Our guest poetry editor Brian Turner selects poems that are imbued with the language of the metropolis.
Photograph via Flickr by Dave Kliman
There is a certain communication taking place between the lamp post and the sidewalk, the lime trees framing the autumn boulevard as distant statues hail the evening traffic forward in the muted bronze light of sunset. At some point, the ongoing constructs of social space internalize within us. It is, in part, the job of the poet to hear out these missives and to recognize the urban landscape we carry within the worlds our poems create.
Between plant life and stonework, bird song and headlamp, car horn and jackhammer, exhaust vent and the slow rise and fall of the dreamer breathing on the thirty-second floor—it would be unwise to think the metropolis offers the poem only its vertical and horizontal surfaces, its mechanically produced sound waves, the skyline the mere silhouette of a giant façade. I begin to wonder—what language does the city offer the poem, the poet, the reader? And, further—how does this language not only affect us but effect us?
The stanza (or “room” in Italian) is given literal rooms, buildings, corridors, walls, and windows through which one can view the world without or the world within. Roadways and boulevards function as transport both for the body and for the mind. But, perhaps they are not literal at all. The imagination gathers in the raw materials, forms the blueprint for a structure made of language, and then invites the reader to participate in building a similar architecture within the reader’s consciousness. One city is carried over into another, wall by wall, window frame by window frame, neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough, arrondissement by arrondissement. To borrow one of my favorite words from Jack Gilbert’s poetry, we are—as readers and as buildings constructed of language—augmented by this process.
As I read through the poems gathered for this issue, I found the pulse of the city insisting that it be heard—even in poems which leaned more toward a pastoral tradition. In the Paris of Pascale Petit’s “My Father’s City”—“The gargoyles’ cheeks flush / from the strain of breathing for you.” In “Smoke,” Michael Symmons Roberts asks, “What new edifice / hardens within, waits for the world to sharpen.” Dunya Mikhail takes us to “Hong Kong,” where the flowers are “everywhere: / on porcelain, / on bracelets, / on ashtrays, / on silken cravats, / on hems of coats, / on carpets, / on walls, / in meals, / in paintings, / in speeches…” Billy Ramsell’s “Distant Fears” recognizes that “The tide’s placid, insistent tongue is only wave / after wave of finance washing up on this green haven.” And, finally, Matthew Sweeney’s poem (“The Sleepwalker”) offers an intricate puzzle of consciousness and intent which begins with this opening gem of Carver-esque minimalism: “The sleepwalker shot himself / on the bridge over the freeway.”
When viewed as more than simple backdrop or stage treatment, poetry’s urban landscape challenges us to see beyond the reflective meditations possible in the pastoral mirror set before Narcissus. What, then, do we learn? I have singled out one possible thread running (arguably) through these five poems. Of course, these poems (and poets) offer more complications and delights than I’ve sketched and hinted at here. Still, even within the narrow focus I’ve suggested—what do we learn? Are we glimpsing the arcadian ideal refashioned in concrete and steel? Are we witnessing the dystopian, the ruination of form in private and public life? What does the urban topology tell us? Well, that’s part of the joy in reading. The poem finishes in the reader—you. I encourage you to wander out into the world of these poems and, in your own way, to be augmented by them.
Brian Turner is the author of Phantom Noise and Here, Bullet (Alice James Books). He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on NPR, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Weekend America. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. He directs the low-residency MFA at Sierra Nevada College.