by Susan Briante
Ahsahta Press 2011
Reviewed by Gina Myers
“Why should we want to confine ourselves in two’s or five’s or cities?”
On her author page on Ahsahta Press’s website, Susan Briante writes, “[T]he lyric is a space of thoughtful speculation, a call for action or witnessing, a place where imagining can become an act of deep sympathy, where we might recognize connections and complicities.” And this is precisely the type of lyric the reader encounters in Briante’s newest collection of poems, Utopia Minus. The title, taken from Robert Smithson’s A Guide to the Monuments of Passaic New Jersey, focuses on a “ruin in reverse” where buildings “don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.” And throughout the collection, Briante documents these ruins, the suburbs, and explores what it is like to be alive among such landscapes.
The project is reminiscent of Brenda Coultas’s A Handmade Museum (2003), where Coultas looks at the detritus of a neighborhood in attempt to tell its story, but here Briante is not looking at objects left behind in the street; instead, she turns her eye outward to the constructed landscapes that surround us. The landscapes she engages are largely set in Texas, though she also has poems about New Jersey, where she grew up, and New York, where she once lived. And while specific places are named—for example, “Abandoned Commercial Use Property, 43rd and Ave. B,” “3000 Block Kings Ln—Demolished Apartment Complex,” and “From the Ruined Concrete Foundry West of Airport Blvd between Manor and M.L.K.”—anyone can relate to the environs Briante describes, even if their only recognition is from the oft-documented modern ruins displayed in magazines and on TV. However, Briante does more than just document the ruin—she’s able to detail what it is like to live amongst these ruins, which is a part of the story many news organizations ignore when covering places like Detroit.
Of course, it’s not just the abandoned buildings that are ruins—it’s the strip malls that are ruins, and we, who have grown up into this America, are ruined too. In “Nail Guns in the Morning,” Briante writes:
Storms this afternoon in Dallas
in the parking lot of the Target/Best Buy/Payless Shopping Center,
big chalices of rain, contusioned sky over the east, big yellow bus moving north
toward the dark end of—what?—
this weather, this fiscal year, this end of empire during which I am reading
the circulars stuck in my screen door, ice waiting
in the highest breath of atmosphere.
It will get us.
Throughout the collection there is a lot of attention given to nature and the manmade world, but there is often a sense of disconnection or distance—a demonstrated ability to be aware of nature, but to be separate from it, which is perhaps yet another way in which we’re ruined. Human life often feels hollow here—reading the circulars stuck in the screen door—while nature threatens: “It will get us.” There is a great sense of foreboding, dread, and threat in this collection, portraying what it feels like to be alive during a time of endless war. In deft images, Briante is able to capture this mood. In a short poem, “December,” “Pigeons ascend to high voltage cables,” is at once a familiar and an ominous image.
And while much of the book has a sense of darkness, there is humor at times—like when the author laments, “O Sunglass Hut, we hardly knew you!” There is also a deeply personal side to the poems, as Briante explores a developing relationship and all the complications that come with it: “We love each other / and yet and yet and yet / Why should we want to confine ourselves in two’s or five’s or cities?” she writes in “Abandoned Commercial Use Property, 43rd and Ave. B.” The penultimate poem in the book, “A Letter to Eileen Myles,” one of several prose poem letters, is about wanting to become a parent despite what seems like impossible situations—age and money:
Once I asked the MacArthur award-winning poet CD Wright about children. CD Wright said: Don’t worry. These days you can buy a baby on eBay. But if we eBayed the baby, Eileen, we would still have to pay $7,500 a year for day care. We’d still have to find money for a down payment, replace our 10-year-old cars, plan our retirement.
In Briante’s first poetry collection Pioneers in the Study of Motion (2007), set in Mexico, she established herself as a strong lyric poet with an unwavering eye. She can subtly move between observation and witness to internal reflection and meaningful critiques of society. And she further establishes those strengths here. In “Up the Road,” Briante writes:
Bring your daughters to this place
tell them there was something special,
tell them we were something special,
our struggle as too few chroniclers.
Thankfully, Briante is one of the few who has taken on the ro
le of chronicler of struggles.