From time to time my Facebook feed starts chasing its tail over an inflammatory literary diagnosis: is contemporary fiction terrible? are MFA programs ruining poetry? In expansive moods, I can appreciate all opinions for the same reason that I can appreciate all advice, even obnoxious kinds—I like what they reveal about the person writing, about one’s perspective, what moves one to speak, and I admit that some days I’m forlorn enough to appreciate anyone’s faith that sharing an idea can matter.
And I do understand the temptation toward taxonomy and thesis that comes with loving literature too much; haven’t I often railed vaguely against some “trend” that turns out to be a description of my own narrow reading?
But then I look at the reviews we have recently published in KROnline—in poetry, of authors including Heather Christle, Tom Sleigh, Lucia Perillo—and I look at the stacks of recent releases by my desk that we will never be able to review, each book a life, or a portion of a life, each the time and investment of a press. And I decide that instead of adding my flailing to the scrum of opinions, I’ll write an immoderate number of brief poetry reviews this April and post them on the Kenyon Review Blog.
There are people who lament the number of poetry collections published each year, and while I know that a bistro with a small menu is usually better than a buffet, I don’t think the problem is poetry’s abundance but the exhaustion some feel in the face of it; perhaps a more serious problem is our feeling of exhaustion, rather than exhilaration, when faced with abundance. But I get this exhaustion—though I work as a Book Review Editor and a professor, read poetry every day, frequently travel to give readings and talk about poetry, I’m continually surprised by the books I haven’t heard of (how’d I go so long without reading Brenda Coultas’ A Handmade Museum? Gustaf Sobin? Etel Adnan? Frank X. Gaspar?). I hope these April reviews bring good attention to some recent books I’ve enjoyed. (If they don’t cover enough, let me point you toward Seth Abramson’s excellent and energetic series of reviews at The Huffington Post.)
Social media helped spark these thoughts, and though the comparison might seem facile, I’m aware that my thinking about the US’s troubling drone program—that is, the global consciousness one needs to think about drones—has also been influenced by how faces cycle through my Facebook feed like slot machine fruit. Jena Osman’s most recent book, Public Figures (Wesleyan, 2012) forges a similar link between international surveillance and domestic observation: transcriptions of drone pilots’ talk appear at the bottom of most pages (“roger that ok front of the mosque there are three / vehicles do you see that”), while the body of the text uses poetry, prose, and photography to chart Osman’s investigation of public statuary in Philadephia. The essayistic concept at the heart of the book is brilliant:
“Photograph the figurative statues that populate your city. Then bring the camera to their eyes (find a way) and shoot their points of view. What does such a figure see?
“To see the sigh of sighted stone you activate the idea.”
In contrasting the seemingly airy removal of current war with the rooted (but often passed-by) figures from past wars, in aligning the perspective of a camera with the perspective of a gun (“find a way,” the first heave), Osman activates more than a simple idea; she shows that a history determined by wars is also determined by our history of forgetting them, of absorbing harrowing battles into a daily landscape. One is nevertheless marked by the encounters, and, Osman ventures, so are the monuments. “Erected in 1884 and located on the north side of Philadelphia’s City Hall,” Osman writes under two photographs, “this statue of Major John Fulton Reynolds was the city’s first equestrian statue and first public monument in honor of a Civil War soldier.” Following an image of a leafy tree, Osman performs an act of empathetic witnessing on behalf of the statue:
“Reynolds was very well respected, but his career had few successes. For instance, once after two long days of battle, he fell asleep under a tree and was taken prisoner for six weeks. Was that tree like this tree? Is Reynolds being forced to look at an emblem of what was perhaps his greatest embarrassment? You’d like to get back in the air.”
Like the best documentary work, Public Figures answers the hand-wringing question of “how can art be political” rather simply: you make it about the world. As in the passage quoted above, the playfully intent moments of Osman’s guidebook (there are some fantastic pages in which Osman diagrams the intersecting gazes of several martial statues) enliven one’s historical imagination, while also revealing a “you” that moves in our shared present. At once a subject of surveillance and a stand-in for a reader’s experience—the site both of predatory observation and of identification—this “you” refers to a soldier in action as much as it does to a citizen of the city. Thus, Osman shows the effort of civilians to understand the experiences of war, an effort that can include feeling that all aspects of daily life are touched by war’s distance, and the effort of veterans and soldiers to retain any distance from war:
“Sometimes on the job you imagine yourself as a chess piece. You report your coordinates then receive a new set for the day. You are the knight. You are the rook. You are the shah….The phone rings, you pick it up, you say hello. You look into the camera and follow the instruction to look like you know what you’re doing. Focus on a street sign, a brick wall. A thing among things.”
That passage faces a page documenting the peripheral vision of a statue of Don Quixote. In Quixote—a “character who saw windmills as oppressive giants or evil enchanters and became a national symbol,” whose statue now beholds the commercial fantasies of billboards—Osman finds a capacious figure, but her related photographs share the starkness you can see in Yevgeniy Fiks’ Moscow (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013). Through pictures of sites in Moscow that have been central to the queer community, Moscow attempts to “restore the dignity of [queer Soviet subjects’] connection to the city and add their histories to its collective history, in order to counteract their marginalization.” The result, Fiks says in the introduction, is “a monument of the queer Moscow of the past,” which becomes “a counter-monument.” By showing only depopulated sites (“empty, sterilized”), the book hopes to “reject the commodification of desire and the practice of making a spectacle out of human sexuality.”
Fiks’ introduction goes on to offer a concise history of queer subculture in the Soviet era, claiming that “homosexual activity in front of the monument to Karl Marx on Sverdlov Square” and at other sites “tore the fabric” of a political culture that had “betrayed its promise of a dignified existence” for its subjects. The photographs that follow—of public toilets, gardens, tree-lined boulevards—are subdued in a way that, yes, lets one witness each place on its own terms but that also invites a reader to imagine herself standing alone at the site. Here I am in Pushkin Square in the 1970s. Here I am at the door of the Sanduny Baths. The photographs don’t go inside; the baths are granted a respectable autonomy that a more oafish regard for sexuality would obscure.
Moscow concludes with a letter that Harry Whyte, “a British Communist living in Moscow and editor of the English-language newspaper Moscow News,” wrote to Stalin in 1934, arguing for the place of homosexuality in a Marxist-Leninist framework. Whyte’s commonsense discussion of desire’s relation to capitalism and his plea that “the existence” of homosexuality “is not a threat to a society,” even though the laws related to it have “provoked the most various and contradictory interpretations,” often, sadly, could be as relevantly addressed to those who oppose marriage equality today as they are to Stalin.
It’s an interesting book, and one that helps remind me that although some days, in moments, I’m livid about publishing! awards! MFA programs (actually, I love MFA programs!)! smug literary culture! at most moments—given drones, given debates about marriage, not to mention life’s famous brevity—I’m heartened by the books that presses like Ugly Duckling and Wesleyan are helping to make exist, and I want to read more.