Model City

Donna Stonecipher

Shearsman Books


Saturday, May 16th, 2015

The experience of reading Donna Stonecipher’s Model City is to be incrementally encompassed by a world built from repeated structures and phrases, a world that fosters our own growing attentiveness as the poet responds to the urban world. The phrase that opens the book and begins each of the four stanzas of a prose poem on each page, “it was like,” anchors each step towards the model city that is so variously and uniquely described that it isn’t Berlin although it often seems so, and isn’t the other cities the acknowledgement page lists as places visited by the wandering poet: Letchworth Garden City, Eisenhüttenstadt, Anniston, Alabama, Portolago, Le Corbusier’s la ville radieuse, Tony Garnier’s la cité industrielle. For all its particulars, the book is not an address to a particular place, but a poetic quest for a language by which to approach the complex interactions of place and self; and although it reads as a documentary, it is also a highly affecting work of imagination and sensibility, so much so that one often feels afloat in a world concocted and dreamy, there and not there. It operates as a wish for a city that will truly be a model for citizens. The front inscription by Le Corbusier reads, “We are waiting for a form of town planning that will give us freedom.” Model City is not theoretical, but located, even if one doesn’t always know what the location is:

It was like wishing you could explain to the history professor how the city
resides in your head: like a well-worn atlas of beauties and shocks, not a-
historical, but not ordered by history: actual, but not necessarily factual.

(Model City [20])

The use of the device, “it was like,” operates as an open-ended metaphor creating multiple answers in different situations with different perspectives. Although the phrase might indicate fixity, it rather sets off explorations that are thoughtful, provocative, melancholy and witty. Similarly, the structure of the book, modeling the idea of “the model”—three three-line sections for each prose poem, each titled “Model City”—seems to signal rigidity, but undermines that very rigidity by contradictions. Each “it” and each “like” acknowledges a kind of inadequacy (one can’t get a model city into a book of poems, but only in snapshots, small piecemeal instances of, “it was like.”) Each place and each person, including the poet, is necessarily a construction:

It was like the citizen knowing that home is a construction exposing our
own constructedness; he chose the most beautiful foreign language and tried
to disappear into its declinations.

(Model City [33])

Each constructed perception is also a limited and idiosyncratic one. Although the poet does address killing, surveillance, class differences, capitalism, each is conveyed in a moment of a sharp perception rather than in a more developed form. In “Model City [41]” the poet describes tourists putting their fingers in the bullet holes left from WWII, wanting “to feel bullets rip through their own peacetime lives.” She notes a “free store” where nothing costs anything, and then realizes that a year later a hole has replaced the store. She sighs and states ironically, “the torment of idealism is over, the street may now return to the real.” (Model City [45]) After visiting a Secret Service Museum, she attends to the secret cameras peering into dark corners of the city. Model City seems, however, more a model of a generative act of seeing, a procedure open to anyone in any place than a detailed or ideological critique of urban life. Often the poet turns a critical eye on her own actions as in “Model City [11]” when she thinks of taking photograph of a gutted squat. The paint on the façade provides a mournful sense of a failed resistance: “WIR BLEIBEN ALLE” (we are all staying) and then the poet imagines herself as another sort of voyeur: “It was like trying to decide if taking a photograph of the gutted squat/ would be ethical or unethical, if, in taking a photograph, you would be/ like Weegee photographing a corpse, or Audubon painting a dead bluebird.” In this age of iPhone photographs, these words, by implication, seem to apply to us all. Indeed I often experience a sly reticence in certain phrases as if it were up to the reader to make her own associations like those modeled in this project.

It is the unique formal structure of the book that makes it increasingly engaging. Stonecipher has built a kind of paper city within the covers of the book, allowing for different aspects of the urban to present themselves briefly in different sections: the ideal, the overly planned, the oddity of architectural arrangements, a tourist location, the global market, alienation, a site of language. Language (not just references to German, but all language) defines the city and the city shapes the self, including the body. “Model” refers both to the city “out there” and also to the poet who shapes what is seen. “Model City [1],” for example, describes new hotels being built all over the city and then describes absence, pondering the “o” in hotel as an absence one might fall through, gathering up along the way a complex idea of “ownership”:

It was like the feeling of falling through the ‘o’ in ‘hotel’ as you almost fall
asleep in your own bed, the bed that you own, caught at the last minute by
ownership, the ownership of your wide-awake self.

Throughout we follow the poet/traveler, someone whose perspective throughout is that of a distant observer who is also completely given over to the places she finds herself in, who is stringently organized and also offhand, lonely /alone and with a beloved, part of the city and not. In a taxi in a foreign city, she passes “for rent” signs:

It was like looking at the ‘Zu vermieten’ signs and thinking about the
organizing principle of the window: organizing light and air, inside and
outside, volume and surplus, belonging and not belonging, opaque as glass.

(Model City [5])

Within the sections, there are several recurring arguments or desires that help define the poet. One of her values is for the greatest amount of freedom and thus she exhibits a resistance to the absolute, the overly planned, the brutality of abstractions: “to build means to lard with ideology.” The book evinces a strong appreciation for the irrational and for the free associations of an individual imagination. So, in a town that forbids lawns, lawns become a sign of resistance:

It was like driving around the friendly model city held in position only by
laws and decrees, by writs and punishments and threats of expulsion, and
thinking about the lovely irresponsibility of lawns.

(Model City [27])

In another section, the poet describes the need to keep a public flowerbed filled with bloom, about the civic need for “the beautiful illusion of perpetual bloom, about sacrifice and waste, meaningless labor and graft”:

It was like thinking about all those torn-out tulips and violets, pansies and
forget-me-knots, lying in meaningless heaps on wheelbarrows, the irrational-
ity of an economy of beauty, the flower-like ecstasy of the irrational.

(Model City [52])

Another recurring topic is that of time and of nostalgia for lost cities of the past. The poet is aware of the clock ticking, of her own changing desires and of changes to cities, both their destruction and their growth. New buildings begin to crumble soon after opening, for example the new opera house in China by Zaha Hadid:

It was like thinking about the energy of ideas and the exhaustion of reali-
zation, about the perfect opera house in Zaha Hadid’s mind—which will
take much longer to crumble.

(Model City [63])

I hope these quotations give some small sense of what reading this book is like; it is like following the consciousness of a poet into unfamiliar cities and being privy to the open-ended thinking each place evokes. The repeated phrases create a particular person walking, reading, moving, watching—the verbals suggesting the continual necessity of defining and redefining, “what is was like” both out there and to the writer as the vague “it” develops incrementally and imaginatively. Model City takes us on a journey both geographical and metaphysical, illustrating an intense mode of musing about place and, more specifically about how foreign one often feels no matter where one is. More and more, it is precisely foreignness that provokes such revelations and insights into what is authentic, what makes for value, what love looks like, what aspirations for a model life might be, and perhaps how we need the unfamiliar to prick us alive. The pleasure of the book is in the incremental changes over each of the three-line sections, following the poet’s meandering in a city and simultaneously in a consciousness, each transforming the other. Here are the final three stanza from “Model City [17].”

It was like watching the snow slowly powder over the construction site
across the street, which will one day be a hotel, the snow filling in the space
temporarily where one day there will be permanent temporariness.


It was like slowly coming to think of the snow as permanent, the construction
site as permanent, the grand opening of the hotel permanently postponed,
the spring postponed, the grand opening of the crocuses.


It was the feeling powdered over with snow oneself, as one is part of the
city; apart from it, watching it from the window, to be sure; but part of it,
a powdered-over temporary part.

The scene is that of watching from a bedroom window, a scene that moves momentarily into the future and then slowly halts the movement of time (although we get a glimpse of the crocuses to come). Finally, the poet imagines feeling both apart from the city (both inside a room and also a visitor) and part of it, using the imagined powder of snow, so transitory itself, as that which unifies them—at least temporarily. With seemingly great ease, the complications of belonging and not belonging—for both things and oneself—are lyrically expressed. By avoiding “I” the poet also put us as readers at the window, “watching.”

In one poem, the poet speaks of the “triumph of flow” [69] and in another of “permanent transitoriness” [60] and for me, the book is a description not just of one poetic traveler, but of all of us as travelers caught in eternal flow, always belonging and not belonging, owning nothing, as the poet writes, owning nothing, “not even the vacant body you offer to your loved one.” [53] This is a work that takes us into itself, using travel to foreign cities to highlight and model the altogether foreign quality of seeing and being.

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