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“The Ruins of Nostalgia 20” on the writer’s desk (all images courtesy of Donna Stonecipher)

In 2007, when I was asked to be one of judges of the National Poetry Series, I selected The Cosmopolitan by Donna Stonecipher. Coffee House Press published it the following year. Reviewing the book on his website, On The Seawall (October 23, 2008), Ron Slate wrote: “The Cosmopolitan is one of the most exciting and gratifying books of poems I’ve read this year.” This is how he described the book:

The Cosmopolitan is comprised of 22 “inlays” — Stonecipher’s term for each multipart 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 [Camille] Guthrie. The inlay itself is a quotation from another author — Kafka, Ruskin, or Plato, but also Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, or Elfried Jelinek. “I wanted to very exaggeratedly and artificially call attention to the problem [of attribution] for myself by pacing 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 from “Inlay 4 (Susan Sontag)”:

Pity we who must corset our mental splendor into the whalebone of grammar, which laces us up so tight we have to remove a rib to breathe.

Stonecipher’s ability to synthesize the visceral (corset), the ephemeral (splendor), and the abstract (grammar) into a self-sufficient sentence set her apart from her contemporaries: this was neither a style that could be picked up nor writing that could be taught. Whatever her sources or inspirations, she got here on her own.

Since my first encounter with Stonecipher’s poems in a pile of anonymously submitted manuscripts, I have published her translation of the novella, Ascent, by Ludwig Hohl through my press, Black Square Editions, in 2012. Written in German, Ascent is about a mountain climbing expedition that goes all wrong, a tragedy foreshadowed in the book’s remarkable first paragraph. And yet, knowing that doom lies ahead, the reader keeps chugging along until reaching an end that is expected and unexpected. Stonecipher’s deft translation revealed Hohl to be, as Susan Bernofsky wrote in a jacket blurb, “a great discovery, an unjustly neglected author.”

In 2015, I wrote about her book of prose poems, Model City (Shearsman, 2015) under the title: “This Is Not a Book Review of Model City by Donna Stonecipher.” This is my description of Model City:

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.”

However, just because I am not supposed to review a book by an author whose translation I have published does not mean I cannot plug a book she has neither finished nor found a publisher for, does it? Am I really supposed to curb my enthusiasm for an author whose work I was lucky enough to have discovered in a mountain of submissions?

Donna Stonecipher (photo: Rainer Gering)

By the time Stonecipher published Model City, it was apparent to a number of readers that she was renovating the prose poem in ways that opened it up, like a bursting star, enabling her to go in multiple directions and muse on just about anything. The prose poem in her hands can be a dream catcher, a travelogue, a report, an archive, a series of aphorisms, a contemplation of modernity, often simultaneously. As she titled three of the 24 chapters in her long essay, Prose Poetry and the City (Parlor Press, 2017), it can embrace “Trivia,” “Aphasia,” and “The Sublime.”

My feeling that Stonecipher has become a major poet, an innovator who writes in concise, sparkling language, was emphatically reinforced when I recently heard her read in Berlin from an unfinished manuscript, The Ruins of Nostalgia, which consists of more than 65 prose poems and does not yet have a publisher. The reading took place in a courtyard and the other readers were Barry Schwabsky, Matvei Yakelevich, and myself. In addition to publishing Stonecipher’s translation, I have published books by Schwabsky and Yankelevich.

Siddartha Lokanandi organized the reading at his bookstore, Hopscotch Reading Room, where, in addition to encountering a wide range of books, whose haphazard arrangement makes for surprises and delights, you can also buy beer and other spirits long after the sun has departed. Although this was the first time I met Lokanandi, it was quickly apparent that he was interested in building connections and creating a borderless, multi-racial community, which isn’t always the case among poets or the avant-garde.

Each of us read for 15 to 20 minutes as night slowly moved in. At the beginning of his segment, Yankelevich expressed amazement and happiness at the size of the audience, which was far larger than many of the readings he attended in New York.

By the time Stonecipher finished reading four poems from the unfinished manuscript, I knew that I wanted to write about them and that I did not want to wait until the book was published to do so, as this could take years and it clearly shouldn’t. Also, at the time I did not know that Stonecipher had a book forthcoming, Transaction Histories, which is due to be released by the University of Iowa Press on September 18, 2018. I found it interesting that she neither announced her forthcoming book nor read from it, perhaps because she had done a reading a few weeks earlier at Hopscotch Reading Room and resists repeating herself (which makes for an interesting contrast with her use of repetition in her poetry — just one of many things I find compelling about her work).

According to the publisher, Transaction Histories consists of “six series of poems that explore the disobedient incongruities of aesthetics and emotions.”  I don’t think this description is going to lure a lot of readers. Like the “inlays” of The Cosmopolitan, the poems I have read from Transaction Histories are a series of mini-stories, each of which is numbered and made up of a half dozen sentences, at most. While each story is discrete, certain motifs reappear (plastic owls, photographs of boys in sailor suits, specimen boxes, and a clear plastic backpack) within a particular “Transaction History.” Often, more than one motif will appear in different sections of the same poem. The sentences of each section stand on their own, suggesting a collage without being one.

This is the seventh section of “Transaction History 6,” which appeared in issue # 11 of the online magazine Wave Composition:

It was all too easy to swim in the lake that summer without thinking about the fish chasing smaller fish chasing smaller fish along the bottom, to glide along the surface with one’s distorted limbs and feel that one was “deeply experiencing” the lake. He pulled out the tiniest cell phone she’d ever seen. Bitter Lemon was the drink of choice; then there was a craze for homemade seltzer; then suddenly everyone had to have absinthe.

This is what I love about Stonecipher’s work. You never know what the next sentence is going to tell. The connections between the sentences feel both tenuous and tensile. You don’t just read this paragraph; you reread it and take it apart, your curiosity driven by the desire to see what makes it tick.

In poem after poem, Stonecipher opens up a space in which readers can reflect upon what has been placed before them – a mosaic that is rigorous and elusive, a challenge to keep the whole in mind while remembering all the distinct elements, to recognize the different transactions or exchanges in the fluid world she evokes with preternatural precision. Stonecipher seems to be asking in this paragraph, what is the relationship between experience and folly, familiarity and escape?

At once detached and empathetic, Stonecipher observes, uncovers, and probes our present malaise, the recognition that the future and past are constantly colliding in our everyday lives, shadowed by the suspicion that such encounters may erase all evidence of our existence. The information explosion, with the vast access offered by the digital tentacles at our fingertips, has made us acutely aware of how truly insignificant we are as individuals in the grand scheme of things. Stonecipher’s poems are located in cities undergoing relentless change, as all of them seem to be doing these days. The phrase “ruins of nostalgia” appears in each of the poems, usually at the beginning or at the end. If wistful affection for a golden age in our collective and personal past lies in ruins, how do we embrace the future that will eventually devour us? Can we continue to be open and compassionate? Here is the beginning of “The Ruins of Nostalgia 9”:

For a long time we had listened to the stories of those who had lived in countries that no longer existed, and the stories had been exciting—stories of privation, of deprivation, of limits, of lack. But after a time we had heard the same stories so many times that even the tellers grew weary of the telling. “Nobody had telephones—we just left messages on notepads attached to people’s doors” (mm). “I wasn’t allowed to go to university, because I did x (harmless thing)” (mm). “Everyone was having affairs, because the private life was the only realm in which you felt free” (mm).

That parenthetical interjection “(mm)” adds a note of humor as it exposes the need to distance ourselves from others in order to maintain our privileged status of voyeur, which we have become, whether we admit it or not. Stonecipher is in touch with the different ways we feel displaced and estranged in our everyday lives, the various states of incomprehension infiltrating all of our perceptions.

How do we adjust to the structural changes cities are undergoing due to gentrification and capitalism’s demand for ever higher profit margins, as if the importance of people is measured by how much they spend? Here is the beginning of “The Ruins of Nostalgia 20”:

Where there once had been a low-end stationery store minded by an elderly beauty queen, there was now a store for high-end espresso machines minded by nobody. Where once there had been an illegal beer garden in a weedy lot, there was now a complex of luxury lofts with Parisian-style ivory façades. Where once there had been a bookstore and a bike shop and a bakery, there was now a wax museum for tourists.

This is “The Ruins of Nostalgia 50” in its entirety:

The Ruins of Nostalgia 50

The oldest house in the neighborhood is for sale. The oldest house in the neighborhood, owned by the state garden club, has been put up for sale. Queen Anne-style, with leaded-glass windows, and a turret, the house has been put up for sale by the state garden club, to whom it was bequeathed, in 1977, by the ladies’ improvement club. The bequeathal included a clause that included the stipulation that the Queen-Anne-style house, and its pear orchards, be preserved by the state garden club “forever.” Nevertheless, the state garden club has put up the oldest house in the neighborhood for sale. The house is, was, is, no longer listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The garden club went to court to ask for a lifting of the listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Because the upkeep of the oldest house in the neighborhood, with its leaded-glass windows, and its pear orchards, and its historic-ness, is onerous. For forty years the garden club tended its pear orchards, and its garden, and intended to preserve its pears and its leaded-glass windows and its turret “forever.” Forever? Forever. Forever? Forever. Pears are preserved into preserves. A historic place is preserved into a Historic Place. A tower slurs into a turret. The oldest house in the neighborhood, with its leaded-glass windows and its garden, sits on a lot that could contain an apartment building with “30 to 40 units” in a city with a crippling housing shortage. But the house was bequeathed “forever.” But the house, the house, with its leaded-glass windows and its garden, its 135 years of existence. Its 135 years of pears. Its preservation. But the “30 to 40 units.” The court allowed the listing to be lifted because the ladies’ improvement club was dissolved in 1983, and no ladies were left to protest it. But a lady from the state garden club board did resign in protest, an 88-year-old lady named Lona. But Lona. But the 30 to 40 units. But the pear orchards. But the new families. But the leaded glass. But the ladies, improving and improving. But the Queen-Anne-style house. But the obsolescence of queens. But the history, the Historic Place. But the city’s crippling housing shortage—the homeless people lining the freeways. But the stories the house could tell, if it could tell. But Lona. But the neighborhood groups now scrambling to buy the house. What are they trying to preserve? The house, the past, the old neighborhood, the historic place, history? And Lona? But Lona. But the house—the large, old, antiquated, elegant, beloved, hated, fragile-as-an-eggshell house, which escaped fire, earthquakes, the ravages of time, of everything except “prosperity.” Built 135 years ago for shelter, will the shelter now be sheltered? But the 30 to 40 units. But Lona. But Lona. But the pear orchard, the garden, the turret, the leaded glass, the house, the house.

In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Charles Baudelaire recognized that the borders separating (and protecting) classes and individuals had broken down:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes. For him alone, all is open; if certain places seem closed to him, it is because in his view they are not worth inspecting.

Stonecipher’s renovation of the prose poem is inextricable from her sensitivity to how much further erosion has taken place since Baudelaire walked the streets of Paris. In this global economy, and the growing, insurmountable disparity between the privileged and vulnerable, she watches a world vanish and does not turn away from the particulars, “the obsolescence of queens,” “a crippling housing shortage,” “new families,” and “the homeless lining the freeways.”

“The Ruins of Nostalgia 50” appears in full with the permission of the author.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...