Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Donna Stonecipher reading in Budapest

September 1, when I wrote to praise Donna Stonecipher’s Souvenir de Constantinople, Noah Eli Gordon sent a note to the comments stream that read:

Her book The Cosmopolitan (just out from Coffee House) is wonderful, by far one of the very best things I read all summer – all the more impressive because it’s markedly different from the one you mention here.

Having now read The Cosmopolitan, I’m pleased to agree with Gordon. The Cosmopolitan is a terrific book & in many ways it is quite a bit different from Constantinople. One way in which it’s not is that both books engage the novel. Which is to say narrative framing in the broadest conceivable sense. There are contexts in which I’m sure somebody reading this book and something recent by David Markson would be more apt to identify The Cosmopolitan as the novel.

The Cosmopolitan consists of 22 sections, each of which is entitled “Inlay” followed by a number & then, in parentheses, the name of a source, ranging from Walter Benjamin to Plato to Thomas Mann. Kafka turns up three times, Elaine Scarry & Ralph Waldo Emerson twice. Each of the 22 inlays consist of a series of numbered sections, almost entirely one paragraph long, ranging from nine to fourteen per inlay. Each inlay also contains one paragraph that is a quotation & is situated somewhere in the middle, centered on the page. In many of these inlays, the quotation is the one apparent appropriation from the source. It is, in fact, what is inlaid.

Each paragraph is pretty much a perfect vignette or tableaux. The sections accumulate toward an indeterminate, but coherent whole, tho there does not seem to be any great sense of narrative building from one inlay to the next. More than anything, The Cosmopolitan demonstrates just how much power is available to the writer who trusts indeterminacy, who believes that things add up, but not to the zero sum game of vulgar narrative. It’s a perpetually impressive feat. Here is “Inlay 8 (Claude Lévi-Strauss)” just to underscore my point.


He was born in Kaya, Burkino Faso, but now he’s living abroad. She was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but now she’s living abroad. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, but now she’s living abroad. He was born in Vancouver, Washington, but now he’s living abroad.




And if she ran the city through a sieve, as she sometimes imagined doing, would she be left with only the natives, pedigreed and pure? Everybody, eventually, goes down the Philosophenweg, gaping at hieroglyphic heirloom roses and beetles with supersvelte legs.




He’s like me, he said. He has an inner map of hotels all over Europe. And it was true: if we met a man from Cologne, he’d get a faraway look in his eyes and eventually work the conversation around to say, “. . . and tell me, do you know the marvelous Hotel Dom?”




As for me, I would choose to infiltrate foreign territories via the spice route rather than the silk route. Nutmeg, mint, cinnamon, aniseed, turmeric, cardamom, the hotel, the parliament. I sat in the reproduction victoria thinking about the myth of the bequeathal of the family house.



“I hate traveling and explorers.”




She was born in Montpellier, France, but now she’s living in London. He was born in Miramar, Argentina, but now he’s living in Tokyo. He was born on an island in the Caribbean, but now he’s living in Paris. She was born in Bangalore, India, but now she’s living in L.A.




“Bloom where you are planted,” read the inspirational poster tacked up in her childhood classroom. She remembered the school’s aquarium glowing dimly in the main hallway, and how the fish fulfilled some edifying dictum she could never, tiptoeing by, definitely figure out.




But she had long since shed that skin, and that skin and long since shed her: the school no longer existed, except as an album of crumbling images in a small number of non-commemorative minds. Oh, there’d been so many worms – back when one was an early bird.




The Pizzeria Inez became the Curry House Inez became the Sushi Inez, and all the while Parisians hurried past on their way to cafés recently overtaken by Chinese immigrants. Everyone goes down the Passage d’Enfer eventually, hushed by the shuttered windows and doors.




From the airport alone, you could fly to Geneva, Fez, Malta, Alicante, Berlin, San Francisco, and Luxor. We’ll do that one day, he said. We’ll arrive at the airport with one suitcase each and fly to the destination that seems to us to hold the greatest promise of annihilation.

Anyone who has read Tristes Tropiques, will recognize the Lévi-Strauss quotation, which may seem odd given his background & profession (and given his place within his profession). But when he describes – at length – the experience of walking through the streets of India, overwhelmed by the suffering of poverty, with money in his pocket, the disparity between his role in the world & that of a third-world beggar invokes a whole host of issues that make his hatred of travel palpable, even reasonable. Travel is guilt, tourism borders on genocide. No wonder, say, San Franciscans so despise Fisherman’s Wharf, or residents of New Orleans shun the French Quarter. Behind every Potemkin Village…. Lévi-Strauss’ lone sentence cast against this globe-trotting sequence of images is like a knife that cuts through whatever might seem fashionable.

Indeed, I think Stonecipher is at her best here when her sources are, like the anthropologist, extra-literary. In those instances, these pieces engage the world in ways quite unlike anything else I’ve read in poetry – Cole Swensen might be the most approximate kin to Stonecipher as a writer, tho I have no way of know if they’ve ever met. (They also, by pure coincidence, sit side-by-side on my bookshelves, compliments of the alphabet.)

To have two great books in less than two years is almost obscenely ostentatious. I’ve learned, I should note, that it took a long time for Souvenir de Constantinople to come to print – editors found its indeterminacy threatening – so it may not be that Stonecipher is some demigod capable of writing twin masterpieces in one season. But she certainly has announced herself as one of our major talents. Further evidence that this is a great time if you happen to love poetry.


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