Surfing Goodreads the other morning, I ran across the following description of Megan Kaminski’s Collection: “Suburban terror poems that explore what happens when narrated identity becomes unbearable.” Like many poets, I love a good existential dilemma, so this initial description—whether considered or haphazard, accurate or misleading—served as more than mere description. It was the first line of the book.
Having now read the chapbook in its entirety, I must play devil’s advocate and ask: do I really believe that Collection is a work rife with anxiety over its unbearable narrated identity? The short answer is no. If I’m being honest, I must admit to something quite different: that I read Collection as an inquiry into the urban pastoral, one that rejects the idle tourism of the flaneur in favor of a mode that retools the idea of the urban particular.
Many of the poems in Kaminski’s Collection consist of two stanzas: to one side are a series of one- and two-word lines which form a small column, and on the other side are larger text blocks comprised of longer lines. Although the small pillar of text may be read as a continuous line that descends down the page, I saw it as a discrete, free-standing list of short phrases and objects. Consider the following passage, with its juxtaposition of the vertical and the horizontal orientations.
carryall Yellow jackets announce our surrender to the
slick zero city’s daydream afternoons almond-cookies
abilify tree ducks in the park banks rove the river pockets
ducks squawk empty palms flowering purple-blue we planted
spend late watched shoots spring imagined
hours sun deeper roots stirring subterranean insects
bent corner we do not discriminate between the living and
store spent the dead hold my handbag it’s almost time
When presented with a page that has two bodies of text—one larger and one smaller—there’s a tendency to devote one’s attention to the larger stanza at the expense of the more diminutive one. Read as a list, the tiny lines of the left-hand stanza might be viewed as little more than gloss, a caption to the action taking place in the larger, more phrase-based text body. But the longer I read Collection, the more convinced I became that these tiny lines, so deceptive in size, actually played a central role in the book.
If indeed there are “no ideas but in things,” then Kaminski challenges this received wisdom by selecting objects that are resolute in their thing-ness—not simple desktop shortcuts to big ideas or movie screens upon which human judgments are projected, but metaphors for how one is dreamt by the city when the telescope is turned backwards. In short, the urban particulars of Kaminski’s city are not porous props, awaiting authorial intervention, but autonomous objects that populate the visual field.
These objects also serve to anchor the action of the longer sequences, slowing the pace of the book. All too often, urban poetry becomes caught in the city’s slipstream and seeks to mimic its frenetic pace. The effect is one of extreme transience, where the montage moves at such a clip that the particulars disappear altogether. The poems of Collection, on the other hand, exhibit presence, are less hurried, are more deliberate, are perhaps more real for being grounded in this way. This forced slowdown allows Collection the audacity to declare that “this afternoon is for wasting,” if by wasting we mean paying attention to those things we’re taught to ignore, the innate syntax of the city.