Utopia Minus by Susan Briante
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2011)
Susan Briante’s second full-length collection, Utopia Minus, resists its own intense lyricism, augmenting its images at every turn with their social context, the conditions of their production, the conditions that produced those conditions. As the layers accrete, the collection becomes a study in overlay, a meditative archeology, not only of landscapes, impersonal and intimate, but of bodies themselves. In the layers, Briante sifts trafficopters and magnolias, boxwood and chemicals, old airport, new airport, a marriage gone to seed, a new one forming.
Here, the landscape, the signage, the body (his and hers), and the forms of industrial decay come together: “a pilot light at the back of my throat” (3). This is nearly cyborg, but without the triumphalism, without the progress narrative, the ambition. This is the mixed matter body of postindustrial participation—sacked, generative—the suburban landscape of “ruins in reverse” where, as the epigraph culled from Robert Smithson attests, “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”
In this condition of ruin, Briante reveals a thoroughly comingled landscape of human/natural/built. It is the “season/ of circulars” (71) and there is “a cell phone tower built to look like a pine tree” (67). Indeed, the land and machines are stamped with the human: we move through “small gasps of prairie” (4) and “the lawn mower bares its teeth” (45).
The mingling of private and public here is also insistent. In a recurrent series titled “Memoranda” that punctuates the collection, Briante addresses poems to public officials. In a poem titled “Dear Mr. Chairman of Ethics, Leadership and Personnel Policy in the U.S. Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel” Briante explains, “Yes, that was me kneeling down to take a birth control pill by baggage claim area three” (29), illustrating how our intimacies are themselves intimate with the not-so-external structures in which they occur—airports, shopping malls, highways—rendering the body itself a “quarry or construction site” (29), like emptying our pockets at the security gate. The “Sir” to whom these poems is addressed is informed of conditions on the ground: weather, in-process construction, desire: “Today, Sir, we have sun” (55).
Over everything hangs the specter of disaster, which is both intimate and administrative—an insurance policy, the “fragile braid of a spinal cord” (47). Disaster falls into stacks like paper, like sediment. Destruction here is daily, like rust or love or paperwork, but this doesn’t make it less urgent.
This is perhaps the striking thing about this collection. In the face of decay, we do not find cynicism or cleverness or the shrug of inevitability. Instead, we find urgency: “How does a tree move when it is angry? I want to be angry like that.” (18).
Something central about Briante’s intellectual, emotional, and poetic practice comes through in the poem “Nail Guns in the Morning.” She 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, the 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 to us.
Last night over dirty dishes, I told Farid
I would never write a poem that just said: Stop the War.
In this particular lyric landscape, where strip-mall stores in their indistinguishable/shared bodies (“Target/Best Buy/Payless”) sit under the bruised sky, Briante tracks the history of the emotions she documents, delivering us to this spot via earlier items from the archives of technological disturbance. A few lines earlier: “the study of trauma comes shortly after the steam engine, an affliction known as ‘railway spine,’ characterized by headaches, fatigue” (4). Together, these references form a search into the affect archives, into the emotions that attend trains, that attend shopping centers and empire, their etymologies, their ancestors and relations.
Briante’s refusal in the final line above (“I would never write a poem that just said: Stop the War.”) is in contrast to the poem’s ending, which arrestingly reads, “Stop the war, stop the war, stop the war, stop the war, stop the war” (15). But the difference here is clear. This is the difference between billboard and meditation, between lyric-as-univocal moment-monument and this interrupted, sutured, multivocal, diachronic documentary lyric.
Ultimately, it’s this rigorous sense of connection that drives the collection as it documents a multitudinous body of limbs (his and hers), desires, wet towels, rooftop air conditioning units, Texas roadside flowers, and the histories of roads and roadside flowers. She asks, “Laura Bush, what will you plant for us?” (75), insisting on the intimacy of infrastructure.
There’s something highly formal and very queer in Briante’s questions about bodies, their boundaries, histories, and connections. She writes, “When I write about my lover, I am writing about myself, the other/ part with hard cock” (45). At the same time, she asks, “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? (40). These are questions about the forms of bodies, of the self, of families, of connection, which become tied to the collection’s pervasive questions about the forms of landscape and memory and contemporary lyric. This is perhaps what Utopia Minus most documents: a sense not of abstract connection or continuity, exactly, but of everything actually touching everything else, a concerted contiguity: “every day/ another source of heat expires, bones from another/ century” (81).
Laura Trantham Smith is a poet and teacher whose work has been produced by the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the Painted Bride Art Center, and the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia. She studied poetry at Naropa University and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. She has served as a Poet in the Schools in Philadelphia, PA and Austin, TX and has led gender and sexuality writing workshops at the International Drag King Extravaganza, the Queer Texas Conference, and OutYouth. Recent articles have appeared in Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. and Reflections: Writing, Service-Learning, and Community Literacy. She teaches poetry, African American literature, and creative writing at Stevenson University in Maryland.