Prose poetry,​ the bête noire of traditionalists, has existed since at least the 1840s, though as recently as 1979 Mark Strand was denied a Pulitzer Prize because his collection The Monument was made up of prose poems. These days it often appears, in anglophone poetry at least, as one option among many: free verse, formal verse, prose poetry, erasure poetry, whatever – it’s all good! (It’s not all good.) But Donna Stonecipher is rigorous, historical and formal. Her work – six books of poems and a critical monograph, Prose Poetry and the City (2017) – is an unfolding testament to the possibilities of the prose poem. In Model City (2015) she stacked up three-line prose stanzas in columns of four, like elegant apartment buildings. In Transaction Histories (2018) she deployed small but definite spaces within her prose stanzas to function somewhat like caesuras.

Stonecipher emerges in her work as a museum-haunter, a collector of linguistic curiosities and a student of urban architecture. She has never belonged to the surreal or defamiliarising wings of prose poetry. ‘I trace my own use of the prose poem to a need for structure,’ she has written. ‘The age of metrical verse [has] definitively passed.’ Whether the age of metrical verse has passed is arguable; what’s inarguable is that the destabilisations of modernity have long disturbed the writing of poetry. Since Baudelaire’s posthumous Le Spleen de Paris (1869) – a crucial early book of prose poetry – the negotiation of these disturbances has been one of the form’s raisons d’être.

Stonecipher’s latest volume, The Ruins of Nostalgia (Wesleyan, £20), is a collection of 64 prose poems made up of sentences accumulating in left-justified blocks, one poem per page. Stonecipher knows her Baudelaire and Brecht, her Bauhaus and Benjamin, her dioramas and dactyliothecae (I had to look it up too). A child of Seattle, she also knows her Starbucks:

When we were in Berlin, we stopped and got coffee at Starbucks. When we were in London, we stopped to get coffee at Starbucks. When we were in Beijing, we stopped and got coffee at Starbucks. When we were in New Delhi, we stopped to get coffee at Starbucks. When we were in Seattle, we stopped to get coffee at the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market, but the line wound around the block. So we walked one block east to the next Starbucks, a non-original Starbucks, where there was no line at all, and we stopped and got coffee, then resumed our walk, talking about authenticity, origins, belonging, reproducibility, Melville, the local, the global, frappuccinos, the English language, the Italian language, what kind of world it is where ‘tall’ can mean ‘small’, portmanteaus, the white whale, the chaste mermaid, feathers in foam, access, distributed sameness, the history of sugar, and home.

The poems in The Ruins of Nostalgia station themselves in two cites: Seattle (‘the city that used to be home’) and Berlin (where Stonecipher has lived for the past two decades). She arrived in Berlin in 2004, when Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany’s communist past) was still a powerful social emotion, and has, as she puts it, been running an experiment in living close to ‘the ruins of someone else’s nostalgia’ ever since. She is interested in nostalgia as a historically specific as well as a distinctively modern phenomenon. It was first classified as an illness by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer in 1688 and has expanded across the centuries to signify a feeling, an affect, a perversion, a symptom prompted by displacement in time or space.

The prose poem becomes a space for mediating between, in Benjamin’s words, ‘the interior of the collective’ and what’s ‘inside the individual’: ‘We felt in our own infrastructure why every city we knew was a permanent construction site, here demolishing and there restoring, here restoring and there demolishing. For we, too, were a permanent construction site.’ In The Ruins of Nostalgia, as in her previous work, Stonecipher toggles between ‘the Concept-city’ and ‘the lived city’: the abstractions that underlie and inform urban lives versus individual experiences of loss and change. City planning, gentrification, financialisation, commodification and globalisation are set against ‘the chestnut we kept feeling for in our real coat pocket all fall’, ‘the badly taxidermied lynx we remembered dangling laxly from a branch’, signs at a protest proclaiming ‘Luxus für alle!’, the realisation that the last ‘monumental worker statue’ on a wide sidewalk has disappeared.

Like a city, like a poem, nostalgia is both ‘personal yet collective’. Stonecipher often hangs her poems on a donnée that unfolds via incantation, permutation, association and reversal. ‘We felt nostalgic for the abandoned dream of the paperless office’; ‘We were nostalgic for the time when the pointillist paintings had looked like autumnal birch trees, rather than for the time when the autumnal birch trees had looked like pointillist paintings’; ‘As we sat at home clicking on clickbait, we felt nostalgic for newspapers … We were nostalgic for newspapers we would no longer pay for, as we clicked and clicked on free clickbait.’ She invokes a communal ‘we’, and the plural subjects (grammatical as well as thematic) amplify the reverb between the singular and the collective.

Stonecipher both diagrams and critiques nostalgia. The hinge is in the grammar: ‘the ruins of nostalgia’. Nostalgia’s ruins (the ruins nostalgia holds) or nostalgia as ruinous? She is alive to the risk of indulgence. At one point, she likens nostalgia to ‘a tiny black-lacquered snuffbox inlaid with golden scenes, beautiful and detrimental’. She goes on to concede that ‘in our heart of hearts we were aristocrats … It turns out only real aristocrats can afford to love ruin. It turns out only those who believe in their own future covet antiques. It turns out only ruined nostalgists can afford the ruins of nostalgia.’ This nostalgia is above our pay grade.

Nostalgia is figured as a kind of transgenerational contagion in the book, inescapable, transferred down the maternal line: ‘A woman began to fall prey to bouts of nostalgia for the world of her youth, which was the world her mother had just been entering when she began to fall prey to bouts of nostalgia for the world of her youth, which was the world her mother had just been entering when she began to fall prey to bouts of nostalgia for the world of her youth.’ Vertiginous gentrification in Seattle and Berlin creates ‘a mise-en-abyme of home’. The mise-en-abyme is Stonecipher’s master trope: ‘courtyard opened out into courtyard opened out into courtyard’; ‘mirrors look into mirrors and consider themselves in infinitely bevelled regress’; ‘the present looks back at the pre-arranged past and adores it in a mise-en-abyme of feeling.’ These ‘incessant recessions’ – the ruins of nostalgia – induce a form of mental vertigo, ‘littering time pieces along the cognitive shore’.

Stonecipher’s poems are themselves ‘time pieces’. They can have the effect of activating your own memories and nostalgias (there is a subliminal note of elegy for her father throughout the book). The collection offers a reliquary for an American Cold War childhood. Stonecipher chronicles the appearance and disappearance of the commodities – and buildings and statues and signs and people – that structure our sensible world and inner life.

It was after the kids would call ‘Car!’ when a rare evening gas guzzler was seen about to drive through their kickball game. It was before the gas guzzler was understood as a gas guzzler. It was after tail fins, it was before hatchbacks.

The poems co-ordinate multiple time signatures – of objects, technologies, materials, cities, generations, regimes, epochs and species (endangered polar bears, spotted owls and ‘specimen boxes of butterflies’ haunt these poems).

We had seen the bracelets made of the beloved’s hair, the Kaiserpanorama, the pneumatic tubes, the hourglasses, the shreds, the microphones hidden in the toupees … the idealised portraits of the powerful, the blurry photographs of the powerless, the shreds, the erasures, the eras, the sureties, the ticking, the pink façades, the upward mobility, the shreds, the plunging fortunes, the downward spirals, the ticking, the ticking, the shreds, the shreds.

The Ruins of Nostalgia inventories tattered remnants. Amid the consigning of libraries, keepsakes, ‘love letters and IOUs and vials of laudanum’, of nations, lifeworlds and modes of being to the dustbin of history, Stonecipher sounds a complex note: ‘Only a few deluded sensualists still mad for matter were full of misgivings.’ This matter piles up ‘in all the side rooms inside us in the ruins of nostalgia’ and – I must admit – my cold marcescent heart leaped at the declaration: ‘Let the museums have the rest of it, repositories of our collective marcescence.’

Sometimes Stonecipher works in a mode of florid gorgeousness, an aureate Latinity: ‘When bells structured time, time was hollow and hieratic, calling the faithful to their regularised hours of adoration in an eternal present of annular unction.’ Elsewhere she cracks a plain-style whip: ‘What a shitty collagist memory is.’

There are by definition no line breaks in this book, but Stonecipher occasionally deploys asterisks to signal a kind of pivot or Baudelairean ‘leap of consciousness’. (The prose poem, Stonecipher has argued, finds other ways of absorbing or ‘performing’ the line break.) ‘What makes poetry ontologically poetry,’ she has written, ‘is a kind of breakage. Whether of line, of hypotaxis, of narrative logic – utterance is broken open to create space within it, space for its own sake.’ This collection’s virtuosically catalogued contents – museological wanderings, childhood memories, gimlet-eyed observations and meditations – are everywhere held together by the ligaments and ligatures of the rhythmic, sensuous sentence.

Most of the poems in the book end by rounding inexorably towards the same phrase, ‘the ruins of nostalgia’, which recurs as a kind of choral refrain. This suggests a deep intuition about the ‘infinite regress’ of nostalgia but also about refrain itself, which has typically functioned, in song and poetry, as both a binding (across the work) and a breaking (within the work). (‘Refrain’: from the Latin refrenare – to bridle.) This is one way Stonecipher shores her fragments – not against but in their repeatedly refrained ruin.

Stonecipher’s poems aim – while acknowledging the inevitable failure – to preserve the moment in its polytemporal, multidimensional form: ‘Stay, thou art so fair.’ This phrase, a flickering motif in the book, comes from Goethe’s Faust: the hero’s doomed and dooming plea to linger a while in the perfect moment. ‘We kept walking through the beautiful city in our minds saying, Stay, thou art so fair, but the city did not comply.’ The poem acts as a repository for future nostalgia, a kind of battery holding a delectable charge: ‘Reading Francis Bacon’s essay on gardens, we knew we had to write it into a poem, so that later we could reread the poem and feel nostalgic for the first time we had read the essay and been bowled over by Bartholomew-tide.’

Stonecipher’s work suggests that the old aesthetic categories – the picturesque, the beautiful, the sublime – still live. (‘Stay, thou art so fair.’) ‘Progress’ and ‘nostalgia’ emerged as two sides of modernity. Ecological crisis, tech-bro fantasies, blockbuster movies and drone warfare have returned us to the category of the sublime. The sublime assumes there is a human mind to fail. Stonecipher returns us – critically, ambivalently, sensuously – to the beautiful, in all its deserved distress.

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Vol. 46 No. 11 · 6 June 2024

Maureen N. McLane or Donna Stonecipher, or both, are mistaken if they think that when Goethe’s Faust speaks the words ‘Stay, thou art so fair’ (‘Verweile doch! du bist so schön!’) he is voicing a nostalgic ‘plea to linger awhile in the perfect moment’ (LRB, 23 May). On the contrary, he is expressing his conviction that he, unlike the rest of humanity, is not one to be duped by life’s deceptive pleasures (‘Gaukelwerk’) and thus will never be found uttering these words. In the play, life ambushes him regardless, and rescues him from his own destructive and self-destructive pride.

For nostalgia we must look to a moment in the very first scene of the play. Determined to kill himself, with the fatal beaker already raised to his lips, he hears the Easter service being held in the church across the way, and is overpowered by the memory of his own youthful piety. He desists.

Kevin Hilliard
St Peter’s College, Oxford

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