
run to the carnival funhouse, an attempt to find
a you you thought you knew.
Where the carousel stood you will find only
a charred pit,** your maternal cousins*** bumping into
each other, bodies turning to ash.
Their fallen limbs will make a tower. You
will have two choices: 1.) Attempt to run
so fast that your spirit leaves your body.
2.) Climb the tower of limbs and jump off.****
* In 1997-1998 the existential threat of killer bees from Africa led to many to proclaim The Year of Deadly Bees.
**After the Los Angeles bombing that killed President Arthur Ashe, McEnroe enthusiasts such as the Sacramento Zodiak Gang claimed the spot of the bombing as their territory, considering it to be the “charred pit” from this poem. In 2004 alone, 43 members of McEnroe affiliate groups were killed on the site of the bombing.
***The reference to cousins led to the creation of The Mississsippi Cousins and the McEnroe Family, two McEnroe inspired groups who made family—biological and otherwise—a corner of their philosophy.
****In a tragic turn of events the North Sacramento Zodiak Gang—not to be confused with the Sacramento Zodiak Gang—a gang of pacifist McEnroe devotees committed ritual suicide at the Los Angeles memorial site in 2005. Twenty one members of the group died from cyanide poisoning. Three members survived accidentally.
Year of the Undulating Manta Ray*
In the Year of the Undulating Manta Ray
fish will feed from oil fields at the bottom
of the ocean. Their insides will be stained
with black sludge. The fish will groan
and bloat. So too the sharks, the whales,
the dolphins, the humans. All bloating
full of viscous oil. Oil leaking out of pores,
pouring out of ears, between teeth, oil
seeping out of genitals. Babies will be
born more oil than baby. Their cries will
be sludge. Each tear a drop of precious oil.
The children will be mined for their valuable
bounty. Their black gold. They will be used
to fuel the humming engines of God.**
* This poem has been interpreted by scholars and fans alike as an environmental Jeremiad. After the gradual dissolution of the woodstock generation, ex-hippies were drawn to the works of McEnroe. In 2001, this poem was read at an environmental event held at the capitol in Baltimore by then Senator Butch McQueen. The reading led to Senator McQueen’s eventual impeachment.
** One of McEnroe’s few allusions to God, the poem has been used by atheists and religious communities alike to support arguments about McEnroe’s belief system. Pastor Elijah Wellington of First Baptist Cincinnati has argued across cable networks*** that McEnroe is a horseman of the apocalypse and the “engines of God” represent the coming of end days. Noted atheist Harriet Klug has used the poem to argue the gullibility of religious communities. She interprets the reference to god as a clear example of sarcasm.
***Most famously on Talman News on December 12, 2005 saying, “The world will end within the next year. God’s engines will rip our flesh apart. Blood in the streets. That is irrefutable fact.” In 2008 the Pastor rescinded his remarks claiming a slight misinterpretation of Revelation, saying the apocalypse would culminate in 2016 not 2006.
Year of the Eye Sore Crabs*
The Eye Sore Crabs will be incredibly ugly.
It will hurt you to look at them. You will
look at them and want to die. Their shells
will remind you of children being thrown
before oncoming trains. Their beady
Crab eyes will blink in the darkness
and you will wish you had never been
born. But the Crabs will not care. They
will not even notice. They are Crabs.
This is the lesson they are there to teach you.
Whether you are horrible—and you will
feel you are. Whether your friends avoid
you altogether out of unadulterated hate.
You must continue anyway. Unblinking.
Unfettered as the Eye Sore Crabs.
*One of the more open poems in McEnroe’s Zodiak. Individuals and groups across the country have declared it “Year of the Eye Sore Crabs” for all of the following reasons: a spike in the population of Pacific crab populations, Red Lobster running a 2-for-1 crab dinner campaign for five months straight, NFL place kicker Kenny “Crab-Legs” Carter setting a franchise record for most consecutive games played for the Boise Game Palace Gamers, F*ck You & Co. using “Year of the Eye Sore Crabs” as their slogan for an ad campaign centered around their Eye Sore Crab Burger ™, the release of country singer Mandy Taylor’s number one single “You’re Crabby All The Time,” and the first First Gentleman of the United States Victor Talman (née Amsted) appearing so hungover at a state of the union address he was nicknamed Vic “The Eye Sore Crab” by tabloid magazines.
Year of the Ferret Slipping In Sand*
There are two ways of dealing with the pile
of slippery sand that will form outside your
front door. You can either choose to act
like it does not exist, jumping farther and
farther from your door to the curb, OR,
you can accept it as a reality and go out
the back gate. The ferrets that begin scratching
your trailer’s siding will not be friendly.
Their teeth will be like human teeth only
they will be ferretier. Their mission will be
to devour your internal organs without
waking you up. If they succeed you will
not know. You will still be sleeping, only
instead of sleeping you will be dead.
It is a fine distinction. Like trying to detect
artificial sweetener in a soft drink
using only your fingers.
* It has become a tradition in my annotation process to allow myself one poem per book to merely enjoy. Annotation and close reading are important as they deepen our understanding and expand our mental tool boxes. But we mustn’t forget the primary use of poetry—pleasing the human soul. It is when readers go beyond this primary use that readings of poems get twisted. So. Read this poem again. Then take a walk, maybe a nap in the sun. Come back around to the rest of the book when you can make time for it.
About the artist...
Matt Beard is a musician/novelist from Colorado whose art has been seen on stages across the country and internationally in Canada, Scotland, and South Korea. Hear his music at venderandthecobras.com and friendsofthebog.com. Recruit him to work at your vegan restaurant here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Insta: @venderandthecobras