I want to begin by stating this is not a review of a Model City (Shearsman, 2015), a book of poems that I recently read. The author is Donna Stonecipher, an American poet and translator who has lived in Berlin for some years. I am unable to review a book by this poet because, in 2008, I selected her manuscript, The Cosmopolitan, to be published by Coffee House Press in the National Poetry Series. I had not met Stonecipher before I chose her manuscript and I was not familiar with her work. She was a stranger to me. Since then, we have met maybe three or four times, always in Berlin, where my wife, Eve Aschheim, exhibits her paintings and drawings. In 2012, I published Stonecipher’s translation of Ascent by Ludwig Hohl.
Ever since I came across Stonecipher’s work while judging a poetry competition, I have been a loyal reader. I don’t know where I might come across her work, as she never tells me when it will appear. We do not communicate regularly by email, do not exchange gossip or even pleasantries. I cannot remember how I found out about Model City, but I bought a copy as soon I did. I have no idea which poets are friends with Stonecipher or what literary scene or circle she might belong to. I have no sense of her biography or where she went to school, or what, or whom she studied. I am quite content to keep it that way.
The book consists of seventy-two consecutively numbered short prose poems collectively titled “Model City.” Each prose poem is divided into four sections, with each section being one sentence long. This adds up to 288 sections, each of which answers the question: What was it like? The antecedent becomes a dream, a memory, a fiction, or a perception, all of which are inflected by the fact that the poet’s decision to begin every section begins with, “It was like … ” Out this conceptual scaffolding, where the writing is always responding to an absent thing or event, Stonecipher opens up her “Model City” to admit all kinds of stuff, from a “real fox” to “a new opera house built in China by Zaha Hadid, and how it is beginning to crumble after having been open for six months.”
In his groundbreaking essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire described the perfect flaneur:
To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world–such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.
There are many pleasures in Model City, many perceptions to ponder. In the postmodern world, the estrangement is not only from the crowd, but from “wondering if any writers or scientists are sitting in Starbucks or Balzac or Einstein adding to the world’s storehouse of knowledge as they sip fair-trade dark roasted liquid global capital in cups … ” and “the vacant body you offer to your loved one.” We are implicated in everything we do, but we might not wish to reflect upon that. Stonecipher does, and Model City is shot through with harrowing beauty.
In Model City, Stonecipher transforms Baudelaire’s 19th-century male figure of the flaneur, the first walker and observer of the city, into a 21st-century witness and participant who wants “to at least snatch a shard of glass with which to pierce the beautiful finite experience, pierce it to infinity.” Model City is a book to read and reread, to return to, and to use as a guide to our own responses to that oft asked question: What was it like?