Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Donna Stonecipher, The Ruins of Nostalgia



We had been to the secret service museum, to the shredded-documents-being-pieced-back-together museum, to the museum of the wealthy family’s Biedermeier house from 1830, to the museum of the worker family’s apartment from 1905, to the museum of the country that no longer exists, to the museum of the history of the post office, to the museum of the history of clocks. We had seen the bracelets made of the beloved’s hair, the Kaiserpanorama, the pneumatic tubes, the hourglasses, the shreds, the microphones hidden in the toupees, the ticking, the gilded mirrors reflecting our faces, the two rooms eight people lived in, the eight rooms two people lived in, the shreds, the trays of frangible butterflies carrying freight, the silvery clepsydras, the ticking, the simulacra, the shreds, the vitrines, the velvet ropes, the idealized portraits of the powerful, the ticking, the pink façades, the upward mobility, the shreds, the plunging fortunes, the downward spirals, the ticking, the ticking, the shreds, the shreds. We had been to the museum of the ruins of nostalgia.

I’m deeply behind on the work of American-expat Berlin-based poet Donna Stonecipher [although we did hang out that one time in Berlin], having gone through her Transaction Histories (University of Iowa Press, 2018) [see my review of such here], but not yet seeing copies of her books such as The Reservoir (University of Georgia Press, 2002), Souvenir de Constantinople (Instance Press, 2007), The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House Press, 2008), Model City (Shearsman, 2015) or Prose Poetry and the City (Parlor Press, 2017). At least I’m able to get my hands on her latest, The Ruins of Nostalgia (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2023), an unfolding of sixty-four numbered self-contained prose poem blocks, each sharing a title. As the cover flap offers: “Sparked by the East German concept of Ostalgic (nostalgia for the East) and written while living through unsettling socio-economic change in both Berlin, Stonecipher’s adopted home, and Seattle, her hometown, the poems mount a multifaceted reconsideration of nostalgia. Invented as a diagnosis by a Swiss medical student in 1688, over time nostalgia came to mean the notorious backward glance into golden pasts that never existed.” Stonecipher composes her sequence of prose poems as a weaving of lyric, essay and image, examining the very act of remembering the past, focusing on periods and geographies in the midst of change, ranging from the intimate to the large scale. “It was before the city built traffic circles at every intersection to prevent accidents,” the piece “THE RUINS OF NOSTALGIA 21” begins, “like the one she’d heard one Sunday afternoon that sounded like someone shoving her parents’ stereo to the floor, but she’d run downstairs to find the stereo intact, her brother in front of it as usual, practicing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on the guitar, headphones on.” Her prose lines extend and connect to further lines and threads held together, end to seeming end. “Of course it was a little odd to be glad of the bombs that had enabled the holes to remain holes,” she writes, as part of “THE RUINS OF NOSTALGIA 7,” “to be grateful for the failed bankrupt state that had enabled the holes to remain holes, so lying on the grass of an accidental playground, one just listened to the ping-pong ball batted back and forth across the concrete table. And thought idly of one’s own surpluses and deficits.”

The notion of the repeated title is one I’m fascinated by, something utilized by a string of poets over the recent years, from Peter Burghardt, through his full-length debut (no subject) (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2022) [see my review of such here] to the late Denver poet Noah Eli Gordon’s Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down? (New York NY: Solid Objects, 2018) [see my review of such here] and Johannes Göransson’s SUMMER (Grafton VT: Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2022) [see my review of such here]. There is something compelling about working this particular kind of thread, attempting to push beyond the obvious across those first few poems under a shared title, into an array of what else might come. As well, Stonecipher’s line “the ruins of nostalgia” repeats at the end of poems akin to a mantra or chorus, running through the foundations of the sequence like a kind of tether, stringing her essay-poems together in a singular line of thought. It almost reminds of how Richard Brautigan used language as an accumulative jumble into the final phrase of In Watermelon Sugar (1968), a novel that ended with the name of the book itself; or the nostalgia of Midnight in Paris (2011), a recollection that sought a recollection of a recollection, folding in and repeating, endlessly rushing backwards. As with nostalgia, the phrase is repeated often enough throughout that it moves into pure sound and rhythm and away from meaning; to look too far and too deep into an imagined recollection, one glimpsed repeatedly and uncritically, is to lose the present moment. It is, by its very nature, to become ruin. As “THE RUINS OF NOSTALGIA 11” writes:

We were able to be nostalgic both for certain cultural phenomena that had vanished, and for the time before the cultural phenomena had appeared, as if every world we lived in hid another world behind it, like stage scenery of a city hiding stage scenery of tiered meadows hiding stage scenery of ancient Illyria. For example it wasn’t answering machines, or the lack of answering machines, or the sight of tiny answering-machine tape cassettes that triggered our nostalgia, but the realization that our lives had transcended the brief life of the answering machine, had preceded and succeeded it, encompassed it, swallowed it whole, which meant we had to understand ourselves not as contained entities, but as planes intersecting with other planes, planes of time, technology, culture, desire. One plane had waited by the phone for our best friend’s phone call before answering machines, and then one plane had recorded outgoing messages on the answering machine over and over, trying and trying to sound blithe. How many tiny tape cassettes still stored pieces of our voices like pale-blue fragments of Plexiglas shattered into attics and basements across any number of states? We still owned a tape cassette with the voice of our first beloved on it, or a version of it, and remembered the version of the girl who kept rewinding his message over and over, under an analogue wedge of black sky and endlessly delayed stars. She was listening and listening for answers the answering machine could not provide. When we felt our material planes sliding to intersect with immaterial planes, or vice versa, we bowed our heads and submitted to the pile-up of the ruins of nostalgia.


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