Alex Dimitrov, Together and By Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press)
I’m finishing this review on a flight to Dublin, on which I watched the short film Forever Roars the Vast Atlantic—the entire film is a voiceover recitation of a poem as two swimmers repeatedly dive and swim into the waters off the coast of Ireland: cliffs and roaring waters, fantastic tides that surge up channels. At times, these tides feel like the people who swirl around the speaker of the poems in Alex Dimitrov’s book Together and by Ourselves. Many of the poems find a singular speaker in transit, in New York or LA, driving down freeways and flying on airplanes, after parties and between destinations. The landscapes—place itself—leave indelible, if often invisible, watermarks in us, and yet Dimitrov shows how travel does often the same thing. It’s something of a paradox: both to reside and to travel tend to efface us. The important people tend to be elsewhere, as the past interrupts, interjects, as nights return, as names return, as if unbidden, leaving us with a changed self, with longings we often cannot count, let alone name: “Then I heard you were traveling, I heard you were somewhere, / I heard you were nowhere anyone looked for at all.” (“Lines for People After the Parties”) Dimitrov often uses inventive irony or paradox, not only for the sake of the inventiveness itself, but rather to provoke an emotional response. “Life is like Los Angeles. Bright and disappointing…[life’s] famous and nowhere…I get lost on the way but I always return here.” (“Famous and Nowhere”) The speaker ends this poem with an offhand “I’m just passing through.” He’s right—we’re all just passing through, ultimately, and behind his charming offhand delivery, the spirit of sprezzatura behind his art, and the seemingly random tangents that punctuate and puncture many of his poems, both sex and death act as undertows to the surface asides.
In a recent lecture at Valparaiso University, Cornel West riffed on the nature of life and death—“o that is a funky thing, being born,” he said, and elaborated on how bewildering and surprising it was just to be here. That’s often how I felt when Dimitrov casually dismisses or redefines metaphysical concepts, such as time—or at least, how I think of time. Hunger and lustache and love all bend both time and place in idiosyncratic ways: “I almost believed love then someone new called me / and time’s been repeating. Time’s on like a show.” (“Cocaine”) And o, that is a funky thing—as are concepts like a 13th month, an impossible extra month created by longing (“A little of our misplaced lives, / we saw them waving on the roof in the dark / and thought they were birds…You’ll excuse me, / I went to the thirteenth month of the year looking for you.”), or “The 25th Hour”: “The Carlyle lights up and for someone it’s Wednesday / when truly it’s past that…a twenty-fifth hour of secrets. / A twenty-fifth hour without you.” This collision between reality and perception is perhaps rendered most achingly in “The Last Luxury, JFK Jr,” an elegy to its namesake, in which Dimitrov juxtaposes a pilot’s vertigo with the dizziness of our everyday lives: “Like a single-engine plane in a July haze. / Or our nights that pile up like shoes in a guest room…spatial disorientation occurs when you don’t refer to your instruments / and begin to believe the whatever inside you.” The poem’s structure has a haunting effect, and echoes its content, as it oscillates between sentences on JFK Jr’s life, the tragedy of his plane crash, and expositional asides on how we navigate the horizons of social circles, cities, relationships, life.
In terms of the language itself, Dimitrov’s poems are soft-spoken, conversational—it’s like striking up a conversation with a cosmopolitan stranger on a train who somehow notices a small detail about you, e.g. that you’re wearing your good tie, or that you look worried, and offers you an unbidden insight into the human experience. Though Dimitrov doesn’t utilize meter, and there is little in the way of conspicuous music or rhyme in his poems, nonetheless the poems have a variety of structures—such as a repeated line that turns up again later in the poem like a ghost sighting, sometimes changed slightly, as when “The best reason to live is that there is no reason to live,” in “Some New Thing,” is refined to “The best reason to paint is that there is no reason to paint,” which we find out a line later is a quote—so not only is a new direction opened up by the revision, but speaker and perspective shift slightly. Anaphoric repetitions are sprinkled throughout, another common structure, but the poems are also rich hoards of rhetorical devices, such as epigrams, paradoxes, and antitheses: “You, you, you, / you can read these lines in any order / because I want to leave nothing out / and there’s nothing here.” (“Some New Thing”)
The poems tend to be statement driven, often alternating between enjambed and end-stopped lines, which lends them a rhythmic regularity without feeling metronymic. There’s a pleasurable tension between mostly hypotactic syntax and his use of collage, where quotes (sometimes in untranslated French) and allusions from an astonishing array of sources (Stevens, Keith Haring, Lindsay Lohan, Baudelaire, Jesus, Elvis), tangents, and rhetorical questions circle around to revelations. Rather than an A to B structural linearity, these tangential crosscuts portage to surprise after surprise, which disarms the reader—I couldn’t ever predict where a poem would end up. Exposition sometimes crystallizes into the imperative—as in “Chance Visitors”: “Or when you’re tired of having the same thing /…come make your mistakes like you’re used to. With me.” —and sometimes breaks into fragments: “Fasting and gluttony. Minor and more so…And there was a peach out of season. / Like I imagine we live.” (“Affairs”)
Despite a certain amount of las du monde (“…the soul is a tiring thing. You can have it.”), the worldly speaker is emotionally vulnerable, and the poems risk emotion: ““I arrange the pills into hearts, spread them over the desk: / we are not mathematics. / When the waiter tells me his name / it’s the part of the meal I like best.” (“Speeding Down PCH”) It’s these risks that offer the greatest rewards in Dimitrov’s poems, because the sentiment is earned. What puts off the ennui of travel and interchangeability of days? The belief in love, and the interrogation of its mystery. “All I know is I can’t stop writing about people. / So much happened. I can’t stop writing about love.” (“In the New Century I Gave You my Name”) Love is both promising and haunting. Touch and echo—as the poems themselves in this necessary collection continue to reverberate long after reading them.
Mark Wagenaar is the 2016 winner of Red Hen Press’s Benjamin Saltman Prize for his forthcoming book Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining. His first two collections of poetry are The Body Distances (A Hundred Blackbirds Rising) and Voodoo Inverso, which won the University of Massachusetts Press’s Juniper Prize and the University of Wisconsin Press’s Pollak Prize, respectively. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New Yorker, 32 Poems, Field, Southern Review, Image, and many others. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Valparaiso University.