13 July 2012

How We Saved The City

Poems in praise of a city are nothing new to American literature. William Carlos Williams immortalized suburban New Jersey with Paterson, and Charles Olson did the same for Gloucester, Massachusetts with The Maximus Poems. But, according to the latter of these two men, writing in the name of a city comes with great responsibility because, in such cases, poets compose not for themselves, but for a broader community. To this extent, Olson writes in “Letter 3”:

Let those who use words cheap, who use us cheap
take themselves out of the way
Let them not talk of what is good for the city

Let them free the way for me...

Let them cease putting out words in the public print

Yes, those writers who “use words cheap,” in fact, “use us cheap,” which means using the city cheap. Olson argues that, instead, “what is good for the city” is for the poetasters to “cease putting out words in public print” so as to “free the way” for those who both understand and can adequately direct the force of language in order to praise and create a city.

In How We Saved the City (Stockport Flats, 2012), Kate Schapira answers Olson's call. Unlike her predecessor, though, she does not engage a specific city, but the city as a concept. Schapira's city concept forms from “the pockets of mini-meaning created by the city's people” (8) and all that “accumulates” (10) from and between these mini-meanings. One manner in which the poet works through the accumulation of mini-meaning is through the process of cataloging. In the prose poem “Street Value,” she writes of “Businesses [that] open and close luxuriously,” of a “Place to park,” and, even, of a “splash of fallen sandwich tomato or berry birdshit on a broad granite lip” (9).

Of course, the city is more than a catalog of images and the mini-meanings that accumulate between them. The city is also the people who live within its confines; and, more importantly, the relationships formed between those people. For example, the opening prose poem “Prologue: Magical Urbanism” addresses race relations and, perhaps, the gentrification of cityscapes:

I was walking home when a glow caught my eye: the mulch around a municipal tree was burning. Got down to scrape it out and found there was more underneath than I thought. Two men walking the other direction saw and stopped to help me, using a corner of loose brick. How I could have reacted whitely while we were squatted down getting the last embers; their black stopping; a spare thought early at night; we dusted our hands off, a line in my head captured the little glows: The evening was alive with first responders, already turning it. Respective cities closed over us again. (3)

The speaker of the poem looks “to scrape...out” the fire engulfing “a municipal tree” and, during the process, receives help from “Two men walking the other direction.” She worries about reacting “whitely” to their “black stopping,” but the three succeed in putting out “the last embers.” Yet, once they accomplish their goal of preserving the municipal tree, their “Respective cities closed over [them] again.” In this moment, the hope of community forms, but, unfortunately, just as quickly dissolves.

Another relationship How We Saved the City explores is that of gender; specifically, the speaker of the poem “Humble is the key to setting out” wants to commit herself to “living a publicly gender-free life and showing solidarity with anyone who tries” (36). To her mind, one way to perform a “gender-free life,” at least linguistically, is to keep “grammar ethical” by employing the third-person plural “they” in order to leave “the cult of autonomy” that manifests when using other “pronouns” (30). But just as How We Saved the City does not offer a perfect solution for race relations, neither does it offer one for gender relations. In fact, even the speaker's partner worries that, in performing one's life androgynously, we will “make fools of ourselves” and, thus, says: “I don't know if I can do it” (36)

Regardless of whether or not the denizens of the city succeed in their attempts, Schapira's collection endeavors to create a community where it's “Safe to be tattooed, hairy. / Safe to be gay, fat, shy” (64). In other words, we save the city by creating a community where “people gather around...and radiate” their personal utopias; as each utopia “ripples” out so as to “touch each other,” eventually “all the utopias will join to form” (40) a collective utopia named The City.

The question, though, posed in How We Saved the City is: “But isn't utopia what people think?” (44), some unattainable concept formed in the mind that cannot be realized in the material world. Yes, this is true, and no doubt the reason why the city's citizens do not succeed in sustaining the temporary coalitions they form. But far from admitting defeat, Schapira's book asks us “to imagine what has never been” so we may “speak about it with hope instead of certainty” (95). Hope, it would appear, is what will save the city.

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