On Together and by Ourselves by Alex Dimitrov

Will Frazier

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017. 96 pages. $16.00.

In Alex Dimitrov’s second book, Together and by Ourselves, the poems are nowhere and everywhere. As they move throughout time, across America, in and out of a solitary and collective past and present, the central drama of any scene is displaced. Narrative fragments haunt Dimitrov’s world, though it’s all before or after, all too soon or too late. He offers a poetry of edges. Before the “more obvious ending,” we’ve “somehow come up to the roof.” Or it’s the “fast hour after parties, / when alone and driving back late” we’re left with; “whatever has been said or done / still playing sharply in the mind.” We see the speakers “in stairwells, hotel rooms, the cars, or these bars.” We’re in LA speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway. We’re back in New York; it’s Columbus Circle at midnight. We’re somewhere in between in the air above.

Dimitrov’s poetry obscures the threshold between public and private spaces. Take these lines from “You Were Blond Once,” the book’s precursory poem: “they sat in the back of the restaurant / so he could be upset privately and in public.” This intimacy requires being seen, though partially so, in a corner of the public sphere. “You Were Blond Once” establishes another important code for the book with frequent shifts in pronouns and point of view. The poem begins in the first person and almost immediately switches to the third: “I have a photograph . . . / when I describe it, you’ll know. / On a long train ride they sat and said nothing.” These changes in perspective frame the figures of each scene, and they enact the various ways we contain and recall memories as the I or as the third-person narrator of the story we tell ourselves. Their abruptness highlights our fault in believing any part of this—memory or our perception of it—is stagnant.

Many of these lines are end-stopped, and, with the period in sight, accelerate the reader toward an ending. But Dimitrov’s pronoun, temporal, and syntactical shifts work against the structural momentum of his lines. The resulting tension offers poetry that invites the reader to linger rather than to arrive, as in this moment in “Champagne,” when the speakers says, “There is fog by the bed and house weather I live in. / Then by dawn I’m a fold in the fabric’s small play. / Believe me, he said, every hand finds the right door without keys. / A neck in a low blouse. / So tempting. Now raining.” The first two lines operate in the same space, while the third line’s shift in perspective reads like a moment suddenly remembered and recasts everything in memory’s glow. Sentences break into fragments that still occupy whole lines. The weather underscores or transforms into what possesses the speaker. One minor detail becomes a feeling entirely.

In his essay “Foliage,” Carl Phillips, when speaking about his own work, claims to know, “full well that many of [his] poems are composed of the more resonant experiential leftovers of incidents, not the incidents themselves, but what flashes off of them, stirring memory, provoking questions.” He reminds us that “poetry is, after all, the transformation of experience, not the transcription of it.” Dimitrov’s poetry, though stylistically different from the syntactic muscularity of Phillips’s work, operates on the same emotional register with scenes composed from those resonant, experiential flashes. His poems smartly bear the guise of transcription (long, end-stopped lines filling entire pages), but their effect is always transformative, due in part to his deft, almost cinematic, sense of rhythm. Consider the ending of “Always,” which reads like a succession of spliced film shots:

I gave my life a real nice show.
And then you went away so I could see you
as graffiti in a bar just once.
A man is stepping on the moon.
The earth or your one life is gone.
The phone rings in your leaving.
Let your black hair, let your black hair
get in my way always.

The lens refocuses from micro to macro, from immediate and interpersonal to elsewhere and removed, where either way, “The earth or your one life is gone.” Death is inevitable; the phone rings, and it won’t be answered. That final, incantatory phrase is located out of the time of the poem; deeply intimate, it blooms from memory, and sonically, its repetition enacts the disruption it desires. The poem’s last word is also its title, a gorgeously precise gesture that directs the music of those final two lines back across the entire piece.

Lindsay Lohan crashes her car in 2007, and for months and then years, it seems we cannot look away. While a paparazzo’s camera would relish a photograph of Lohan in the height of any part of the story’s drama—her visage through the windshield, the afterwards mug shot—the lens of Dimitrov’s poem “Lindsay Lohan” rarely faces her directly, and when it does, it prizes, “Her arm . . . full of bracelets, one of which, she said, had been given to her by S.” When the poem observes that, “All day the water endlessly filters so it’s not the same pool,” we perhaps imagine this subtle, profound image of time passing at Chateau Marmont, where Lohan once left an unpaid bill in the tens of thousands of dollars for a month-long stay. No other recent figure, whose rise and ruin was so ruthlessly visible, could add as much resonance to reckoning with the emotional cost of our private and public lives as her presence does in these lines, “And sometimes I think: I’m at this dinner forever. / It’s like home. I don’t leave without paying something.” As Dimitrov applies his poetics of displacement to Lohan, he creates a space for crucial questions to arise. Where can we find our private life and what does it cost? What do we pay by making ourselves visible to others? Now, especially, where is the difference, and when is there a choice?

While a glance at the titles of these poems, grouped in any of the book’s five sections, may seem to clue us into Dimitrov’s flood of subjects—America and its lineage of fame, city life, strangers—these concerns work most often as backdrops, against which he cultivates and burrows his honest, bruised intimacy. These poems remind us that life happens most often in between what is easy to name—“a marriage, a new city.” By locating what is desired, refused, remembered, or forgotten “by some door or window in the front or back,” Dimitrov speaks to any reader who has, however shamefully, felt numb in some seemingly momentous occasion or has felt more than they can bear simply “walking, going nowhere.” Dimitrov’s precise vision compels us to reconsider both our indifference and our sincerity; the paradoxes of making art, of being alive as our public and private selves, are quietly aflame in these poems, and we cannot look away.

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