reborn vultures create mischief in Birmingham
with abandoned parachutes and excessive tattoos
selling insurance against bad weather and bad luck
homeless scarecrows in corduroy search the trash
for empty lipsticks and worn memories
foghorns signal mildew in the night
police battle inner demons on weekends
in a thick soup of deserted hotel,
forsaken church, and abandoned lighthouse
autumn's vague prophesy delivers emptiness
at the doorstep of her beloved
weary evangelists call for repentance
and foghorns whisper secret passwords and jade status
torpedoes head for the opera house in full formation
angels get wings trimmed in barbershop quartets
blind whales flounder through treacherous currents
of underground lakes and river
even as salmon swim the canals on Mars
the morning is dank and hung-over
as smoke from junkyard tugboats
and foghorns speak to passing ships in their own language
Monday's desolate sun sets on abandoned coffins
jazz musicians stand beside corrupt snake charmers
worthless confessions spill out of rusted horns
cold lanterns illuminate nervous encounters in a subway tunnel
gypsies cry obscure and foreign spells
and foghorns play ambient hymns for zombie weddings
pinstripe chain gang swings the hammer in bad neighborhoods
accident-prone clowns sing the blues
from a disappointed balcony
to an aimless congregation of shaggy mutts and
gargoyles patrol the sky looking for food
and foghorns signal a call to prayer at the appointed hour
green limousines roam the street in frozen weather
detectives inspect strawberry rhinestones in a warehouse elevator
cheerleaders way past their prime assemble in vacant lots
foghorns breathe clouds of gloom in the cathedral
sigh cranberry sadness over the city
sing velvet songs of lost love
...and foghorns mourn for creeping and forgotten dreams
Copyright 2011 by Charles Kasler
Critique by Laura Cherry
A learned friend of mine told me that there's a fine line between utopia and dystopia. "Why is that?" I asked, and he told me it's because of the rigors of plot. Because a fictional utopia needs drama, the author has to play with the limits of its perfection by introducing threats or dangers or a sinister underside to the idyll. Similarly, for the sake of complexity and richness, depictions of dystopia can and should include some elements of lightness: for example, flashbacks to a happier, pre-Armageddon time, or a contrast between the language and what it describes. Charles Kasler's "Gotham City" showcases an urban landscape in ruins, but cast in such vivid, nearly ecstatic language that readers may find themselves happily caught up in this dark vision.
Kasler's poem gives us Gotham with no Batman in sight; this city is a maelstrom of wreckage and corruption. Images of hope in the form of music are undermined or destroyed ("torpedoes head for the opera house in full formation"). In the first line, Gotham is also referred to as Birmingham, which we can perhaps read as Birmingham, Alabama, with its history of race-related violence, but which could also refer to industrialized Birmingham, England. In this setting, insurance salesmen mingle with "homeless scarecrows in corduroy", evangelists, gypsies, jazz musicians with their "worthless confessions", and chain gangs. The darkened streets are punctuated with fretful bursts of light, color, wealth: "cold lanterns illuminate nervous encounters in a subway tunnel", "detectives inspect strawberry rhinestones in a warehouse elevator".
Stylistically, "Gotham City" plays out primarily in long lines liberated of punctuation and capitalization—a style associated with such notables as e.e. cummings and W.S Merwin—which has the effect of intensifying the scene's confusion and blurring of boundaries. To be honest, this is not normally a stylistic choice I favor, but here I find it suited to the poem's cascade of images. The poem is an accretive spill of sensual details, many of them weird and evocative. The result is not horrific but mesmerizing; we don't know what we'll see next, but we may find ourselves peering around corners for the next spectacle.
Music is important to this poem, and nowhere more than in the repeated foghorns, with their connotations of loneliness, melancholy, and, of course, eerie fog. The foghorns function almost as characters here, and their range of actions ("signal mildew in the night", "play ambient hymns for zombie weddings") adds a delightful series of surprises to end each stanza.
But back to our theme of dystopia. I see "Gotham City" as balanced between the poles of a celebrated poetic utopia and an equally famous dystopia: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land". Written in very different periods and styles, these poems (two of my favorites, I admit) still influence how we write about imagined paradises and brutalized landscapes today. In "Gotham City" I hear the echo of Coleridge's ecstatic language and fantastical scenery:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Stylistically and thematically, Kasler's poem leans more heavily to Eliot's fragmented collage and disaffected characters:
The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
Having explored what territory Kasler's poem covers, it remains to say a few words about what it leaves uncovered. What does this dystopia say to us? It offers some excellent description and exciting images, which we are free to interpret as we will. Is this the present, the past, or the future? How did the city get here or where is it going? Are we looking at the collapse of the environment, the government, the social contract? Some hint of further meaning would give the poem greater resonance.
Alternatively, if the language and images are meant to be the entire experience, each one should be polished to an elegantly shiny finish. As it stands, the poem contains some slack, less fresh phrases: ("empty lipsticks and worn memories", "weary evangelists call for repentance", and the final line, "...and foghorns mourn for creeping and forgotten dreams"). These, particularly the ending, should be re-imagined to give the reader an uninterrupted Technicolor journey through the questionable streets of Gotham.
Where might a poem like "Gotham City" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Great Canadian Literary Hunt
Postmark Deadline: July 31
This Magazine, a Canadian magazine of politics and culture, offers prizes of C$750 apiece for poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction narratives by Canadian citizens or residents who are new and emerging writers
Aesthetica Magazine's Annual Creative Writing Competition
Entries must be received by August 31
British journal of arts and literature gives prizes of 1000 pounds for poetry and short fiction; enter online
Reuben Rose Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by September 30
Voices Israel Group of Poets in Israel gives prizes up to $500, plus anthology publication for many runners-up; enter online
Writers' Forum Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 15 (rolling deadline)
Monthly award from British magazine for emerging writers offers prizes up to 100 pounds for unpublished short poems; online entries accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the July 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques