Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sandra Simonds, Atopia

I am a terrible American
So suicidal
I am a terrible, suicidal American
who throws herself into your desiccated bank vaults
Yet I do not want America to kill me before I kill myself
I can’t stand my positive acquisitions
I throw them to the dogs like marrowless bones
I can’t stand my drinking
I hate the fires of money
I feel no nationalism
I feel no nationalism in my heart, my hands, my brain, or my pussy
I myself am worse than a rogue state
I feel peeled away from society
I will never leave my bed
I want to die in bed with the covers over my head

Tallahassee, Florida poet Sandra Simonds’ latest full-length poetry title is Atopia (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2019), and the first of hers I’ve properly spent any time with. The author of a handful of poetry chapbooks, Simonds is the author of six previous full-length collections: Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Further Problems with Pleasure (University of Akron Press, 2017), Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015) and Orlando (Wave Books, 2018). Atopia is constructed as a lyric suite, assembled as an accumulation of untitled stand-alone poems that average roughly a page in length, that each respond to elements of contemporary American politics and the results of such from the ground level. Wikipedia informs that “atopia” refers to, among other things, “a society which does not have territorial borders,” and “an inhospitable location that cannot be turned into a dwelling-place,” and Simonds’ Atopia is a book that responds to those descriptions, existing as a book of protest, and of response to uncertainty and political upheavals prompted by and around American President Donald J. Trump’s first term of office.

Look at the people we have on our side:
Walter Benjamin is on our side
Hannah Arendt is on our side
James Baldwin is on our side
Sandra, they are all dead
But they are on our side
The other people,
the capitalists, who do they have?
They don’t have anyone
All of their ideas are shit
Listen, we have Brecht
I was going crazy
I picked up my phone
I was talking to Maged

            Utopia             Utopia
      Utopia       Utopia
Utopia                               Utopia 

Maged is moving from Seattle
to Atlanta to be closer to his son

I dream of the New Jerusalem of love,
an Eden of sparks from the mouth of the rose cult

The book opens with a short lyric on America as a cage, writing: “Baudelaire said / Poe thought America was one giant cage. / To the poet, a nation is one big cage. / And isn’t the nation mostly filled with air? / Try to put a cage around your dream. / The cage escapes the dream. / I see it streak and stream.” The idea of the “cage” of America, or that holds America, runs throughout the collection, and Atopia exists a book of enormous anxiety and frustration, writing her attempts at a normal life around fascism, climate emergency and the destructive elements of capitalism and nationalism, and what kind of world her children are growing into. She writes: “That you came to me in those dreams and I tried not to be afraid / of you / That the dreams were never about the world falling apart as so / many dreamed / That this is not the apocalypse and we both know this / That someone will ask who the ‘you’ of the poem is seriously / leave me alone [.]” Atopia writes out optimism, pessimism, exhaustion and potential action, writing around the potential, as well as the failure, of poetry, theory and art on political and social change, even as some of her poems write directly to (akin to his After Lorca, composing epistolary poems “to” Federico Garcia Lorca, which allowed him to speak of and about multiple other subjects), the late American poet Jack Spicer. She writes: “Sir, my poems are expensive; they cost me my life.” Simonds composes her poems in dialogue with social media, political speech and news reports, and more directly, with friends, neighbours and her two small children. “‘I’m the opposite of racist,’ my son declares, / ‘all my friends are black.’ My son / is eight and white and so we talk / about the structure, / structural racism, this structure, / that one, one cage, another, and another, / as we walk in circles, in a figure eight, / on the longleaf pine forest loop.” In an undated interview for The Bennington Review around her then-newly published Orlando, conducted by Matthew Tuckner, she speaks on Atopia, then still a work-in-progress:

I’m still working to put Atopia together—it’s a pretty overtly political book about how everyday life is informed by the political events since Trump was elected. I think we are all feeling that trauma so the book has been a way to deal with that—how to raise kids in this era, but not from the perspective of liberal, white self-absorbed trauma. I’m a Marxist-Feminist and believe that capitalism needs to be dismantled and all of my books have this underlying political perspective. I wonder if I would have written the same Atopia if Hillary Clinton was elected—it’s certainly plausible.

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