on The Cosmopolitan, poems by Donna Stonecipher (Coffee House Press)
Donna Stonecipher has published three books since 2002, each preoccupied with how the mind attempts to slip undetected through its own security screening and arrive at meaningful destinations. As tour directors of signification and its frustrations, her poems are both enactments and examples. Her main metaphor is travel – with all the displacement, amazement, certitude and confusion that the metaphor is capable of eliciting in an expert’s hands. The émigré, the visitor, in transit or extending his/her stay, arrives with expectations and pre-wired notions of the “new” and the “different.” Stonecipher attempts to project that moment when multiplicity (in the world and the psyche) gives way to a selective but tentative exactitude, only to collapse under the weight of its own effort at establishing meaning. The Cosmopolitan is one of the most exciting and gratifying books of poems I’ve read this year.
But first, some background. Stonecipher is progressing as a poet, discovering ever more affecting ways of making palpable a fixation with instability, and more finely calibrating the impossible perfect balance between open-ended associations and discrete states of mind for the purpose of giving the reader the experience (or illusion) of a third way. In The Reservoir (University of Georgia, 2002), she employed the prose poem, emphasizing the incompleteness of thought and language, as in “White Mouth”:
I had forgotten all about the star inside the apple, eating my way through orchardsful in the intervening years, years marked by
Who does not judge each heart by halving it from the top instead of scoring delicately around the girth? Still,
If I could fill myself with milk I’d be the old statue weathering in the yard: evangelical, cicatrixed with white roses, the white of
My heart is as sad and wide as the side of a barn, the town drunk said. Anyone can hit it, and quite frequently
But forgiveness is not in the purist’s white apothecary. Skin secretes, a mouth like oil never dries, and desire does not stay inside the lines
The intellectual element of Stonecipher’s writing plays out the excesses of thought and language – but does so with a precision or freshness of phrasing that cuts across the grain of her own urge to speak without conventional intent. The traveler is one who abandons – while insisting that the customs official stamp her passport on the way out. The Reservoir represents the sort of work that gets congratulated more for what it proposes about language and for the mysteries it implies than for the actual pleasure of apprehension it gives the reader, even as the book streams with brilliant oddity and imaginative power. In general The Reservoir too completely achieves its incompleteness, favoring the imposition of its fractured thoughts over summoning thoughts of our own. The assortment is a precocious display – but here Stonecipher seems either disinterested in integrating -- or simply not yet able -- to collect her expressive vectors – another of which is a vibrant narrative and allegorical impulse (unwilling to be overshadowed by the more speculative sections) as heard in the lines below from “The Secret.”
Once upon a time secrets were cheap, easily bought and,
easily spent, moving angelically through the agency
of the mouth, until the day a secret swept up to the lips,
that could not be told, capsizing as it would
everything, so the secret stayed inside, and rose in,
value, until it sank and became
a lake, keeping its decorous hem, contained by law,
more persuasive then the laws
of spilling over…
Next came Souvenir de Constantinople (Instance Press, 2007). Somehow, by employing enjambment with its many abrupt opportunities for decision-making and pause, Stonecipher assembled all this breakage into a complete and resonant take on the portrayal of an entire world and the characters within it – including her speaker. In this book, Stonecipher suddenly emerges as a poet who, as Louise Glück described George Oppen, can create work that is “whole and not final.” The wholeness of speech (still loyal to its love of the leap) embraces and pleases the reader, and the evasion of finality gives the reader something to do. The intimation of rhetorical and narrative structure (Martin Corliss-Smith calls the book “a seductively paced travelogue”) entices the reader into coming along for the ride. This is the first part of “The Postcard-Collector’s Address”:
I know the world
of views. It is said
It is said what is miniature is liberated
from the pretty tyranny
of use. Systematic
of the garden
into flat vials, insect’s
Constantinople, wherever I go
my postcards go
with me. I saw my name
calligraphed on a grain
of rice. I saw the tiara
of spires held
in the pupils’s
I closed up
the postcards in a jewelry
box where they remain
“I know the world / only through / form” takes us directly to The Cosmopolitan, Donna Stonecipher’s stunning third book. Now she returns to prose, reconsidering the topics of Souvenir de Constantinople while dropping the scaffolding of the first-person and the premise of a particular voyage and love affair. The book is populated like a city, with a stream of glimpsed characters – desirous, ambitious, frustrated, meditative, amorous, bemused. They encounter a world striving for integrative form (often through meditations on architecture and urban design) but built on foundations of opposites: beauty/dissolution, pleasure/lassitude, time/moment, symbol/allegory, facts/ideas, invention/inheritance, iconography/realism, experience/aesthetics, freedom of expression/inadequacy of language.
John Yau, who selected the manuscript for the National Poetry Series, says that Stonecipher “has opened up the prose poem so that it is no longer a box in which one pours their little story … the false securities offered by narrative.” Is narrative really a writer’s emergency exit? Certainly not by definition. Anyway, Stonecipher has a more considered view of narrative – as expressed in an interview segment with Camille Guthrie provided by Coffee House Press:
“CG: The poems are full of characters and little stories – narratives which can stand by themselves – and it’s kind of a novel in itself really. Do you see the prose poem here as a bridge between poetry and the novel?
DS: I think of the poems as lyric poems, but maybe narrative was an escape hatch from the rocket of lyric, which is so insistent on its own subjectivity. The characters allowed me to diffuse (and defuse) my own ‘I,’ and the form let me include novelistic observations that make up a significant part of the noise in my mind and would otherwise go homeless.”
She also remarked, “I wanted to avoid the line break. Line breaks are seductive, but for the time being neither they nor the silences at the ends of line breaks feel right. Line breaks feel like cliffs leading to a kind of dangerous euphoria.” Clearly, the poet sensed a need to slow down, extend a thought, and find another device to cut it off. The selected form of her inlays – and the wonderfully complementary book and type design by Coffee House Press – collaborate to deliver a tour de force.
The Cosmopolitan is comprised of 22 “inlays” – Stonecipher’s term for each multi-part story. Each inlay has between eight and fourteen mini-stories, and each mini-story has two or three sentences. “I was at the Met, looking at inlaid furniture, when the idea came to me to ‘inlay’ a poem,” she told Guthrie. The inlay itself is a quotation from another author – Kafka, Ruskin, or Plato, but also Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, or Elfriede Jelinek. “I wanted to very exaggeratedly and artificially call attention to the problem [of attribution] for myself by placing a quote from another author squarely in the center of my text.” The quotations lend themselves to aphorism – but Stonecipher uses them as fuel, not as maps, to travel further.
This is part 5 of “Inlay 19 (Jane Jacobs)”:
”An oasis may or may not be a mirage, said the camel on its knees in the dark caravansaray. Oh the oasis was real, all right, but when we left it we could not have said if the mirage had been in us or if we had been in the mirage. There is a viewfinder through which everything is seen – mirages, and oases, and …”
Each of the inlays’ mini-stories is a speech – a blurting, a passing thought spoken during observation of an entire world. Although the narrative is unconventional, the narrative voice is actually quite consistent. Remarking on characters and fellow travelers who come to cities looking for a place that is both metaphor and playground of metaphor, the unnamed narrator participates in the in-gathering and expiration of thought and perception. I expect The Cosmopolitan will be commended by those who have no patience for anything but the smashing of the so-called standard, established self in American poetry. But in fact, the book enacts the intriguing difficulty with which we all struggle to have and comprehend selves in the first place.
The Cosmopolitan, both mysterious and inevitable like all truly great writing, is both oasis and mirage for the reader. It takes some presumption to assume the role of the cosmopolitan, to pass gorgeously through the swabbed-for-Semtex-and-C4 jetways. The cosmopolitan upholds both a system and a dream. The system offers a lingua franca for all airline pilots, a worldwide striving for on-time arrivals and departures via gleaming concourses. In the dream the cosmopolitan is aloft, gazing down at local color, a consumer of nationalities enacting the privilege of appreciating the various arts, beauties and flavors. This is, we often say, one small globe. But the reader, enticed to travel in Stonecipher’s precisely observed world, becomes the character below in part one of “Inlay 16 (Thomas Bernhard)”:
“He wanted to be a citizen of the world and was crushed to discover that the world fields no citizens as such. So he settled for drifting with the voluptés of the clouds. And that is how he met her on a ship from Spain to Morocco, eating clementines and throwing the perfectly spiraled peels into the sea.”
The cosmopolitan is the one who knows the difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
Two of the central inlaid quotations come from Emerson. The second reads, “… and yet how evanescent and superficial is most of that emotion which names & places, which Art or magnificence can awaken …” Emerson married Ellen Tucker in 1829; she died of tuberculosis in 1831. The next year, Emerson resigned from the ministry, disappointed with the church, and sailed for Europe. The quotation is taken from a letter he wrote from Rome. These details aren’t provided by Stonecipher nor do they add anything to her inlay. But they do suggest to me that Stonecipher is yet another accomplished, progressive American writer in the tradition of the expatriate, the seeker.
This is the fourth part of “Inlay 13 (Thomas Mann)”:
“In February came vacation ads. Figures plunged into blue seas on television screens all over the city. Standing outside the apartment block, she saw all the windows flash and pop at the same time. Somewhere do lie the meccas in which our love finds its proportion – somewhere the ziggurat in which the giant inside us snugly fits.”
In “Language as Gesture” R.P. Blackmur wrote, “The poet is likely to make his purest though not his profoundest gestures when most beside himself. If words fail they must serve just the same. Transformed into gesture, they carry the load, wield the load, lighten the load, and leap beyond the load of meaning.” Beside herself, Stonecipher reaches to the furthest extent of purity, pulling back language just at the point of utter failure, and leaping beyond meaning. Mistrustful of aphorism yet naturally appreciative of its terseness, Stonecipher skirts the edges of profundity. Blackmur defines “gesture” as “our own vital movement,” and Denis Donoghue explicates Blackmur’s phrase to indicate “one’s force beneath and prior to the words with which we try to express it.” The recognition of this force, Stonecipher’s gesture, entirely her own, is the pleasure of this book.
I fear that if I don’t include an example of an entire multi-part inlay, my reader can’t possibly appreciate how Stonecipher creates the subtle connections between her stories and achieves such eloquence – along with some humor, irony, and whimsy. So I’ll conclude with “Inlay 7 (Franz Kafka)”:
He travelled to Japan but he didn’t see any geishas. He travelled to Kenya but he didn’t see any giraffes. When he opened the book, he was surprised to find inside it another book. After a bad night in room 536, the hotel pool swallowed him like a blue mouth swallowing a tiny sleeping pill.
It is hard to rip up a photograph with a face in it. In the tiniest torn-up piece, the face is still intact. The face lies smiling up from the bottom of the wastebasket, and then smiles as it falls out of the garbage truck onto a lawn, and then smiles as it drifts slowly across the city back to your door.
Young people from the less powerful country came over to study the language of the more powerful neighboring country. The questionnaire found that, within a small margin of error, such-and-such percentage of women prefer to be on their knees while performing such-and-such sexual acts.
She felt like crying when she read in the paper that déjà vu was a chemical reaction in the body and not a magical window into existences previous and future at all. The oval mirror hanging by a black ribbon above the mantel reflected part of the dark sofa and the little light-bomb of the lamp.
The Russian exile with blue eyes admitted — not without a certain pride — that he had an accent in every language: A Russian accent speaking German, a German accent speaking Russian, an indeterminate accent speaking English, and an English accent when speaking indeterminately.
The language liquefaction. Sexy attempts at traction. A smattering of satisfaction. He held the word up to the light like a spectacularly faceted chit. She wondered if it were true what she had read, that when one speaks a foreign language, one becomes, briefly, an exemplar of that foreign tongue.
“What you say sounds reasonable enough,” said the man, “but I refuse
to be bribed. I am here to whip people, and whip them I shall.”
The silent majority stared hard at the vocal minority. More and more, there were eyes closing as velvet curtains descended upon screens. More and more, there were hands turning on electric lights in the daytime. More and more, there were cosmopolitans carefully examining tropical flowers in the dark.
The young people from the less powerful country did not stop to admire the complicated beauty of their new language’s intricate grammar. They made neat vocabulary lists in cheap notebooks, and in their own language made fun of the professor’s hair, glasses, clothing, shoes, and laugh.
In Paris the American girl speaking French began almost imperceptibly to bat her eyelashes. In St. Paul the German boy speaking English had the urge to fill silences almost before they began. One of the most marvelous memories of her life, she said, was of having déjà vu of having had déjà vu.
He travelled to France but he didn’t see any existentialists. He travelled to Italy but he didn’t see dolce far niente. He travelled to China but he didn’t see any panda bears. He traveled to California but he didn’t see any surfers. Nevertheless his shell collection, with every vacation, grew.
[Published September 2008, 88 pages, $16.00 paperback.]