Monday, September 01, 2008

 

Donna Stonecipher’s Souvenir de Constantinople is a terrific little book (94 pages, tho it reads quickly & feels roughly half that length), one that for me has sustained multiple readings over the past year & which still leaves me excited, wanting more. Neither novel nor memoir, tho it has echoes of both, Souvenir is an old story, the eroticized tourist abroad¹, captured here in glimpses, segments, so that the focus ultimately is not on the tale but the telling. Hence a series of poems, the serial poem, a project conceived precisely as a book.

What convinces & excites me most is Stonecipher’s writing, particularly in sections or pieces mostly if not entirely composed of couplets that are, in the same moment, quite precise & yet deliberately awkward. They remind me of the ungainliness of Ronald Johnson’s early work (The Book of the Green Man, The Valley of the Many Colored Grasses). Viz:

The traveller harbors
a tale she cannot

tell: a tale
kept in the secret

drawer of
the told – (there is

an opium-smoker
lying

behind a photograph of
an opium-smoker)

(awled
to filigree )

and the pearl hidden inside
the pearl

hidden inside the shell
fortifies the sexed

surrender white-hot
memorandum

(radiating
note) faintly

cognizant
was the traveller in her amazed

night I bore off
no trophy

for all my gold
deeds in the darting

forest. (The one
photograph I had of

him I tore
into bits.) In the luggage within

the luggage secure
in my hand (oh curio,

curio, curio)
I have salted away my true

new belongings
(some postcards

and some fool’s
gold) nevertheless

I know the opium-
smoker will eventually waste

down to a gentle
reminder of the unfriendliness

of bones.
(Or will he one day feel

the sole souvenir
at last pierce the massed

clouds and speed
him back to the clamoring

street?)
And what desired
weight is this,

threatening
to smash my fragile

holding of sovereign
state? One day soon I must go

home. There
someone will ask for

photographs and
a story. And

to remain
the traveller, I will open

my valise, and open
my mouth, and

tell:

This is the section, or poem, in its entirety. It’s not some Zukofskian gemstone of condensed signifiers & the book is, deliberately I think, devoid of the sort of dazzlers that are perfect for quoting in reviews to persuade readers to become buyers. But the effects here are cumulative & by the time you reach this section, not quite halfway through the book, each word carries quite a bit more weight than what it actually denotes on the page, until this reader anyway is fairly jumping with excitement thinking about what might come next.

The poem-as-book or book-as-poem is a creature as different from, say, the longpoem as it is, say, from the novel, let alone the book as collection of individualized, disjunct poems. What makes Constantinople work as well, maybe even better, than most of the other examples of this emerging genre, is Stonecipher’s refusal to tie up threads into a single overarching conclusion that in turn defines (or maybe redefines) every prior meaning. Stonecipher permits complexity for its own sake, and ambiguity & indeterminacy, even as she never strays far from the perception that all good ideas are simple. The multiple stays multiple, fragments don’t “heal.” This is a book as rich with multiplicity on the fourth reading as it was on the first. Bravo!

 

¹ How exactly does the female version of this narrative trope differ from the middle-aged male sex tourist trolling the go-go bars of South Asia in search of “willing” 12-year-olds? Obviously there are differences relating to gender & power (& money), but the versions are both extrapolations of an imperial set of a presumptions. Stonecipher knows this & most of her source materials are specifically male: Marco Polo, Rudyard Kipling, Bernal Diaz. But Stonechiper’s “voice” is unmistakably her own & it’s impossible to read these as anything other than as explicitly female texts.

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