Nina Budabin McQuown
New York, NY: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017. 90 pages. $15.99.
“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” wrote Hopkins. He was depressed, and so am I, and so is almost everyone I know in the course of these postelection, preapocalypse days. So if Jeffrey Schultz’s Civil Twilight starts at dawn, waking up to gentrification and police brutality, has its coffee with climate change, and just gets darker from there, that won’t surprise you. The grinding bleakness of this collection, however, comes across less as defeatist misery and more like a brave and accurate reflection of one way it feels to be alive in 2017: the whole idea of the future imperiled, naming and naming the brutal realities of life only to have those names soften in our mouths as “something / We’ll build up a reasonable tolerance for, we being endlessly adaptable things.”
Civil Twilight is a poetry collection where the rays of sunshine come not from a poetic invocation of hope (“hope is a thing that falters”) but from the prismatic splendor of Schultz’s description of the horror and absurdity of American life.
In witness whereof God’s long-form birth certificate is tattooed in cuneiform
On the eyewall of the hurricane and the rising tide’s inside-bottom lip,
And in that strict sense can be said to have been released to the public.
Lines are long in this collection—reaching toward epic and almost into prose but for the stanzaic structures, the abundant internal rhyme, and the fruitful schisms between ideas. Ideas mull and pace in these poems, undermining the forward momentum of narrative but not of thought. The poet is trying to follow a line of reasoning, to understand what it means to have a self in the situation of twenty-first-century capitalism, globalism, state surveillance, and endless war. Essentially, these poems seem to argue, having a self means recognizing the selfhood of others, understanding that
the pelican drenched in crude and not yet dead,
No matter how statuesque she looks, no matter how bronzed,
Was not posing for the photographer, not loving the attention, not hoping
To make the cover.
But empathy is just as limited as aestheticism. The pelican’s beautifully framed image is mostly good for dressing up “this stack of unsorted mail. Who could / Attend to it all?” Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Schultz seems to be searching for a god, or some other overseer, capable of getting beyond empathy to action for every injustice. Someone who might attend to it all.
God in Civil Twilight, though, mostly comes off as a crooked bureaucrat, less important in this world of bad actors than our real-life rotten politicians. If there’s epic machinery here, it’s acting in support of its own obscure narrative. Instead of epic language, Schultz ends up tangling the lexicons of law and the body, politics and desire: “You, your dumb arms outstretched, your hands cupped around your FICO score.” He ends up naming names—Ronald Reagan’s loudly among them—but the most pointed critique here is still for identity itself, the way it fails to extend itself, so that others stay other, and the I will do anything to protect its imagined coherence: “the calm refinement of civility, / A feeling that the worst of things happen beyond the bounds of us.”
“The bounds of us” is the subject of Civil Twilight, both the boundaries of the self and the fleshly boundary of the body. Central to the collection is the image of a fallen baby bird, the “ghost of a sparrow / Or wren or mockingbird or jay that neither we nor it recognized as a ghost” because “It still seemed to be in its body and not just a memory of itself.” That distinction between an abstract suffering other and an embodied, suffering, and specific other with a self as real as ours means everything to Schultz. It’s by abstracting the body of the other that “the industrious among us” come to recognize the dead as “an ur-form of profit.” So even if the self isn’t real, other people have to be. To “move beyond the body’s bounds entirely,” Schultz laments, is to destroy the idea of humanity from which the self gets whatever power it has: “As if the things that link us together could not, at last, stand even to be in us.” This “at last,” the idea of a past in which we could and did recognize our sameness persists throughout the book. The underside of Schultz’s sincere exploration of how bad things are is his sometimes naïve assumption that they were once much better. The poet grieves hard for a time in which hope was a reasonable position, at least for him. So hard, indeed, that at times this speaker seems to miss the way that nostalgia itself is a privilege accorded only to some, as many people of color have pointed out to sad white friends and compatriots who have only just begun to feel vulnerable to the dissolution of the American ideal.
Refracting the vision of the surveillance state, raging out from within a selfhood recognizing its own insignificance in the eyes of murderous power, Civil Twilight is life flashing before the eyes of a naked baby bird on the sidewalk, or a mouse palpitating in a cat’s mouth, or a half-smashed fly. Everything was fine, it says to this world, until I met you. And if these poems manifestly bear up empty hands open, not knowing what to do, or how to resolve what they invoke, if they sometimes make themselves ridiculous with longing for “an apple crate which may never have existed / And certainly hasn’t existed for a very long time” when every urban farmer’s market is full of apple crates, and they don’t solve a thing, then these are nevertheless good, honest poems. They get up every day, they do their jobs. That is, they do one of the things that poetry must do now, the work of trying “in a way that’s beginning, you think, to look desperate, or worse,” to say what it’s like to be one kind of human.