(Re)animating the city
A review of 'Deep City' by Megan Kaminski
In “A Reason for Poetics,” collected in Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing, Barbara Guest addresses the tension between physical and “mysterious” dimensions of poetry. Beginning a section titled “Poetic Codes,” Guest writes:
A pull in both directions between the physical reality of place and the metaphysics of space. This pull will build up a tension within the poem giving a view of the poem from both the interior and the exterior.
Ideally a poem will be both mysterious (incunabula, driftwood of the unconscious), and organic (secular) at the same time. If the tension becomes irregular, like a heartbeat, then a series of questions enters the poem. What is happening? What does the poem, itself, consider to be its probabilities?
For Guest, the poem’s ability to pose such questions is vital to its “ability to reach further than the page,” and to what she later would describe as its “spiritual essence” that “has no limits.”
In Deep City, Megan Kaminski extends Guest’s poetics, centering on the city as both physical, social phenomenon, and as ever-expanding dreamscape or imaginarium. In so doing, Kaminski creates a boundless repository for our often-intersecting and ever-shifting experiences of the present moment. As if setting a lens over the landscape of a collage-like city (at points the city seems determinable, at others not), Kaminski unearths a myriad of sense perceptions in organic (secular) time. The construction of the book itself is a result of Kaminski’s poetic process of mapping, of her “desire to record and locate the minutiae of the world — what [she] saw, felt, sensed, thought, imagined — the things that while small and disordered had great impact.” However, as Kaminski goes on to note, “at the same time, [she] very much wanted to avoid the ‘poet’’s totalizing voice and vision.”
One way Deep City achieves Kaminski’s goal of “build[ing] worlds and creat[ing] space for the reader to embody” is through its arrangement as three long sequences — “The Cities,” “Apocrypha,” and “Collection”— within which mini sequences and individual poems sometimes emerge. Expanding upon the hybridized structures of late modernist long poems such as George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous and Guest’s The Countess of Minneapolis, Kaminski creates a form that engages with questions of temporality, unfolding as it does over the time it takes to read a sequence in its entirety, while also focusing on the momentary nature of the short lyric.
As Kaminski recently noted in an interview with Tony Trigilio on his poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, the structure of Deep City was mapped out in early stages of the book’s composition. But rather than feeling forced, the collection functions as a series of sketched concentric circles or playful nesting dolls.
Beginning in the simultaneously private and public domain of lyric apostrophic address, the opening section of The Cities reads:
Dear cabbie, dear comfort
perchance could you drive faster
ruefully abide your own speaking space
we’ll wrangle sweet nothings through that
window if you like it’s only plexiglass
my dear plastic really that keeps us apart
just split the avenue open vivisect districts
flower shops mechanics pantries
glow orange green silver as we pass (11)
Imploring the personage of the “cabbie,” both purveyor and transgressor of “comfort,” to “drive faster / ruefully abide [his] own speaking space,” the speaker begins by considering what it means to embody the shared social space of the city. Experiencing the city’s arteries (its “avenue[s]” and “districts”), commerce (“flower shops mechanics pantries”), and color (“orange green silver”), the speaker is separated from the cabbie, and perhaps from us as interlocutors, albeit by mere “plexiglass.” However, by journey’s end, jarring verbs “split” and “vivisect” soften into “glow” and “pass.” In a kind of reimagined futurist moment, the interior and exterior physical realities — of gendered personhood and economic “mechanics” — have opened onto the mysteriously beautiful and unquantifiable glow of color the city emits.
As the first sequence progresses, descriptions and destinations accrue further layers of meaning and mystery, rendering what philosopher Gilbert Ryle and later anthropologist Clifford Geertz referred to as “thick description.” Envisioned variously as a body (“dear city I want to crawl inside your chest” ), a garment (“I put on my city” ), and a burden (“debt ridden deep city” / “mortgage-backed shoulder carry” ), the city unfolds organically, so that the more each facet is described, the more numerous and layered Kaminski’s multitudinous city/ies become.
Sections and poems across Apocrypha and Collection continue this archeological gesture through their simultaneous preservation of particulars and the organic sedimentation and elisions they enact. And often, these transactions are specifically envisioned in economic and architectural terms. Take this section of Collection, for instance:
blue glass Ladies leisure holidays mid-week mid-morning
flyer elevator pull penthouse lay ear to wall bring
smooth leather cashmere sounds trick fingers across linoleum
admiral cloud marbled broken there were other signs birds
motherless day circling the parking garage the tea cabinet in
green green disarray delayed flights into Memphis we were
green wooed by architecture wooed by other things (61)
Here, Kaminski explicitly considers the luxurious life of wealthy city dwellers while simultaneously meditating on the unpeopled “other signs” of the absent presence implied by a “motherless day.”
Ending in both the specificity of Memphis and the public plural address of “we,” the section would seem to edge closer to us as readers. However, as the final phrase, “wooed by architecture wooed by other things,” suggests, like the acquisitive “Ladies,” we are compelled to continue searching indefinitely for pleasure beyond this frame. Kaminski’s use of the sidebar, consisting of one or two words per line to the left of the more traditional stanza, further highlights the very idea of poem as (im)mutable frame. Here, for instance, the talismanic “blue glass,” associated with protection from evil across folk traditions, is held up as if to neutralize the static motion of “mid-week mid-morning.” Similarly, the repetition of “green,” at poem’s end, lifts us out of the chaotic holding pattern (“disarray delayed flights”) of contemporary life. Ultimately, this section, as well as others like it across Collection, enacts collecting as both avaricious acquisition and an attempt at protection.
As well-conceived as these juxtapositions may be, Kaminski never loses touch with the recognition that the “accidental pleasures” she conjures “might be the only ones left” (43), or with what Guest calls the “driftwood of the unconscious.” For it is here, in the nascent shadows, the incunabula, that the edges of the present moment start to shift and shine. And amidst moments too heavy to lift, across Deep City the sensual pleasures of the body reassert themselves, as in the third section of “In our imagined walks”:
Under the Brazilian version of daylight savings time
the summer had several hours left to dapple
bustling thoroughfare parallel row of trees
interrupting your quiet
the calm was unremarkable
signs began appearing
a party about to materialize
this was not a precisely planned event
sometimes kiosks sell cold coconut water for 50 cents
She points her toes in first slides them into fifth
practices winking at her reflection (44)
A kind of trickster character, the persona here doesn’t escape commodity culture, in which the object of pleasure has been assigned a price, as much as she transgresses it, even if only for a brief moment. By sliding across the white space of a line and “winking at her reflection,” she interrupts our quietism, spontaneously conjuring a street party scene. To return to Guest, Kaminski builds up a tension within the poem — between the embodied physical space of the dancer and the spirit in the air of a spontaneous communal celebration. She thereby offers us a view of the poem, and of the city, from both the interior and the exterior: a view that finally transcends dimensions. And it is in this space that a series of questions arises, endlessly (re)animating the city and us.