A Model Year
reviewed by Dan Magers
A Model Year
Coconut Books, 2009
In what begins as something of a poetic daybook and gradually reveals itself as an extended elegy immersed in disappointment and dashed expectations, Gina Myers’s A Model Year blends urban bustle with lyric stillness in poems manifested out of lists and repetition. Somewhere between the New York School of Poetry’s vibrancy of O’Hara or Berrigan and the otherworldly silence of Fanny Howe are whispers of a grinding tedium native to gentrifying neighborhoods:
last night’s sidewalk inappropriate proposition today new jeans & thunderstorms desire to be somewhere away from rent demands & bills the united states postal service losing the evening clear & windy no rain only children running in the halls music from a passing ice cream truck”
This is depression by a thousand cuts. No one phrase here equals a catastrophe. In fact, none do—but the accumulation of them creates a dreary feeling in the pit of the stomach. Myers’s poems come in a variety of lengths and forms (from prose poems, to a long poem of couplets), but the engine of most is more often than not some variation of a list.
Myers has some poems that are literally lists, particularly in her running longer poem “A Partial List of Fears,” which ends three of the four sections:
“Fear of saints or holy things. Fear of Hegel. Fear of road travel. Fear of glass. Fear of sleep or being hypnotized.”
These poems have the most levity of any in the book. There is something spontaneous to them and unguarded. Two other poems in the collection begin with a quoted line by Robert Creeley and David Shapiro respectively, which she uses to riff off of:
“I see the flames, etc. But do not care, etc. I watch the sunset, etc. But do not care, etc. I’ll leave a tip, etc. But skip out on the bill, etc. I see the spirit, etc. But lost all hope, etc.”
Whereas Creeley’s poem, “The Dishonest Mailmen” opens into a contemplation of addressing emptiness, Myers strikes her note over and over with small variations, which creates a layering effect. These become more than exercises because they continue and extend the emotional landscape of the book.
Lists are usually integrated more deeply into her composition than the above-quoted poems. The way that Myers uses lists is similar to how people utilize them in their daily life. They can be used to keep a running tab of things to do, which Myers exploits to dramatize work-a-day drudgery, and often it becomes mixed with another function of listing—that of trying to get down descriptively the concrete details of a day:
“The ticket lost is long gone. I’ve run out of things to sell. The check bounced. The phone lost your call & then I lost your number. I just put the water on to boil.”
The uncluttered description of these poems sometimes morphs into the intimate recording of a diary, and Myers realizes this. “I don’t know why/ I feel so strongly the need to document this moment, as if I/ don’t write it down, it never happened.” But it’s the very smallness of these moments that makes them important to record, because it is the small moments mostly that make up a life. The structure of the poem is a lot like that of the straight-up lists, but with a variety of content, line by line.
The Creeley and Shapiro poems actually combine lists with a related way in which Myers composes her poems—through repetition, which is like a list, but is more focused on a repeated phrase in a poem (with some variation), even if the repetition is the repeated use of the word “if” at the beginning of sentences. On a formal level, Myers uses repetition as an organizing force; for example, in “The Dare”, the beginning of each of the three stanzas are “The first room is a ghost,” “The second room: a coffin.”, “The third room is a fever.” Myers can focus the imagery of each stanza without worrying about having them transition to the next, and it is the repetition that gives the poem an associative logic that makes it successful.
Aside from organizational concerns, when she uses repetition, it is often more integrated into the engine of the poem, where it might only appear in part, as little as the last two lines to “Perpetual Motion” (“Instruct a wound. / Instruct a wound to heal.”) or as in the first half of “Self-Portrait as a Mirror” where Myers uses the repetitions of “hello,” “little” “you” and “something” in succession:
“Hello empty space, hello constant shifting— little disaster, little idea of home always somewhere out of reach. You might think edgier. You might think this is not the way. Perhaps something else. Something sharper or shinier, some undefined other.”
Unlike, say, in her poems riffing off lines from Creeley and Shapiro, Myers is able to move away from the static motion in those poems to something more of the organic structure of an expanded utterance, something more full-bodied. They add to the poems concerned with the quotidian an urgency that raises the stakes. This is particularly pronounced in the third section of A Model Year. The imagery becomes more generalized, and the poems have the force of litany in the beginning of “The Answer”:
“You’d think more— You’d think never enough, never enough. You’d think somewhere else. But no, these words have nothing more to offer. You’d think no, no. You’d think naughty girl. You’d think for Christ’s sake.”
In the opening of Section III, the poem “Forecast” displays a use of repetition that comes from that great example of repetition, The Old Testament:
“The sea will flood & flood. Years spent wandering. Ten years of rain will be followed by ten years of drought. One year of decadence will be followed by one year of plague. Our bellies will be full & then the will be empty.”
While this sense of religiosity or mysticism becomes more pronounced in Section III, it is also present in the rest of the poems throughout (including the long title poem that makes up Section IV). There is absolutely nothing to suggest from any of the poems that Myers is turning to this kind of language as a source of salvation, or a pointing towards an answer. Rather Myers understands the poignancy and cultural and historical weight behind this kind of religious language, and she deploys it for her true concern of A Model Year, which is elegy:
“The wounded in winter take all the books from the shelves. They whisper there was a body, it wanted to live. The wounded in winter picture an empty house & burning letters. (Always this burning for the wounded in winter.) The wounded in winter count backwards, peel back the floorboards. Absently they turn page after page in search of prayer.”
Myers gets a great deal of impact from this use of repetition and the language of litany, and her poetry is deeply reliant on lists and repetition. This is the underpinning of the book’s strongest poetry. The best poems in the book have the weight of litany and sense of religiosity, but it is when she uses them with the intimacy of letters that it works the best, taking the force of elegy from the heavenly and putting it into the life-sized disappointments, saying hello
“The memory of summer unapologetic. After my mother died, you wrote the nicest letter & I never wrote you back.”
“The imagined lives of forties on rooftops & fingernails flecked with silver spray paint. As if a photograph could catch it all or catch anything at all… The frenzied youth smashing up against one another. Now: counter- clockwise. Goodbye lovers & haters. Goodbye New York.”
—Reviewed by Dan Magers