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American Poetry: An Allegory

ISSUE:  Spring 2012
The State of American Poetry


If you approach along one of the usual paths, you’ll notice what at first appear to be tumbled walls, broken chimneys, and a series of ruined fortresses or perhaps religious buildings. These are, in fact, the fossilized remains of the previous inhabitants of the region, who were nearly the size of dinosaurs. The current inhabitants live and work in their forefathers’ massive, abandoned bodies until those structures collapse into dust, a practice that anthropologists consider unique. And because each generation necessarily occupies less space than the one that preceded it (which must now be used as a dwelling), the inhabitants have been getting steadily smaller and smaller. Presumably this progression can’t continue beyond a certain stage, but if so, that stage hasn’t yet been reached. Indeed, some theorists have argued that the process will continue indefinitely, until everything vital in the country has been either been reduced to minimum size and maximum density, like a dwarf star, or been drained away entirely, leaving the last inhabitant as weightless as a ghost.


You might also approach from the sea, and observe that the state consists entirely of an island roughly the size of Malta. You’ll need to beach your boat, because there aren’t any docks. You’ll also need to bring food, because there aren’t any restaurants. But there are taverns. And there is a wall. It stretches around the island and is scoured and battered whenever a big storm rolls in. The inhabitants keep their backs to the wall—and by extension, to the sea—and face each other in a circle. Within that circle, there is warmth, light, and music. The inhabitants engage only in oblique discussion of the encroaching waters, but on certain nights a high, screaming wind cuts briefly through the conversation, and you can feel the inhabitants shiver.


Or you pass through a black and cobwebbed forest to find a city sparkling with clockwork. The inhabitants are inventors. Their first projects were simple tools designed to assist the memory (the abacus, for instance, and an assortment of color-coded blocks). Then they began attempting to reproduce the sounds and shapes of animals, most notably in the form of mechanical birds that could sing the time of day with shattering poignancy. Eventually the inhabitants started tinkering with their own flesh, replacing limbs with pistons and vocal cords with nets of steel mesh. The progression will conclude until the inhabitants have separated themselves entirely from their bodily heritage, at which point they will be indistinguishable from the miles of machinery that surround them.


Coming from the west, you notice a city facing the ocean and sitting almost exactly at the level of the incoming waves. The inhabitants have been placed on watchtowers so high above the city that they almost seem to exist in a separate territory. From this vantage point, the inhabitants believe they can see both the dangers imperiling the city from within and the dangers approaching from beyond its encircling dikes. But the inhabitants are so far away, and have been in the same position for so long that it’s unclear whether they could still cry out in warning, even if they wanted to. Should you put an ear to their lips, however, you might feel the stirring of what could be exhaled breath.


It’s not a country, really, so much as a house. The city that surrounds it stretches endlessly in all directions and is filled with shouts, bright lights, and commodities of all sorts (the city is prospering, though in the past things have been otherwise, and the future is uncertain). The house in which the inhabitants live is in the oldest district. The area is no longer fashionable, though there are still a few desirable restaurants, and the rich occasionally visit as if to connect their present good fortune with history itself. The inhabitants spend their days making curiosities—alchemical mechanisms, snuff boxes, salvers, trinkets of bone and glass. Most objects vanish into an impenetrable basement upon completion. Occasionally one of the inhabit- ants goes mad, and the other inhabitants gather around, both to offer sympathy and to see if anything interesting might be learned from their fellow’s anguished cries.


The brothel caters to everyone, though its actual customers are few. Perhaps this is because each person in the brothel—professionals as well as occasional visitors— must wear a blindfold that can only be removed upon departure. In order to find what they desire, then, all of the inhabitants must rely entirely on senses other than sight. They gamble on the faint scent of apples, they follow an almost imperceptible taste of salt. Sometimes they correctly identify what they embrace. Many other times, though, they’re caught in mistakes that would be embarrassing, disgusting, or shamefully pleasing, if the inhabitants were made aware of them. The situation becomes especially confused in the building’s lower levels, which are entirely devoted to subtle games of control and influence. Here, it’s possible never to know whom you have truly subjugated, or to which master you’ve yielded your most secret self. On these levels, some people have suggested the brothel is not really a brothel at all.


The university itself occupies large stretches of the countryside, but the place in question is a small corridor in the subbasement of the hockey rink. The inhabitants of this corridor spend most of their afternoons teaching a handful of students how to mimic the cries of bird species that are slowly but surely going extinct. Occasionally one of the students will suggest that the arrangement is unsustainable. The student will propose that rather than imitating the birds’ cries, they might instead attempt to reverse the process of extinction, thereby ensuring both the survival of the birds and the continuing employment of the inhabitants of the corridor. The inhabitants roll their eyes at this naiveté.


The castle is built around a vast pit of clay. Every morning, the inhabitants fashion the clay into vague likenesses of their friends and loved ones. When the likenesses are suitably developed, the inhabitants breathe on them, and each likeness becomes briefly filled with life, or something resembling life. As it opens its tiny clay mouth to speak its first word, the closest inhabitant rushes forward and captures the word in a glass jar. The likeness is then tossed back into the pit. The jar is emptied into a pool of silver, which is in turn used to create the thousands of mirrors that line every corridor of the castle.


The caravan’s inhabitants sleep only lightly, if at all. They were great musicians once, and all of them had lovers of various sorts—some mournfully lovely, some domineering, some witty in the manner of old-fashioned romantic comedies. One night many years ago, the inhabitants camped beside a canyon, the bottom of which was lost entirely in shadow. As they slept, various beasts crept from the canyon into their camp and stole their lovers, dragging each one far under the earth. Upon waking, the inhabitants were grief-stricken but undeterred. They set up a temporary stage, used generators to power portable amplifiers, and began to play a song to soothe the beasts and call their lovers back to the surface. Alas, their lovers had all been eaten. The song—the greatest they had ever played—served only to summon forth the beasts, which have been pursuing the inhabitants ever since. Their nights are now longer, and their music has changed.


Searching for information regarding the land’s previous inhabitants, we came upon evidence of a group who had been embarked on a similar search hundreds of years earlier. The camp left behind by these long-ago investigators was a ruin, of course, but a few carved stones gave some indication of their discoveries, or lack thereof. Our rough translation is as follows:

From the beginning, we had things backwards:
The symbols that we thought suggested fire
Were plans for waterworks, drainage systems;
And years were wasted on “religious texts”
That were, in fact, just recipes for soup.
The closer we got, the farther away
The truth of all their relics came to seem,
As if our searching caused the thing we sought
To retreat, like a feather lifted high
In air pushed forward by a reaching hand.
And I [illegible, possibly a name]
Despair of understanding them at all,
Which means I may not understand myself,
Since my own past is just as lost to me.
Parts have gone ahead, parts have lingered on
Or swiftly receded, as if I were a land
Reshaped by unpredictable floods,
And the water, even now it seems, is rising …

There is more, but most of it is undecipherable at present. Still, the find is itself encouraging, and expands our understanding of this group’s culture. Our search begins again tomorrow.


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