Reviewed by Alyssa Pelish
In Donna Stonecipher’s new collection of prose poetry, one will find lockets, thimbles, French daguerreotypes, cyanometers, peacock feathers, a child’s stamp collection, architectural drawings, snow globes, spiraled seashells, ivory miniatures, stained glass pictures, and a replica pinhole camera. Indeed, so many rarefied objects abound in this series of prose poems, that it seems at first Stonecipher should have titled it The Curiosity Cabinet instead of The Cosmopolitan. But the collection’s perceptible narrative motion evades the stasis of the former, so that the figure of the drifting cosmopolitan artfully connects these curios lining the shelves of poetry.
Stonecipher’s precise attention to the dimensions of her words as objects immediately attracts the reader’s eye, underscoring her preoccupation with the tension between experience and its representation. In this collection, she has arranged her numbered prose stanzas in groups of eight to twelve, embedding in each group a quotation that she calls an inlay. These inlays are brief, even fragmented, lines from thinkers past and present, ranging from Ruskin to Lévi-Strauss to Sontag. The idea of the poetic inlay, Stonecipher explains in a note to the reader, came to her while viewing a museum display of inlaid furniture. Thus her inlays are not epigrams, coyly suggesting the themes of the text that follows; instead, as Stonecipher’s use of the term implies, they are materials that are visually distinct from the stanzas that encase them, objects unto themselves. Each quotation arises as another voice amid these stanzas, and whether Stonecipher has contained or released these borrowed lines within her own remains an engaging question throughout.
The effect of each grouping is subtly suggestive. The numbered stanzas of uniformly spaced prose evoke both the tradition of philosophical aphorism (which some of the stanzas surely approach) and an arrangement of photographs or museum artifacts. And yet the indented shape of each stanza creates slim paragraphs that, arrayed on the page, one after another, suggest a series of train cars or continents, a kind of fragmented movement that won’t allow the complete stasis of a museum display. By presenting her own words and those of each inlay as spatial entities, Stonecipher visually emphasizes the very themes that run through the collection: we may attempt to crystallize thought and experience into discrete objects, but we always lose the thing itself. Thus one poem finds “the cosmopolitan obsessively photographing the skyscraper through a replica pinhole camera” and, in another stanza, plaintively asks of the “miniatures of the city in snowglobes,” “Why is this how one likes to imagine the visited city, forever in the throes of winter? Why is this how one likes to imagine the visited city, fitting in the palm of one’s hand?”
In contrast to the fixed arrangement of the poems, the underlying narrative is fluid; from one stanza or full poem to the next, we glimpse characters as consciousnesses who may well overlap—the author, the architect, and the painter drifting into the woman, the man, the panoply of unidentified pronouns, and the titular cosmopolitan. Experience, this travelogue reminds us, is unrefined and indefinite; it is in the attempt to preserve, to make sense of that experience, that we create and collect objects as removed and limiting as the ivory miniature and the daguerreotype. Although no consciousness or setting is dominant in the narrative, each fleeting persona struggles to find an effective souvenir of personal experience. In this respect Stonecipher’s inlays are especially thought provoking: “the quotes,” she explains very simply, “are from books I happened to be reading at the time.” Much as one returns from travel with a memento, Stonecipher has pulled these lines from her reading, removing them from their original contexts and placing them in a textual space of her own creation. But significantly, unlike the snowglobe that remains on the mantle or the photograph in its frame, these quotations unquestionably engage with their new surroundings; their meanings are thrown into relief by Stonecipher’s own meditations, and they, in turn, influence any reading of hers.
At bottom, the distance between the artist and her subject or the tourist and the foreign landscape that these poems articulate is the distance that separates experience and its representation; it is our inability to grasp a moment as it occurs completely, before it becomes the something else of memory. This sense of a divide troubles Stonecipher’s collection to its end. It is distinctly envisioned in the cosmopolitan, whose gaze separates her from the continents she drifts through; she is never really integrated into any place, and can only partake from a distanced perspective. Her failure is conveyed very quietly in the final poem’s final stanza:
We bought china in China. We bought cognac in Cognac. You bought turquoise in Turkey, and I bought an afghan in Afghanistan. I bought India ink in India, and you brought an indiaman in India. But nowhere did we relinquish any little bit of ourselves.
Stonecipher, of course, grapples with these questions of representation as she prepares her own distancing distillations. And this impulse, she suggests, is something that can’t be avoided: “The story is always forming to adorn reality,” begins one stanza. We begin to make meaning by distancing ourselves from the event, and these crystalline meditations on that process succeed even as they acknowledge the loss.
Donna Stonecipher, the author of two previous poetry collections, The Reservoir and Souvenir de Constantinople, also translates poetry and prose from French and German.
Books mentioned in this post