It seems somewhere along the way, the great American experiment went wrong. So here we are now at what feels like the end of the empire and all the hopes for this nation — its ideas of democracy and equality —have never been realized and ultimately seem wasted. Becca Klaver‘s second full-length collection of poetry, Empire Wasted (a pun on empire waist dresses) taps into the current zeitgeist, capturing the mood of a lost generation of thirty-somethings as they drift through the American landscape guided by an anchorless yearning for something they’ve never experienced, for something that has yet to be invented.
Divided into five sections that could function as stand alone chapbooks, Empire Wasted opens with a nod to Andy Warhol. In “Death & Disasters Series,” Klaver turns her discerning eye to the disasters of the day as relayed by the media, just as Warhol did in his series of the same title. Of course, in this era we can watch disasters as they unfold by scrolling down computer screens and cellphones, one tweet at a time. Two poems in this section pull their language directly from Twitter, complete with text speak, misspelled words, and irregular capitalization and punctuation. “’We Got Him’” compiles reactions to the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death and “Derailed” compiles tweets by media organizations at Former Congressman Patrick Murphy following the Philadelphia Amtrak derailment:
Glad you are okay. Looking to see if Fox News and affiliates can get permission to use your photo.
CBS News here can we have permission to use this photo? we will credit, Hope all are okay!
glad you’re ok & helping Mr. Murphy. May 6abc/WPVI-TV & its licensees use your photos without limitation in all media?
Glad you’re OK. Do you mind if United Press International uses your photos across all platforms with credit? Thanks.
yo pat this picture is rad as fuck this is ron over at buzzfeed please add me on instagram if I can profit from ur pain
Klaver cleverly eviscerates the tragedy-as-entertainment industry through this isolation of tweets whose repeated hollowness of “glad you’re okay”s serve as an ugly reminder of what is lost when news companies race to be first rather than right or even humane.
The state of America seems to lie at the center of this book, which was written before the 2016 Presidential election, but foresaw what was to come, as if Klaver consulted a Magic 8-Ball and received the message, “Outlook not so good.” “Decade Zero,” a lengthy poem in the center of the collection, serves almost as a “Wasteland” for Klaver’s generation. However, unlike T.S. Eliot, Klaver is not condemning those around her. Yet she does capture a particular sense of the time –– a generation stalled and directionless, composed of people who are “underused / underemployed / underimagined.” The poem, set in a “mourning metropolis of lassitude,” i.e. New York City, explores the first decade of the 21st century, which she refers to as “a decade of zeroes / but we never gave it a name.” The poem explores nostalgia and yearning while searching for a new slacker hero; instead of Eliot’s Fisher King, Klaver asks for Ethan Hawke in the 1994 film Reality Bites:
last of the postwar
Now our heroes have to care
even less than that
The poem concludes with a long litany–or perhaps dirge–declaring “the 90s will be the last nostalgia” with the final line stating, “we’re done feeling that way,” as if nothing authentic can be experienced or felt now.
However, the collection is not all doom and gloom. It includes a number of fun and experimental works: there are list poems of discontinued motion picture products and what was on television the night before it went digital; a Mad Libs-style poem with the blanks filled in with corporation names and trademarked products (“B®and Loyalty”); celebrations of movies (“Leo as Gatsby”); a New York School-style elegy (“The Day Farrah Died”); and formal experimentation using Brion Gysin’s permutation method (“Everything Changed in a Flash”). A sonnet, “Across from Clark Street Station,” which mentions male influences on the author, seems more likely inspired by Bernadette Mayer. There’s a subtlety to much of the work in Empire Wasted as the poems seamlessly shift between seriousness and humor. In “My Twentieth Century,” Klaver asks, “how could we / ever make anything / new again,” and, tongue-in-cheek, she continues, “but I’ve stuck around this long / because I heart art.”
Klaver’s previous collection, LA Liminal, was centered on Los Angeles, but Empire Wasted is a very New York book, with brief stops through the Midwest on a cross-country drive. The city serves as a backdrop, as does September 11th, the 2003 blackout, and the rising of the Freedom Tower. One short poem, “The New York Miracle,” effectively serves as a reminder that despite everything we must go on. It reads in its entirety:
in spite of all
that stops you
in your tracks
you trudge along
New York also looms large in the book’s influences. Throughout the book there are lines pulled from Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Alice Notley, and others. The concluding section is named for Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. A strength of the work is that it is not necessary to get all of the references to still find pleasure in the poems. However, Klaver does include a list of notes in the back for readers who may want to dig deeper.
With her first collection, Klaver captured the life of a twenty-something coming to terms with the idea that things don’t turn out how you hope they will. Even in her new collection, the speaker acknowledges the lost dreams of the past: “once you have been west / and know the west is not worth dying for.” Her voice has a greater maturity in Empire Wasted, a greater sense of the knowledge gained from life experience. And while there is still a sense of directionless and longing, there’s also a commitment to the present: as the speaker in “Bogo” says, “grind down your heels / in the here-now available dirt.” While the empire seems at its end, the people are still here. Despite everything, we must trudge along. We must resist. We must persist.