Tuesday, October 5, 2010

idEAL CiTiES – Erika Meitner

Although one of the things I love about poetry is the new depth that each successive reading of a poem brings, first impressions do count. Some poems need warm-up time, but most really good poems have some instant spark that ignites or hook that sinks in, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is. So it is with Erika Meitner.

Her new collection, idEAL CiTiES, is the first I’ve read anything of Meitner’s, but I’m glad I found her. Thought it’s not written in what I would call my preferred style, the details and the word were somehow instantly appealing. She spoke to me.

She writes unadorned yet insightful free-verse meditations; they are expressive and rich though not ornate and overwrought. What is special, though, is simply what and how she observes the world—what connections she makes, what images she juxtaposes.
In Dispraise of Heat

The baby has a 104 fever this morning.
I pump him full of Motrin.
Our neighbor Ruth insists on cold washcloths.

She tells me to put them in his armpits.


My friend from grade school died this week.
He had been missing for days before they found him in a subway.

His mother went to the Bronx one morning.
One morning like any other she went to identify his body.
I describe my son’s fever to strangers.

I say he is burning up.
A woman leaves and iron on a white shirt.
She is subject to domestic distractions.
This positioning of images of “everyday tragedy”, and the matter-of-fact tone, give a sense of helplessness, a new significance to everyday details, and an observation about fate and life, all at the same time. The details of lives of strangers, with a focus on tragedy and children, build on each other into something more powerful that can be said explicitly. The poem concludes:

In grade school my father put a chain-link fire ladder under my bed.
Just in case, he said, so I thought right away of leaving.

But we will implement measures.
We will place cool hands on the foreheads of burning sons.
We will return them gently to bed.

A woman warms herself by a woodstove.
Her skirt shifts in the heat and it is nearly always fatal.
You can hear it in the whistle of the kettle.
Much of what Meitner writes about involves motherhood, and her young son specifically. The poems, though, are collected threads of narrative and observation that weave in and out; the significance of the connection seems to be the point of the poem. “Careful”, for instance, moves from dropping a Pyrex dish, to the speaker’s son falling, to a memory of a broken glass, leading to memories of a road trip, connected to a more recent one for which the photographs were accidentally erased. From there to panning for gold, a neighbor’s careless mothering, and back to Pyrex dishes. Throughout, motifs such as dropping, gold, loss, and sons connect the disparate ideas. I am reminded by this of the singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson, very different in her prosody but similar in this regard. The connections found in the everyday, unembellished yet precise, are allowed to carry the whole weight of the emotion. The result is touching and real.

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