In February of 2010, I was in Florence, Italy when it started to rain. It was early in the afternoon and I’d just bought a weird Italian purple sweater. My friend Laura was there. We ducked into a tiny café, and the old Italian men were drinking wine out of water glasses while standing at the bar. We drank grappa, and she quoted Ted Berrigan’s “Red Shift.” It was the first of hundreds of times that I’ve since heard it. “I am only pronouns,” I remember her saying, “And I am all of them.”
Sometime last year someone asked me what poetry means to me, and my immediate response was “to be everywhere and all at once.” I still believe that. And I believe it even more after reading The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Kevin A. González and Lauren Shapiro.
The first poetry anthology I ever owned was about the size of an old PC monitor and weighed nearly as much. And I imagine the folks at Rescue Press remember this too, which is why what they’ve given us is a sexy, compact collection, whose sleek touch and sharp design are extremely inviting. The kind that makes you want to drink a Hendrick’s martini right this second, even if it is only 2:00 in the afternoon and all you’re wearing is your long underwear.
We begin like this: “First only gray, // then angles and points become a whole” (018). Is this a clue to knowing how to read the book? And the following page, only this: “What she would like: // To be living every scene at once” (019). I know from the introduction that the poems are shuffled with anonymous responses from the forty poets to various questions on “influence, inspiration, and incidentals as a way of providing a bit of interesting and time-sensitive context,” and so that is how I initially read this, but I am wrong (014). Or maybe I’m not. A few pages later, there’s this: “He cannot tell where one name begins and another falls away” (029).
There is a new logic in these poems, because there is a new logic in the contemporary American. Sometimes it’s a logic of synchrony, a kind of trust in the associative post hoc ergo propter hoc that is a familiar terrain of contemporary poetry: “When the phone rings a man appears” (029). Durational understanding is fractured and replaced by emotional connections, resonances that perhaps have no causal relationships. They reveal the contemporary predicament, one governed by an a priori ontology: “If you wake up on one side, / you must” (234). One poet rephrases this idea of the always-already, locating time with the body: “our bodies were // such spaces wholly present tense” (216).
These poems are hungry and exhaustive. How many names can you give for a thing, especially when names are already called into question in the first place? “Once more in the city I cannot name, / the boat city, the city of light, / the city that endures its fall, / the city of pleasures and vicissitudes, / the skier’s city, Fun City, the city under the sky, / city of crime and vegetables, Pornograph City, / the city governed by the Lost and Found Department,” and so on (032). What I mean is, to be each of these things and all of these things at once. To seek the unity through plurality. The value of a relic is the possession of the body. Poetry, as an epistemology, as a way of being in the world, allows for the dismantling of subjectivity, subject, and sign, so that the connections between things become innumerable, innommable, infinite, and whole. “One can only be / sure of the pieces—the whole is the business of God alone,” one poet writes (049). But I’m not so sure the pieces and the whole aren’t already the same thing.
“I bit into an apple that tasted sweetly of time” (070). Is this our curse, then? Our felix culpa, to understand Time the closer we get to the center of things? These rooms are full of mirrors, “[s]hards of shattered glass or the world as-is” (121). We are this shattering, a chandelier of grace: “Refraction is the one sweet / clue to suggest going back in time, but a moment, or is it forward? you would keep your integrity as you plunge into water, but, as it is, life’s / series of steppings forward sift short-lived / as through prisms, ever-changing, / as graceful or abrupt as a change / in conversation, depending on who’s talking” (264).
Well, who is talking? “How does my life / differ from my life?” (266). We are still enduring the hangover of ownership. What are we if not capitalist? If the possessive might be seen through, here, we might understand the question as a distinction between a thing and the thing. I am all of them, and all of them are me.
In these poems, language becomes our hands running along the walls of the houses we somehow ended up in. “Fetch this phenomennominal conjesture. This time I mean it. . . . Mistake the clock’s tick-tock for some synecdochetic-tocking heart” (183). And yet this makes perfect sense. Or said another way, “you’re at least thirteen clocks in the span / of two rooms” (145).
Other times, loud speakers of corporate establishments interrupt poems (036), locating us in space-time(s): the time of the distinct space (authentic or not) in which the poem was written, the time of the space in which the poem is received (Monday, 01.06.14, 1:49pm, Logan Square, Chicago, Illinois, United States, North America, the world, The Milky Way, The Universe), and the time in which our contemporary cultural ecosystem is bombarded by personalized ads, algorithms, voices, real and otherwise, telling us when to leave, where to turn, who to date, what to purchase. These all hint at a poet’s greatest fear: solipsism.
At times, the subject is nameless and is granted only a letter. “K,” for instance. Instead, only “[a]rt is someone’s name” (242); “K. is an American creation” (243). So it is no question that naming has been usurped. Hijacked. Ours is a world where art and language, much like a true karateka, have a secret agenda, and “[s]ecret agendas ensure that no matter what you say, you really don’t mean it” (274). And we know how to read this poem, because we know the poet doesn’t really mean this. “Contradiction develops in exchange,” we are told. “You can reject a thing and love it too” (120). We are large. We contain multitudes.
It cannot go without mentioning that the anthology also reveals the preoccupations of a culture that too often exempts us from societal accountability: “Try not to spill your margarita” (284); “I am too young to remark on death. / I hope it resembles the view you tear open / with your sword, toy sword, / say it ten times fast” (278). You don’t come away from reading this without the realization that “no one in Iraq or Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia / will ever be privileged enough to go as far into debt as I am” (290). The New Census opens up discourses about race, sexuality, and the neo-capitalist impulse that inform a lot of these preoccupations. This anthology aims to inspire and to complicate a conversation about poetry. About ownership and license. About its complicity in, well, pretty much everything: “We were born in a tangle” (240). How ours is a remix culture distinctly marked by appropriation and recontextualization.
There is something inherently dialogic in these poems and in the tracing of histories through our bodies and skins. The following of threads, the examination of roots. “Uprooted trees / Need gravity so bad / Need gravity so bad” (296). This art is the grafting of new language(s) and texts with the language(s) and texts of others.
Speaking of which, for the first time ever, I’ve encountered the problem of how to deal with this: quotation marks inside quotation marks inside quotation marks. Do you remember the scene in Being John Malkovich when John Malkovich goes inside his own portal? Like that. Would the single mark become a double inside single marks inside of my own double marks? I’ve even seen Inception twice and still can’t figure this out. Thank god for the subsequent paraphrase: “the American, in other words, is a body of migration & encounter” (215).
But these focal points serve a larger purpose, where artistry and skill are still vanguard: “Craft will take us through this wood” (244). “The more complicated things become, / The simpler they are to understand / When explained by someone who already understands them” (190). And so it is the poets who have become the new megaphone, the new loudspeaker. Later that week after hearing “Red Shift” for the first time, Laura told me we were on the verge of a new renaissance. And now I realize: we are it.
What these poets are saying is that we are as old as our language and yet we are young as what we need to say. We rehearse these versions of ourselves: we celebrate our own and everyone else’s birth. Every good line isn’t our own. The world is large. What isn’t ours? Ask who can think of themselves without thinking of Whitman. And who can think of Whitman without thinking of themselves? Contemporary American poetry is big. It is loud and innovative and mutating, and its poets are busy doing the work we need to remember what its like to be here in the first place. What does Whitman have to do with this anyway? Because “I won’t be dying after all, not now, but will go on living dizzily / hereafter in reality, half-deaf to reality, in the room / perfumed by the fire that our inextinguishable will begins” (113).
by Daniel Scott Parker