The urban interior-exterior ideal

Photo by Vadim Erent, 2011.

Model City

Model City

Donna Stonecipher

Shearsman Books 2015, 94 pages, $18.50, ISBN 978-1848613881

There is something easygoing about reading Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, which leads the reader through the pages as if on a walk. Lured inside this landscape, we are invited to see, to reflect, to ponder, to muse, to sense the spaces in these seventy-two “model cities,” but also outside of the pages in the world which surrounds us. This book of prose poems is comprised of 288 long sentences with commas separating subclauses, all beginning “It was like.” We are in media res, where the “it” in the question posed by a disembodied voice on page 1 — “what was it like?”[1] — is open to interpretation: this voice and its question are part of some world preceding this urban space; a myriad of other potential “its” could be proposed. Is the speaker in the poems returning from traveling? Returning from seeing another, alternate, urban-planned world? Are they simply coming back in the door after stepping outside to look at a space they should have already known like the back of their hand but which suddenly has revealed a myriad of new facets, both architectural and human? What is certain is that Stonecipher deftly explores geographic-architectural-psychological space in a way that includes her reader, invites them to wander and wonder alongside the speaker, to peruse and ponder the shifting perspectives of each poem.

The poems themselves, written in stanza-paragraph-sentences with justified margins spaced four to a page with three centered asterisks to divide them, stand to attention like blocked buildings, eliciting a sense that the white margins and interstanza spaces are walkways. The asterisks take on a lamppost- or perhaps fountain-like quality, providing tiny visual decoration along a mental-linguistic-geographic stroll. What space am I, author, in; I, speaker, in; I, reader, in? Stonecipher asks: What space are you in, reader, speaker, author, in these poems? These lines are what connect us: it is how we belong.

This said, this book is about a disbelonging, about estrangement within the familiar. The collection opens with a sense that around the speaker the city has been rebuilding places not for its residents, its neighborhood inhabitants, or for the future of its citizens, but rather for transients. Only hotels are being constructed. The model city is constructing only “permanent temporariness” (31) for visitors alone. Realizing that every new building is a hotel in the opening poem leads the speaker to say: “It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence” (15), and far later “feeling threatened by the rampantly multiplying hotel rooms, as if vacancy were a disease invading the city’s — and therefore your — interior” (49).

As the book develops, the potential parallels between a foreign and native city arise as residents become like model figures, only theoretical inhabitants (37). In these model cities, the author explains, “a home is by definition disappearance” (47). And suddenly it is true, we can see how we each disappear into our homes, hide and hibernate there, shadowforms beyond the walls, passing before windows, visitors, mortal, in these quasi-permanent constructions. “It was like admiring and resisting the machine for living” (33), Stonecipher states in an earlier poem.

As the collection opens, there is no mention of light or dark, yet something about being able to see the vacancy in all of the new hotels evokes a Hopperesque vision which pervades the entire collection. It is a vision of light streaming out of rectangular windows with no one inside. Hollowness pervades Stonecipher’s urban landscapes, eliciting an automated sense of connection and disconnection: one of the major themes in this collection. As Stonecipher writes, “It was like looking at the ‘zu vermieten’ signs and thinking about the organizing principle of the window: organizing light and air, inside and outside, volume and surplus, belonging and not belonging, opaque as glass” (19). Her model cities are filled with glass, stone, marble, socialist blocked buildings, high-rise hotels with their stacks of windows, industrial parks, mazes of courtyards, skylines of “skyscrapers’ staggering heights” (35), “grids, towers, monumental ministries, vast plazas — that came to nothing” (42), new glass buildings versus bullet-pocked old ones, underground parking garages/the underground city, high-rises, the cité industrielle with all buildings made of concrete.

These urban developments, these model cities, are of course also about how humankind makes choices — determining our days, planning them out. But then something unexpected — like seeing a sign advertising a sugar museum or the uncharacteristic wild animal like a fox or a door never open suddenly gaping — creates a shift. Predetermined fate is thwarted by unprecedented opportunity, via observation. Noting the change and allowing oneself to go towards it is offered to the speaker as an alternate route, a surprising, unprecedented opportunity for perspective change — though at first Stonecipher’s speaker turns away from that new enticing destination as she states: “For its nature is seduction. And yours, renunciation” (22).

In these ways throughout this brilliant, captivating, and at times melancholic volume, the speaker goes about her day thinking and observing the outer world. Her quasi-obsessive linking of outer and inner landscapes absorbs the reader, engulfs them in these model cities and the mind and voice carrying them along these urban landscapes. But there are also dispersed throughout the book moments where the speaker is in her own bed, inside her home, a place that is definitively not ours, but about the persona’s struggle. These are moments of disquiet, when she cannot sleep, so she thinks of something. The sleeplessness reveals an underlying anxiety, an inability to release herself to dream, from the world surrounding her to her own interior imagination, perhaps. There is something hard and sad about this character’s struggle that is at once familiar and strange, paralleling the landscapes the speaker describes, as well as the references to literature (including Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick), or to art (as seen in allusions to photographers Atget or Wegee, drawer/painter Audubon and Leonardo da Vinci), or to architects (such as to the Bauhaus school, Le Corbusier, or to Zaha Hadid).

What these layers of artistic allusion add is a dimension of questioning the real and the model/museum/imitation/simulacra wherein the character is “wondering about the authenticity of authenticity” (26). Actual versus factual, real versus synthetic, or “real” and “ideal” partake in a sort of mental mise en abyme, as Stonecipher puts it on page 58. Photography in particular interrogates issues of authenticity and originality, opening up reflections about façades versus interiors, leading the speaker to go as far as comparing buildings to human skeletons (30). Thus the issues of permanence and impermanence are not only about hotels versus long-term habitations, but about mortality versus immortality — what lies underneath surfaces? Stonecipher is asking. What is behind the austere, white paint façades? For humans, it is a constant skeletal smile laughing at the ridiculousness of all of the outer efforts. When applied to buildings damaged by bullets, suddenly the voice states that these bullet-pocked buildings provide an “unexpected apparition of evidence — that history is real” (54). 

In the end, perhaps the character seeks the ideal model city. Perhaps the città ideale is finding a way of “moving on past the gutted squat and its gutted ideal” (25) as the author states at one point. If so, then we are left with the question of: to what? What is beyond? The speaker digs and digs through exterior observation as if burrowing into some fundamental unnamed core of the self where time is at work, making history, antiques, in an ultracontemporary parallel to an “ersatz medieval town,” with reliquaries, falling into ruin. Wishing she could explain “how the history resides in your head” (34), Donna Stonecipher’s model city reminds us both of the discomfort and of the comfort of reproduction versus the “so real” (32) version of the world as we each model it in our own minds.

1. Donna Stonecipher, Model City (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2015), 1.