reviewed by Amish Trivedi
In Megan Kaminski’s second collection of poems Deep City, at the end of the second section, titled “Apocrypha” is a poem called “Returns”:
Tracing circles on the earth with my toe I hear the jets overhead and metal plates being lifted and set down upon others under the natural action of these bodies there is only a finite number of orbits Three phone calls make for an exciting day and I think she would like to withhold but will not the brown rocks’ shadows paint the car a more subtle shade and everyone brings cameras Things return to zero eventually his pulse and the wool turtlenecks in the drawer le verre se brise She trades me her story for a piece of my thigh I wish I had the pictures they took in Paris, when he was away we have taken care of the taxes after connecting to Tokyo by way of Geneva I pull petals off flowers on uncertain afternoons whether uncertainty can be worse than things that happen and pass the train returns to the sea to visit in a few days This afternoon a plane flew into a house in West L.A. I made figure–eights with my hips in the mirror and waited
The city here is a frame, a place in which all things happen— the scene occurs in that context, in that space. This poem covers the experience of being in a place without giving us direct event, without pointing directly to things as they happen but rather the moments that play out on the stage. The poem, though, does not ask us to consider just the experience of the “I,” but rather puts us into this place, puts the reader’s toes into the earth. In these lines, Kaminski gives nothing away but pulls the reader into her space so that the reader can evaluate their own experience.
Deep City isn’t near me, but (a feeling I rarely get from other books), it is of me. I come to a city without an agenda because the city itself is the agenda for me, just the wander and become part of it. I’m not creating a map of the city in any observable way but rather a set of senses that appeal to me, that I want to recreate every time I visit that place. The sense of a place is always strong and when altered, it can become problematic. When I write these reviews, I often focus a lot on experience because that is what I try to focus on as a poem–writer as well because, in the Lacoue–Labarthe sense, I believe a poem should be about an experience versus event. Megan Kaminski seems just as experientially–driven, interested more in experience–sharing than event–sharing; just as interested in not giving us the lay of the land but the derivative (in a calculus sense) of the map, the things that are going underneath the surface structure of that place and in the lives of the people that inhabit that space. Deep City isn’t a book about where to eat or what to see or what museum to spend hours in but what it’s like to wake up in that place every day, to go grocery shopping and where to tell your friend(s) to meet for beer and a quick bite. Deep City is about going home and getting on the couch because the city surrounds you every day of your life. But that doesn’t mean you don’t wander through it sometimes.
Kaminski says as much in “Mapping: notes on a poetic practice.” In this short piece, Kaminski talks about Deep City as an “ongoing exploration of space, the environment, and human demands.” She goes on to say that the project “considers the city and the body through memory.” Memory is event, but it remains because of the experience of that event, because something about an occurrence forces it to remain in some way attached to us. Kaminski uses the word “inquiry” when describing her process of writing and it is easy to see in the text of Deep City: there’s a desire to look within, beyond the surface, something the space of a poem provides for because it does not set any limits on the scope or nature of inquiry.
Where Deep City kicks into high gear, though, is when the city becomes background— when it becomes the stage upon which all other action takes place. What I mean is that all experience here happens in the city but the city is not the thing being discussed: it is the world of the narrator takes place with the city surrounding: “Vowels drip down the thighs/conjunctions across backs” (15). Here, the language in this place is on display, but it’s never direct in this work. Kaminski comes at the kind of feature we might thing of implicitly as estranges it for us to experience in a new way. We often talk of how people in New York or Boston or Chicago talk, but what is that like? One could give examples of speech but that does not give the experience of being the outsider or aware insider hearing that speech.
The city exists best in the mind of the experiencer, the flâneur who wanders through the streets with no particular place to go or be and doesn’t mind seeing or hearing the day–to–day activities of that place. “Flâneur” is a term Noemi Press applied in various write–ups of the book and I think it applies well, but it’s never something Kaminski says herself in these poems. That would be going too far, giving up the position of being a wandering–sort by acknowledging that this is what is happening. This awareness seems to come into the book later, in the act of writing, but the experience of the city is more direct, more pure. It is something that goes in and gets processed later.
I feel this is crucial in writing the poem, something I wrote about after reading about first–responder poetics, Seth Abramson’s idea that poetry should be immediate to respond to events and ideas in our world. However, I don’t believe it’s the job of the poet to be on the ground of the disaster as responder but as witness, absorbing all contexts, all ideas that are floating around, and encapsulate them in the space of written text. This does not happen quickly and only comes after further reflection, rather than in a knee–jerk manner. A poem can’t be knee–jerk: it needs to situate itself before it can express the experience of a thing, no matter what that thing is. Kaminski here is doing just that, attempting to use the space of the poem to process the experience of a place and its people and its time. She’s not a first–responder but someone who is absorbing the city and everything happening in it in order to provide through the poem the experience of that thing through an estranged language, a detached eye. Even if we the reader have no direct knowledge of this place, assuming it even exists, this is not what’s important. What is, at least to me, important, is the sense of the object or idea being experienced coming through.
And that Kaminski does successfully throughout all three parts of Deep City. In some ways, the “city” aspect falls away, a frame taken off that leaves us in the raw space of language and form than a city–frame might necessarily encapsulate. In sections two and three of the book, experience expands to anywhere one might be, providing a text which can be read without the author necessarily handing anything over but rather asking the reader to consider their own space in these habitats. The reader is tasked with understanding their daily experience regardless of where they live, asking the reader to consider the how’s and why’s.
“Your waking spans the day” (40) she begins in the poem “As Chief Cartographer for the City”. The map–maker does not design anything, but has to capture it, has to understand what constitutes a landmark and what might be considered ephemeral to the outsider, even one who will soon be semi–permanently inside that space. Even the tunnels of the next couplet reminds us of another waking, a way through the outside world covered up, a waking up on the far side of that tunnel in another building, another part of the city, its architecture. Our waking into these spaces is not something we simply do in the mornings or when we emerge into the new place but is something that happens gradually, happens as we become aware of the space we inhabit, a slow absorption that occurs with time and reflection. One might wake from sleep only once a day but one is constantly absorbing, using the senses to experience a place and time. This is a different kind of waking, one we hear more in the new term “woke,” the idea of coming into a political reality. That does not escape Kaminski in Deep City, but functions more on the surface, just as it does in all our lives. In the deep structure, politics are embedded in our reality so deeply that we cannot peek around them until we have “woke” to see how they really function in our society. “Take everything that can be carried,” she writes: back taxes, blueprints, indemnity plans. These things make any place function, but under the surface, as the derivative: we see the building but we experience the blueprints. We drive the road, not the taxes.
In a lot of ways, Deep City is a light text. I don’t mean that it is light in terms of theme— quite the opposite. But it is a small book, cropped into a square, with 75 pages from the first to the last. In some ways, it’s ideal for the rushed ways of life, for the space which does not have time to deal with lingering. The poet lingers for us when we cannot, absorbs context on our behalf. Our lingering is for later, for when there is time, unlike day to day existence, which is about survival. Kaminski has a lighter touch in her language, her few Celanisms (like ink–soaked and skull–deep on page 12) seem natural and not overly processed. Deep City is something, like experience, that could be carried with, brought along and read in quick bursts while experiences of another sort wash passed.