reviewed by Dan Magers
Arlo Quint's long poem Photogenic Memory aims not at glorifying or elegizing the past, but at animating the present with an aura that it might have for someone viewing our time from a future time. The poem's present is elegiac and animated, which is not something one is infused with on the morning commute. But the stress made from the minutiae of life is taken out of the poem, with a sense of nostalgia added.
While Photogenic Memory's 358 lines display a kaleidoscope of imagery and reflections that turn like sides of a prism, the structure of the poem is deeply rooted in the traditions of English poetry. The spine of the poem is forty-two sestets, with a brief break at line 254 into three quatrains in an a-a-a-a rhyming pattern. The lines are often autonomous cognitive thoughts that drift into the next autonomous line, although the two would not necessarily logically follow each other. This movement creates a parade through eighties references; reinvigorated clichés fractured by enjambment or the requirements of meter; sly references to poetry's history (“February is the most insane fucking month”); along with countless lines created out of stress and sound from the ground up. “Pooling open instant height/ darkly a knife signed animal/ stuck setting a tonal stench/ killing kitsch with a better trap.”
The uniformity of the stanzas is set against the variation of their metric length, and, more noticeably, in their spacing and indentation:
the road really is more and less the road repeats itself and is suspiciously curled asleep by the strung-out Old Town fire on location with films of our dreams scripted literate and red
While there is a logic in the spacing, it does not hold from stanza to stanza. As if the entirely of the page were either filled with language that was erased to reveal what is there, or the page was blank with lines emerging underneath.
What emerges is the viewpoint of New York urbanites with writing on the mind (“on 2nd avenue/ where I feel the need to preface all statements with specific time/ hoping to one day love each minute”; “if I were writing hear in hand/ dripping in the new sound we soaked/ solar flare lighting the big poem”). If this seems too insular by half, it brings up the obvious question: if one is thinking about writing all the time, why would he or she not also write about writing, or thinking about writing? While Photogenic Memory is not completely preoccupied by writing, the project to collect thoughts and memories brings to mind what Helen Vendler says people often mean when they say a poem is about the writing of poetry; that among other things, it is “about how people construct an intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort experience by wish and dream.”
Caught up in this making are the signs of urban habitation and stress that pervade the poem's descriptions of living and doing (“good days that never end/ not having healthcare but/ getting hit point for real”; “the party always ending in the kitchen”; “kicking some landlord ass/ seriously right in the balls”). Quint's lines that are nominally stressful, particularly for those that can relate (as many in his target audience might), the lines are not stressful in tone; instead it is more a list of situations, good and bad, becoming romanticized, though not abstract and unchallengeable. The poem is more like mythmaking at work, stretched from the matter of the mind into something whole and autonomous from the experiences of the writer.
The longer a poem becomes, it becomes increasingly important to scrutinize its structure. While the poem has uncanny sense of connecting its material into something like a narrative, it is still essentially collage, with lines that change subjects, dart around, and evade conclusions through their passing. While this may be intentionally mimetic, capturing the mind's turning thoughts, it also demonstrates that the present cannot have the strong ending point we can append to the end of a distant era.
goodbye cruel flicker of stress knowing the day after it's not nostalgia on a loop but not stuck gaining an overall shape and living again
The poem is “now” looking back at “now,” which is in a sense, not possible. Even the images brought forth from the past arrive the way one tells a story at a party to an inviting stranger who grew up in the same time or place and gets all the references. But all is happening in the present time. It can never match with what will happen in the future. It is only an attempt, a shout into the future to shape an era.