on New Poetry by Ross Gay, Donna Stonecipher, and Lee Upton

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Model City by Donna Stonecipher (Shearsman Books)
Bottles The Bottles The Bottles The Bottles by Lee Upton (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

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Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Ross Gay’s poems often take and exhaust many breaths before everything that must be said has burst out. The remarkable non-stop elegy “spoon” centers on “Don” who, eight months before the telling, is said to have stumbled into the poet’s house for a breakfast of sweet potato biscuits after a birthday party next door the previous night. Those biscuits seem to feed the narrative as well, an unspooling memory in which micro-detail and assessment carry the same weight:

… when he said at breakfast I’m a survivor, I survived,
this 53-year-old gay black man,

to which we did a little dance
listing the myriad bullets he’d dodged,

swirling the biscuits in their oily syrup,
Don occasionally poking his fork into the air for emphasis,

laughing and sipping coffee and
shaking our heads like we couldn’t believe it,

and having survived Don wanted a child to love,
and we made plans that I might make the baby

with my sweetie and he could be the real dad …

Gay’s poems aren’t exclusively non-stop – and the infrequent full-stops usually signal an impediment, a come-uppance exacted by pain. Encountering a period in “spoon” after 118 lines, one reads:

I swore when I got into this poem I would convert
this sorrow into some kind of honey with the little musics

I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts
of our desolation. I can’t even make a metaphor

of my reflection upside down and barely visible
in the spoon. I wish one single thing made sense.

To which I say: Oh get over yourself.
That’s not the point.

Gay.jpgUnabashed gratitude may be what Gay most wants us to notice and appreciate in his work, but getting-to-the-point is the most unabashed gesture of his project. Yet in his most vibrant poems, the getting-there is as affecting as his destinations, often more so. The embracing, intimate sound of his speech is the pleasure. The exuberance of the speaking, the word-structure preserving the actual, is a flood bank to counter “what forever otherwise will hurt.” Don had been murdered.

The elegiac impulse runs deeply in Gay’s Catalog but it is not the only current. His humor, anecdotal chumminess, and generosity are deep-rooted traits. In “feet,” he begins, “Friends, mine are ugly feet: the body’s common wreckage / stuffed into boots.” The story proceeds with charm and warmth – one feels privileged to follow the lively steps of these dysmorphic feet. With Gay, one learns to wait for the “point” and it comes: “… do you really think I’m talking to you about my feet?”

GayCover.jpgGay is as stubborn as he is expansive in his praising and adorations. The sheer, unstoppable vitality of his language suggests an entire aspect of our lives that has been disregarded and that here, at last, is brought forth in its fullness. There is also innocence, vulnerability, amusement. In "weeping," he speaks of "the sweet bead of sugar / imperceptibly moseying from the fig's tiny eye precisely // unlike sorrow which the assembly of insects sipping there / will tell you ..." This leads to Mikayla and Emma, a child and the pet butterfly she named, playing dominoes "while the adults babbled our various dooms." Gay doesn't deny the dooms -- we use them as contrasts to the joys. But after all, the poem is called "weeping." The poems are sweet but not saccharine. The dooms are real, just not privileged.

“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” wrote John Keats in a letter in 1818. Well, every poem has it in for us in a fashion. For some poets, urgencies mount to a pitch where it is vitally essential to voice one’s survivability directly – and to draw the reader alongside as confidante and ward to an envisioned place, as Ross Gay puts it quite unabashedly, “where loss makes all things / beautiful grow.”

[Published January 7, 2015. 98 pages, $15.95 paperback]

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Model City by Donna Stonecipher (Shearsman Books)

The American philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford quipped in My Work and Days, “New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.” Suppose you lived in a certain city for several years and now someone asks, “What was it like?” The question acknowledges the changeability of cities, even over a mere decade or two. The Beijing of 1989 is gone and not only in its appearance. Who can say what it was like? Its citizens have been changed by its changes. Their versions of themselves from those years can only be imaginary. The former Beijing was a perfect model of itself, now dreamed of. The Beijing of the moment is perfectly impaired within every compromised breath.

To answer the question “What was it like?” is to create a vision of a city – thus, a model. Its features and parameters, pressures and reliefs, emerge like strange urban myths built into the mind – the city is that intrinsic a concept. Donna Stonecipher has constructed 72 four-part visions responding to “What was it like?” to live in … where? On the final page, she inscribes “Berlin and elsewhere 2010-2014” as answer.


It was like going to see “The Unbuilt City,” an exhibition of architectural plans and models for transforming your city — grids, towers, monumental ministries, vast plazas — that ultimately came to nothing.


It was like wandering through the exhibit looking at futuristic drawings that figure the erasure of the nineteenth-century four-story architecture you love, and feeling pleased the plans came to nothing.


It was like taking note of a resistance in yourself to the futuristic, the futuresque, the future — while not denying a certain nostalgia for antiquated visions of the world of tomorrow.


It was like looking at the futuristic models and thinking about the unbearableness of the present, and realizing there are two kinds of people: those who can’t wait for the future, and those who can’t wait for the past.

StonecipherCoverB.jpgThe city generates time-oriented thinking – the armies that entered and marched down the boulevard, the conference held to discuss development of the disused warehouse district. Stonecipher’s speaker-as-flâneur contemplates the forces at work, caffeinated by Starbucks: “It was like resuming your walk through the unknown city holding a cup of global capital, your familiar chaste mermaid added to the thousands of chaste mermaids parading through the city.” Berlin is hardly the only site here – many cities spring up and not all visions are vexing or oppressive. “It was like sitting by the sea with an architect friend in Barcelona chairs looking out at the panorama of relentlessness that is the horizon line, allowing its absolution to enter your body.”

When one says model city, one assumes a singular design, all needs and desires of the populace taken into consideration. The only singular aspect in these texts is “It was like,” by definition a departure from the singular into the manifold variations of cities. Invariability persists – and persistently yields to variety. This is the purpose of Stonecipher’s repetitive form. Each of her responses is precise while expansive, subtle or blunt observations not quite finished with the observed: “It was like seeing a little group of American tourists in a European city tremble with excitement when the tour guide points out bullet holes from World War II still visible in the parliament building.”

StonecipherB.jpgStonecipher is careful with but not evasive about the psychological element in these pieces. There are many comments on specific behaviors; the characters’ actions are suspended within the context of location and cultural reference: “It was like wanting to divide your two-room apartment into Le Corbusien and the Victorian, one room ‘correct and healthy,’ one room diseased and false, sailing to nowhere but its own green-velvet unreason.”

In Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “Every great city is a Lourdes where you hope to throw off your crutches but meanwhile must stumble along on them, hobbling under the protection of the shrine.” About New Haven, Wallace Stevens indicated a reality comprising “confused illuminations and sonorities.” Stonecipher now extends this investigation while zooming on particulars. Here is what freedom looks like during an ordinary evening in Berlin: “It was like being in love and out of your mind and walking straight into the lilac bushes to take bad digital photographs of the lilacs – though you know it won’t be long before you sit, bemused, deleting each one.” In the crumbling and renovated space between the city’s whiff of freedom and odor of misfortune, Stonecipher’s Model City vividly erects a model for observing ourselves as implicated elements within the density of urban experience and its buried or exhibited histories.

[Published January 15, 2015. 94 pages, $18.00 paperback]

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Bottles The Bottles The Bottles The Bottles by Lee Upton (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

Some time ago I jotted in my notebook a sentence from one of William Meredith’s essays: “What we learn from poetry is not so much the nature of experience as the force of it.” I’ve long wondered about this claim – as well as about the nature of the learning since the force of experience is mysterious. Something unmeasured compels the poet to take measures. But some poets seem more invested than others in providing channels and lairs for the force itself to linger in their poems.

Upton2.jpgLee Upton has much to say about accommodating the force in her superb book of essays Swallowing the Sea (2012, Tupelo Press). “An obsession remains an obsession because of intuitions that lead us to attempt to find language for what is already escaping us,” she writes, “for mysteries that retain their mysteriousness, for inchoate cravings that aren’t fulfilled.” When a poet experiences a change in circumstances, she may be tempted by what Upton refers to as “purity” – which may also be the temptation to narrate the nature of experience, the encroachment of specifics that impede the force. “I endured a tightening of possibilities,” after becoming a mother, she says. “A loathsome purity came over me … I neglected to respect the vitality of the vernacular … with its inevitable impurities.”

Her new collection Bottles The Bottles The Bottles The Bottles is a literary porous membrane, jumpy and bristling with the force of experience. Its forms of address and attitude are variable but always immediate. She has pointed out the use of “distancing devices to dissolve the contours of my own life,” thus privileging the life of the poem. The contours of the life dissolve like dye into the work.

The poems are grouped in five sections, each with its own charter. She begins with pieces that say: the language here will be playful, unpredictable, modern in its concerns, classical in its mythiness, concerned with topics more vast than our understanding. In “The Mermaids Sang To Me”:

And I was inside their song.
Until at last I began to think:
they’re a bunch of bores.

I must send them packing,
them and their aureoles.
Their eyes, shark dead,

their hides like stamp pads and arrowheads.
Odysseus should have tied them to the mast first
for the crime of singing so much

about their own lives.

The second part comprises one poem, an elegy called “A Terrarium.” Here, the life’s contours partially regroup; the grief is recognizable, the tone is candid but not corrosive, the view not dark as much as cautiously and evenly illuminated. In some of the elegy’s sections, the lines are shortened when the memories come faster. Grief isn’t a commodity, grief is a wildness that occurs when one tries to prove there had been a life. The elegy is “The body that bottles agony.”

In part three, reflection makes a quizzical, quasi-comical sound. She models experience as recalled obliquely, elementally.


The day I wore the blouse
both men who didn’t care for me the day before,

both, as if reading from the same script, said:
I didn’t recognize you today.

In tones of approval.
I thought: it has something to do with the blouse.

I must have been dressed in luck, a dark blue.
The men, attentive now,

They were the ones who were different.
But I liked the difference too.

Later, a group of us went to a party.
The apartment had a balcony, breezes were soft.

I began to feel sad about the blouse.
What was it about the blouse

that wasn’t about me?
It was years before I turned thirty.

Should I simply have been grateful
and forgotten the day before and all

the days before the blouse?
What turns luck, turns words,

never to know entirely what’s likely or unlikely,
if it has something to do with the blouse.

UptonBottles.jpgThe long poem “Snow,” comprising the fourth part, is an extended meditation on the encroachment and persistence of fearful memories. What do we use them for? Memory is fragmented, jagged, sticky. Upton isn’t just telling stories, some force makes them adhere to the page. While showing something vital about the force of experience, the poem is also strangely reticent. She doesn’t back away from statements, but they take the form of questions: “When did we learn to put on our own coat, / our own gloves? Our own legs, / our own arms? / Where is the accounting for our years …”

Memory, change, self-knowledge, self-erasure. “The urge to write may have to do with a powerful form of forgetting, of loosening certain perspectives, of banishing some of the more restricting bands of identity,” she has said. In the final section, she channels other women, such in the final lines of “Miss Jessel” (The Turn of the Screw):

Once my life was a fountain
with a shattered mirror in it.

Who could see what was wrong with me?
A fountain is helpless to draw glass shards from itself.

I was with a man made of bedrooms and windows.
But it was a mirror that gave me the most misery.

“To stay alive in the thing is both the writer’s and the reader’s challenge,” she wrote. Upton’s work is a penetrating, often companionable but sometimes harsh accounting – but her generosity lies not in describing the nature of past experiences but in embracing and hosting a more renegade, active force.

[Published May 1, 2015. 88 pages, $15.95 paperback.]